The Triumph of Sentimentality: An Argentinian Film, Tom Wolfe, and Marriage

Appalling, sloppy sentimentality pervades Hollywood, best-selling books, soap operas, women’s magazines, and popular culture generally.

A while ago, I watched the Argentinian film The Secret in Their Eyes, which won the 2009 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. It is a fairly entertaining film overall. (Some spoilers here.) A detective, Benjamin, decides to write a novel about a rape-murder he investigated twenty years ago, and the action moves back and forth between the present and the earlier investigation. The rapist-murderer is found and convicted but is soon freed; but he does not escape justice ultimately.

The part that drew my interest most, however, was the romantic subplot. The supervising judge in the initial case (judges in civil law countries are part prosecutors, not independent magistrates) is a beautiful woman, Irene, with whom the detective falls in love at first sight. She is engaged to be married, but there is clearly some connection being made between them.

But Benjamin can’t quite confess his love, and circumstances intervene that compel him to retreat to the provinces, where he has an unsuccessful 10-year marriage, while Irene goes ahead with her marriage. But Benjamin returns to her with the novel he has written about this investigation, and the thwarted romance slowly rekindles and eventually triumphs.

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There is no question that the movie portrays this outcome as a triumph. She has had two children, whom, she says, she “adores” (and that one statement is the sole reference to the children, whom we never see in the movie), but she clearly is not so enthralled with her husband (whom we also never see in the movie). There are no complaints about him. He hasn’t abused his wife and children, or ignored them, or treated them badly, or failed them in any other way, as far as we can tell. It just appears that he is boring. He is not the romantic love that Benjamin might have been—and turns out to be.  

This film is one among many examples of appalling, sloppy sentimentality, the kind that pervades Hollywood, best-selling books, soap operas, women’s magazines, and popular culture generally. Think of the preening egotist Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, who abandons her husband, after she has an affair, and goes in search of pleasure, devotion, and a balance between worldly enjoyment and divine transcendence. We are informed by Amazon that “Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love touched the world and changed countless lives, inspiring and empowering millions of readers to search for their own best selves.” 

It is hard to resist saying that this approach—in The Secret in Their Eyes, and Eat, Pray, Love, and countless other books and movies—is a slick, artistic embrace of, and exaltation of, something quite evil.

In the movie, keeping the children off-screen prevents us from thinking about them too much. They are probably in their late teens now. So perhaps we are supposed to think that they are grown-up, so mom doesn’t need to worry about sticking around with dad anymore. Many people seem to think that if you can just get through a boring marriage till the point where the children are adults, you have fulfilled your responsibility to them and can now reasonably seek your own fulfillment. But Judith Wallerstein—the sociologist who worked with the Children of Divorce project and followed these children over many years, into adulthood—powerfully showed that divorce doesn’t just do psychological damage to five- or ten- or fifteen-year-olds but also to adult children as well.  

And keeping the husband off-screen is similarly useful. I have to concede here that at least the film doesn’t use the easy way out of portraying the husband as some awful idiot or monster—it’s at least more honest in making it clear that he is…just not her soulmate—and so he is dispensable.  

What the movie won’t note, in any way, is that these people promised another person that they would love that person for the rest of their lives and that they are betraying those promises.  

What is fidelity, or loyalty—especially marital fidelity? Is it staying with a person whom, after five or ten or twenty or forty years you still feel like staying with? Or is it living out the commitment to stay with that person, to love him or her, to overcome the difficulties of living together, to work at the love you have promised him or her (and the children that result from that love)? 

But contemporary attitudes on marriage, and sexual relationships in general, don’t put emphasis on virtues like fidelity. They give priority to feelings. If, after a while of being in some relationship (marriage or otherwise), you don’t feel in love anymore, then that is your justification for a one-way ticket out of the relationship—and who cares what the other person thinks, how much he or she has staked on that relationship? How many women have committed themselves to marriage and then found themselves dumped for a trophy wife who is less dowdy and more interesting? Contemporary attitudes on marriage, and sexual relationships in general, don’t put emphasis on virtues like fidelity. Tweet This

Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full has a wonderful portrayal of such a situation. Charlie deserts his wife and marries a beautiful young woman roughly the age of his daughter. But he isn’t entirely blind to what he has done. One eventful evening, he finds himself sitting in bed at the end of the night, after an angry argument with his young wife, and he thinks to himself:

Who was this woman? How the hell did she get there? The questions startled him. Then he realized they had been forming in his mind for the past thirty months at least, and he had only been married to her for thirty-six. But never before had they just popped into his head in so many words. Who was she? What was she doing here? And the terrible thing was, once he finally asked the questions, he knew the answers. Sex and vanity; it was as simple as that; and maybe vanity even more than sex. Martha had gotten older, that was all . . . And as he lay there stretched out on the bed, a vision of Martha’s shoulders and neck, just her shoulders and neck, floated into his head… One night at a big Tech reunion at the Hyatt Regency, she was wearing some kind of bare-shouldered dress, and he happened to come up behind her from a certain angle, and J____ C____, she had shoulders like a middle linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys, his wife did. He couldn’t get that image out of his mind. Like a middle linebacker… 

So, Charlie has a fling with a beautiful young thing, thinking he’s once again a young man; he lies to Martha and then divorces her. Nobody ever warned him, he thinks. All those experts in books and articles and talk shows talked about the first marriage, the original marriage.

But by now, he figured, there must be thousands of men like him, rich businessmen who over the past ten or fifteen years had divorced their old wives of two to three decades’ standing and taken on new wives, girls a whole generation younger. And what did all the experts have to say about these irresistible little morsels? Nothing! What if a man goes through all that, the separation, the divorce, all that agony, that struggle, that hellish expense, that…that…. that guilt…and one day, or one night, he wakes up and wonders, Who the hell is this in the bed next to me? Why is she here? Where did she come from? What does she want? Why won’t she leave? That they don’t tell you about.

Charlie at least has the honesty to see his lust and vanity. Other people may be less dissatisfied with their second choice—no guilt for them!—and they may feel more fulfilled by their successful abandonment of their original commitments. Irene and Benjamin end by being with each other. What will happen to them? We don’t know. It could work out, or not. Fidelity sometimes doesn’t pay; sometimes infidelity pays pretty well. But her spouse and children, deserted by his wife and their mother…? 

Elizabeth Gilbert eventually remarried and then divorced to have a lesbian affair. Then she had a commitment ceremony with her lesbian lover, who died of cancer not long after (oh, how sad and romantic!). Then she had a heterosexual relationship with a friend of her lesbian lover, which was, however, as she said, “short-lived.” Oh, how romantic indeed!

The elevation of feelings above all. The loss of any sense of true fidelity to serious commitments. These are the stuff of contemporary “romance.” How could anything go wrong with marriage as an institution in a society like that?!

So, what can we do? We can teach our children about love.

Love is a wonderful gift. Romantic love is. Those of us who were blessed to have it cherish it and always will. Marriage is a great blessing, but it’s not always easy. Human beings are imperfect. Even in a very happy marriage, the spouses will not uncommonly drive each other nuts. It is very useful indeed for a marriage to have the support of a deep and romantic love.

But the more important thing to teach our children is that love is not reducible to “romantic” love. Romance supports marital love, but love is a commitment to a person—above all because that person is a good person (despite all of his or her faults) and we have chosen to share our lives with that person. Not “hold-your-nose-and-swallow” sharing but “focusing-on-the-virtues-and-forgiving-the-faults” sharing. Many people over the centuries have made such heroic efforts and have had good marriages and have provided good homes for their children.

So, whenever one of our children (or their friends) makes a comment about a typically brain-dead sentimental Hollywood “romantic” film (“That was so romantic!” some otherwise well-raised young Catholic girls once said about Pretty Woman), we kindly and mildly, with a sense of humor, disabuse them of that idea of romance. We help them to see the genuine romance of day-in, day-out efforts to love a spouse, with all his or her virtues and faults, with kindness and forgiveness and a sense of humor. 


  • Christopher Wolfe

    From 1989 to 2021, Dr. Wolfe was President of the American Public Philosophy Institute, an interdisciplinary group of scholars from various universities, supported by local business and professional leaders, that promotes a natural law public philosophy rooted in the principles of the American Founding. The APPI is now the Dallas Forum for Law, Politics, and Culture, and Dr. Wolfe is President Emeritus. He also is one of Crisis Magazine’s original writers.

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