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45 Years

45 YEARS
A SUBTLE, NUANCED AND ENTIRELY GRIPPING PORTRAYAL OF A MARRIAGE 

Presented at the Film Program Sponsored by
Houston Psychoanalytic Society and Jung Center

by
Ellen Safier, LMSW-ACP 
August 18, 2016 

            In his film, 45 Years, Alexander Haigh presents a subtle, nuanced and entirely gripping portrayal of a marriage.  Charlotte Rampling is brilliant as a doting wife ensconced in a pleasant routine in a lovely cottage in a small British village with her aging husband – solicitous of his needs and patient with his idiosyncrasies.   Their calm is disrupted by the arrival of a letter informing him that the body of the woman he had been with before Kate had died in the fall she had while hiking in the Swiss mountains with him.  Her body has suddenly become visible under the ice 50 years after the accident, probably as a result of global warming.  This phenomenon, as a force that threatens the very bedrock of existence, is a metaphor throughout the film.   45 Years looks at how we create our own frozen worlds built on our histories, how we try to protect those worlds and the forces that ultimately erode those structures.

            Tom Courtenay as Geoff first appears slightly curious and befuddled.  He is quickly consumed by his memories as he is faced with a part of himself that he has kept isolated and cut off.   He returns to cigarettes and slowly reveals tiny details, always surprised that Kate doesn’t quite remember certain facts he has never really told her.  We see him as distant and irascible, petulant and affectionate—quick to anger and annoyance one minute and playful the next—but unpredictable and continually oblivious to his impact on his wife and to the impact of his experience on himself.  He says, “They’ve found her – they’ve found Katya”, and follows with “I know I told you about my Katya” in a tone that makes it clear how truly alive she continues to be.  

            References to time are everywhere.  The film takes place in the six days leading up to their 45th wedding anniversary celebration.  Geoff says about finding Katya’s body, “It’s like something in the freezer” and then, “how strange would that be; she looks like she did in 1962 and I look like this”, while Kate continually looks at her aging face in the mirror.  Twice, Kate is in town considering buying a watch as an anniversary present for Geoff as the village clock chimes in the background. 

Another major theme is history.  The proprietor of the house they intend to use for their party reminds her that the setting is “so full of history – like a good marriage”, but we have a budding idea that this may not be true for Geoff and Kate.  In a scene delightful if for no other reason than Kate’s withering stare, he talks about the Trafalgar Ball that occurred there in 1805, celebrating “such an achievement.”  Kate returns with barely concealed sarcasm, “Wasn’t Nelson killed?”  His reply: “Yes, but the war was won.”  Later, Kate tries to soothe Geoff by saying, “I suppose I can’t be mad about something that happened before ‘WE’ existed”, but we watch as the consequences of history infuse their lives every day.

The film charts the transformation of both of the characters and the transformation of their marriage itself.  In Charlotte Rampling’s extraordinary performance (her face charting the slightest shifts in emotion), Kate moves from nursing Geoff and worrying about his health to feeling increasingly lost and concerned as each new revelation points to a man she has been married to for 45 years, but doesn’t really know.  Geoff keeps talking about the “fissure” in the rock while he relentlessly studies climate change and it is clear that there is a fissure in their marriage.  They recall their lives together and the pictures they might have taken but did not.  She says, “We didn’t realize it at the time, but those memories, those are things aren’t they?”  The next night, Geoff remembers what a “knockout” Kate was and has access to his own liveliness and desire, and soon they are dancing to “Stagger Lee” (pay close attention to each of the songs they choose, which add another dimension to the unfolding narrative).  They make an attempt at sex; he’s not sure that he will remember how, but they give it a very tender try until she tells him to “open your eyes”, at which point he loses his erection. She is very comforting but as the movie progresses, there are more questions about his need to keep his eyes closed.

Kate makes a valiant effort to talk to Geoff.  She reflects, “It’s funny, we didn’t know each other then [in 1962 when she lost her Mum and he lost Katya], but we were both going through something unpleasant and yet we’ve never talked about it in all the years we’ve known each other.”  The ground begins to shift more radically as Kate asks questions about what happened and as he tells the story, referring to his mountain adventure as “brave.”  As she tries to tease him about chasing some girl up a bloody mountain, his voice suddenly grows quite harsh and he says, “You didn’t know her.” 

              She finds Geoff in the attic after their effort at lovemaking and demands,  “Show me the bloody picture”, to which he retorts “It doesn’t mean anything; it’s only a fucking picture.”  The next night, in bed, she asks whether he would have married Katya for real if she hadn’t died and they had made it to Italy.  He tries to dodge the question, but then says, “Yes, we would have married each other” and again his voice takes on a slightly reverential tone that is very different from the voice he uses to speak to Kate.  The climax comes when she ventures into the attic, the place where secrets are stored, to find the carefully curated journals and pictures of his and Katya’s love and their travels.  And then she sees the pictures of Katya pregnant and realizes that hers and Geoff’s whole lives have been lived with a third person who has been part of their relationship from the start.  She says, “She’s been standing all this time behind my back, and it’s tainted everything we do, where we go on holiday, what books we read, the music we listen to … and the big things too, especially the big things.”  She then tells him in no uncertain terms how they will proceed – they are almost marching orders.  He is to go to the party and to want to be there with her.  She says, “It’s one thing knowing I haven’t been enough for you.  It’s something altogether different that everyone else feels it too.”  Geoff asks if she believes that she hasn’t been enough for him and her reply is scathing, “No, I think I was enough for you; I’m just not sure you do.”  Her rage at the betrayal is palpable and she is suddenly a fierce woman in her own right. 

            In the final scene at the anniversary party, we see her looking at the start like a delighted honoree and her expression signals the possibility of some relief.  Then we see her face shift to pain and distress and then to an expression that is more inscrutable.  Goeff becomes more tender, perhaps as he realizes how strained his marriage has become and how dependent he is on Kate.  He gives a rather awkward speech and they dance with Kate’s face becoming increasingly hard and pained until she pulls her hand away from his and the film ends.

There are multiple ways to deconstruct the emotional storm brewing in this very quiet film.   I would argue for a focus on the depth of loss, the fragile nature of trust, and the ways in which we are fundamentally such secrets from one another.   There is precious little trust between two people who have cared for each other for almost half a century with tenderness for it to devolve into bitter rebuke and stinging retorts.  It is breathtaking.  We don’t know why Geoff could never let Kate know about the depth of his loss or his feelings about Katya and their child.  We do know that the secret has profoundly colored his life and hers.  How much guilt did he feel about Katya’s death?  How did that affect their decision not to have children, as well as their choice not to keep active photographs of their own life, which is in contrast to the very carefully documented travels he took with Katya.  We don’t know why Geoff could not trust Kate with his own internal life or why Kate could not talk more about her own.  Finally, there are those tiny moments where the anger is white hot and their treatment of each other feels brutal.   In those very small exchanges they seem incapable of empathy or compassion and we are witnessing tragedy.  The return to life as usual is no longer possible.  They have lived at enough distance to avoid real intimacy.  They have sidestepped the dicey realm of truly knowing each other or recognizing their impact on one another, and whatever protection that distance provided has melted as well.

The song played at their wedding reception and their 45th wedding anniversary is “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes:

 

"Smoke Gets in Your Eyes"

 They asked me how I knew

My true love was true

I of course replied

Something here inside

Cannot be denied

They, said some day you'll find

All who love are blind

When your heart's on fire

You must realize

Smoke gets in your eyes

So I chaffed them, and I gaily laughed

To think they would doubt our love

And yet today, my love has gone away

I am without my love

Now laughing friends deride

Tears I cannot hide

So I smile and say

When a lovely flame dies

Smoke gets in your eyes

Smoke gets in your eyes.