Why would someone pretend to love someone else? Lots of reasons--convenience, to please family, or tradition. Maybe the most common reason is money, or maybe it's better to say that the freedom and power that come with financial security are attractive enough to override any misgivings about being stuck with someone one doesn't feel exactly crazy about forever. It's with something like this in mind that a young woman named Abby pretends to love a dying rich man in Terrence Malick's 1978 film Days of Heaven. A film with gorgeous cinematography, it has a plot that's more odd than complex, an intriguing riff on a biblical story that doesn't quite hold together but works well enough for the fantastic imagery.
Bill (Richard Gere) and Abby (Brooke Adams) are a married couple in early twentieth century Chicago who become farm hands after Bill accidentally kills his boss at a mill. For some reason, Bill decides they ought to make their coworkers believe he and Abby are siblings rather than a married couple. His reasons aren't clear but I was reminded of a recurring story in the Torah (and Bible) about men deciding to pretend their wives are their sisters. Abraham does it because he's afraid men will kill him to be with his beautiful wife, Sarah, but this plan backfires a little when the Pharoah decides to court Sarah. However, Abraham and Sarah become rich because of it before God sends a plague to punish Pharaoh.
Similarly, the terminally ill young man, credited as "The Farmer" (Sam Shepard), who owns the farm and fields where Bill and Abby happen to be working, falls for Abby and on Bill's encouragement she marries him. Bill and Abby, along with Abby's little sister, Linda (Linda Manz), move into the big house and upgrade their wardrobe.
The Farmer (even kind of sounds like Pharaoh) starts to intuit the truth somehow but he doesn't become positive until there's a plague of locusts.
Really adorable locusts. I think we're supposed to be freaked out but I couldn't hate these little guys.
It all doesn't make quite as much sense as the biblical story. Bill's actually in more danger of being killed by pretending Abby's his sister, risking the Farmer's jealous rage, and the plague shows up long after Abby and the Farmer have been married.
I don't want to be too judgemental, life is hard and I can understand why people might want to go into marriages of convenience. Throughout history, marriage has really not been about love. But I don't feel a lot of sympathy for the Farmer who married Abby when he barely knew her and then becomes enraged when he finds out she might not love him. I'd say that's what you get for being shallow, man. I'd personally rather have a harder, lonelier life than accept a woman who's only pretending to love me. I watched Vertigo again for the ten millionth time yesterday and the scene where Scottie and Madeleine are at the beach and the waves crash and the music crescendos and Scottie says he's with her, "All the time," made me think, goodness, how embarrassing. No wonder he's so angry at the end. Of course, he's not exactly perfect himself but this is no time to be leaping into another Vertigo analysis--you can read some of my many, many thoughts about Vertigo here.
Days of Heaven is narrated by Abby's little sister, Linda, who otherwise is not directly involved in much of the story. Having her narrate was a good choice, actress Linda Manz's androgynous voice with a thick Chicago accent and slightly odd but pretty features give her a weird credibility. The movie also features a lovely score by Ennio Morricone.
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