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Flings, First and Final

Two new romances approach doomed passion, as seen at different ages and stages

If you need proof that what we enjoy in art has nothing to do with what we'll accept in life, then consider love stories.

When you look back at most of the really powerful movie romances both past (City Lights, Gone with the Wind, Casablanca) and present (Love Story, Annie Hall, Witness), they usually concern lovers who were made for each other but, for a variety of reasons, can't live together. Maybe they're so strong willed they'd tear each other up. Maybe there's a cultural or economic wall between them. Or maybe they're just too deeply in love to be happy together.

In any case, they have to part with sweet sorrow, usually at a train station or airport, and usually during a rain shower; images of their magical time together are fixed in their memory like a flower trapped in amber. They can look back at it and get misty-eyed, reveling in what was and ignoring what might have been.

I've just described the plot of The Bridges of Madison County, the film version of the best-selling book by Robert James Waller. In case you've been trapped in amber for the past few years, the story is about an Italian-born farm woman named Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep) living in small-town Iowa. She has two teenage children, a devoted husband and a satisfying (if fairly uneventful) life as a homemaker.

But when her husband takes the kids to another county for a few days to attend a livestock show, leaving Francesca alone in the farmhouse, her introspection turns depressive. Did she abandon her youthful dreams of adventure too easily? Did she cheat herself of a wild, energetic life to embrace something more domestic -- something safe?

She gets an answer when a rugged photographer named Robert Kincaid (Clint Eastwood) pulls up in a battered pickup and asks her to point the way to one of the covered bridges of Madison County he's supposed to shoot for a National Geographic story. Although he's a well-traveled man who has divested himself of nearly every possible emotional entanglement, he shares with Francesca a slyly ironic, deeply philosophical outlook on life. Soon, they're moving toward an affair.

The movement is slow and hesitant, and so polite that it's rather courtly. Screenwriter Richard LaGravenese specializes in creating people who are happy on the outside but lost and alone within, and he's managed to pare Waller's rather turgid little book down to its barest emotional essentials. Robert and Francesca have only four days together, and it's the most intense four days of their respective lives, even though nothing overtly exciting happens.

But what happens between the actors is exciting indeed. Eastwood, who directed the picture, creates a vast but enclosed space of intense quiet, broken only by the whir of cicadas or the rumble of a car engine; for the first half-hour of the movie, the only music comes from radios, and he lets Robert and Francesca's courtship unfold in a series of long takes, mostly in medium shot.

The movie is so respectful of the quieter pleasures in life -- a cold beer after a hot day, satisfied smiles after a filling meal, the rustle of grass and flowers clinging to an interstate shoulder -- that at times Bridges has less in common with other American romances than with films by foreign masters such as Michelangelo Antonioni. Eastwood's movie is warmer, of course, and more full of life. Eastwood savors the awkward pauses between sentences, and the way the two would-be lovers fidget and look away and cryptically smile, letting body language tell us what words they're hiding.

The result is one of the most restrained, respectful and scrupulously intelligent romances I've ever seen in a movie. Bridges is a hard film to write about, because what doesn't happen -- the impulses not acted upon, the declarations of love not spoken -- is just as important as what does happen. You'd be better off trying to describe the smell of summer air in the Midwest, the bittersweet taste of brandy on the tongue or the goose pimples that rise on your arm the first time you touch someone you desire.

A less confident director might have oversold the movie; he might have put too much faith in flattering lighting, swelling music and pastoral sex scenes and not enough in solid dialogue and expert acting. In that light, it seems ironic and yet appropriate that one of the most unabashedly sentimental bestsellers of recent years should have been entrusted to one of the least sentimental men in American cinema.

Eastwood doesn't hype either himself or his co-star. He shoots his ruddy, craggy, gray-haloed head and Streep's rounded, slightly chunky face the way he shoots the landscapes in all of his Westerns, bringing out their inherent beauty without artificially altering their physical natures. It's a perfect approach for this story, which is about uncovering the adventurer inside seemingly staid people. If you're a patient viewer who doesn't mind a story that takes its time and doesn't spell out big meanings in block letters, you'll be especially appreciative of what Eastwood has done -- and probably equally annoyed by the film's rendition of an awkward framing device in which Francesca's now-grown kids read of their mother's affair in her journals. A film whose meanings are so clear doesn't need italics.

Fans of the book might be surprised that Eastwood has brought the Kincaid character out of the realm of brawny-and-brainy-sex-god and made him into a flesh-and-blood person with flaws and fears -- an overgrown kid whose "philosophy" of total independence is obviously a cover for his intense loneliness.

Eastwood's work as an actor here, taken together with his performances in Unforgiven and In the Line of Fire, forms an improbably moving triptych about the aging of a legendary tough guy. He's opened up in the last few years, become more vulnerable, more lost and more willing to reveal uncertainty and alienation. This is the second movie in which he's cried on-screen, and the effect is still startling; it's as if one of the faces of Mount Rushmore suddenly began to weep.

As good as Eastwood is, Streep is even better. She put on about 30 pounds to play Francesca, and she's been given a wardrobe, makeup and hairstyle befitting the part -- rural immigrant housewife circa 1965 -- but she never seems drab or ordinary. Other than Karen Silkwood, this is the earthiest, sexiest part she's ever played, and she inhabits it completely. Without overstressing the point, she lets you see that Francesca's devotion to her family represents a far more impressive show of bravery than any of Kincaid's globetrotting adventures. And when she looks at Kincaid with lust in her eyes, she might remind you of Anna Magnani in The Rose Tattoo -- a reserved woman whose inner life is charged with wit, energy and sensual longing. More so than the novel, Bridges establishes the narrative as Francesca's story. It's about bliss embraced and then rejected, and about the emotional toll taken on a woman who made that choice.

In a popular melodrama full of brave filmmaking choices, Eastwood's gutsiest was his decision to follow Francesca after her romance -- to give us an extended glimpse of life post-Kincaid. Like the final 20 minutes of The Shawshank Redemption, the end of Bridges is so unusual and affecting that it's almost eerie: we're watching the parts of life that movies rarely deem interesting enough to record. This is one of the most confidently directed movies of Clint Eastwood's distinguished career, and easily one of the most intelligent and engrossing films of 1995. It's a romance for grownups.

If Bridges is a quiet torch song for autumn lovers, then Mad Love is its generational antipode: a screeching, lurching, reckless chunk of grunge metal. Its hero is a sweet-faced, slightly bland young man named Matt Leland (Chris O'Donnell) who lives in a big, old, cluttered lake house with his dad (Kevin Dunn) and a couple of twins, a brother and sister. He's the caretaker of his siblings because pop is always wrapped up in his work and his mom flew the coop when he was nine. He's got heavy burdens for a high school senior, and though he seems to be bearing up pretty well, he suffers from anxiousness and insomnia.

The film begins with Matt embroiled in his late-night routine, which consists of his standing near the window of his upstairs bedroom and peering out at the lake below through a telescope. He sees motion on the water: it's a perky blond teenage girl going for a moonlit ride on a jet ski, tearing across the waves like Aphrodite in a gasoline-fired seashell. Matt is hooked, and when he realizes that this gorgeous apparition is named Casey Roberts (Drew Barrymore), that she goes to his high school and that she lives right across the lake from him, he can hardly believe his good fortune.

Casey is a wild child, as unpredictable and quirky as Matt is safe and normal. She's got a slightly tawdry mouth, she smokes and drinks, and she's fond of following sudden, irresponsible inspirations -- like tripping a fire alarm to get Matt out of an SAT exam and into a cross-town school-cutting trip in her VW bug. They fall instantly into an all-consuming affair that seems to have more to do with the chemistry of testosterone and estrogen than with any true meeting of minds.

Casey's folks -- detached, hypereducated highbrow types -- forbid Matt to have contact with her anymore. And for good reason, we find out later: Casey has suffered severe emotional problems since childhood, and her self-destructive streak has forced her folks to move from one city to the next in search of fresh beginnings.

When Casey is hospitalized after a suicide attempt, Matt impulsively busts her out, and they go on a trip into the American Southwest. They play blindman's buff with a truck, have wild sex in cheap rooms, steal cars and wallets to keep themselves moving, and otherwise postpone dealing with the consequences of their actions. You see liberating road adventures all over the place these days; you can only watch two attractive stars break the speed limit while whooping and throwing their hands in the air so many times before dejà vu sets in. In Mad Love's case, it's not the material itself that's irritating, but that the filmmakers seem to have embraced it in order to visually "open up" a romantic melodrama that was already plenty interesting.

Screenwriter Paula Milne and director Antonia Bird have an intuitive feel for how real teenagers talk -- in groping, circular musings that invariably strike the speaker as being terrifically profound -- and they deploy loud, raw pop songs like a hormone-addled Greek chorus that urges the lovers on to one emotional and carnal climax after another.

Sitting through Mad Love will probably bring back painful high school memories for many viewers. At its best, the film recaptures the frantic, racing pulse-beat of first love, first sex and first disillusionment, and it manages to get inside its characters' skins without losing track of how small, banal and doomed they are. It puts Matt and Casey in perspective without condescending to them.

O'Donnell has always been a question mark with me. I can never tell if he's a young Robert Redford in the making or the next Emilio Estevez. As Matt, he's saddled with an almost completely reactive character, and he underplays him to the point of absurdity. Sometimes Barrymore will be embroiled in the most painful of predicaments, and O'Donnell's face as he watches her suggests he's taking part in some kind of perversely dispassionate sociology experiment: take a crazy girl out on the road, observe her breakdowns, then write a 20-page paper with footnotes. The part needed a believably average guy, but it also needed somebody with hints of inner torment. As likable as he is, there's little in O'Donnell's performance to suggest what demons drove Matt to so drastically upend his life.

Fortunately, Barrymore is so furiously alive that we understand why Matt fell for her. She's specialized in this sort of part ever since her 1992 double dose of adolescent twistedness, Guncrazy and Poison Ivy; it's the kind of character who's only convincing when played by a young actress with heart, guts and inspiration, and Barrymore has all three in spades. It also helps that she's got the body of a jailbait hooker and the doe-eyed, sweetly rounded face of a silent-movie heroine. The combination makes it easy for her to play wounded old souls trapped inside girlish personalities -- teen angels fallen from grace.

She's effective when she's flirting and taunting and pouting, and she's equally good during Casey's apocalyptic seizures of fear, self-loathing and paranoia. But the movie keeps cutting the legs out from under Barrymore's performance by refusing to elucidate the nature of Casey's mental illness. She certainly displays some of the characteristics of an incest survivor, but the details pointing to this conclusion are spotty, almost as if the film was gutted after unfavorable test-screenings.

One such detail is found in a sensationally effective montage near the end that stitches shots together in a Freudian rebus of sexual fear. While Matt goes inside a small-town secondhand shop to buy Casey a new dress, Casey sits on the curb outside smoking a cigarette. In a series of claustrophobic first-person close-ups backed with suggestively distorted sound effects and dialogue, her attention shifts between a group of children at play and a bunch of tough-looking workmen loitering outside a nearby bar who are loudly discussing her physical attributes.

Director Bird crosscuts with increasing speed, building tension through tightening visual patterns. Alfred Hitchcock did this sort of thing all the time, and he rarely did it better. The sequence ends with Casey watching in horror as an employee inside the secondhand shop pulls a gown up over a mannequin's head. Casey freaks out, and the next time we see her, she's sitting on a hotel room floor late that night as Matt sleeps, obsessively cutting the eyes out of magazine advertisements and taping them on the walls.

Mad Love ends as we knew it had to end -- with Matt realizing that by abandoning his responsibility to his family to start a new life with Casey he has unwittingly taken on a far greater responsibility. With regret, he takes her back to her family. His decision feels less like a restoration of order than abandonment: Casey has been returned to a life of heavy sedation and institutionalization, but Matt has returned to a loving family and a bright future -- provided he can make up his SATs. She's lost everything, and he has lost nothing.

That's profoundly galling. The rules of cathartic tearjerking demand that Matt's heart should have been ripped out and scattered to the winds along with ours. He should have been transformed by his experience -- hardened, deepened. As we look at Matt without Casey, we should weep with helpless rage, then return to the theater next weekend to cry all over again. But the doughy resignation in O'Donnell's eyes suggests that once Casey has disappeared inside the mental hospital, she'll fade in emotional status from the great lost love of his life to a momentary lapse in judgment.

You can almost see him at a party 20 years from now -- an executive with a nondescriptly pretty wife on his arm and a wallet filled with pictures of his kids, telling his buddies, "Yeah, I've sure dated some crazy women in my time. How about you?"

The Bridges of Madison County. Directed by Clint Eastwood. With Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep.

Rated PG-13.
135 minutes.

Mad Love. Directed by Antonia Bird. With Drew Barrymore and Chris O'Donnell.
Rated PG-13.
99 minutes.

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