Cindy Kleine’s first feature-length documentary details the story of her parents’ troubled marriage. Utilizing old photographs, long-forgotten early love letters between her folks, and fairly recent interviews with the two of them, Kleine weaves a sadly uneventful narrative of Mr. and Mrs. Kleine’s sham of a marriage. Phyllis and Harold, who were married in the early 1940s and stayed together until Harold’s death in the past decade, seem at first like an average Long Island couple, but hiding beneath the mundane surface of their life together is an ultimately banal secret of on-again-off-again marital infidelity. The way in which the director covers this central theme, which is the essential raison d’être for the film, is one-sided and draws the supposed impartiality of her work into question.
The single most intriguing facet of Phyllis and Harold is how Kleine’s mother remembers certain key events in her life differently in her various interviews. This could have sparked an exploration of the nature of memory and how our emotions color our reflections of the past. However, the director glosses over the significance of Phyllis’ divergent remembrances and regrets, leaving out the one thing that would have made Phyllis and Harold more interesting than discovering a pedestrian home movie shot by a family you never knew. We find out soon enough that, according to Phyllis, she never really loved Harold. Of course, this begs the question as to why she sent him so many heartfelt and sentimental letters during his military service before their nuptials and the start of his rather successful career as a dentist.
In beautiful and floridly written missives, Phyllis pours her heart out to Harold, telling him she cannot live without him and how deeply she misses him, etc. The problem is that during this period of intense letter-writing, Phyllis began a relationship with her boss in Manhattan, an affair that would continue for nearly five years after her marriage to Harold. In tear-filled interviews, Phyllis explains to her daughter Cindy how awful it was to have sex with Harold and how disgusted by him she became during her whirlwind romance with a man who continually refused to leave his wife for her. Phyllis, if her own words are any indication, has led a life of bad faith and shows a vicious contempt for the man who supported her throughout her adult life.
In the end, Kleine explains how proud of her mother she is for pursuing a difficult affair, hiding significant parts of her life from her husband, and refusing to be pigeonholed into the role of devoted mother, even though this led to serious problems of detachment and disillusionment in her two daughters. Kleine never gives us a sufficient reason to congratulate her mother for the betrayal of her husband and neglect of their children.
Through Kleine’s interviews with her father, which are sparing and somewhat forced throughout the film, we are given a glimpse into the life of a completely oblivious cuckold. Harold comes across as a boring yet stable individual, who despite his reticence and curmudgeonly ways still managed to take his wife on vacations all over the world for the duration of their 50+ year marriage. We are never given a compelling reason why Kleine sees her mother’s infidelity as an authentic way of taking power back from the patriarchy. He’s no monster, after all. The fact that Phyllis probably never should have gotten married or had children isn’t enough of a reason to justify making a feature-length documentary about her.