Old age and long marriages are not a compelling theme. Who would you go to watch a movie whose plot sounds something like this “In an English country village two elderly people without children organize an anniversary party for their 45 years of marriage. The discovery of a detail of premarital husband’s life makes the couple troubled”? I believe no one.
The movie 45 years, by Andrew Haigh, starring Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, is an example of how film is able to offer a new gaze at the public. Film raises every human condition to a work of art.
What could happen to an elderly couple who lives the quite condition of peace and absence of time, the time of the habits, the comfort that follows a lifetime of work?
The film takes place in six days, marked by subtitles. Kate and Geoff Mercer, a retired teacher and a factory manager, are organizing the celebration of their 45 years of marriage. An event shakes the unperturbed life of the couple. A letter tells Geoff that the body of his former girlfriend was found frozen after 50 years in the glaciers of the Swiss Alps.
A so old report, a dead woman dead since 50 years, buried in the ices, it seems a harmless event, a detail of the remote past, surmountable.
The news shakes the relationship.
The perfect mutual knowledge of the pair is wound. Charlotte Rampling, thanks to a minimal acting and his mythical ethereal look, fails to mention gracefully the climax of emotional nuances of the woman. The consistency and the importance of their history is revealed in the new look taken from her, in the slightly different gestures of him.
The man unprepared attempt to process the discovery in a awkward and lonely way, convincing acting of Tony Courtenay.
Geoff starts smoking again, confused, Kate tries to understand, perplexed. The symbole of smoke, the fog which dull the eyes of the couple, will be recall at the end of the movie by the title of a song.
Kate asks her husband the details of the relationship, but perhaps she would not have answers. Katya, the name of the former girlfriend, was the bride of her husband, before Kate (the two names, not coincidentally echo). Geoff rooms in the attic in search of memories, the pictures of women. Geoff and Kate don’t have any picture of their life together and the slow they dance together one evening hides the bitterness of Kate.
In a scene full of tenderness the two try to make love after a long time ( “I wonder if I still remember how,” he says). Their naked bodies, authentic, crossed from decay, are still capable of eroticism?
The contrast is compelling: the frozen body of the former partner, evoked by Geoff ( “Katya’s body preserved in the ice is still young and intact as I met her in 1962?”) is a living and powerful memory. This memory is able to revive the sentiment of a love eternalized by death and to disorient husband’s present.
Can the past be stronger than the present? Where does the love stories of the past pass through? Can love be a continuous flow? How to behave with respect to a love memory without hurting those around us, especially the present lover?
The couple’s disorder takes on universal features.
The two deal with everyday things, in a slow and whispered crisis, opposed to the possible reaction of a young couple, in which the screams take the place of the silence, in a jealous outburst, an almost animal instinct. Kate seems to express a more nuanced and complex feeling than just jealousy. She retraces the perimeter of their relationship.
Kate and Geoff wonder in silence. Kate walks every morning with the dog, the husband makes the usual readings, engages in craft activities, the two find themselves at the end of the day in front of the television. They meet in town to drink a cup of tea, they meet old friends. We feel the breaking of the routine, whose fragments make the unspeakable beauty of the film.
The immobility of time takes place. The slower movements, gestures and interactions of the couple allow a new amplitude. The landscape, the space, welcomes the nostalgia, the infinite horizon of the end-time, which soon turns into a localized disturbance and everything moves quickly, the instant takes shape.
The woman’s gaze takes on new shades. In the absence of her husband, Kate decides to access at his past, climbing the ladder leading to the attic, searching for the truth. The choice of the ladder and the attic is interesting: it is the element that determines the strong contrast between the present, the couple’s home, and the past, high, transcendent, accessible only to those who are determined to take it to deal, to injure their present.
Kate finds the pictures of the former partner of her husband and projects them in the attic. A violent scene. She wants to see the truth of the body. The scene highlights the gap between the tales and the supports of the truth. Love is not happy with just words, it looks for evidences, the material, the tracks, the body of the other’s truth.
The lover’s imagination is often free to cross uninhabited castles, ghosts, hallucinations. Photos stop instants, arrest the imagination and give them the unique shape of the real.
The former partner is a brunette and smiling girl, pregnant.
Kate is torn apart by the discovery. She decides to retain its loss and not to share it, but she mentions it. “All of our following choices are depended from that relationship. I know some things, but I can’t tell them to you”. The mystery around their past takes shape: why the couple didn’t have children?
At the anniversary party there are many participants, some friends give the couple a collage of their photos.
The director leaves Geoff the chance to ask for forgiveness in a public speech, with a microphone, overwhelmed, confirming with his words the eternal love for the woman.
Immediately after, the two dance to the tune of “Smoke gets your eyes”, historical music of their love. The film ends with a shot of the enigmatic face of the woman. Her gaze announces a new beginning, fixes the ambiguity of her questioning.
Which decisions Kate will take? Will she continue to love, will she forgive her husband? the more powerful the past revealed her husband, the past of the couple or the new mind?
The director’s courage in tackling the subject of the film is plural. He choses a place that stops every dynamism: a remote village in the English countryside. He has chosen to treat the story of an exceptionally durable and stable marriage. He chose an elderly couple of the average anonymous middle class, no social surplus in a Dardenne or a Woody Allen style.
45 years recalls Haneke’s movie Amour. In that case the event that shakes the stability of the pair of seniors is a paralyzing stroke of his wife. The landscape is the dynamism of the city of Paris, the incomprehensions of career children, the understanding of a former music student of his wife. The dynamics are manifold. The reactions of the pair are shown, the change is stated, the symbolism rather obvious and pronounced (the image of the husband, his wife died, alone in their house, anxious to try to grab a pigeon entered the house or the nightmare’s image of her husband who finds himself walking barefoot in the fully flooded house).
45 years filmmaker instead, by contrast, relies on the profound realism of the shares and looks.
Both films, with different languages, have managed to make the intriguing love the time that resists time, they have deepened the hidden cavities.
At one time, eternity, which for today’s generations seems utopian, a beautiful story of the past generations, a reminder of prewar couples, an unattainable elsewhere and given to poetry and art, representation.
In the contemporary world the marriage appears as the promise of eternity, heritage of a tradition that no longer belongs to us.
Marriage now seems a clear promise of work and sacrifices that we must take to resolve problems, with the rate of failure attested by the majority of cases.
Andrew Haigh and Haneke reveal one of the most sharp powers of film. The power to show through the complexity of the experience the nuances of the sublime.
“If the diamond was perfect, it would only be light”