If you go to a couple’s counselor, one of the techniques that the therapist might employ is to have both of you tell the story of how you met. It’s a favorite trick of relationship researchers because the discrepancies in the stories can be so revealing, and the way that you tell the story is full of clues to the way you think about your relationship now. New York Times health reporter Tara Parker-Pope explains in her book For Better:The Science of a Good Marriage, “And when we are happy in our relationship, we remember the early days with pretty much the same rosy-tinted optimism. But once we become dissatisfied with our partnership, at some point perceptions shift. It’s not that we make up problems that never existed. It just becomes far easier to recall the negatives than the good times. And we end up recasting history to reflect our current state of discontent.”
It’s also a great cinematic mechanism to tell different perspectives on the same story, one as old as Citizen Kane and Rashomon. As the old truism goes, it’s basically impossible to know what goes on in between two people if you’re not in that couple. And two recent pieces of pop culture, David Fincher’s adaptation of Gone Girl and Showtime series The Affair, prove that even if you’re in the couple, it’s still prohibitively difficult to get the story straight.
The Affair premiered on Showtime last night, a moody, beautiful piece of television centered around an infidelity. In the first episode, Brooklyn schoolteacher Noah Solloway narrates his first encounter with the lithe, beautiful Alison Lockhart. He packs up his loving wife and four kids for the summer to stay in his father-in-law’s sprawling mansion in Montauk for the summer, meets Alison, a waitress at a local seafood shack, when she serves up lobster rolls to their table. Later, he bumps into her on the beach and witnesses Alison having rough outdoor sex with her angry-seeming husband. No affair has yet occurred, though there are glimmers and flashes of what is to come embedded in the script. The tone: ominous. “You give up certain personal liberties to live in a secure state, on all levels: national, municipal, marital,” Noah explains, noting that sure, he’s restless, but not unhappy. But it turns out that Noah is telling this origin story to the police, so presumably something has ended very badly.
Rather than doling out hints at what that very bad thing is, The Affair then doubles back. It’s now Alison who’s recounting the story of how she and Noah met, and he comes off as more Goofus, less Gallant. Alison is deep in the process of grieving a lost child. The day she met Noah is her late child’s birthday. The first thing she notices about Noah is how he’s carrying his daughter. Her vision is blurred by sorrow, and Noah, in her telling, becomes more lecherous and vaguely menacing. She isn’t some saucy beachside minx, but a woman lost, drowning, just barely managing. “I told myself I’d make it to 35,” Alison muses. After that, she would have had enough of life.
It’s hard to tell, from only one installment, how the drama on The Affair will play out, though that first episode sunk its hooks in pretty deep. But the first episode’s dueling narratives reflect another cinematic effort built on the deep ambiguity of human relationships, the “ultimate date movie” Gone Girl. (The “ultimate date movie” tag is accurate insofar as if you take a date to see it, that will be your last rendezvous.) Gone Girl‘s dueling narratives aren’t as clearcut as The Affair‘s. We get the narration of Amy Dunne’s diary, one that (spoiler alerts follow, if you have somehow managed to avoid the movie’s plot so far) she fabricated a great deal of in order provide evidence against her husband. As the story unfolds, the audience learns to be distrustful of Amy’s version of events. She is, after all, faking her own murder. But the beauty of the movie is that it doesn’t totally discredit much of what Amy writes. No, her husband didn’t try to kill her. But yes, Nick Dunne has a temper, at least enough of one to smash a glass in front of an interrogating police officer. Another marriage counselor trusim: There is no “good one” in a marriage.
At the center of Gone Girl, as at the center of The Affair, is uncertainty. As the detectives piece together the chronology of a crime, so the characters puzzle out a narrative to their relationship. We hear versions of the truth, but there is no authoritative narrator, no confident history textbook account of events. Even within the confines of the most intimate human relationships, even in a surveillance state, even with all the documentation there to sift through, it is impossible to know what is going on inside someone else’s skull. You can never really know someone, not even your spouse. The brilliance of both Gone Girl and The Affair is that they both play with the impossibility of an objective truth. We all construct our own understanding of what happened, who we were when it happened. After all, when it comes to the way humans interact with each other, there is no one truth. There are only stories.
Follow Margaret Eby on Twitter @margareteby