Note Elizabeth Taylor as she ages during the 130 minutes of this masterpiece by director Mike Nichols, take a good look at her as Richard Burton lifts a chair (after an altercation), to shift places; watch her as she recoils in pure terror and almost rattles off her chair, thinking he might swing it at her; but of course he doesn’t, he’s a gentleman after all.
“I swear, if you existed, I’d divorce you.”
Let the ever rising tension get to you as Martha says those words to her husband of many years. Embrace yourself as Burton flashes the saddest smile I’ve seen on screen. “Total”.
“That wasn’t a very nice thing to say, Martha.”
Lean in closer as Nichols’ debut feature captures the gaping crack in the dam of vicious emotions and the fragile padding of denial. The frames are crooked and convoluted just like the intentions of our hosts. Intentions that become maleficent and drenched in scotch and gin.
“I said fix me a drink.”
George does as he is told, however not because he is acquiescent to the whims of his wife; the plot slurs insults at us and spits in our faces before unraveling and finally exhausted of trying to keep the bitter couple away from each other, then we learn more. And not that anything in the world can keep them away. Not adultery, not attempted battery, no. They live to tolerate, ‘stand’ the ugly other and themselves every single day.
“What time is it?”
Sandy Dennis and George Segal, the unfortunate guests, are the perfect stimulants for the couples hatred; a perfect couple who by the end of it is tattered and shredded by the contagious vileness of the evening’s brawl. They are used by George and Martha and Nick and Honey let themselves be used all the way to an Oscar nomination and a nod from the Academy.
“You’re all flops. I am the Earth Mother, and you are all flops.”
Watch an age of solid performance declare itself from every word Taylor speaks.
Take a long good look at Burton as he stares into empty spaces, his gaze fixed on the projection of his disgust for what, he thinks, is trivial compared to the ‘novel’ he has once penned.
Burton controls his emotions throughout, as if reigning in a mighty bull. Even when the tipping point has long been done with, the actor manages to hold on to the demeanor of a tortured man who it seems is trapped in a marriage from ‘The Ministry of Love‘ and yet the rage is carefully set on the character of a man who knows the truth and gets very upset about it but who is also madly in love with his wife.
The room gets smaller and the walls are stained with drainage leak, by the end. The bar gets suffocating when the anger spills some more. Then back again in the house when cruel revelations are made and a man is made to watch what no married man should ever have to watch.
Layered with themes upon sublime themes, Woolf? is a film that plays in reverse chronology. However of all great things about this film, the performances of Taylor and Burton as if going through a really awful, viciously barbed and erudite coupling, are intentionally puerile and at the same time hardened, potent and controlled, in control (almost) yet full of loud verbal assaults on each other, the guests and the audience. However, it is the brilliant overlapping conversations that add to the character’s authenticity and the keen viewer’s distress and attention span, which keeps getting bigger.
This raw depiction of a jarring marriage is nothing short of a performance tour-de-force, where we forget that it is a film and the line between reality and fiction vanishes at a ‘snap. snAP, SNAP’.
Taylor is simply lovely On the heavier, rather wholesome side (God bless her soul) and Burton’s blue eyes (the colour is only spoken of) penetrate deep into our perceptions and the methods we use to keep an institution running, even if only at the surface, as if endurance is the sole purpose that drives everything we do.
Filled with ravishingly bold, ‘horror-house’ cinematography by Haskell Wexler that brings out the contrast of everything on screen in razor-sharp black and white, ‘Woolf?’ is an important film for the keen watcher to a couple whose marriage is on the rocks. Or perhaps not.
“Tomorrow is Sunday. A long day.” George looks away from the camera and the title card reads, ‘EXIT MUSIC’. And that is that.