Dustin Hoffman plays Benjamin Braddock, a young college graduate who has just arrived home for the summer after completing his degree back East with accolades. He arrives in Pasadena to a dull series of parties and repeated conversations with his parents’ friends, all the while paralyzed about what to do with his life. He repeats his need to “just think – you know? Think!” to several other characters, but no one seems to hear him. The film begins its insistence on flattening gestures very early, denying the viewer any way in to the depth perception we normally seek (reminds me of The Master, 2012). Many such shots involve water and its silencing, suspending effects. In one shot, Ben is seated in front of a fishtank, as though his head were inside it. In another, he tries out the scuba gear his parents have given him as a gift, and the shot of him jumping into the water (all we can hear is his labored breathing through tubes) is devoid of the plunging sensation we expect (the getup would also be interesting in conversation with Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck” – here the absurdity of entering a swimming pool that way). Ebert’s 1967 review claims “the film itself reacts” to the humorous moments, rather than the actors, and one of the wonderful things about this “flat” shooting style is how aware it makes us of the camera, of the very suture the film is performing (instead of an “over the shoulder” shot with Mrs. Robinson, a “through the leg” shot), which parallels the deadening visual landscape of American suburban life (think American Beauty, 1999).
Ben is soon “seduced” by Mrs. Robinson, the wife of his father’s business partner, and they begin an affair that slows the pace of his life even further – to a tepid crawl. The montage of this affair is almost 2 songs in length, and begins with a long sequence of overhead shots of Hoffman floating in the pool or laying out on the diving board, shot from above to achieve the same effect of flatness. in both cases. He moves in and out of the Taft Hotel Room, even jumping out of the pool and straight into bed with Mrs. Robinson in one expertly done cut. Nichols also atomizes suburban space, focusing on the isolating, separate interiors of different rooms in hotels and houses by using different music for each. The repetitive, entrancing songs of Simon & Garfunkel are extradiegetic, whereas the sort of elevator music in each room that mildly titillates with an old-fashioned faux-sensuality are diegetic. These rhythms are echoed in the hotel room number, 568 – almost like a 5, 6, 7, 8 of a subdued 60s jazz group with all the radicalness sucked out of it (the affair is again tied to water through the initial interaction in the bar, portrayed as reflected in the shimmering glass of the coffee table).
The affair is so devoid of feeling that it actually makes the sex scenes fascinating to watch. The film, which Linda Williams mentions as one of the first popular films to exit the “long adolescence” of Hollywood movies and show that sex actually happened, deals with sex in such a frank, clinical way that the viewer hardly misses its explicitness – the absence of true scandal seems to come with the territory of this flat “love” affair. Ben and Mrs. Robinson (whom he never addresses any other way, emphasizing both her age and status as property of her husband) always have sex in the dark, and Ben’s attempts to make conversation with her fail repeatedly: “I don’t think we have much to say to each other,” she says. He finds out she majored in art after she says she isn’t interested in it, and he says, “I guess you kind of lost interest in it over the years.” “Kind of,” she says. The scene develops vital sympathy in us for Mrs. Robinson – we learn she married her husband because she was pregnant with Elaine and that they now sleep in separate bedrooms. It is also in this scene that they have a terrific fight over Ben taking Elaine out on a date sometime, in which Ben calls Mrs. Robinson “a broken down alcoholic” and refers to the affair as “the sickest, most perverted thing that’s ever happened to me.” They make up, but tenuously and with no further conversation.
When Mrs. Braddock confronts Ben about the affair, too, it is in a steamy bathroom, which eliminates the points of perspective in the background, leaving us with a confused image of Ben, his mother, and the mirror. When he cuts himself, it initiates a kind of transition in the film – a sharpness that dissipates some of the steam and will emerge fully when Ben’s parents ask him to take Elaine Robinson out on a date, despite her mother’s explicit instructions to Ben to the contrary. The date starts off badly, with a shades-wearing Ben dragging Elaine to a strip club, where what should be a cloying scene is somehow remarkably touching through the eyes of the anxious, overperforming Ben: as the stripper (who looks a lot like Elaine) wiggles her tassle-pastied breasts over Elaine’s head, a single tear slides down the girl’s cheek. Ben chases her out, kisses her, and the talk begins to flow over burgers at the drive-in. They spend most of the night out and begin to fall in love: “You’re the first thing in so long that I’ve liked, the first person I could stand to be with,” says Ben.
When Elaine discovers that Ben’s affair with a married woman is with her mother, she of course freaks out and Mrs. Robinson says a cool “goodbye” to him as he rushes from the Robinson house. With this rupture, however, comes a brief moment of depth and color, where we see Ben juxtaposed against the fish tank (but clearly behind it and off to the side) and then in an upstairs window looking down at the pool. These shots restore a sense of depth and perspective to the world we’ve seen Ben in. Ultimately, he announces to his parents that he’s getting married to Elaine, though “to be perfectly honest she doesn’t even like me,” and drives to Berkeley to find her.
In the next few scenes, Ben stalks Elaine, who eventually comes to his apartment to confront him about “raping” her mother. The casualness with which this term is used is striking and pretty funny. They begin seeing each other again and toying with the idea of marriage (clearly the only outcome they can imagine for their feelings given their mutual upbringing), but Elaine writes Ben a letter one day saying “it could never be” because of her father. Pretty soon the father awaits Ben in his room and confronts him, insisting that he must have something against him in order to go after his women. “We might just as well have been shaking hands,” Ben says of his affair with the mother, whereas he insists, “I love your daughter.”
The final few scenes are a drawn-out process of Ben driving from Berkeley to Pasadena to Berkeley to Santa Barbara to track down Elaine on her wedding day to Carl. Not only are all the musical overtures by Simon & Garfunkel, but the repeated use of “Scarborough Fair” for one direction of driving and “Mrs. Robinson” for the other wear out our senses and literally parallel Ben’s schizophrenic emotions (“she once was a true love of mine” vs. “Here’s to you Mrs. Robinson). He arrives at the church after the wedding kiss (“He’s too late!” snarls Mrs. Robinson), but as he bangs on the upstairs window (yet another exchange of point-of-view shots from each of their perspectives, emphasizing depth, rather than flatness), Elaine cries back “Ben!” and rushes to the door. In the funniest scene of the movie, Ben and Elaine fight off the congregation with a crucifix, which they also use to bar the doors and make an escape on a yellow schoolbus. “It’s too late!” Mrs. Robinson shouts at her daughter, slapping her. “Not for me!” responds Elaine. In the final sequence of the film, their elation gives way to a sort of affectless, individual, inward introspection of what they have done, and the final shot shows the bus from the back winding down the road with his head and her veil visible through the window. While there is no guarantee that their love will last, the affirming and relieving power of the end of the film lies in their decision to act and to choose, rather than to continue the script of what is expected, or, as Ben claimed of his affair, let it “happen to me” with no accounting for his own actions.