45 Years (2015, Andrew Haigh)
Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years is a mixed-media assessment of a frozen world, steeped in dull colors and failed communication, that despite its narrative simplicity covers huge thematic terrain, judging a marriage not so much by its suddenly crucial overload of secrets as by the noticeable gap between its public face and a hidden reality. That’s “hidden” not merely from friends and well-wishers — which number many; they’re all gathering for a jumbo convention center party to mark the 45th anniversary of the pair’s union — but from husband Geoff and wife Kate themselves. They’re placid, classed-up and child-free aside from the latest in a long line of pampered dogs, seemingly idyllic in manner and comfortably low-key in their habitual relations. Nothing about this suggests ill health or particular noteworthiness until a letter arrives, rocking Geoff (Tom Courtenay) with the news that the body of his onetime lover (and next of kin) Katya, who fell into a crevasse on a frozen hike in 1962, has been uncovered in Switzerland thanks to the melting of the glaciers. Geoff sinks into distraction while subsequent, almost offhand revelations cause Kate (Charlotte Rampling) to reconsider and question the entire foundation of their relationship.
Eagle-eyed cinephiles and former Nick at Nite viewers may well note a close resemblance here to a 1959 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents entitled “The Crystal Trench,” directed by Hitchcock himself and taken from a short story by Four Feathers author A.E.W. Mason. That half-hour is structured a bit differently but, climate change and its enormous consequences aside, covers most of the same themes: it revolves around Patricia Owens’ enduring obsession with the husband she lost on a similar climbing expedition whereupon he too fell into a crevasse. She waits decades for the ice to move enough for his body to be excavated, only to make a mortifying discovery when that fateful day arrives. Rampling’s Kate too is doomed to a shattering surprise delivered by photograph, but she needn’t leave home to find this buried truth. Hearing Geoff shuffling around upstairs for photos of the dead woman, witnessing his obvious distraction and complete inability to articulate the emotions behind his midnight explorations, she eventually makes her way into the attic to investigate while he’s away, turning on the projector and mounting a billowy sheet to view the slides from the deadly continental sojourn of fifty years prior. There she is presented with concrete evidence that her husband’s relationship to his onetime wife-to-be bore the marks of a commitment and passion, not to mention an agenda and destiny, decidedly different from Kate and Geoff’s own marriage, and specifically in a manner he never deigned to mention to her.
That is, at least, the way she clearly interprets the discovery that the late Katya was pregnant; this is not to say that a couple with children is more seriously dedicated to one another than a couple without, but there is enough contrast between the life Katya and Geoff shared and the much calmer, less sweepingly romantic one Geoff and Kate finally forged to cause the latter to suddenly wonder about everything: half of a childless couple seeing photographs of her husband’s pregnant former lover, seeing the way he seems lost and aloof in a way we know is completely new for him, it tears at the fabric of everything she’s always assumed about what they both wanted. And maybe they did, but perhaps only because the alternative — giving oneself over again — was too frightening, for him at least. And what would that, along with his own generalized reticence about sharing his innermost (apart from an early passage in which, in a state of shock, he calls his deceased ex “my Katya”), say about his outwardly muted feelings for his actual wife, which she has surely always taken as a kind of coded affection from a quiet man? There’s no reason to doubt a love that’s shared between two people who aren’t especially gregarious about explicitly expressing that love, at least not until one is confronted with evidence that a partner was once a much bolder, much livelier, much more zealously alive person — and the sense that he, after withholding this part of himself for years, is now rediscovering it without involving his spouse.
Two painfully realistic performances anchor this unsettling study in complacency, in the ground-down and uneasy blockage of unwanted emotions and its effect over a long lifetime, and most of all, the degree to which — as Tracey Thorn once sang — the heart remains a child: these are senior citizens acting out the jealousies and longings of teenagers, or at least young adults, and it feels both ridiculous and inevitable. Most of the way through it is a meditation on the crush of memory and the persistence of the past, but to bring things back to Hitchcock, it’s also a ghost story that, like the ghost stories Vertigo and Rebecca, lacks the tangible presence of the supernatural. Instead the ghost, which permeates the entire story, arrives in its fullest form in the film’s terrifying centerpiece, the scene that places Kate in the attic looking at those slides. This sequence feels different than the rest of the movie before and after it, because it is dancing on the edge of sanity a bit: along with its exquisitely unnerving sound design, it brilliantly captures the sensation of seeing something and learning something that you shouldn’t. And as Katya’s image graces that dead sheet, she lives again, haunts again, occupies a new living spirit in the worst, most destructive fashion. Yet the sensation that builds is really no one’s fault — can you blame a person for grieving anew with this new development, and can you blame him for hesitating to bring it to his wife, and finally can you blame her for resenting it? — and least of all Katya’s, her smell and her memory lingering everywhere in this house now but her actual body dead, preserved, encased.
It would be easy to say it was ridiculous for events of fifty years prior to ruin an established marriage, but everything in Kate and Geoff’s behavior throughout the week covered within the film’s narrative, and right up to the final scene at the uncomfortably numb anniversary bash, suggests this is about a lot more than someone who died long ago. It’s about something that’s been dormant but was never really gone and won’t ever be. It all comes to a head after the couple’s replication of their first dance to the Platters’ lyrically inappropriate “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, at which stage a small drama is played out in Rampling’s face and the emptily ceremonial nature of it all finally crushes her. But when one thinks back on the film, the information is all there pretty plainly — a sexual encounter introduced as the first in a long time ends in disappointment, and there’s never a strong feeling of intimacy or warmth between the pair. Given that the only catharsis on offer for the hurtling, despairing Kate after all she’s endured in the run-up to their all-smiles commiseration with old friends is Geoff’s tearful but platitude-filled speech — and given the attempt at a return to normalcy that’s depicted throughout the preceding afternoon by the two essentially going about their own business after Geoff awkwardly love-bombs her in the morning — there’s no real reason for optimism about the couple’s future or lack thereof; it seems the best one can hope for is that these shakings of the ground underneath them won’t be discussed again, which doesn’t seem so reassuring or productive at all.
45 Years is not a pretty or pleasant experience, and it doesn’t have the erotic charge or willful mystery of Haigh’s previous picture Weekend, which rebuked rather than courted its mundane surroundings, even if it’s equally revealing about the relationship of time to romantic love. Its colors and its pallid mood evoke claustrophobia, and its familiarity with the distinctly grooved-in rhythms of nonresistant aging is hard to take any way but somberly. Where its poetry comes in, besides its mournful update of the kitchen sink drama to a world of closed-off feelings, faint memories and unexamined regrets decades beyond the Angry Young Man, is in its curious relationship to the dead. Geoff’s emotional arc isn’t terribly hard to understand; like anyone who might grieve someone they knew long ago, or anyone who may occasionally revisit the missed opportunities of a relationship that ended, he’s both sincerely feeling the ache of loss and is guilty of filling in a few blanks, based partly on his mild modern-day dissatisfactions (not necessarily with Kate so much as with being old), which results in a fleetingly pleasurable renewal of dead yearnings, the romanticizing of something that can be revived by no one but himself: I know that she cares about me, I heard her call my name. Somehow, though, Kate’s relationship to Katya — whom she never met and never will — is what makes the film really unusual and interesting, because she wonders what Katya says about herself, what her existence says about her husband and his attraction to her, and what else Katya’s death and the renewal of his apparent love for her may portend: what else, most horribly, may in fact now be dead along with her.