Portrait Of A Marriage (1990)
www.imdb.com/title/tt0098897/ - Internet Movie Data Base
I had such high hopes for this movie! It's based on the true story of renowned feminist writer Vita Sackville-West, during the early part of the 20th century. It follows her through her marriage to diplomat and writer Harold Nicolson, and her affair with her childhood friend, novelist Violet Keppel. Vita and her husband Harold had several same-sex affairs each during their life-long marriage, including a relationship between Vita and famous author Virginia Woolf. So I was expecting this movie to rank up there with Carrington, which I also reviewed and loved.
But this movie did not have the same feel.
On to the spoilers, because the entire plot of this movie is the reason why I'm not going to recommend it, so I can't explain why without giving away the whole thing.
So, Vita has a best friend named Violet, as a teen. Later, she marries Harold, and they have 2 sons. Then, one day, he comes home from one of his extended diplomatic missions, and confesses that they cannot have sex for 2 months because he has contracted some kind of STD. He then reassures his wife that she is the ONLY woman in his life. After realizing this means that her husband is gay, or at least bi, Vita gradually shakes off the shock and decides that it doesn't matter, since he remains devoted to her and the children.
Before she reaches acceptance, however, she has to adjust to the shock of the news, and turns to her best friend, Violet, for support, only to have Violet use the opportunity of vulnerability to seduce Vita. What follows next is a torrid love affair filled with train-wreck drama that I just can't understand.
Vita and Harold develop an "understanding" that Harold will have "friends" while he is out of town, but he loves his wife and puts her as his priority. This is the perfect setup for introducing a lesbian relationship for Vita, right? Harold has his own same-sex partners, and he *gets* the idea of loving more than one, or at least loving one and having sex with many, so she should be able to do something similar, right?
No, he hates the idea of his wife spending time with Violet, although it is quite some time before it is revealed that their relationship is sexual. He suspects early on, but there is a lot of secrecy and deception. Which brings me to the next part of the drama that shouldn't be there.
Vita has a husband who has lovers on the side and she accepts it in a sort of DADT arrangement. So she should totally be expecting her husband to now allow her the same freedom, right? Particularly since she's a feminist and flaunts "tradition" by wearing masculine clothing (which her husband loves, by the way). So, once she learns of her husband's infidelity, and once she reaches the conclusion that their marriage will continue and she will overlook them, it seems a natural next step to come clean to her husband and admit a love for women too. What's good for the gander is good for the goose and all.
But no, she tries to hide her relationship with Violet for a long time, using the convenient excuse that women often develop close friendships and often go on vacations and such together. So Vita tries to hide her lesbian relationship from her husband, while her husband gets jealous over the idea of his wife having another lover. To his credit, however, he bends over backwards to give her the freedom to write and go on trips, and even to remain friends with Violet, providing their marriage & family isn't thrown into disarray. I have to say that's a reasonable request, given the circumstances.
Next is Violet. She absolutely loathes the fact that Vita is married and begs on more than one occasion for Vita to dump her husband and run away with her instead. Remember, this is the 1920s and '30s. Women just didn't *do* that. But Violet absolutely cannot understand when Vita says she loves both her husband and her girlfriend and cannot choose between them. Vita feels there are too many sides to her personality to be encompassed by only one partner. With her husband, she can be the happy homemaker, wife, mother, and gardener that she feels truly content as. But with her girlfriend, she can be the proud and powerful Amazon, running wild and free, that she *also* enjoys. This sounds PERFECT for a poly setup.
Violet wants Vita all to herself and constantly tries to sabotage Vita's marriage. She even steals Vita away for a few weeks while Harold is out of town and not around to notice. Vita dresses as a young soldier on honeymoon with his "wife" and they pass as a hetero married couple. They exchange vows, and both women feel as though they are truly married.
Eventually, however, Violet announces that she is getting married to Dennys, who is smart, charming, handsome, and completely besotted with Violet. He is so besotted, in fact, that he will "do as he's told", meaning he will agree to whatever stipulations in the marriage that Violet insists on, just to be married to her. Violet insists on having a "business arrangement" marriage, where there is absolutely no sex, and Dennys agrees. Again, a perfect poly setup. Violet gets to marry a man who will not touch her, and would probably agree to an open arrangement if it had been offered, and with the marriage, Violet gets a degree of freedom not otherwise granted to women in this era. Violet could have her relationship with Vita, if Vita only pointed out how her husband has his lovers on the side, and if Vita acknowledged Harold's legitimate concern about the family and kids. Everyone could get what they want!
Instead, everyone is completely and utterly miserable.
So, the wedding day for Violet and Dennys approaches, and Violet begs Vita to "save her". Remember, this is a marriage that Violet herself arranged, and arranged to suit her orientation, no less. Vita refuses to "rescue" her because Harold admonishes her for even considering the chaos and disruption this would bring to Dennys, himself, and their families. So instead, Vita kidnaps Violet on her wedding day and brutally rapes her, screaming "is this how he feels?" What. The. Fuck?
Then, Vita and Violet make up and Violet convinces Vita to run away with her and they hatch an elaborate plot to "elope" again. Dennys gets wind of it and sets up a meeting with Vita, in which he tries to convince her not to steal his wife. He points out that neither woman understands anything about money and asks how they will support themselves (sounding very much like a father who disapproves of his daughter's choice in boyfriends). Neither woman can answer how they will support themselves, but that doesn't stop them. Caught in the middle, Violet announces that she will go to stay with her mother for a few weeks to think about things before making any sort of decision. Dennys gives her an ultimatum, telling her if they want to elope, they will do it now or never. Violet says she'll be gone by the next evening.
So the women make their plans and Dennys discovers the details, running to stop them from leaving at the train station. Violet has gone on ahead and Dennys finds only Vita. He proceeds to badger her into telling him where Violet has gone, which she does, and then insists on going with Vita to join her. And for some unfathomable reason, Vita tells him when and how she plans to meet up.
So the next morning, Vita arrives at the dock only to find Dennys already at the head of the line to buy tickets, when the cashier announces that he only has 2 single occupancy rooms left. Dennys buys them both, then gives one ticket to Vita. They take the voyage together, seeming to become friends as they laugh and share meals together on the trip.
When they arrive, Vita sees Violet in the hotel lobby before Dennys enters, and runs up to her to demand to know why Violet is still there (apparently they were supposed to meet somewhere else), but Violet is hysterical for a reason I never found out. Vita tries to get Violet to hide before Dennys finds her, but Dennys arrives just at that time and everyone goes up to Violet's room. While there, Violet lays in bed to "recover" from whatever frightened her, and she says how lovely it is to be with the two people she loves most in the world, and to have them getting along. The 3 of them seem to be having a grand old time, with Dennys toasting over champagne "to the three of us!" Then, without warning, Dennys gets up, writes a note, and storms out of the room.
The note says he cannot do this and he leaves, only to go back to England where he tells Vita's mother (I have no idea why) that Dennys and Violet had sex all the time. Why Vita's mother needs to know that a married couple she is not related to has regular sex, I haven't a clue. Then he finds Harold and tells him where the women are staying and the two men go to get their wives back (Harold, who had been told by Vita that she was leaving him for Violet, was totally distraught and can't understand how Violet managed to make Vita turn her back on her children and blames Violet for the whole thing).
So the men show up, and again there is a huge screaming match between all involved where the women insist on being together and the men insist that the women come home. Eventually, the men leave the women's hotel room, dejected. Vita goes to a nearby cafe to smoke and brood, as she does, and Harold finds her and has a chat. He tries to sow dissension and suspicion by asking Vita if she is *sure* that Violet was really faithful (again, the hypocrisy - why the fuck does it matter to Vita? She was married to Harold & had sex with her husband, so why Vita flies into jealous rages at the thought of Violet having sex with anyone else, let alone her own husband, is a constant source of bafflement to me).
Naturally, Vita runs screaming back to the hotel "when was the last time you had sex with him?" and "how dare you lie to me!" as she corners Violet on the stairs and slams her up against a wall. Then, for some unknown reason, she tears up the stairs and backs herself into their room, brandishing a chair like a lion tamer, as the other three come skidding into the room after her. Literally, they all run into the room and slide to a stop.
Violet begs Dennys to tell Vita the truth, that they have never had sex as per their arrangement, to which he does. Vita then looks with horror at Violet (more bafflement on my part) and says "I just can't trust you" and leaves.
She never sees Violet again.
What looks like 20 years later, Vita gets a call from Violet while she's out in her garden with her husband, apparently happy and settled in monogamous, married life. Vita freaks out until Violet reassures her that nothing is wrong. But Vita refuses to go see her and hangs up the phone in tears, runs to her tower bedroom and locks herself in to smoke and brood, which brings us back to the very beginning of the movie, where she starts the tale in flashbacks.
Next, we see a very, very old Harold, writing a letter to Violet, where it is implied that Vita has just died and Harold is sending Violet a ring that Vita used to wear, believing that Vita would want Violet to have it because Violet gave that ring to Vita when they were teens. It is also implied that Vita and Violet never saw each other after that train-wreck of a fight amongst the four of them, but that Harold knows how important Violet was to Vita and he is happy that Vita had such a strong love with Violet. Like, what? He's happy that the two women had such a strong bond even though the last time anyone saw each other was like 40 years ago and he was part of the scheme that broke them up. But yay, they loved each other?
So, we have 4 people: 2 married couples, each with an "arrangement" of sorts that should have allowed for a quad or N poly relationship and a natural understanding of how it is possible to love more than one person, to love someone and have sex with others, or to have different kinds of love for different kinds of people. I could see there being personality clashes, but I just did not understand the drama, the screaming, the tears, the rages. I don't understand how a person can themself love more than one person and yet be insanely jealous at even the thought of their lover having other partners. And bisexuality seems to be the easiest way for non-poly people to grasp the whole poly thing - one of each where one can provide what the other can't. And then there's the real life biography itself, which explicitly stated that Vita and her husband each had multiple lovers while remaining married to each other for decades.
This movie should have been a classic poly story. Even the biography sounded more poly than the movie ended up being. It's not the ending of various relationships that make this story not-poly, it's the screaming, jealous, drama that made it not poly. The movie portrayed the women as jealous, spiteful, deceitful, selfish women who completely screwed over their husbands. Even the gay husband with his same-sex lovers and STD was a more sympathetic character, and his willingness to overlook his discomfort with his wife's lesbian relationships as long as it didn't destroy their family should have set this up perfectly for a poly arrangement. And knowing that, in real life, the main character did, in fact, continue to have relationships outside of her marriage (as did her husband), this movie could have portrayed all of this in a much more poly light, like the way Carrington did.
But it didn't. I really wish I could put this movie on the poly list, because even with the drama in Carrington, it was still clearly about people who understood the concept of multiple loving relationships. But this one was not. It only showed this one multiple-person relationship and the "multiple" part is what destroyed it. Knowing that Vita, in real life, continued to have outside relationships leads me to believe that her life was more poly than this movie portrayed it, like Carrington. Which then leads me to suspect that the script-writer disapproved of open relationships (or at least of women having same-sex affairs) and wrote that tone into the story. I'm highly disappointed.
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