The Bridges of Madison County
What makes The Bridges of Madison County so romantic is its pulsating desire, slow like honey and sultry summertime heat.
Famously, the film is considered to be even better than its source material. Whereas Robert James Waller’s novel of the same name is said to contain passages schmaltzier than your favorite Hallmark channel TV-movie, Clint Eastwood’s 1995 adaptation converts syrup into lush longing. It is about two people who find a love rare and certain but choose not to go through with a relationship due to responsibility and circumstance; we feel their burning for one another ripple throughout our bodies, affecting us at every turn. Most romantic melodramas choose to go the happy ending/tragedy route; The Bridges of Madison County is such a successful foray into a genre because it places painful reality into a sublime mixture of cinematic tenderness.
Most are still familiar with the story twenty years after its introduction: it frames the four-day love affair between Italian housewife Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep, who completely disappears into the role) and National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid (Eastwood), who accidentally fall into each other’s lives after Robert innocently stops at Francesca’s house for directions to the nearby Bridges of Madison County. What begins as an exchange of manners turns into something more after she decides to follow him along on his photography excursion instead of politely moving on.
Four days is a short time for anyone to fall head over heels in love, but Francesca and Robert have an uncommon connection — it only takes a few late night talks for them to discover that they were made for each other. But, alas, she is happily married, with two teenage kids; her husband, a working man, is kind to her, fond of her company. Her children need her more than ever. But for Francesca, who moved from Italy to Iowa because of the union, there is something left to be desired — and Robert fulfills everything her spouse cannot. He is considerate of her emotions, aware of her hidden talents. He sees her as a remarkable woman rather than a dutiful housewife. The climactic sight of her clutching her husband’s truck door, contemplating whether to jump out and run after Robert, is devastating — to stay is painful, but to leave would be a tidal wave of brutal catharsis.
The entire romance is told through flashback — as The Bridges of Madison County opens, the children of the now deceased Francesca are brought to her Iowan home to look over her will, discovering the affair after finding a trio of journals that chronicles those meaningful four days. This narrative device would be manipulative anywhere else, but in Eastwood’s no-nonsense hands, it makes the story all the more poignant. Now adults with marital troubles of their own, Francesca’s children are old enough to understand just how sacred romance is — and how much of a generous tragedy it was for their mother to give up the passion of a lifetime for them.
With Eastwood at the helm, The Bridges of Madison County teeters on the sappy, but, for the most part, remains a plausible tale of love for the ages. His use of a minimal soundtrack evokes the atmospheric, dripping nature of the erotic tension that vibrates between Robert and Francesca; his pauses to study the silent emotions of the leading characters gives us a chance to become them, to potentially see life through their eyes. Richard LaGravenese’s script is considerate, thoughtful; he gives the central figures room to breathe, to consider every possible outcome. Waller’s maudlin prose (not read by me) is completely washed away. LaGravenese’s linguistic maneuvers are incredibly deliberate.
But while The Bridges of Madison County is a distinguished romance film, it is too dreamy for it to be anything besides a weepy tale of splendor in the grass. It doesn’t feel real; it's too sweepingly cinematic, a rose-colored, romanticized tragic fantasy. But it is prosperous when it comes to presenting us with genuine emotion, and Streep’s performance is uniformly excellent. Perhaps I didn’t attach to it as much as I would like to because I’m not the intended audience — but that hardly matters. Here is a romance so refreshingly honest one hardly has time to consider its bathos. B