The late Paul Cox may not have believed it possible at the time of its conception, but much later he considered his dynamic anatomy of a failing marriage, My First Wife (1984) – drawing upon elements of his own life – as a perverse comedy of sorts. Hindsight, with its attendant remarkable healing properties, must have really worked its magic over the years for him to view this harrowing dissection of a loving couple’s disintegrating relationship in such a different light.
John (John Hargreaves) is a radio host and classical musician whose own compositions are being performed a local troupe, including his wife of ten years, Helen (Wendy Hughes). John’s also a perfectionist who seems to have a natural affinity with taking charge of large groups of people as well as his own destiny. However, after another night of fruitlessly trying to convince Helen to make love to him, she decides to confront him with a shock admission: she’s no longer in love with him and wants out of their marriage. It’s a devastating blow to John who finds it an inexplicable confession, a rash conclusion drawn from the pressures of their lives impinging upon their desire for one another.
Much of the blackly comedic material derives from the absurdity with which John views his disintegrating marriage; it seems like an incomprehensible sick joke when he’s first confronted by Helen’s decision, and with her still present in the house it begins to take on the qualities of a haunting. Piercing the heart of his distress is the belief that both of them should be putting the interests of their child before any consideration of their individual happiness.
His perspective is coloured by extreme arrogance however as he admits to occasional infidelities when speculation is raised about whether the reasons for Helen’s change of heart are due to a third party. To some extent it is, with Helen involved in a callously remote affair with one of their co-workers, but no amount of reasoning will placate John, and his breakdown becomes a physical as well as emotional one. Though both make compromises to foster the illusion that something can be retrieved from this mess for the sake of their child, the damage has been done and the marriage is doomed, grinding to a halt in the slew of delusions that have held it together with the faintest of false hopes for years.
Hargreaves gives one of his most dominating performances in a role that asks him to call on almighty reserves of anguish. Impressively, he works his way inside the skin of this idealist whose life is suddenly thrown out of alignment, calm waters muddied by a certainty now removed from its frame of reference. Hughes isn’t asked to produce such extremes of emotional response but neither is she unsympathetic; in asking for release from an increasingly untenable situation, Helen is simply evoking the needs of a disempowerment that has troubled her for years, the weight of commitment and a fading, but pervasive love, preventing her so often from the simpler solution of walking away.
As with his finest work, Cox’s direction adds layers of subtle complexity, with images of a rattling train used as a recurring motif to stress the isolation of these travelers and the temporary nature of their complex interactions. There’s an almost European sensibility at work here in the screenplay by Cox and collaborator Bob Ellis, honing in a man’s suffering for the pure pleasure of watching the volatile reactions it generates. This is further emphasised by the startling, often overpowering use of John’s operatic favourites which bleed into the film’s soundtrack; especially potent is the use of Orff’s soaring Carmina Burana which saturates many scenes, a perfect aural accompaniment to John’s wordless surrender to his darkest fears; for added effect, Cox uses close-ups of John’s face to marginalize his distress and give it context in his suddenly cloistered, isolated world, clinging to the pain of rejection.
It’s not impossible to understand why the director sees My First Wife as a strange type of comedy; presumably it was a grim catharsis for him, projecting such personally relevant material before the eyes of the world. His reflections on the fickle nature of relationships are ones easily identified with however and this remains a bleak and powerful film with a spellbinding central performance from the late, great Hargreaves at its core.