On its surface, the provocative documentary Talking About Adultery, which premiered in New York last week as part of the DOC NYC festival, is a condemnation of marriage. Take, for example, a sequence in which a woman wearing a neon pink apron and chimpanzee mask poses in a brightly lit kitchen, leaning over the sink or tending to a pan on the stove, as a disembodied female voice laments how much she resents being a wife and mother.
The stylized 71-minute film combines original visual art and anonymous confessional interviews with adulterers from all walks of life to illuminate the restrictive nature of monogamy. It sets out to prove that marriage says more about the way society organizes itself structurally and politically than about love or the individuals involved.
But with a few crucial words thrown in just before the credits roll, as if an afterthought, Czech filmmaker Bara Jichova Tyson dismantles this thesis. Sort of. The soundbites from interviews with over 50 people—lovers, mistresses, husbands, wives, and non-monogamists—are woven together with a loose narrative thread. Short, written notes between a couple having an affair (referred to only by the initials B and R) punctuate sections of the film.
The couple presumably met on a kind of dating site where B, the filmmaker, Jichova Tyson, was searching for subjects for her documentary. After over an hour of brutally honest, occasionally heartbreaking conversations about the struggle to keep love alive in marriage, a title card at the end reveals that B and R met through the making of the film and got married. They have a young son together. One of the final images is his sonogram.
It’s a bittersweet conclusion. On the one hand, it is a hopeful counterpoint to the many bleak portrayals of marriage the film offers. That Jichova Tyson went into the filmmaking process with the intention of exposing marriage as an idealistic, disappointing construct, as she explained in an interview with Huck, and came out married with a baby is the ultimate rejection of her cynical theory. But then, many of the unhappily married couples she interviewed began as happily married. Her unexpected fairy-tale ending could be interpreted as a triumph of monogamous love, or as not an ending at all, but the beginning of a slow crawl towards dissatisfaction.
Talking About Adultery successfully straddles the line of being (mostly) negative about marriage without being negative about love. In fact, many of the anonymous anecdotes about cheating are rooted in love, either the pursuit of it or the preservation of it. One interviewee, identified as No. 27, harshly confesses that he would not describe his wife as the love of his life. As the camera pans over a cluttered kitchen counter tableau of raw steaks on a baking sheet, empty wine glasses, and half-eaten jars of peanut butter, the man divulges his desire to feel the thrill of real attraction again. “Somewhat selfishly, I suppose, I want to treat myself to love,” he admits. “I want to feel romance. That’s very important to me and I won’t do it at the expense of devastating [my wife] by leaving or being reckless.”
Another couple, Interview No. 17, provide a counterpoint. They’ve decided jointly to sleep with other people, sometimes together and sometimes separately. Theirs is the kind of comfortable love rooted in trust. “In this case,” the husband explains, “I felt, not like, ‘Wow, I want to get married my whole life.’ It’s like, ‘You know what, I trust you enough to be married to you.’” Later, when reflecting on his uncertainty that they will stay together for the rest of their lives, and whether or not that even matters, he adds, “The question about that is less about adultery and more about honesty.”
One of the most striking takeaways from the film is the sheer multitude of factors that drive people to non-monogamous relationships and the different ways these relationships can manifest. The cinematography emphasizes this, between Jichova Tyson’s abstract collage art and lingering aerial shots of bustling crowds.
In the collage sequences, the director’s hands, sheathed in blue latex gloves, arrange black and white photos of people—couples, individuals, or groups. Some photos have the faces cut out, and she overlays these with other faces to form different pairings. The message? Non-monogamous and adulterous relationships are more common than they seem, and they can take completely different forms.
R touches on the commonality and humanness of affairs early in the film when he asks B, “May I ask, why are you making a film about adultery? It seems intriguing as an idea, but boring as a fact. Is that true?”
For a few moments, B leaves his question unanswered, allowing us to decide for ourselves.