DOES LOVE CONQUER ALL?
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Film, so rarely, takes the road less traveled. The journey I am speaking of, in this case, would be time and long-term relationships. From a narrative standpoint, filmmakers seem less likely to trust that audiences will appreciate the shorthand that develops between a couple over decades, the ability to understand what the other is thinking or feeling without some outward and obvious cue. Film, unlike the novel, operates in the realm of the visual sense; therefore, we need to “see” connections. We need to be reminded of experiences. We need confirmation of what has come before.
Which, of course, would appear to discredit the idea of films about long-term relationships that rarely, if ever, replay moments from the past. What does it matter, who these people are now? Who were they back in the day, when they were young and sexy, right? When they were alive with potential?
And yet, Michael Haneke gave us “Amour” in 2012, which dared to bring us into the intimate spaces occupied by Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), an octogenarian couple whose love gets critically tested when Anne has a stroke. They have a daughter (Isabelle Huppert) living in England with a family of her own, so it falls to Georges to manage the steep physical and mental decline of his life mate. Haneke and his performers capture the personal struggle, the changing expectations within this relationship, and they take us along for the ride.
The situation takes on a different spin, when the debilitating element comes from outside the relationship dynamic.
Can an encounter, an event, or a person from the distant past erase vivid experiences that followed? In “45 Years,” Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate (Charlotte Rampling) begin to wonder about that very notion when, on the eve of their 45th wedding anniversary, Geoff receives news about a former lover, missing for close to 50 years, who unexpectedly re-surfaces. A cauldron of emotion stews between the couple, and the intuitive members of the audience will question just how much of their inner lives Geoff and Kate ever truly shared with one another.
The film finds itself constantly looking back. Geoff and Kate struggle mightily to remain in the moment. The focus is primarily on Kate, since she has spent the most time preparing for the anniversary. A party has been planned, to substitute for the one that should have occurred on the 40th, when Geoff fell ill. The postponement made sense and everyone has merely been waiting to celebrate this beloved couple.
But when the news arrives that Geoff’s old flame, the woman that he was with directly before Kate until her disappearance and presumed death, has been found—frozen and close to recovery, at long last—Kate slowly loses herself. She tries to express her concern and surprise, but before long, she can do little else but watch as Geoff retreats into himself (and likely his memories of his lost love). She wonders, possibly for the first time, if she has always lived as nothing more than his second choice, and the thought consumes her.
Geoff also drifts, but we are less privy to his descent into the past. We get fewer visible hints of where his heart and mind are; most of those cues come from Kate and her investigation into their boxed up photos and notes in the attic. We never truly get a glimpse of them, as they were. The closest and most memorable images are of each of them, alone in the present, which forces us to attempt to strip away the years ourselves, in order to see them when they were in the process of building their life together.
Director Andrew Haigh (“Weekend”) adapts this David Constantine short story, with a fine sense of time, memory, affection and the dawning of regret that simmers without completely boiling over, although much of the largely unheralded credit for that rests squarely on both Courtenay and Rampling, who earned an Oscar nomination for her work here.
Is that enough? Haigh’s film works, seemingly, against its strengths, stretching itself to be more novelistic, but like Haneke before him, he proves that film has the potential to accomplish this goal, if we are willing to put in complementary effort to unleash the years and experiences that have been held back.