Allan King’s film about a troubled middle-class Toronto couple has revolutionized Canadian documentary.
Made in the late 1960s during the heyday of direct cinema in the United States and the candid eye approach to documentary at the National Film Board in Canada, Allan King’s A Married Couple (1969) is one of the most fascinating attempts of the time to get at The Truth of Things through the acuity of the cinematic gaze. The film unflinchingly observes the troubled marriage of a middle-class Toronto couple, Billy and Antoinette Edwards, taking observational documentary in a bold new direction.
King’s aim with the film, as he has said, was “to observe the kinds of ways in which a couple misperceive each other and carry into the relationship anxieties, childhood patterns, all the things that make up one’s personality.” With A Married Couple, then, the documentary filmmaker was not only an ethnographer, but also a psychoanalyst. In order to achieve this combination of observation and analysis, King and his cinematographer, Richard Leiterman – whose credits also include Frederick Wiseman’s High School (1968) – took their camera into the Edwards’ suburban home, following their daily domestic routine for weeks. King and his crew were there, camera rolling, when Billy and Antoinette woke in the morning and when they went to bed at night.
The film was made during the era of the counterculture and “free love” – in one scene, Billy and Antoinette enjoy listening to the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper LP on their stereo with their son Bogart – and the hippy ideology clearly chafes against the traditional gender roles that define their marriage, just as it informs King’s view of marriage generally. As the director told Alan Rosenthal, “It had struck me . . . that marriage didn’t seem to be the kind of rewarding thing in reality that I read about in books or fantasized was going to be mine when I grew up.” Robert Flaherty defended his own ethnographic distortions in Nanook of the North (1922) by remarking that “Sometimes you have to destroy things to get to their true essence.” And if A Married Couple takes aesthetic liberties, it is a merciless dissection of a bourgeois marriage in crisis.
King made fiction films as well as documentaries, and A Married Couple employs a number of techniques usually associated with feature filmmaking. The film mixes conventional establishing shots, background music, and shuffled chronology – normally anathema to the fly on the wall approach – with the long takes of observational cinema to present a portrait of the couple that is at once astonishingly rich and emotionally engaging.
King employs a conventional narrative arc that builds to a powerful climax when, in one of their confrontations, Billy loses his temper, physically assaults Antoinette, and kicks her out of their home. The family abuse may seem tame compared to the kind of domestic violence we see today in films like Precious, but its emotional impact still packs a wallop because it really happened.
Billy and Antoinette are articulate and charismatic people who are fully aware that they are presenting their positions not only to each other but to the camera. They perform their everyday selves for our benefit, thus throwing the entire project of observational cinema in question. As viewers, we inevitably identify with one of them at the expense of the other, possibly extending the film’s view of marital conflict from the screen to the audience. There is no doubt that King’s film engages our own views of marriage and gender politics. For this reason, despite all its surface trappings of late ’60s zeitgeist, A Married Couple remains thoroughly contemporary and relevant in its concerns.