The Loveless Marriage Of 'Phyllis And Harold'

Phyllis Kleine i i

hide captionPhyllis and Harold captures the life, love and struggles of director Cindy Kleine's parents. Above, Phyllis in her younger days.

Cindy Kleine
Phyllis Kleine

Phyllis and Harold captures the life, love and struggles of director Cindy Kleine's parents. Above, Phyllis in her younger days.

Cindy Kleine

Phyllis and Harold

  • Director: Cindy Kleine
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Running Time: 85 minutes

Not rated

Parents are going to have their lives dissected on-screen for as long as they insist on giving birth to filmmakers. So it's no surprise that Phyllis and Harold, the engrossing documentary Cindy Kleine has dredged up from the "black hole" of her youth, centers on her eponymous parents' miserable 59-year marriage.

The details of that union are decently startling as Kleine, after wondering aloud "who these people are and why they're together," shows us the who and why in faintly unnerving bits and snatches.

Personalities are forefronted. Mom's a tad dyspeptic, but essentially nonconfrontational when her hubby's in the room (she's franker when he's elsewhere), while clueless Dad seems to lack the introspection gene entirely.

Kleine queries them about their life together, illustrating their recollections of family (unhappy), suburbia (matter-of-fact) and international travel (buoyant) with the photos and home movies Harold evidently shot incessantly. When a box of old correspondence surfaces from the depths of a closet, she records her parents' astonishment as they read aloud from decades-old love letters they'd long since forgotten writing each other.

Phyllis and Harold Kleine i i

hide captionThe Not So Dynamic Duo: Phyllis and Harold draws on 12 years of interviews between director Cindy Kleine and her parents.

Cindy Kleine
Phyllis and Harold Kleine

The Not So Dynamic Duo: Phyllis and Harold draws on 12 years of interviews between director Cindy Kleine and her parents.

Cindy Kleine

They often seem to be talking about entirely different marriages in the film's early passages, and as their stories pile up, you realize that that's essentially what they've lived. In fact, almost from the start, their relationship was the sort of slow-motion train wreck that's at once hard to watch and harder to tear your eyes from. Looking away becomes even less likely once Kleine starts interviewing her parents separately, and you realize just how big a gulf has separated them for close to six decades.

Harold mostly remains oblivious to what his controlling, stubborn nature did to the household, while Phyllis talks a blue streak about her frustration at having "settled" for a loveless, claustrophobic, stifling marriage, without ever seeming to have considered working with her husband to make the relationship work.

The film explores one big reason it didn't: Phyllis admits to a five-year workplace affair at about the time they got married (of which Harold remained blithely unaware; he describes that period of his life as his "golden years") — and her daughter then films a late-in-life coda involving the other man. As if all that weren't enough sturm und drang for one documentary, the director piles on with stories of being traumatized when her mother blurted the details to her when she was still a teenager wrestling with her own romances.

The one-upsmanship gets a little wearing. On occasion, it makes this domestic documentary seem more like group therapy than entertainment. Still, it's generally compelling and always watchable.

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