The End of the Affair (1999)

by jserpico


Romantic Nihilism


his is a diary of hate,” reads Maurice Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes) aloud as he simultaneously types these same words onto a page. Contrary to what you might expect following such a declaration, however, there is no violent emotion displayed in this introductory scene; no screaming, no violence, no melodrama.

cover art

The End of the Affair

Director: Neil Jordan
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Julianne Moore, Stephen Rea

(Columbia Tristar)

But, coming in The End of the Affair‘s opening moments, Maurice’s stated intention offers meaningful clues concerning the scenes to come, particularly regarding his characterization as a man prone to ambivalent pronouncements concerning the nature of love and loss. He is a writer (the film is based on Graham Greene’s fictionalized portrait of himself), a self-avowed believer in the inherent literariness of pain and suffering, a man for whom happiness is, ultimately, uninteresting, especially when it is found in literature. For him, his life experiences and philosophical musings are deemed worthy of transcription onto the page only when they are imbued with sadness. As he puts it, “Happiness is boring.”

Maurice is an expert at disguising his feelings under witty statements full of bitterness. The diary he writes and the hatred he professes to feel are directed to his former lover, Sarah Miles (Julianne Moore), the wife of his neighbor, Henry (Stephen Rea), an ambitious civil servant. As Maurice types his “diary of hate,” images of Sarah come flooding back to him. Since their last rendezvous, he has not seen her or her husband.

The movie takes us back to 1939 — six years prior to Maurice’s introduction at his typewriter — when he and Sarah began a long and passionate affair. While London is threatened by Nazi bombings and many residents hide in basement bunkers, Sarah seeks solace with Maurice. The two make use of the only moments when their trysts can unfold undetected: as the air raid sirens wail and the Fascists decimate the city, the couple makes passionate love in Maurice’s dusty apartment.

The chemistry between the two is believable — Fiennes does really seem desperate and Moore does seem quite infatuated — but the ongoing explosions occurring whenever they engage in illicit sex have the tendency to obscure the seriousness of the couple’s ardor. The majority of the scenes detailing the affair consist of their sexual acts, and most of their conversations take place while they lie in bed, post-coitus. These scenes are well-choreographed and highly dramatic, what with the inclusion of all those bombs dropping, yet due to the lack of time spent on the couple’s relationship outside of sex, their emotional connection is difficult to decipher. This difficulty exists not only for the viewer, but also for Maurice. It seems that Sarah had abruptly ended the affair, leaving him without warning or apparent reason. Maurice’s belief in their sensual and spiritual connection seemed suddenly disproved, and the resulting confusion and loss fermented into hatred and resentment, which he pours into his diary.

Then, one dark and rainy night, Maurice stumbles into Henry. As the two men begin to discuss their current lives, Henry confesses that he believes Sarah is having an affair and is terrified that he will soon lose her. He speaks of hiring a private detective to trail the wife he feels he barely knows. But he decides against it, for, as Maurice gently informs him, “Lovers are jealous, husbands are fools.” According to Maurice’s persuasive, if paradoxical, logic, Henry must refrain from spying on his wife because he does not love her enough: he’s a husband, not a lover. Yet Maurice, crippled by his recently revived memories, starts to obsess over Sarah’s possible affair. And so, he hires the detective.

The detective’s accounts of her surreptitious meetings with a priest merge with Maurice’s own recurring memories to reconstruct a past so full that it cannot help but spill over into the present. The “hate” that he professes to feel towards Sarah is soon revealed to be an all-consuming love. The detective scores an investigative coup when he steals Sarah’s journal. When presented with it, Maurice immediately finds the page where she describes their final night together. It is then that he uncovers the reason behind her abandonment. And it is then that the film exchanges Maurice’s point of view for Sarah’s. The events previously viewed through his eyes are now visible through hers. Surprisingly, there is little redundancy. Rather, there is a piling up of memories that complement and enhance each other. Within this emotional heap of the past and entanglement of viewpoints, we learn that there lies a love long buried, but that still remains vital.

As Maurice reads her written thoughts, images from their final night together merge onto the screen with Sarah in voice over speaking the thoughts Maurice reads. It is now two years prior and bombs are falling directly over Maurice’s apartment. As he walks into the foyer to ascertain whether they might remain undetected and unharmed in the basement’s bomb shelter, the building is hit and he plummets several floors below. Sarah believes he is dead and, although she has not previously been portrayed as devout, she vows in prayer that if Maurice comes back to life, she will give him up forever. Thus, she must end the affair, whether he’s dead or not.

Sarah’s promise to God resembles a deal with the Devil, a relatively rational plea made to an unseen force, in desperate hope for an irrational effect. The contradictory vow — to give up the man she loves so much — contains within it a romantic nihilism that haunts the film. Throughout, Maurice and Sarah do not appear to feel guilty about their adulterous actions, but neither do they appear truly happy or joyful about their alliance, or life in general.

And when they do eventually meet again, all these years later, their efforts to appear calm in each other’s presence, seems almost too convincing. Their ostensible reserve reflects the mood of the film itself, which is less a passionate story than a story about passion. Yes, there is quite a bit of heaving, thrusting, and crying, but seen predominately from a distance, filtered through memories. Though the lovers continue to gaze backwards and dream of possible futures with each other, the affair no longer exists. Both make an attempt to re-ignite their former love, but any vital energy and its requisite passion have apparently burned out with the passing of time.

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