The Bridges of Madison County

The Bridges of Madison County
March 10th 2024

Based on the 1992 Robert James Waller novel of the same name, The Bridges of Madison County (1995) adapts the story of Francesca (Meryl Streep), an Italian housewife confined to the outskirts of Iowa, and her brief, fated affair with the photographer Robert (Clint Eastwood), who is there to take pictures of Madison County’s historic bridges. The audience is first introduced to Francesca’s family in the present day as her children (now adults) come to visit the farm for a reading of her will, which leads the children to a letter written by their late mother disclosing the events of the affair. This framing device allows the audience into Francesca’s world in her own words, which are frank: “As one gets older one's fears subside. What becomes more and more important is to be known. Known for all that you were during this brief stay.” Streep narrates, in a confident Italian accent, the story of how just as her family departs for the state fair, Robert comes into her life—a chance encounter that culminates in more than a touch, but a question for Francesca: Am I happy in this life?

Streep was by this point established as a powerhouse performer, having been nominated for nine Oscars and winning two. Her refined, decidedly try-hard performance style seemed a most unnatural pairing for Eastwood, a man of few words in front of and behind the scenes. His laxness contrasts with Streep’s poised history, and they bring out entirely different sides from each others’ performances. Francesca must learn to let her guard down and Streep’s internalization of this breaks her performance down. Each passing minute of the film reveals further and further interior layers of the quintessential sixties housewife, until she is finally reduced to, simply, a woman. Eastwood plays a more heady version of himself, a man adrift from the world and eager to be reeled back in. His direction resembles Robert’s status in this world, as if peeking into something he knows he has no place in, but is eager to soak up. Eastwood carves out an intimate nook for the lovers in the days Francecsa’s family is away, something that feels outside of space and time.

This is not, however, the escapist fantasy of a housewife taken away from her drudgery by a handsome stranger. From the very beginning of the film, the audience is aware that both parties have died apart from each other. It’s something more akin to a ghost story, where children must slowly confront the version of their mother they never knew, alongside their own beliefs about what a mother and wife must look like. In as many ways as it is a romance, it’s also an interrogation of the social structures that the silent generation was held to, and still are held to in the collective imagination.

The Bridges of Madison County screens this afternoon, March 10, at Roxy Cinema on a 35mm.