Erica (Jill Clayburgh) seems to be the one woman she knows in a steady, loving marriage. After sixteen years, she and Martin (Michael Murphy) seem to just complete each other. They look safe, refreshing and stable compared to Erica’s friends, a band of middle-aged women, constantly on the prowl after being jaded by countless men. But when Martin drops the bomb that he has been having an affair for a year now, and wants to live with this younger woman, it devastates Erica and forces her into major life changes.
The scene where Martin first tells Erica about his affair is spectacularly painful. Erica was in good spirits just moments before, thinking about plans for summer vacations. When Martin’s guilt gets to him, he begins crying and tells Erica everything. The initial look on her face says a perfect you’ve got to be kidding me. She cannot believe that this is happening to her, it happens to all her friends, but what she and Martin had was different right? For a while, she is just dumbfounded and walks down the busy street in a haze, but then she is so overcome by the terrible news she becomes physically sick and hides behind something as she vomits on the sidewalk. The whole scene is amazingly moving and sympathetic in its simplicity. We are completely on poor Erica’s side, who’s finally fell victim to the male ego.
Erica and Martin’s fifteen year old daughter, Patti (Lisa Lucas), is in interesting breed of teenager. She tries to act worldly and sophisticated, almost like she’s constantly trying to impress whoever she’s around. Being an only child, she seems very in tune to what goes on between her parents and is rather blunt about their sex life. We see that Patti has grown up in a fairly liberal lifestyle, talking about philosophy, pot and how all the girls at school chipped in for another girl to get an abortion. Of course, once Martin leaves, Patti starts acting out like a typical drama fueled teen.
The major issue for Erica is getting the courage to start dating again. After sixteen years of marriage, she’s out of practice and it seems everything is different now. It seems she can never be too careful, every man seems to just be “making a pass” at her with just sexual intentions. Erica has had a consistent and healthy sex life that has suddenly just stopped, so at first, she starts to date just for sex. But after a one night stand with Charlie (Cliff Gorman), a coworker who’s always looking for a hookup, she finds sex without love unsatisfying. Thankfully for Erica, the film seems to work with the idea of kissing enough frogs to eventually find a prince.
Saul (Alan Bates) is an artist setting up for a show in the gallery Erica works in. The relationship between them goes from work, to just another lay, to a happy and fulfilling love. As things start to get more serious, Erica realizes she has the choice of being tied down with another man or to be independent and do all the things she’s wanted to do on her own.
The core of the film is about a woman discovering her independence. She can move on, live without men and is not as fragile as she once thought. If you’re looking for a sophisticated film to make you feel better after a harsh break-up, may I suggest An Unmarried Woman to go with that wine and/or ice cream?
“Balls,” said the queen. “If I had them I’d be king.”