In 'Bridges,' women may see themselves in Francesca


The women of the book club to which I belong read "The Bridges of Madison County" and so it made sense that we see the movie together.

We knew we should not have liked that book. Critics threw it across the room and started yelling. To see the movie would xTC compound our simple-mindedness. But we looked at it as an academic exercise. Sort of a field trip. We would pack tissues instead of a boxed juice drink.

But Betsy's husband had a night meeting and she couldn't go. Nan had to attend the graduation ceremonies at the school where she is a teacher. Susan's son became suddenly ill and Nancy had to attend a meeting for her children's swim team.

"When a woman marries and has children, her life begins," Francesca tells Robert Kincaid, the photographer-wanderer who asks her to join him in nomadic love. "And in another way it stops."

Like Francesca, my friends and I live a life of details, and our plans are forever confounded by the details of that life.

So our group was reduced by the attrition of motherhood. But I made it. Pulling my irritable children off me to the accompaniment of a great sucking sound, I told them it was my job to go.

I stood in line behind pairs and triples of women and behind couples who said things like, "One for 'Bridges' and one for 'Die Hard.' " The little theater was packed with middle-aged women on a pilgrimage. There were not enough men for a pick-up basketball game.

And what I saw on the screen was not a totem to love among the ruins. Not a romantic idyll for women with veined, sagging bodies. I am not a bored housewife, and I don't just love a good cry, and I am not part of a new movie target audience labeled "old adult."

I am as busy as Francesca with the details of my life, and I don't have time for movies, books or conversation that do not resonate somewhere inside of me. And "The Bridges of Madison County" does. If you are a woman, there are moments in the movie that will snap your head back.

The silent, sullen dinner Francesca shares with her farmer husband and two teen-age children. Her family consumes the platters of food just as they have consumed her life, without acknowledgment. We have all felt that invisibility, that presumption.

The hard-eyed, assessing look she takes at her body in the bedroom mirror, tracing the lumps around her hips with her finger. It is a familiar inspection.

And the moment when she opens her robe and exposes her naked body to the night breezes, only to be bitten by mosquitoes. The wry joke that such a free-spirited act should require calamine lotion is not lost on us.

The squeamishness of her children when they discover the evidence of their mother's sensuality. We have, all of us, projected our sex lives onto our children's memories of us and cringed with them.

"I sort of thought she didn't need sex any more after she had me," says her son. We know that is how our children will think of us.

The tears of joy and grief after she and Kincaid make love and her request that he transport her from her shame with some tale from his travels. A woman does not have to be an adulteress to know what Francesca is feeling then.

Her anger at breakfast and the way it escapes from her in the way she serves his eggs and toast. Her desperate need to know what she means to him, what he is feeling for her, that she is singular. Her fury at what she imagines, at what he is not saying. Like Francesca, we have all wanted to pound words of love out of the chests of silent men.

The moment that she tells him she cannot leave with him, that she cannot inflict that on her children and her blameless husband, she doubles over in pain. You do not have to have faced that choice to know that Francesca is clutching her center to keep it from flying apart.

"The Bridges of Madison County" is not great literature, and it is not a great movie. But it resonates with women, and that is often enough for us. It often has to be.

It is that resonance -- the empathy women have for pain that is not theirs, for sadness that is not theirs, for love that is not theirs -- that makes women what they are, what Francesca is: the center that holds.

Would any of us have left with Robert Kincaid, with Clint Eastwood? It is an irrelevant question. A silly question to ask of women who could not leave for the movie theater.

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