Clint Eastwood's 1995 romantic drama energizes the domestic space with the liberating possibility of life's freedoms.
ot long after Iowa housewife Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep) meets National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid (Clint Eastwood) for the first time, he helps her peel carrots. Standing side by side at the kitchen sink, the basin full of leafy green tops pulled straight from the earth of her garden, these near-strangers engage in an act of domestic drudgery rendered sublime by the immediacy and depth of their feelings towards each other. For a moment, we see only their hands at work, the light catching Francesca’s collarbone, and Robert’s muscular arm resting against his grey t-shirt. Like much of The Bridges of Madison County (1995), it is a scene of quiet bliss.
The Johnson family’s farmhouse kitchen holds singular importance within the film. It’s Francesca’s realm—a place where she exhibits complete control. While her devotion to her husband, Richard, and children, Carolyn and Michael, hasn’t exactly destroyed her, it has left her in a muted, subdued state, lingering for something more. She watches her family as they zealously eat the meal she has prepared, oblivious to her servitude or that her own plate remains empty. A four-day trip to the state fair for Richard and the kids grants Francesca some peace, but her resigned, solitary life leaves her with little to do besides reading or talking to the dog. The appearance of Robert’s truck the next humid, dusty morning is almost like a mirage in the desert—a willed-for interruption, something to break up the monotony of her days. Later, when Robert offers to help her cook, the familiarity of her domestic space transforms from something stifling into something poetic, liberating.
Structured as an act of memory, Bridges begins with Francesca’s now-adult children (Annie Corley and Victor Slezak) sorting through her papers and belongings after her death, raging against her bizarre-to-them desire to be cremated. The narrative unfolds as they read through their mother’s notebooks and discover the long-kept secret of what happened to their mother during their trip away. Her yearning “to be known” propels and challenges her palpable desire for Robert, whom she helps find the eponymous county bridges he has been sent to photograph. His aloof, vagabond lifestyle is at odds with her own grounded, routine habits. At heart, both seem to be at once in search of and afraid of a similar kind of knowability. For Robert, to be known would mean to be tied down and held back from life’s freedoms; for Francesca, it would mean confronting the possibility that she might have chosen to live her life differently if given another chance.
Still, the careful navigation of these hopes and fears, and the tenderness that grows between them during their few days together, rejuvenates them both. They share an intense erotic bond, strikingly captured by cinematographer Jack N. Green, who infuses his framing of bodies—particularly their skin warmly lit by candlelight—with indelible romance. Eastwood, also the film’s director, layers his film with delicate recurring motifs, like the circling repetition of the slow dance that consumes Francesca and Robert, or the devastation of as simple a gesture as tuning the radio. Despite relying in part on the binaries between them (the housewife vs. the cowboy), the film avoids rigid paths and conclusions. Francesca doesn’t truly regret her life, holding her achievements in the same hand as the missed opportunities. Robert’s dedication to his work has also required sacrifices—Francesca now his biggest—and Eastwood’s complication of each of their worldviews is one of the film’s biggest strengths.
So too is the attention given to experiences of love outside of the traditional nuclear family structure. “I have a little bit of a problem with this American family ethic that seems to have hypnotized the whole country,” Robert tells Francesca, who replies firmly that she’s not “hypnotized.” Her defensiveness is a mark of her belief, until that point, in a set way of doing things; her children share this as well, as they struggle to come to terms with their mother’s affair. But as Francesca awakens to new possibilities by Robert, so do Carolyn and Michael, who begin to see Francesca as her own person and not an infallible maternal symbol. This liberates Francesca in death and in memory as much as her relationship with Robert does.
Has Meryl Streep ever looked more radiant on film, or Clint Eastwood been so delicate? In their performances, they bring a gravitas to a story that, in other hands, may have been plagued by cloying sentimentality. Here, it is earthly and sacred, achingly realist. While the tragedy of their love lies in its ultimate impossibility, it also reflects the beauty of passing happiness and the privilege of experiencing it. Their influence on each other’s lives is remarkable because it’s fleeting. “The old dreams were good dreams,” Robert says, early on. “They didn’t work out, but I’m glad I had them.”
Bridges of Madison County is available to rent or purchase from Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play, Apple TV, Redbox, and Vudu.
Caitlin Quinlan is a film critic and writer from London.