The films we normally think of as horror movies are, almost to a one of them, fantasies. The images which frighten us in these films have no substance in our life. The chances that any of us will ever encounter a homicidal maniac, the latest trend in horror, are tiny. Vampires, werewolves, slimy aliens, ghosts are even more remote from our lives. This base of fantasy accounts for the popularity of horror films. They offer a cheap thrill which we can dismiss, since, after all, our rational minds tell us that we are safe, these monsters will not touch us. The best of them are the films which can fool us into believing, for a moment, that maybe we do have to worry about the boogeyman.
My First Wife is nothing close to a horror movie of this kind, but it is a film of frightening images, because it tells of tragedy personal and possible, a tragedy which may strike anyone. What would you do if the person you loved most deeply, someone you had every intention of spending the rest of your life with, someone in whose love you felt secure, the cornerstone of your life, suddenly told you that they do not love you any more, cannot even bear your touch. It's not a matter of your not paying enough attention, or anything you did, or anything your loved one did, for that matter. It's not a question of fascination with someone else. Love has died and nothing seems more certain than that it will not be reborn. How do you go one living?
Paul Cox's film is an extraordinary picture of a person whose world suddenly and unexpectedly explodes. John Hargreaves plays a man who has just reached the point he has been striving for all his life. He is hosting a classical music radio program and his own compositions are being rehearsed for performance. He deeply loves his wife and has a lovely little daughter who adores him. Then his wife reveals that she does not love him, hasn't loved him for years, and can stand it no longer. She leaves, taking their daughter. And Hargreaves' life begins to crumble, slowly at first, but faster and faster until it collapses completely.
My First Wife makes TV films about divorce look almost criminally vapid and is superior to even the best of Hollywood divorce films, like Kramer vs. Kramer. It's excellence is based on honesty, fairness, and reality. Hargreaves isn't an icon and Wendy Hughes, who plays his wife, isn't a villain. Hargreaves' grief, anger, and despair have the bitter feel of truth. Nor does the film succumb to easy answers for hard questions. Cox's script is apparently autobiographical in the best sense. Without sparing himself or others, Cox has stripped off the false padding usually surrounding stories of divorce and revealed the inner core of tragedy.
Paul Cox is an Australian director with several impressive credits behind him, notably Lonely Hearts and Man of Flowers. Here he cuts close to the bone, too close for some people's comfort. He offers a film largely but not entirely from his protagonist's point of view. Hargreaves isn't having anything close to a good time, and Cox ensures that we won't, either. My First Wife is not a fun movie. Cox's near obsessive interest in the material makes it an extremely powerful experience, but not an entirely pleasant one. Considering his subject, I'd prefer it that way. I'm not especially interested in seeing a fun version of King Lear, either. Some subjects demand a serious approach.
Hargreaves and Hughes are excellent in the central roles. Hargreaves shows us every blow that strikes his character. His pain reaches down from the screen. His character behaves with the embarrassing desperation of real life despair, making you almost want to turn away, as you do from a couple having a nasty argument in a public place. Hargreaves' greatest challenge is to make us care for his character despite his excesses, and in this Hargreaves succeeds.
Hughes' part is even more difficult. Cox, as both screenwriter and director, has made a good faith effort to be fair to her, but his own anger has not completely subsided. We too want Hughes to forswear her rejection of Hargreaves, and her insistence that she will not return to him cannot help but color the character. It is instructive to remember all of the books you've read and films you've seen in which the male hero gives up wife, and sometimes children, for his true love, frequently with the filmmakers' moral approval. Here, the case is little different, merely seen from the other side. I suspect that there would have been an equally good, but very different movie, if Cox had been the one who had fallen out of love, rather than his wife. Hughes, faced with swimming upstream against audience desires, does extremely well.
Cox provides an operatic score, mostly music from his main character's program. A large portion of it is from Orff's Carmina Burana, though we also hear bits of several other compositions, mostly dark in tone. The score forms a suitable background for the hero's turbullent emotions.
My First Wife is the sort of film many people complain never gets made. It is intelligent, deeply felt, and emotional in the best sense of the word. It deserves to be seen. I highly recommend My First Wife.
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