Reviews

The Other Is a Void: Intimacy and Loss in '45 Years'

Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay

45 Years gently explores the unbridgeable distance that is hidden within intimacy.


45 Years

Director: Andrew Haigh
Cast: Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay
Distributor: Criterion Collection
US Release date: 2017-03-07

We are in an eternal, ineluctable state of being with others. Even when I am utterly alone in my apartment and the world seems to have receded into nothingness during those early morning hours before nature awakens and I am bathed in profound silence, even then I am with others of my kind.

The thoughts I think are not only filtered through a language that predates my existence as a socially formed phenomenon but also, and more importantly, that language contributes to the shaping of my very thought. The things that are available for me to think and for me to imagine have their foundation in a subtle sociality that infuses my existence. When I speak my cherished secrets to myself, I am still in dialogue with the invisible totality of the humanity that is always with me.

The modes of my behavior, the roles I adopt in this life, are laid out in counterpoint to the expectations and limits that arise from our inexorable sociality. That counterpoint may result in dissonance (in my attempts to thwart social expectation or rebel against it) or in harmony, but none of my acts are without an implicit social context, no matter how privately executed, no matter how hidden from public awareness. The misanthrope may be in a pointedly dissonant relationship to society, but there is no escaping the fundamental nature of the relationship.

Certain emotional states reveal our deeply ingrained dependence on social context with a glaring clarity. One such state is, of course, loneliness. When we feel truly isolated, we realize just how much of our own sense of identity, our sense of wellbeing, is bound up in others. In extreme cases (such as prisoners held in solitary confinement) and even in more familiar ones (widows and widowers or isolates without a strong social circle), individuals become disassociated from their own personalities. We often say such people “withdraw from the world” but what we mean is that they withdraw from us, from others, for that is the human world.

Such people do not become more themselves in some overly romanticized Thoreauvian glorification of solitariness, they become less themselves. Their sense of self breaks down; anonymity becomes non-identity. Indeed, Thoreau is a classic case study in how a man retreats from society only to bring it along with him, haunting his every thought and action, his every concern. Thoreau was never truly an isolate; his every moment alone was shot through by society, by his ties to others (as a humorous example, think of the ax he brings with him -- he didn’t even purchase it but borrowed it from a neighbor and never returned it; his ability to survive alone depended on the contributions of others).

Quotidian loneliness, those relatively rare moments during which we feel, truly sense, our temporary isolation from others is still a manner of being with others. It is a manner of being marked by absence. The palpable presence of absence, feeling the presence of the lack of a person dear to us, is one of the fundamental human experiences, and it brings home the ties that bind us inextricably to others. We sense in those moments how deeply we are shaped by others, how so much of what we are derives from their influence.

If our confrontation with absence reveals the pervasiveness of our being with others, then sadly the converse also seems to hold: our proximity to those we love often reveals an absence, a lack that resides at the center of our most cherished relationships. No matter how close we become to someone else -- our parents, our children, our friends, spouses, or lovers -- there will always be parts of ourselves that we cannot divulge, not necessarily because we don’t want to do so (although there may be things we actively resist bringing to light) but rather because we cannot. There’s no way for us to say it all. Language fails. We might try to open ourselves radically (that is, to the very root of our being) to another person. We might believe that some kind of redemption lies in that revelation. We will always fail.

Likewise, in our attempts to come to know deeply those dear to us, we are faced with a fathomless chasm that yawns between ourselves and the objects of our affections. At times, we look at the gentle lambency emanating from the eyes of our lovers and we feel strangely completed, overwhelmed with feelings of belonging, intimacy, and purpose. At other times, we look into those same eyes and see nothing but a Sphinx-like enigma staring blankly back at us, posing an unsolvable riddle that vexes and confounds us. In a very real sense, from our point of view, trapped in our own consciousness, bound up in the incorrigible immediacy of our own emotional states, the other is a void.

Andrew Haigh’s 2015 film 45 Years gently explores the unbridgeable distance that is hidden, always lurking and waiting to emerge, within intimacy. The narrative, adapted from the short story “In Another Country” by David Constantine, involves an English couple living in Norfolk preparing to celebrate their 45th anniversary with a party including all of their friends. Less than a week prior to the event, the wife, Kate (Charlotte Rampling), arrives home from walking the dog. As she hands the mail to her husband, Geoff (Tom Courtenay), she asks if they should play the song by the Platters that they had for their first dance at their wedding. Geoff assents readily and the camera follows Kate over to the sink as she intones the first words of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”: “They asked me how I knew / my true love was true.”

This is a bit on the nose, perhaps the least subtle moment of foreshadowing in what is ultimately a poignantly understated examination of the fragility of human relationships. For the remainder of the film, Kate will indeed be asking herself how she can know if Geoff’s love for her is true, if their marriage is founded on the solid rock of trust and mutual affection, or if it is haunted by a specter from the past, an alluring vision of opportunities lost.

Geoff has received a letter from Switzerland informing him that the body of his lover from the early '60s had finally been discovered. “My Katya”, Geoff calls her in his stunned reverie; Kate immediately reacts by removing her hand from his arm -- the first of several small gestures of withdrawal. The body had just become visible now that the snow was melting away from the glacier in which she was trapped and preserved. Over 50 years ago, Katya fell into a crevasse during a hike in the Swiss Alps with Geoff and an Italian guide.

The news clearly unsettles the wizened Geoff. Katya’s body is still buried in the ice, far below the surface. Geoff imagines that she remains perfectly preserved. “She’ll look like she did in 1962,” he muses, “and I look like this.” It is a touching and sad lament, perfectly rendered by Courtenay. Katya remains in her youth; she occupies a different temporality than Geoff and Kate. Katya, through the circumstance of her demise, inhabits a nearly geological temporality. Already it is clear that Katya represents an entombed and revered remembrance of things past for Geoff. She is a marker (far more than the 45 years of marriage he is preparing to commemorate) for how much temporal distance he has traveled, and how many aspects of himself he has left behind.

The immensity of that past and its loss weighs heavily upon Geoff and it soon troubles Kate. Her growing suspicion that she really doesn’t know her husband nearly as well as she had believed becomes the central focus of the film. This is indeed Kate’s movie. The camera follows her wherever she goes. We are watching this story unfold from her perspective. We never see Geoff apart from her. Indeed, in one scene that borders a bit on the precious, we watch her having a conversation with Geoff while he remains entirely off screen.

In one sense, Kate recognizes that Katya was a part of Geoff’s life and had died before Kate and Geoff had even met. When Geoff reveals that he and Katya had pretended they were married while traveling together, Kate avers that she “can hardly be cross about something that happened before we even existed.” But then she turns from her husband and with a touch of bitterness, breathes the portentous word “still…” Again, we are dealing here with time: a time before existence, a time that shouldn’t matter but that nonetheless informs this time, this moment, and indeed threatens to rewrite the 45 years of history she has lived through with this man. She looks at her husband and she encounters the void.

Charlotte Rampling as Kate Mercer

And as all of us do when we encounter the void at the center of the person we love, she plunges deeper, asking questions she shouldn’t ask, demanding details she doesn’t need. She reminds Geoff of when they first met, when they were young. She attempts to inspire a sort of nostalgic ardor. They dance and then they make love. She insists that Geoff open his eyes. Is he concentrating on maintaining his erection or is he thinking of his first love, his Katya? He opens his eyes but becomes impotent. Deflated and defeated, they turn off the lights. Kate’s eyes still reflect the small amount of light in the darkened room. She is not sleeping, will not sleep.

She is no match against the frozen temporality that Katya represents. No amount of nostalgia for the past that they shared can compete with the time warp that the discovery of Katya’s body has created for Geoff. The confrontation between human and geological time inflects another scene when Kate is on a tourist boat as it navigates the “Broads”, a confluence of lakes and rivers in Norfolk county. The voice of a tour guide can be heard as Kate gazes disconsolately upon the passing landscape. The guide informs the passengers that the Broads were created through a confluence of man’s activity and nature’s gradual changes. The Broads were the result of ancient Romans digging peat excavations for fuel. Then the water levels rose and flooded the area.

Nature covered over human endeavor, transforming the area from the site of human activity to the sort of permanence that nature often represents. We often imagine nature as occupying some immutable realm. The notion of nature’s eternity has haunted western literature and philosophy from its beginnings. Nature serves as the backdrop to our ephemeral human transience. And yet we know that nature, too, changes, even if it seems to progress (or decay) on a slower temporal plane.

In this film, nature’s slow advance irrupts into human temporality. The Broads cover over a human past (the peat excavations) so that people may float over that past in utter ignorance of what lies immersed in the secrets of the deep. The snow had covered over the glacier that entrapped poor Katya and only after half a century eroded to the point of revealing her icy grave. Kate’s 45-year marriage covered over aspects of Geoff’s past, a past of which Kate was vaguely aware but had never confronted.

There is no doubt, at least to my mind, that Kate and Geoff have built a marriage out of mutual affection, respect, and need. They have been in love and remain in love. Sometimes we build so much trust on that love that we think it reveals the other person to us completely. But it doesn’t. It can’t. Love may appear to be a solid thing, to have an existence in its own right, but it is only a relationship between two people. We float along on its surface but beneath it all lies a sunken past. We build our love on that past (like the Broads) but we also ignore that past -- perhaps we do so out of a kind of needful ignorance but we do it at our peril. It is always there, awaiting us. Its uncanny presence (familiar yet estranged) haunts the edges of our security. We look to our loved one and we see the void.

***

Criterion Collection released a Blu-ray edition of 45 Years, supervised by the director Andrew Haigh himself. The film is beautifully transferred to Blu-ray and is just an exquisite object to view. As is its wont, Criterion provides numerous extras here. This includes a running commentary track featuring Haigh and producer Tristan Goligher that I found informative, if a little too focused on the specific technical issues involved in filmmaking (budding film directors, however, will doubtless find themselves mesmerized).

There is a documentary on the making of the film that features interviews with Haigh, Goligher, Rampling, Courtenay, editor Jonathan Alberts, and director of photography Lol Crawley. Here the technical detail is leavened with discussions of the plot and the insights of the actors. Another interview engages the thought of Constantine, the author of the original story, and is revealing of how an author feels both connected to and distanced from the filmic realization of his writing. Finally, there is an essay by film critic Ella Taylor included in the booklet.

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