AS CHANCE AND THE UNPREDICTABLE SCHEDULING of critics' screenings would have it, I sat down to watch Rosenstrasse by Margarethe von Trotta just about 13 hours after I had got up from a screening of Paul Rudnick and Frank Oz's remake of the 1975 classic The Stepford Wives, even though the former was to have opened seven weeks after the latter. It struck me as an interesting pairing because the two represent opposite and contradictory extremes in the movies' treatment of marriage. Sometimes, that is, we continue to find it convenient to treat marriage as it has generally been treated in classic literature, and especially in romantic comedy, namely as the image of earthly felicity, the end of all stories in which boy meets girl, boy loses girl etc.-because we are quite prepared to suspend our disbelief, forget what we know of real marriages, and take it for granted that what must follow from "I do" is inevitably "... and they lived happily ever after."
I hope it will not be necessary to explain that this idea of marriage does not imply that the writers of romantic comedy are naive about real marriages. When I was a teacher, it was not unusual for classes studying, say, Shakespeare's Twelfth Night to want to speculate about the kind of conversations over the breakfast cornflakes that Viola and Orsino might have had after they had been ten years married. Can this marriage be saved? they wanted to know. It always seemed to me that such a turn in the discussion was fruitless and speculative and above all missed the point. Romantic comedies end with weddings, or the prospect of weddings, for the same reason that tragedies end with deaths: because these things give the appropriate meaning and fulfillment to the kind of human behavior that has gone before. We miss that if we turn instead to what we imagine might come after.
It is also true, however, that stories about marriages-as opposed to courtships-often borrow from romantic comedy the image of marriage as the perfected human state as their default position. The ideal makes an excellent contrasting background against which to play the drama of the real. That was the point of the original Stepford Wives. It created a caricature of the ideal (as it was still widely understood in those days) in order to show how destructive it was to real people, and especially real women. The movie was a gross libel against marriage, but one that was widely accepted at the time because of the influence of ideological feminism, which had adapted Marxist class analysis to the domestic sphere and so interpreted love and loyalty in terms of power relationships. The devotion of the robotic Stepford wives became the iconic death's head expressing the terror felt by many women, and not only doctrinaire feminists, at the self-surrender demanded of them by traditional marriage.
How old hat that now seems! Now the Stepford wife has become a figure of fun-at least if we are to judge by the remake. Messrs. Rudnickand Oz treat the story's exaggeration of the 1950s housewifely ideal as a sort of gay in-joke and introduce a gay man (Roger Bart) into the crinolined and scented sorority. For him, life in the midst of Stepfordian femininity is very heaven, while his animatronic version is a gay Republican candidate for the state assembly in a Brooks Brothers suit who says, "I believe in Stepford, America and the power of prayer." The mock horror which this character inspires is no more to be taken seriously than Bette Midier made up to look like Donna Reed. There is, it's true, a kind of doll-like quality to Nicole Kidman's beauty which for just a moment almost manages to cut through the thick wrapping of irony in which the film is swathed. She looks as much at home as a Stepford wife as Roger Bart does. In her case, the caricature is the high-powered network executive dressed in black that she is supposed to be before her transformation. But any deeper meaning that such a curious inversion …