Fairy tales weren’t designed for struggle

Phyllis and Harold

on April 12, 2010 by Pete Hammond
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A very personal documentary chronicling a disastrous 59 year marriage, Phyllis and Harold is a remarkable and extraordinary film that will have audiences talking, one of the most profound movies about married life seen on screen in some time. As seen through the eyes of Phyllis and Harold’s daughter, writer/director Cindy Kleine, this searing doc rips the façade off her parents’ marriage to uncover the truth of a union that probably never should have been. With a limited theatrical release through Henry Jaglom’s Rainbow Releasing, box office should be better than expected for a film with such a small theater count because the subject matter is both aimed at and about an older demographic. The word of mouth should propel it to a nice afterlife on cable and DVD.

Incorporating thousands of slides taken by her father over a lifetime and her grandparents 16mm home movies from the ’40s and ’50s, Kleine is able to augment her own revealing interviews with her parents for this piercing and brutally honest look at their nearly sixty years together, warts and all. Told from her own point of view, Kleine appears on camera wondering why her parents ever stayed in a marriage revealed to be fraught with regret, compromise, unfaithfulness and lifelong secrets. Originally conceived as a fictional version of her parents lives (Kleine mentions envisioning Bette Davis and Harvey Keitel as good substitutes for the real thing), the filmmaker embarked on a series of interviews (separately) with Phyllis and Harold and soon realized they were the real deal and a much more effective story could be cobbled from their own words and revelations voiced directly into the camera. Over twelve years Kleine worked on her movie, but everything took a turn when her father unexpectedly died. The blisteringly honest revelations laid out by her mother about a years-long affair her husband never knew about could be more comfortably incorporated into the film after the patriarch’s passing, and a reunion with the now aged lovers was even filmed. What results is a sometimes poignant, but generally sharp-edged portrait of a very bad marriage, one that didn’t end in divorce but probably would have in a different era. The contrasting views of this union are shown in vivid detail through the interspersed interviews and cleverly animated sequences that punctuate Kleine’s provocative work.

Phyllis And Harold’s underlying themes deal with the passage of time and the toll it takes on people—specifically these people—as it deftly explores the mysteries of love and commitment as part of a lifetime together. Younger audiences may look at all of this and wonder what relevance it has to their lives but, even if it’s subjects are from another era with a different set of rules, there are pertinent lessons to be learned from the perspectives on display here. Phyllis and Harold is an alternately funny and horrific look at the way we were, or rather, the way they were. It’s a mind-boggling journey into the heart of two people not made for each other and a sobering reminder that ‘happily ever after’ might only be the stuff of fairy tales.

Distributor: Rainbow Releasing
Director/Screenwriter/Producer: Cindy Kleine
Genre: Documentary
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 84 min.
Release date: February 19 NY, April 9 LA

Tags: documentary, romance, marriage
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