Adultery as a cure for the midlife family blues

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In “The Freshly Cut Grass,” there is a scene that captures how people who have been married for a while and are busy raising children can taunt each other on dog whistles that mean nothing and everything. Pablo (Joaquín Furriel), a professor at an agronomy school (he actually instructs his students about dirt), says he thinks his teaching job is “worthless.” But his wife, Carla (Romina Peluffo), doesn’t have a job at all (and is due for a job interview), so she takes his comment as an insult. She snaps at him, apologizes and rests her head on his shoulder; we think their cut is over. But Pablo doesn’t move a muscle, which prompts her to say, “Does it bother you when I touch you?” No, he says, “how could it bother me?” Well, she explains, she wanted a hug. But there is a power duel, as evidenced by the job interview And the cuddle conversation. With a worldly flourish, the film says: This passive-aggressive jab is what too much marital war looks like now.

Celina Murga, the Argentinian director and co-writer of ‘The Freshly Cut Grass’, was born in 1973 and works with a deep-seated understanding of the boredom that can set in when couples have fallen into the routines of family life to the point that the routine of it erases everything else (such as love and affection). The film jumps back and forth between two couples. In addition to Pablo and Carla, there is Natalia, played by Marina de Tavira (the Mexican actress who found new fame with her performance in “Roma”), and Hernán (Alfonso Tort). Natalia also teaches at the university, and her marriage is at a similar semi-dead end. The film follows her as she has an affair with one of her graduate students, while Pablo does the same with one of his.

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Remember when adultery equaled drama? It wasn’t that long ago. The sex, the secrecy, and the moral duplicity of it all have been the driving force behind movies since the beginning of movies. And part of the glorious universality of adultery is that it cuts across class distinctions in the same way it cuts across the levels of cinema, from vulgar to elitist. It is the engine of the soap opera, but also the center of Rohmer and Bergman’s intelligent meditations.

Of course, the French have long been known for looking at adultery with a shrug, as if it were an inevitable aspect of bourgeois life, so why not just embrace it? But ‘The Freshly Cut Grass’, in its sincerely Argentinian way (the film is actually a co-production of Argentina, Uruguay, Germany, Mexico and the US, and presented by Martin Scorsese), touches on a level of contemporary nonchalance. about adultery that trumps even the what-goes-around-sleep-around lightness of French art cinema in the 70s. There is not the slightest shadow of moralistic judgment here. The filmmaker’s attitude seems to be: our lives in the current climate are so anxious, cranky and messy, so embroiled in the latest version of the gender wars, that if it takes a little disloyal action to stir things up, who can really argue?

I’m not saying that’s what ‘The Freshly Cut Grass’ is plead adultery. But what it shows us is a bunch of lost professors who act without knowing what they’re doing because the midlife family blues have pushed them to their limits. And the decision Taking action, disrupting the apple cart of their lives, proves necessary. So, the film says, why judge?

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The actors are all urgent, sad, angry, hungry, convincing. Still, I wish the two stories weren’t designed in such parallel, rhyming ways. In both cases, the family has two children and each of the professors is eligible for the same job promotion. They each meet a sexy, free-thinking partner who belongs to a generation that is much more nonchalant about doing the ‘wrong’ thing. So there is never any real suggestion of emotional convulsions.

Of course, they also sleep with their students, which is a much bigger problem than it used to be. Both are caught in exactly the same way (which, I must say, is a sign of excessive ingenuity): they are all photographed in public, in a subtly compromising position, and the photo then circulates on social media. Everyone then has an identical conversation with the department chair (“I’m not going to do anything because no formal claim has been made. But things are being said…You’re a professor, it’s no small thing”). And everyone returns to his or her home, perhaps a little more willing to see the beauty of what they have.

There is a dramatic downside to this worldly, almost neutral view of adultery. While a film like “The Lovers” – or “Unfaithful” – exudes a high-voltage charge of passion, “The Freshly Cut Grass” is ruthlessly cool and observant. Yet there is value in its observational humanity. It wants us to register the differences between what men and women face in our society (although the stories are so similar that the differences are ultimately minimized). But above all it wants to show us how families, in their outwardly conventional ways, have become the most combustible units on earth.

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