Directed by Paul Mazursky
Bob & Carol (Robert Culp, Natalie Wood) have just gone to a spiritually-inclined retreat. When they come back they’re different, and it irks Ted & Alice (Elliot Gould, Dyan Cannon). The divide between them will to some extent be erased by film’s end as the four of them climb into bed together to prepare for an orgy.
This is a comedy, but it seems quite serious, even as it is funny and melodramatic. These two couples are best friends, they do apparently everything together. They have plateaued within their own relationships and in the case of Ted & Alice, everything Bob & Carol do and say challenges what they believe about themselves. Ted & Alice can find some solace in that they agree that their friends are out of their minds, but that only provides momentary relief from the knowledge that they have their own relationship problems.
Bob & Carol are a symbol of the free love movement. After their weekend seminar they insist upon complete transparency with each other. Bob admits to an affair, and Carol is almost joyous. Bob is confused, then angry, then he finds peace. Later Carol tells him she had an affair, and after initial anger, Bob too becomes joyous.
You keep waiting for them to blow up, but they never do. The more serene they appear, even in the face of news that would destroy other marriages, the more they offend Ted & Alice. Eventually they give into the idea that Bob and Carol might be onto something, that their way of thinking and feeling may be more… pure?
It’s a strange film, an uncomfortable one even. Bob and Carol find such peace at the start of the film that no news can destabilize them for long. They have a more solid foundation that they were apparently able to gather in 24 hours, and it takes Ted and Alice the rest of the film to catch up.
The film is a comedy, and so you are meant to look suspiciously at these characters, to see them from the outside rather than to put yourself in your shoes, though maybe you do that too. They are defined by their relationship flaws, then by their sudden new perspective. Before we really have time to acquaint ourselves with Bob and Carol they have shifted their entire perspective on life, each other and themselves.
It’s a story about friends divided by something, just the way of looking at themselves and the person staring back at them. They are meant to identify their own desires and fears, and how peace can only be found within. Their partners aren’t so much people to lean on but people to enjoy in purely fanciful ways. They take the meat and veggies of a marriage food pyramid and replace it with the dessert.
Up Next: Faults (2014), Into the Wild (2007), The Pledge (2001)