A Bill of Divorcement (1932)

27 03 2014

I was going to start this review by saying that this effort is more of the same from Cukor, as if I had plummeted back down to earth with him after the high of seeing A Woman’s Face but the negative connotation would be far too dramatic. This a wonderful film, tight and theatrical like Dinner at Eight yes, but one that works better because the drama is confined to three characters and about the same number of rooms in a single house. Yes, Barrymore and Hepburn play things broadly, but I don’t think that immediately makes their performances silly nor does it make their characters simplistic and dull. They’re quite the opposite, the film is a tragic portrait of a family experiencing an extreme failure to communicate. They’ve pushed their emotions to the ground, and the resurfacing of their patriarch, who they never expected to see again, brings all these things to the foreground.


Margaret and her daughter Sidney seem to have finally found a moment of happiness and peace. Margaret herself is finally ready to remarry and she’s found a quality suitor. Sidney might have a long future with her boyfriend, Kit, but she’s not particularly concerned with their relationship. She’s fine tagging along with him back to Canada, but doesn’t show much interest in showing commitment to him. The two seem to have escaped a dark shadow obscuring their lives for years, that of their family’s patriarch, Hilary. He’s been kept away from the family, dealing with PTSD following the war. However, he’s been let out, and he’s come back to resume life with his family, who has already moved on.


It would be a glaring problem for a film that is about mental illness to, you know, fuck up dealing with mental illness. One could give the film a benefit of the doubt and just say it hasn’t aged well, but the dialogue about mental illness might be unintentionally effective. The insensitive nature much of the public talks about it is not that different from how the characters here try to accurately describe it. The film’s central conceit is that that maybe Sidney has inherited Hilary’s illness because maybe it’s not just PTSD from the war. This is awkward because mental illness is not something you “have” in a way that is immediately identifiable. It doesn’t hep that Hilary’s illness is never described beyond being “crazy” which obviously isn’t the most medically accurate term. The film weirdly frame’s Sidney’s possibility of inheriting this disease as something of a mysterious twist. There’s hints dropped, but there’s no implication that it will be a problem to her.


So Cukor doesn’t exactly win me over with this kind of hokey handling of mental illness. Hilary’s relationships are the main thing at risk here, and Cukor actually offers something interesting here: he tries to situate Hilary himself outside of the center. As opposed to being “insane” as the film insensitively puts it, he does show a chronic inability to comprehend the struggles that face both Margaret and Sidney. He’s been locked away for fifteen years, but he sees Margaret trying to start a relationship with another man as betrayal. The film frames his reasoning as one to sympathize with: he’s been struggling to handle his disease and she’s basically abandoned him. She hasn’t been there for him “in sickness or in health” but the dedication of the wedding vows are only seen from Hilary’s expectation of Margaret. She’s had no obligation to sit idly and alone by the window until he’s finally cleared to return to the outside world. An audience in 1932 might have sympathized with Hilary’s situation, but the film goes the extra mile by presenting his argument as the correct one, but instead shows that Margaret herself has shared his suffering. Her loving another man has not weakened her feelings for Hilary, but his expectation for her complete romantic dedication is simply too unrealistic.


This is all actually really complex and difficult to process, which seems like an odd thing to say about a film that runs barely over one hour and whose filmmaker frequently paints with broad strokes. While the characters that inhabit the film may not be that complicated themselves, Cukor’s positioning of them is interesting. They may be “flat” or whatever, but that doesn’t mean inherently less interesting. In my review of Hong Sang-Soo’s Our Sunhi I discuss the way he de-centers heterosexual relationships from the men. In love stories, they are almost always the ones who endure pain and heartache and the women are merely the agents that bring on that heartache. Here, the opposite is the case. Romantic love is not the context here, but here’s a rare moment where a male figure, one who is suppose to represent protection and care, is the agent of emotional distress for two women. Weirdly, Hilary himself never learns this. He can only accept Margaret’s decision to move on when he sees her new boyfriend declaring his passion for her. He can only let go when he sees the situation through the eyes of another man.


Hong seems like a distant connection for some, probably. Maybe Yasujiro Ozu is an easier connection to understand. The failure of a patriarchal figure echoes his The End of Summer. Upon first encountering his daughter, Sidney, Hilary mistakes her for his wife. “My wife’s not my wife, she’s my daughter” is almost too on the nose for Freudian psychoanalysis, but people speak about Late Spring offering a similar relationship. I don’t buy it in that film, personally, though Cukor’s film ends with the type of father-daughter moment that is rare in all of films but makes up a great part of Ozu’s classic. Here, Hilary and Sidney quietly accept their fate together: they’re to spend the rest of their life ostracized from the rest of the world for reasons they can’t control. Their companionship can’t save them from this fact and I won’t suggest something trite like they can “work through it together” but a community of those suffering is a important thing. It can help make you feel a lot less alone.




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