A Married Couple | The Canadian Encyclopedia


A Married Couple

A Married Couple (1969) is director Allan King’s groundbreaking direct cinema documentary about a relationship in turmoil. The film records 10 weeks in the personal and domestic struggles of Toronto couple Billy and Antoinette Edwards, and their young son, Bogart. A Married Couple became a benchmark in direct cinema filmmaking for its unprecedented ability to capture moments of conflict and intimacy. Originally made for television, it was released theatrically and gained international recognition. In 2016, it was named one of 150 essential works in Canadian cinema history in a poll conducted by the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

Background on the Film

Billy and Antoinette Edwards were friends of Allan King’s. He was living with them while doing post-production on his film, Warrendale (1967), for which Billy helped design the poster. King realized their marriage was in trouble and, wanting to make a film about a marriage in conflict, asked them to participate. Antoinette was immediately receptive, but Billy needed a couple of weeks to be convinced. However, once on board, there was no resistance on the part of either participant to become fully immersed in the project. As film critic John Semley has noted, both the filmmaker and subjects were interested in “…exploring the institution of marriage and the social implications of regulating intimacy.”

King lived with the Edwards before and after making the film. The director screened the rushes for them on a daily basis, and gave the couple the option to veto any scene from the final cut. For the duration of the 10 week shoot, Billy, Antoinette and Bogart also shared their home with photographer Richard Leiterman and sound technician Chris Wangler. This two-person crew arrived early each morning and left late each night, silently and unobtrusively integrating themselves into the fabric of the family’s daily routine. King, as was his technique, directed the film more as an editor and was not present during filming for fear that he would be too distracting to his subjects and crew.

Over 70 hours of material was shot, which King and editor Arla Saare streamlined into 97 minutes. The film was originally commissioned by CTV, but the network deemed it unfit for broadcast due to excessive nudity and obscenity. Prior to the film’s theatrical release, the Ontario Censor Board demanded numerous changes. King threatened to sue and a compromise was reached whereby only four edits were made.

Public Reaction and Ethics

A Married Couple became a cult hit with national and international audiences. Billy and Antoinette became media celebrities, appearing on talk shows, news programs and billboards. The film drew controversy for its voyeuristic nature and for the exhibitionism of its subjects. There was also great deal of scrutiny regarding the extent to which the Edwards were performing for the camera. King referred to the film as “actuality drama,” and contextualized any “performance” elements by explaining that playing to the camera is an essential part of sharing one’s experience with the camera.

Others questioned the ethical nature of intruding on someone’s private life, suggesting that the presence of the camera harmed the couple’s relationship. Some consider A Married Couple to be a predecessor to the contemporary reality television genre. Simon Fraser University media studies professor Zoë Druick has called King “the grandfather of Reality TV.”

Critical response

Critical response to the film was mostly favourable, though several critics expressed a cautious reluctance to embrace the movie’s potentially exploitative nature. Vincent Canby of the New York Times wrote, “King is one of the most talented of the filmmakers now exploring the possibilities of documentary cinema, but it seems to me that in ‘A Married Couple’ he has pushed filmed sociology into the murky outer reaches of psychodrama.” John Semley commented that A Married Couple “will rinse the taste of romance and true love and all that other warm-fuzzy nonsense right out of your mouth.” Time Magazine stated that the film, “in its utter nakedness, makes John Cassavetes’s Faces look like early Doris Day.”

After the Film

After seeing the entirety of the raw footage, Billy and Antoinette reconciled long enough to have a second child. However, the romance was short-lived. They divorced in 1972 and Antoinette eventually remarried. Billy was struck by a car in 1995 and died shortly after at the age of 68, with Antoinette at his side.

Legacy and Significance

In 2010, the Criterion Collection released A Married Couple in the five-film DVD set, The Actuality Dramas of Allan King. In October 2016, A Married Couple was named one of 150 essential works in Canadian cinema history by a poll of 200 media professionals conducted by TIFF, Library and Archives Canada, the Cinémathèque québécoise and The Cinematheque in Vancouver in anticipation of the Canada 150 celebrations in 2017.

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