Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Three's A Crowd

A couple weeks ago, I rented the movie Tristan & Isolde. I'd wanted to see it when it was in theatres but, you know, those pesky kids and their inability to see rated R movies.

Funny thing is that the DVD sat on the TV cabinet for nearly two full weeks before I was in the mood to actually watch it. This is the kind of movie practically written to my personal tastes: a romance, set in medieval times, with a hunky knight hero and a beautiful lady. Throw in a handful of action scenes that aren't too gruesome and I'm in movie Nirvana. But, for whatever reason, until last night I just wasn't in the mood for it. Weird.

Anyway, the movie itself was pretty good. Not buy-the-DVD fantastic, but worth the two-hours to watch it good. Which leads me to ask why I didn't love love LOVE it since, like noted above, it contains all of the elements I want most in a good story.

For those unfamiliar, Tristan and Isolde is actually an ancient legend about starcrossed lovers and forbidden love. There are a variety of incarnations of the story, and on the DVD's Behind the Scenes featurette, the screenwriter said he felt this gave him some creative license to do what he wanted with the script since there was no "definitive" original. I'm fine with that. I'm even more fine because the writer chose to leave out the love potions that you often find in the traditional Tristan and Isolde tales. I want real love, not manufactured lust.

Anyway, the story is frameworked on the Arthur/Lancelot/Guinevere love triangle almost exactly, although technically Tristan and Isolde came first so it's the other way around. Tristan is a knight, serving Lord Marke during the period in history after the Romans had withdrawn from Britain and all of the tribes were fueding with each other. These tribes face a common enemy - the king of Ireland - yet they can't seem to get it together enough to fight as one entity and defeat him. During one battle with the Irish, Tristan is wounded with a poisoned sword. The wound isn't mortal, but the poison paralyzes him enough that his comrades determine he's good and dead and send him out to sea on a funeral pyre boat. Thankfully a passing rain shower keeps the not-dead Tristan from burning to a crisp.

Eventually Tristan's boat washes up on the Irish shore, where he is discovered by the king's daughter, Isolde. She tends to his wounds and heals him, hiding the Englishman from her father while giving Tristan a false name so he won't know who she really is (not sure why she does this). During his recouperation, Tristan and Isolde fall in love. This is the best part of the movie, IMO, the only part that inspired me to rewatch all of ten minutes.

Tristan must return to England since it is rather suicidal of him to stay in Ireland, and when he gets back, he's adequately mopey, despondent over having had to leave Isolde behind. He'd asked her to come with, but she declined for reasons I'm still not quite sure about. When the Irish king offers his daughter as a prize in a tournament, hoping that this contest will further alienate the various English tribes from each other, Tristan leaps at the chance to go back to Ireland and fight in Lord Marke's name, no doubt hoping he'll score a bride for his master and find his own lady love and convince her to come back to England this time. Or maybe just drag her off by her hair so he can stop moping.

Naturally, Tristan wins the tournament. And, naturally, he is devastated to learn that the bride he has won for Lord Marke is none other than Isolde.

Okay...from here on out are SPOILERS, so read on at your own risk.

Tristan and Isolde return to England. Despite her pleas for them to run off and be together, Tristan remains firm and insists that honor and duty are more important than love, telling Isolde she must marry Marke and they must forget about their feelings for each other. Isolde marries Marke. What follows is probably the most realistic portrayal of wedding night sex between two strangers in an arranged marriage I've ever encountered. But Isolde holds up like a trooper. Marke is a good man, she can't help but like him, and even if she wishes every single second that it was Tristan in her life and bed, she sucks it up fairly well.

Tristan, on the other hand, doesn't do so good. He walks around with perpetual tears in his eyes, slowly going crazy over the idea of Isolde with Marke. When he accuses her of liking Marke too much, she throws it back at him that it was him who told her she had to do her duty. But she also tells him she will meet him whenever he wants for a little on-the-side nookie. Tristan folds like a house of cards, and their affair begins.

As you might suspect, everything falls apart when enemies of Marke conspire with the Irish king and the lovers are revealed. I won't be specific, suffice it to say, the ending is far from the normal romance HEA. Tristan and Isolde is, was, and always will be a tragedy in the fine Romeo and Juliet tradition.

So, other than the ending, what was it about this movie that didn't quite nail it for me? I'm hard pressed to say. The actors chosen for the roles were well placed. Sophia Myles was beautiful as Isolde, but not so gorgeous as to make her completely unreal. Rufus Sewell fit the idea of an Arthur-like ruler, strong yet capable of falling in love with Isolde and feeling real pain when he thinks she has feelings for another man. And James Franco made an amazing young knight, handsome and brave and sexy enough to entice any married woman to stray.

Although, I do think Franco played the despondent lover a little too damply. He spent a healthy portion of the movie with tears in his eyes. While I think it an admiral trait for an actor - especially a male one - to be able to summon tears when necessary, it's hard to imagine a real man of that time walking around looking as if he were about to burst out sobbing at any second. Sure, you really got the sense that Tristan was suffering, but I don't know that the constant waterworks made me believe Tristan and Isolde's love was any deeper or more passionate or more tragic than any other love. More, I got the idea that if the movie had been set in modern times, Tristan would have been the type to write bad poetry and listen to Air Supply ad nauseum. He was just a bit too nouveaux sensitive man for the time being portrayed.

Another thing that got me because it bordered on the Big Mis. After Marke discovers Tristan and Isolde's affair, he locks Tristan in the dungeon (of course). When he asks Tristan to explain, I'm screaming at the screen for Tristan to tell Marke how he had met Isolde in Ireland, before the contest and before knowing who she really was and what winning her would mean. But Tristan - tearfully - keeps his silence. As if nothing he could say would justify what he had done. Thing is, Marke wasn't an evil character who would be so consumed by the affront to his ego that he wouldn't have understood the situation.

In fact, when Isolde - wisely - tells Marke the truth of the matter, he forgives them both. He can see that this wasn't a betrayal of him based on the over-active libido of two people who should have controlled it, but rather the continuation of something that had started long before he entered the picture. In fact, in light of his feelings for Isolde, Tristan's actions were almost heroic. Instead of running off with her as he most likely wanted to do more than anything, he brought her home to Lord Marke and watched the woman he loved become the wife of another man.

Finally, because of the situation of the story, there was no way to acheive any sort of happily ever after. Not that I need to always have the HEA to enjoy something. But I need to feel good about what happened before the unhappily ever after. At one point, Isolde asks Tristan why loving him felt so wrong. I agreed with her. No matter how deep or passionate or true their love for each other was, because of the situation, no one could ever feel good about it. Even if Marke had died and the two of them could have been together legitimately, it all felt wrong.

And this isn't even because the two were committing adultry. Because their love pre-dated Isolde's marriage to Marke, because she didn't have any choice in marrying Marke, I didn't feel that Isolde wronged anyone by having an affair with Tristan. It's not as if she promised Marke she would remain faithful because she had feelings for the man. Her marriage was all about duty, and for Isolde, love trumped duty hands down. Tristan, on the other hand, felt the opposite, so his betrayal of Marke struck him more deeply. The sacrifice for being with Isolde was simply too great, or at least too great for the love we'd been shown on screen. That love didn't ring strong enough for me to bear the burden of the crimes the two lovers were committing.

I think the mistake happened when Isolde refused to return to England with Tristan at the very beginning. After that, there was no going back. And since I'm still not quite sure why she didn't just go with him - her sense of love being more important than any duty to her father or her people - all that followed felt false.

Which explains much to me about the Arthur/Lancelot/Guinevere scenario. I always wondered why Lancelot and Guinevere never got together after Arthur was killed. Even if those around them would have accepted such a match, something about it would have always been wrong.

I suppose this is why I'm not a big fan of love triangle stories. I'm not liking much the Jack/Kate/Sawyer thing on Lost, either. Someone is going to get hurt. And when no-one is a bad guy, even the winners become losers.

In the end, I give Tristan & Isolde a B-. Worth watching once because it does get a couple things right. But I guess I just like a little less tragedy in my Tragic Love Stories.

1 comment:

Becky L said...

i stumbled across your blog-- it interested me, b/c your a mom too and b/c you talked about this movie.

i'm also a LOVER of romantic medieval times movies. they're so wonderful.