I recently had the pleasure of seeing a much-talked-about recent film on the subject of doomed, forbidden love. It follows the story of two lead characters who are immediately attracted to each other when they meet, but know that society expects them to pretend otherwise. They soon consummate their smoldering passion in a beautiful rural setting, but part ways shortly thereafter, expecting never to meet again.
Yet they do meet again, and immediately embark on a protracted sequence of steamy trysts. The complications are daunting--duty to a loving wife at home, a family of wealthy in-laws to be placated, job schedules to be juggled, and of course the whole problem of extreme social disapproval of their illicit passion. But despite the obstacles, they simply can't keep their hands off each other, and continue to meet in secret.
The film, of course, is Woody Allen's Match Point, about an ambitious lower-class tennis pro who strikes up a friendship with a rich pupil, and ends up dating and marrying the pupil's sister--while carrying on a torrid affair with the pupil's sexpot current-then-ex-fiancee. But you might have been forgiven for thinking I was describing Brokeback Mountain. Much has been made of the latter film's achievement in bringing gay romance into the film mainstream. But surprisingly little notice has been taken of its distinctly unflattering portrayal of a long-term gay relationship. For while the characters themselves are portrayed as highly sympathetic, their relationship is disturbingly similar to the sleazy affair between the duplicitous creep and the flighty siren at the center of Match Point.
To this straight male viewer, the protagonists' passion in Brokeback could at best be compared with an adolescent first love, rather than a mature partnership. Never, during the entire film, did the couple display any hint of emotional bonding, tenderness, protectiveness, mutual self-sacrifice, or any of the other characteristics of romantic love, other than intense, focused lust, and perhaps relief at finding an outlet for it. In fact, apart from their "fishing weekends" together--which, it is strongly hinted, were devoted solely to nonstop sex--they had no interaction of any kind, let alone mutual care, support or even kindness. In one case, when one was kept away from the other for longer than expected, the other simply headed south to seek his solace with male prostitutes in Mexico.
Fans of Brokeback offer various defenses of its leads' tawdry, unsentimental partnership, but none of them really holds water. Certainly, homosexual love provoked widespread, venomous hatred in the time and place of the film's setting, and therefore needed to be kept completely secret. But then, the same could be said for extramarital love, then and now. Yet one of the most famous on-screen romances of all time, between Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca, was extramarital--and still, it was a paragon of mature, self-sacrificing, and (despite Rick's protestations) noble passion that stands in striking contrast to both the lurid affair in Match Point and the strangely celebrated one in Brokeback.
Likewise, the tenderness and unselfishness of Humphrey Bogart's hardbitten, hard-drinking Rick towards his forbidden lover in Casablanca puts the lie to the claim that the lovers in Brokeback were plausibly deprived by their taciturn, homophobic cowboy upbringing of the opportunity to learn the finer points of love. In fact, one of Brokeback's protagonists is shown actually managing for four years to maintain a reasonably sturdy, affectionate and respectful marriage, and displaying every sign of understanding, accepting and fulfilling his duties as a husband and father. Had he only treated his supposed lifelong love interest as sweetly as he initially treated his wife, his affair would no doubt have come across as much more compelling and sympathetic.
Now, I know better than to assume that a single fictional film like Brokeback Mountain is a fair portrayal of gay relationships in general, any more than, say, The Bridges of Madison County--which celebrates a married woman's four-day fling with a handsome itinerant photographer as if it were the perfect romance--is a fair portrayal of straight relationships in general. Nevertheless, the gay community's and its supporters' unanimous, unqualified idealization of the relationship presented in Brokeback Mountain raises the question of what advocates of gay equality--proponents of gay marriage, for instance--really have in mind, both for gay men and for society at large. If Brokeback Mountain is to be our new model of romance, after all, then why not, say, Match Point?