Visiting town during the first week of SIFF with Beginners, which opens today at the Harvard Exit, writer/director Mike Mills and his star, Ewan McGregor, tried to assess how the institution of marriage has changed from the World War II generation to today. Once upon a time, as it was for Mills' parents, you got married young and you stayed married! Until, as incorporated into the plot of Beginners, his newly widowed father shrugged off the old marital template after 50 years and declared himself gay.
"That question is what I've been asking myself," says Mills. "Can I possibly understand the world in which my parents got married? I'm trying. I don't know. But I desperately want to know. Ultimately I think we can't [understand]. I think we live in different historical moments. Being born in 1924 is so different than being born in '66. My parents lived in such a different world, where their happiness, their choices, their marriage, their idea of love and sex was really different than what I was taught. And what was available to me, which I think is a key word. They just had a different world available to them. They were tweens during the Depression. They turn 18, World War II starts, and half their high-school men die during the war . . . "
Yet even in those times of hardship and chaos, marriages remained intact. Maybe, I ask McGregor, the war had something to do with it?
"My grandmother talked about it all my life," he recalls. "And her stories of meeting my grandfather in the dancehalls of Glasgow before the second world war, and her stories of the Blitz and being in the Underground when the Germans were bombing Glasgow--it's so vivid in my mind. Her love story with him is very alive in my memory. There was real love and romance as a part of marriage back then."
So what's changed? Are Gen-Xers--like the couple he and Mélanie Laurent play in Beginners--more selfish, more pragmatic, afraid to commit, or what?
Says McGregor, "That falling in love that you see for Oliver and Anna [in the movie] doesn't necessarily endure for 20 years of a marriage. But the sticking together part of a marriage in the '30s is still present today in the marriages of today. And it's part of what makes marriage great--the being together through thick and thin--as much as those heady days when you fall in love for the first time."
But in Beginners, his Oliver seems equally averse both to the falling and the sticking. In one painful exchange with his father (played by Christopher Plummer), his character declares, "I don't want to be like you." It's a painful, telling exchange--not about sexuality, but about deception. Oliver frets that his parents' long marriage was essentially built on a lie, or a bargain, enforced by the marital standards of the time. So if those standards have fallen away--thanks to feminism and gay rights--marriage merely for the sake of marriage makes no sense.
For today's Gen-X couples, like Oliver and Anna, says Mills, "I think they have a lot more choices. Half of all marriages dissolve--we're the children of that statistical truth. My parents stayed together, but I had some good friends whose parents were ripped apart. And that gave them stories that made love seem very untrustworthy or potentially very negative."
Also, Mills adds, "I think we've given ourselves a lot more entitlement to have problems, to have issues. Back in the day, you just had to fit in the box. Now the box has been all broken apart."
So it's all about the template of traditional marriage--that's what's now suspect?
"I don't know," McGregor laughs, Because I've been married for 16 years! I have a different perspective. I was married when I was 24."
Now in his mid-40s, Mills had just the opposite experience: "I got married just two years ago [to fellow artist and director Miranda July]. I desperately wanted to get married. I believed in it. I loved the idea, the romance, the commitment, all those things. But having the model or having the wherewithal to make it through the turbulence and ambiguity of a real relationship, that was squiggly. That was harder."
Ron Batzdorf/Focus Features Mills on the set.
McGregor has seen others dithering before commitment and marriage, he says. "I have this friend, California guy in his 40s. Our conversations generally end up at, 'How do you know she's really the one?' He always wants to know about me and my wife. And I don't have any answers, because I was never that analytical about it. I didn't question it--is she this, this, and this? Do I need that, that, and that? I just knew I wanted to be with her."
And, lastly, the actor has little patience for those who judge their relationships or marriages by front-page standards. "All the attention that is put on celebrity," McGregor asks rhetorically, "how short-lived some of these great, spectacular celebrity marriages are--what effect does that have? Does it make people more cynical? Or does it have no effect at all? What are people's models? Becks and Posh?"