And then with an abrupt snap, director Ira Sachs cuts to Pat talking about sex: how romance is a myth, and relationships are solely about what happens in the sack. With that blunt, modern moment, Sachs pops the soap bubble. Like so many aspects of "Married Life," it seems carefully calibrated to shock viewers out of a familiar frame of reference, while leaving nothing behind to take its place.
The characters are similarly opaque; the performances are terrifically immersive, yet hushed and unrevealing. When Brosnan's character, Richard, begins pursuing Kay himself, his mild outward affect betrays none of the desire implicit in his narration. And the characters who don't describe their inner lives are impossible to crack. Is Harry acting from misguided compassion, or taking revenge for what he sees as wasted, loveless years with Pat? Pat's own actions are broadly contradictory, making her professed moral philosophy as suspect as Jimmy Stewart's in "Rope." And as Kay, McAdams keeps her thoughts entirely to herself. Is she a manipulative gold-digger or a needy innocent?
Perhaps none of this matters to the story Sachs and co-writer Oren Moverman (working from John Bingham's 1953 novel "Five Roundabouts to Heaven") are trying to tell. "Married Life" is so masterfully controlled that it's hard to imagine any ambiguity being an accident. The gorgeous vintage production design, the little Hitchcock in-jokes, the smoothly crafted performances, and the brutally stifling tension all seem calculated to a fault, and the film looks as flawless and sleek as McAdams, in her Kim Novak-in-"Vertigo" mode.
But there's no humanity inside the film's oppressive, airless shell. That may itself be an intentional commentary on married life, but Sachs doesn't permit any passion to enter illicit affairs of the heart either. "Married Life" is beautiful in every respect, and its murder plot carries a low-key excitement. But its pleasures are all coldly intellectual. Even for the notoriously manipulative Hitchcock, that was only ever half of the human equation.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for suggested sexuality and adult themes).
Running time: 1:30.
Opening: Friday at Loews Pipers Alley 4, Chicago; Landmark's Renaissance in Highland Park; and Cinemark CineArts6 in Evanston.
Starring: Chris Cooper (Harry); Pierce Brosnan. (Richard); Patricia Clarkson (Pat); Rachel McAdams (Kay).
Directed by: Ira Sachs; written by Sachs and Oren Moverman from a novel by John Bingham; edited by Affonso Goncalves; photographed by Peter Deming; music by Dickon Hinchliffe; production design by Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski; produced by Sidney Kimmel, Steve Golin and Jawal Nga. A Sony Pictures Classics release..