‘Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice’ or — Four Play?
Paul Mazursky’s 1969 ‘Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice’ (those knotty, entwined little ampersands might be more important than they initially appear) is about sex. Except when it isn’t.
Bob and Carol are a privileged couple. They have an expensive sports car, gorgeous house and are so privileged their only existential worry is — why can’t I have more? Can all this be better? To explore themselves they go to the Esalen Institute to access their emotions and free themselves of hypocrisy.
Having done so they then return to the normal world and get on everyone’s tits by accessing their emotions and freeing themselves of hypocrisy. Their best friends, Ted and Alice, bear the brunt of this enforced openness, at first with good humour but then less so after Carol tells them some wonderful news — Bob has had an affair! And Carol is perfectly fine with this. Sure, Bob cheated on her but at least he was honest and told her and isn’t that beautiful thing?
Alice doesn’t think it’s a beautiful thing at all. In fact, it makes her sick. Ted thinks Bob was an idiot, not for having the affair but for admitting to doing so. This, understandably, bothers Alice who doesn’t quite know how to deal with all this sudden openness about sex. And just how, exactly, do you deal with sex? And is sex the issue here or is it more a question of guilt? The answer is total honesty, right? But what happens when openness is demanded of you whether you want it or not?
‘Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice’ is not about people meeting and falling in love but, rather, it’s about people already in marriages where the question is — what do you do with that love? What are your needs? Do you know how to ask for them to be met? What happens when they aren’t and how will you respond when they’re not? What games do you play in a relationship to get what you want and are you both playing the same game? Sex is the catalyst to access these questions.
Personally I don’t think the influence and importance of Paul Mazursky on American comedy can be overstated and watching ‘B&C&T&A’ you can sense the impact his work had on everyone from Woody Allen to Nora Ephron and all the way to Seinfeld (this film is, essentially, George asking Jerry for details). It’s the skillful way Mazursky focuses entirely on his characters as human beings and how they interact with each other that’s the thrill here and one of the reasons I adore his writing. For example, there’s a fantastic scene between Elliot Gould and Diane Cannon that’s 13 minutes long where all they do is talk about Carol’s admission and how they feel about whats happened (it’s like Cassavettes but cuddly). It allows them to really thrash out their relationship in depth and detail and the result is the sensation of watching real human beings where it is the connection between them that is as important as they themselves (after all, it’s how we talk to each other that exposes who we really are), and that’s more liberating to see at play than anything concerning nudity or sex.
It’s also Marzursky’s deft combination of satire and compassion that’s intensely appealing (this is a film about free love but also one that knows that a hug is better than a fuck) where everything is explored in a nonjudgmental way but also held up for mockery and humour. It’s this balance that allows the film to be enjoyed by both prudes and libertines, both being able to read the movie as a celebration and a warning of sexual permissiveness. This is why the film is often called ambiguous and it’s this ambiguity which helps drive the satire.
Although I think the word I’d use to describe ‘B&C&T&A’ is smug. I love this film but it’s certainly got smugness to it and I think it’s this that leaves me feeling a little unsure of the ending. Yes, it’s warm and touching but I can’t help feel Diane Cannon’s Alice gets the short end of the stick and that once the bourbon has worn off and the strains of ‘What The World Needs Now Is Love, Sweet Love’ have faded away that she’s be seriously, and understandably, pissed off (and where was HER orgasm?!).
But it’s not the destination we’re here for but the journey along the way, of hearing and seeing these people talk to each other about their wants and then throwing the question directly into the laps of the audience without providing the safety net of an answer (I’d love to know how many married couples saw this on release and where caught up in the spirit of sexual honesty and admitted on leaving the cinema to their partner that they, too, had been unfaithful only to be responded to not by an understanding hug of forgiveness but a slap in the face). After all, the demand for honesty and openness is still a demand and that’s something that needs navigating as much as any sexual transaction or transgression.
‘Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice’ is a very funny, intelligent, heartfelt film. It has a smart and clever script and is delivered by performances of nuance and tenderness. It opens up important questions and, like a good therapist, doesn’t provide solutions, only the space to work things out. The rest we have to provide for ourselves. After all, there’s only so much cinema can do.