You are my everything.
How well do you know your significant other? Enough to realize when the person lying next to you isn’t actually them? While we’d like to believe we would notice the tiniest of differences, that’s not always the case—especially not in a country so intrinsically interwoven with a Christian ideal of traditionalism wherein many couples don’t even start living together until after the marriage is finalized. There’s no way of knowing whether you’re truly compatible beyond physical attraction in that case because you’ve yet to live every second of your day by his/her side in close quarters. Suddenly that person you thought you knew so well disappears without a trace. Lock that door behind you and the façades you both adopted while dating quickly crumble to the floor.
That’s a big part of the so-called “honeymoon phase” of any such union. The spark is red-hot at the beginning because seeing each other is a “special event.” It’ll generally remain once you start to make a home with each other too, but there’s bound to be hiccups that slowly seep in whether it’s idiosyncrasies that amplify through prolonged exposure or the unavoidable malaise we all feel wherein we simply cannot be “on” 24/7. The downtime you had to yourself for a recharge before the next date is now shared time. The excitement that overwhelmed you while anticipating your next moment together diminishes until you find yourself uninterested in doing anything besides watching television and going to bed. Communication becomes paramount as your fantasies are replaced by reality.
The conceit behind Phillip G. Carroll Jr.‘s feature-length directorial debut The Honeymoon Phase therefore makes perfect sense. If you could collect data to quantify and dissect what goes into that titular period of a relationship and thus discover how to keep it going for perpetuity, the divorce rate in America would plummet. Whether or not the marriages born from such evidence would be truly happy or merely deluded into thinking it is a separate and more complex psychological question to be studied later on, so right now the Monarch Project’s Director (François Chau) is solely concerned with the numbers themselves. And the only way to compile those numbers is by recruiting couples to enter a month-long isolation period in order to document their seemingly inextinguishable love’s inevitable plateau.
Enter Tom (Jim Schubin) and Eve (Chloe Carroll): two struggling artists (author and graphic designer respectively) who’ve barely scratched the surface of the question of marriage. They are in love, though, and do envision a future together. And because the fifty thousand dollar participation fee Monarch offers would help them get on that path, they jump at the chance despite the main qualification for entry being married couples only. While you can quibble with the fact that a reputable experiment would require evidence to guarantee that stipulation, the fact Monarch doesn’t might tell you more about their duplicitous motivations than reveal a plot hole within the script. Just as Tom and Eve are using them for money, perhaps the Director is using them for more than simple research.
It’s this uncertainty surrounding everyone’s motives that makes what follows unpredictable. The experiment might be a simulation. We see Eve being put under before waking up in her new home with Tom despite there being no proof they aren’t still both asleep. So for all we know the Director is manipulating everything in order to push Tom and Eve towards their emotional extremes. Or maybe the sweet, sensitive guy Tom projected during their courtship was a lie—his actions quickly devolving towards unrepentant abuse to the point where it seems he’s gas-lit Eve for months to force her into this elaborate prison for his own selfish needs. Or it could be something completely different as the obvious “Black Mirror” comparisons make it so nothing is off the table.
The budgetary constraints assist this notion by hinging so much on Schubin and Caroll’s performances. Add an unapproved LSD trip with the inherent paranoia of hermetically sealed locations devoid of outside contact and our wondering about what’s real and imaginary becomes assured. Is the holographic supervisor (Tara Westwood) asking them daily questions to test their brainwaves actually warning Eve to not trust Tom? Or is Eve cracking under undue pressure? A steady devolution into gendered stereotypes of “hysterics” and hormonal changes ensure the latter option isn’t viable too long, but that only makes us wonder more about Tom’s (and the Director’s) intentions. The way he manipulates her will be triggering to some as “family” takes precedent over her own wellbeing. The danger Eve feels is undeniable.
If I were to fault The Honeymoon Phase on anything, however, it’s that this danger might be seen as a means towards servicing the plot. Whereas a film like The Invisible Man dealt with similar themes as a direct commentary on abuse, Tom’s abuse here almost feels like a red herring once a competing mystery is introduced. While it doesn’t lessen Caroll’s authentic portrayal of a trapped woman without escape, the impact of her nightmare can be minimized if you believe it was pushed aside for this different horror-fueled revelation that somewhat refocuses the entire premise. That maneuver might effectively create a couple extra twists and turns, but it also risks rendering Eve’s suffering secondary to them and the whole a bit exploitative as a result.
Talking about this shift beyond the vague notion of its existence is a disservice to the film’s secrets, so just know it’s a provocative addition to what was already pretty provocative without it. I think that’s why I feel the way I do about the handling of Eve’s distress since it’s definitely enough to sustain the film without a last second divergence towards another wrinkle. This is especially true considering the ending ultimately moves us back on-course—depending on how you interpret the final scene. Because if you believe Eve’s climactic choice was correct, we’re back to the notion that we’re all very different behind closed doors. If she was incorrect, however, her fate exposes that we’re not that different. I’ll choose the former every time.