Intermezzo

Cover for Intermezzo (1936) with Ingrid Bergman from the Criterion CollectionAh infidelity, that age-old device.

So of course it’s no surprise in Intermezzo (1936), when the older famous violinist, Holger – happily married with children he adores, something that is established in the first few minutes of the film or so it felt – falls in love with Anita, his daughter’s youthful piano teacher. It’s the “second spring” trajectory that has been rehashed again and again before and since this film, and yet!

I found that the portrayal of both parties was rather sensitive and well done: although it does adhere to the good ol’ “Older Man Falls For Young Woman & Rediscovers His Love of Life/Living, Leaving His Wife & Children For His Second Spring” trajectory (… spoiler alert?), if there’s one word I can use to describe the way the affair and the characters are portrayed in this film, it’s that it’s incredibly generous. Holger, a famous violinist and quite absent father (due to his tours) returns home and promptly falls in love with his daughter’s piano teacher (while she’s playing the piano, of course). It’s not particularly inventive, but Gustaf Molander did a pretty fine job with character development as the relationship progressed in the film, especially with Anita’s character (Ingrid Bergman). Gösta Ekman (Holger) is spectacularly expressive, cementing straightaway that Holger loves his family, adoring especially his daughter, and I enjoyed this expressiveness quite a bit throughout the film. I’ve read a couple reviews saying it was a bit on the slow side overall, but I never felt it was a drag to watch.

OK, actual spoiler alert coming up ahead, so if you have yet to watch the film (it’s from 1936, so there’s been plenty of chance to watch it since its release) and would like to watch it without knowing what happens (even if it’s painfully obvious with multiple foreshadowing elements spoken by the characters – mostly by Margit, actually), skip the following paragraph below the cut.

If there’s one thing about the entire thing that does bother me, it’s how garish the solution to the conclusion was (i.e. how to get Margit to accept Holger back into the fold after having left her and the children for Anita for a length of time). Putting the daughter into mortal danger to get the parents back together without the requisite Hard Conversation on-screen was a bit of a cheap move, I felt, but I suppose for the delight that the rest of the movie was, I can in good conscience recommend it.

END OF SPOILER!

Alright, so adultery in fiction is a rampant theme, stretching all the way back to at least Zeus’ indiscretions (of course we’re assuming that monogamous relationships are the expected standard, which judging by Hera’s wrath is probably true for that relationship at least). But what is it about adultery that captures our imagination? An essay from the Globe and Mail’s Arts – Books and Media section outlines it pretty well, I think, when the author states that the common thread running through every adulterous novel, no matter how it portrays the characters, is that “[t]he tension between these two versions of love – the idealized and the “real” – is what makes adultery-as-subject-matter so fascinating” (McLaren, Cheatin’ Hearts, 2012). And if we consider that many – most? – works of literature assume a monogamous foundation upon which the stories are built, monogamy being the norm, then adultery is a pretty flagrant middle-finger to the established/accepted norm. Which is why this article about how the portrayal of infidelity on TV has changed over time is also very interesting: High Infidelity: how TV’s portrayal of affairs has evolved.

Book cover of The State of Affairs by Esther PerelBut if you’re looking for a couple of reads about extramarital affairs (or infidelity outside of marital ties), look no further! Because that sounds like a pretty suspect statement, I’m going to just put a N.B. here: please bear in mind that I’m not suggesting titles that focus on “what to do if you suspect your SO is cheating on you”, nor a guide regarding how to commit infidelity (I’d probably much sooner refer you to couple’s therapy resources), so much as a list of titles about infidelity as a phenomenon, whether throughout history (or in modern times) or as a topic of research from a slight remove:

  1. The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity by Esther Perel (2017)
  2. Infidelity: Why Men and Women Cheat by Kenneth Paul Rosenberg (2018)
  3. Untrue by Wednesday Martin (2018)
  4. Royal Affairs: A Lusty Romp Through the Extramarital Adventures That Rocked the British Monarchy by Leslie Carroll
  5. The Lady in Red: An Eighteenth-Century Tale of Sex, Scandal, and Divorce by Hallie Rubenhold
  6. There are more if you’d like to take a look under the subject heading of “Adultery” on our catalogue.

And lastly, although I promised myself this would not be a post recommending more adulterous films or novels, I can’t help noting one I particularly enjoyed when we got it on DVD & Blu-ray: The Cakemaker.

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone!

6 thoughts on “Intermezzo

  1. Ok, I lol’d at your “I’m not here to help you cheat!” caveat. But also, I may check out some of these books, because infidelity really *is* fascinating (and, to be honest, I often find myself looking at the people who say they regret doing it, or especially those who talk about how they’re worried about hurting their spouse *while still cheating*, and wonder “um, but, why don’t you just *not* then?”)

    1. Absolutely! I find it such an interesting topic as well, in that it’s such a frowned-upon act, yet in popular media, it can be portrayed in kind of a glamorous way that reduces the complexity of the situation. Also yes, wrt those who are worried about hurting their partner while they are actively engaged in cheating on their partner yet aren’t /not/ doing so, it definitely doesn’t seem to make much sense on the surface if we’re thinking about it and just considering those statements or claims. So are we left with the conclusion that the decision wasn’t made logically, but in a fit of passion (which seems almost too simple an explanation)? Or left to probe the other reasons that may be impacting their decision to continue cheating on their partner? Nothing happens in a vacuum, so I almost wonder if it /is/ possible to have an all-encompassing theory of adultery/infidelity (though with a large enough sample size, I suppose I would have to agree that it is!).

  2. Do you remember that movie Unfaithful with Diane Lane? She cheats on Richard Gere with a hot French man and I remember being like YES GIRL because Richard Gere was boring. I think it’s funny how in film or TV we can sometimes root for the cheaters, because on screen it’s just scandalous drama, but I don’t think (or at least, I hope) we would have that attitude in real life. Same with all the movies like Fatal Attraction or Obsession, where you’re not rooting for the cheaters but all of the drama is centered around over the top reactions to affairs. Those examples are older movies that I don’t think have much interest in exploring the psychology of affairs, just the juicy dramatics of them.

    Obviously this is on the more extreme side, but it reminds me of how much interest there is in murder fiction and true crime stuff. People LOVE exploring these dark aspects of life through the remove of film, TV, podcasts, whatever. There’s always been a draw to sin and vice, to things we know we’re not supposed to do. I’m also thinking of the rise of Gothic fiction in the 1700s which was all very salacious. People get to experience these taboo things in fiction rather than in real life, generally for the better.

    And I think a lot of IRL cheating is done along the same lines, the “naughtiness” of it, especially if you’re not satisfied with your current relationship (would like to make clear that I am not advocating for cheating). I thought that Guardian article you linked to was really interesting as well, showing how the moral depictions of affairs have changed over time to actually consider the perpetrators/victims as humans, and to interrogate their actions. We’re definitely seeing a more humane and compassionate approach to understanding these actions, instead of slapping (Christian) morality onto it. So we can finally move beyond the archetypes of Crazy Deranged Mistress, Suffering Wife, Good Man Who Just Made a Mistake (ugh), etc. We can get to the REAL emotions and motivations behind it.

    Sorry this comment is all over the place. Thank you for recommending The Lady in Red, that sounds like an excellent read. I love scandalous historical aristocrats (see my paragraph above lol). Also seconding The Cakemaker (which you recommended to me if I recall), a super complex and beautiful exploration of nontraditional relationships.

    1. I think (I hope?) perhaps in real life, instead of thinking “YES GIRL (also your partner’s boring)”, we’d probably(?) head more towards “if you’re bored of your partner, move on properly”. And I think it’s a bit harder in real life to simplistically reduce someone’s experiences as much as they can be on screen: we’d probably (hopefully??) be more empathetic towards the boring partner and caution the cheating partner to consider their point of view. But I definitely think you’re right as far as that experiencing these situations, whether it be killing or cheating, through fiction is probably a better outlet than in reality, especially when we move beyond those archetypes you listed!

      Interestingly, I remember reading a few times (I forget all my sources, but hear me out) about how men and women generally tend to have different motivations for cheating on their partners: for men, it’s a matter of opportunity, whereas for women it tends to be for emotional reasons. (Obviously that’s probably affected by social norms & what’s deemed acceptable for either gender (even when what they’re doing is not socially sanctioned).)

      I’m so glad you liked The Cakemaker! 😀 😀

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