I have, for the last few hours, been musing about two movies I watched over the weekend. For those doing the maths: yes, that means I get up obscenely early. Yes, I wish it were otherwise. Screw the goddamn apnea.
Anyway, the movies.The first, Comet, is a small movie that charts the relationship between two characters over a six-year period, with numerous cuts back-and-forth in time. The second, 28 Hotel Rooms, is a small movie that charts the relationship between a man and a woman having an affair in a succession of hotel rooms, never seeing them outside of that context.
I picked them both for the actors involved and because the synopsis sounded vaguely interesting. And they were both…odd.
Is odd the right word? I’m not sure. They’re not necessarily movies I enjoyed, but movies I enjoyed watching. Movies where I appreciated the attempt and found the performances engaging, but found myself distracted by other stuff they were doing.
This is not surprising. Both films belong to a very specific film genre, where the narrative is driven by two characters talking to one another. The kind of movie one reviewer dubs scenes from a relationship in his review of Comet, while pointing out the essential risk:
It takes a certain degree of cinematic courage (or madness) to tell a story that really only has two characters. If your leads don’t have chemistry; if we don’t believe their relationship; if we just find ONE of them unlikable—you’re in serious trouble. One could program an entire alterna-Sundance of independent films that failed one of these “ifs.” – Brian Tallerico
I’ll admit, I’m a fan of the scenes from a relationship approach to movies, courtesy of my exposure to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise at an impressionable age. I’ll sit down and watch almost any film that gives it a go, but they’re often gruelling films to get through for all the reasons Tallerico notes. Hell, all the sequels for Before Sunrise – much as I love them – are movies where I need to fortify myself with unicorns and scotch before watching.
Being a fan of the genre, it infects my writing. If you throw in random dragons or kaiju invasions, a fair number of my stories are basically the scenes from a relationship approach.
So I brood about this kind of stuff. The difficulty of getting it right. And I think, perhaps, it goes a step beyond the thread of one character being likable or not. When I teach courses on character, I often point out that three is a magic number. In general, for writers, and definitely when thinking about characters. For some reason, the folk populating books and stories just work better when they have more than one other person to interact with.
For me, this is a question of context and subtext. At our core, we recognise that the faces we wear in a particular context are merely convenient truths. The person we are at work does not match the person we are in leisure, which does not match the person we are when left alone and free to delve into the less pleasant parts of our personality.
Truth, when it comes to identity, is inherently fluid.
This makes triads, at a bare minimum, far more interesting that films where two characters spend all their time talking too the other person. When you introduce a third person, you introduce subtext – the relationship a particular character has with one of their compatriots will not resemble the relationship they have with another.
You introduce new power dynamics, ’cause two people can gang up against a third, or try to curry favour and sway someone to their side of an argument.
You add subtext, since each character now needs to wear two masks.
We crave subtext, as an audience. It allows us to judge a character on our terms, instead of theirs. Allows us to peer beneath the mask. We can figure out who the character really is by charting a point between what they’re telling us and what we can pick up from their interactions.
When it comes to charting a course, three points of reference are better than two.
It’s why so many rom-coms will have sassy best friends and slacker room-mates littered through the plot. It only takes one scene of a protagonist talking to their best friend for the depth to appear, even if they’re in relative agreement about things. It’s why action heroes have sidekicks. Why pretty much every movie or book, ever, will have a subplot in which other characters appear.
Scenes from a relationship movies frequently abandon that conceit. In both Comet and 28 Hotel Rooms, interaction with secondary characters is minimal. The IMDB page for the latter lists exactly four characters, and only two have more than a single line. Comet goes so far as to have four characters that have actual dialogue exchanges, but only the two leads last longer than the opening act. And the first act of the film is when it’s at its most interesting, because of those dynamics.
Both films try to make up for the lack of additional interpersonal contexts by checking in on the character over the length of their relationship, but there’s only so much subtext that can be wrung out of that approach. The characters evolve or grow, but only within a tightly defined context. The mask worn over the course of a relationship may grow and change, but it’s still the relationship mask.
When I go back and look at Before Sunrise, which remains the high-water mark of the genre for me, it’s interesting how many additional characters intrude on the couple over the course of the film, providing a new shot of energy into the film even if they only last for the length of a scene.
Characters work best in groups, because they bring the audience on board as a collaborator. It makes them an active participant in the meaning of story, even if they aren’t really aware of it.