Theodore Zeldin wrote in his Intimate History of Humanity that the conversations between men and women in the world have hardly started. The Coen Brothers might agree- or at least their film, The Man who Wasn't There
suggests as much. The film involves much wider issues but central to it are the relationships between a man and two woman- one played by Frances McDormand- his wife Doris Crane and the other a sexy teenager played by Scarlett Johansen.
What the film reveals and what the relationships between these two characters and the central one, Ed Crane, reveal is that for women and men relating together in a non-sexual way is almost impossible- that the world for men and women is divided into sexes and into people who are attractive and people who aren't. Amongst the depressing realities of the film is that Zeldin might just be right- conversations between men and women have hardly started.
The film is interesting because partly its about the way that truth works and perception. It is told from the perspective of a subjective narrator- Ed Crane- who slowly reveals the information upon which the story hangs piece by piece. Ed isn't exactly a trustworthy source- so reticent that he barely gives away his own emotions and so nervous about sexuality that both times he is offered it (once by a man, once by a woman) he reacts violently and aggressively. Ed admits during the film that he barely knows where he is going or what he is doing, he behaves naively and trustingly but also in a menacing way without regard for the consequences of his actions- but its his relations with women that are interesting to us today and what they reveal about relations between men and women.
Ed lives with a wife that he seems to have acquired almost by accident- she decided that he wasn't threatening. His relations with his wife are tense to the point of destroying any possibility of discussion between them- to the prison doctor Deitrichson (an obvious echo of Phyllis Deitrichson the femme fatale in Double Indemnity
) he admits that they have not performed the sex act for many many years- this is a marriage with no initimacy- no conversation going on.
And yet at one point we do see Doris involved in a long conversation with a man. Through Ed's monologue we are told that this is Doris's boss- who she has invited over to a dinner party- and that she and the boss are having an affair together. The very fact that they are talking- the very fact that they are having a semi interesting conversation to each of them means that they are having an affair- later in the film we find that its true. What happens in that scene is that we see Doris spontaneously interacting with a man and that means that she must be sexually interested in that man.
Lets return to Ed though. For Ed also finds himself in a close relationship with a woman- a young teenager, daughter to a friend who he beleives has talent on the piano. Ed talks to her and attempts to get her coaching, attempts to provide for her, wants to manage her promising concert career and offers her advice. He is frightened by the presence of other men around her- apparantly a girl can only relate to one man at a time. And she then translates accurately his actions into sublimated sexual feeling- she attempts to give him oral sex- an attempt he shuns but there is again the hint that sex might drive his feelings to Birdy- its just that he can't admit them.
In that sense Ed's character is reflected in his dealings with both the women in his life- he can't be assertive, he can't acheive what he desires. But just as much as that he can't relate to women but as to sex objects- indeed there is not one single male female relationship in this film that isn't really about sex, there isn't one single male female relationship which doesn't give off the semaphore signs of sexual attraction- that attests to Zeldin's fundamental insight that conversation between men and women, honest conversation that lays aside sex to some extent and attempts to achieve understanding has not even started.
There is an element of course to which conversation can start even where sex is involved- conversations can produce other things than physical union- but in neither case in which Ed is involved can that be said to be true. Birdy is an awful pianist- she doesn't want to be a pianist and Ed in designing her career isn't listening or finding out about the girl inside the beauty. Doris's career seems based on the boss- but again that is an illusion as there is always the danger that his wife might find out and she holds the purse strings.
It is significant that this negative vision of the way that conversations between men and women operate is set in the past- perhaps we have lost some of our gaucheness now around each other- perhaps real engagement is possible (including sex but also other things) I'd like to hope so- but the Coen brothers' film reminds us of what a low state of affairs we have come from- and how difficult it is to establish the preconceived notions on both sides that all the conversation between men and women is courtship.
It isn't- but try telling Ed, Doris and Birdy that. The world of the fifties is something that the Coen brothers illustrate well in this film- even if its a world of imagination- the way that the only way that speaking between men and women happens is sexual means that relationships are structured between men and women in this film is both staccato, framed by affairs and death, and also devoid of communication. Its the hopelessness of this world I think that gives one a real indication of the good changes that are starting in our own era- where women and men can share hopefully the life of the mind as well as that of the genitalia.