Sunday, January 17, 2016

Starting with 45 Years...

Which is quite the time to start! I wouldn't imagine disclosing my age, but I'm sure you wouldn't imagine me quite as old as Kate and Geoff Mercer (played by Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay), the couple who are at the center of most of the frames in Andrew Haigh's third feature. I would say that they merit more frames if the film didn't epitomize a stick landing. 45 Years is a thesis on the the absolutely aleatory nature of emotions. The course it charts toward its final, inevitable setpiece is offset by a series of looping, spastic, psychic attachments refusing to conform to this simple trajectory. And when they all find themselves in this one place called "the end," without coming together, the sense of confusion it leaves you with is, at the least, profound. 

Kate, with Geoff on the sidelines, is planning the timidly grand celebration of their 45th year of marriage, which is to take place on the Saturday of the week that the film begins. On Monday, Geoff receives a letter, written in German, and exclaims, "they found her." "Her" is who he introduces to us as "my Katja," a former lover lost to an accident in 1962, while the two were hiking across the Alps. It is not a metaphor that she has been preserved in a pool of ice and is now visible, thanks in part to Global Warming. We soon find out that the couple has never really talked about the depth of his former relationship, except maybe to note in passing that Kate and Katja are all-too-close to pure homophony.

Haigh's attachment to this project most likely stems from his devotion to quiet, talking, simulations of real conversations in real time. But where the (amazing) Weekend stages a dialogue between one unrooted gay man and the threat of his homosexuality, we're presented here with two very distinct characters whose intimacy takes the shape of repeated activities, variations on a over-determined schedule. There's a bit of Ackerman peeking through the exposed brick of their Norfolk home. There's also a tasteful helping Hitchcock and horror, which arrives especially after Kate finds out about her husband's new devotion to the memorabilia in their attic. As I wrote above, the surfacing of these emotions, even in terms of genre, is rigorously aleatory. 

There's a promise that we're to plumb into the depths of these characters, with or without their knowing. Such signs of disrespect  are spared to the viewers of 45 Years. And one comes out wondering why films with similar subjects would take the threat of mortality to be the obvious thread of life for a couple this age. Geoff's heart bypass surgery is mentioned, and his senility is, in a rare case of devotion to the material at hand, put on full display, but these issues linger as existential questions only insomuch as they are ways of living together. Our trajectory, then, is seeing this life together through a history that could not ever summarize or epitomize it. The history is a moment of reflection that, even in the conclusion, each person clearly knows is only coming to the forefront through the most indefinite of circumstances, yet it feels like it must happen.  

Still even with this factor of heavy-handed material, you may expect some riled up, psychically dense visual symbolism (looking at you, Paolo Sorrentino). But this film is, alongside a psychoanalysis of Geoff, a take on life played through surfaces. We see the cracks in their dishware and the lines on their faces. We engage in their memories as they display themselves in daily life, and this is where a structure that usually risks devolving into overt pedantry absolutely works. The narrative is focalized around Kate, who is dealing with her feminized labor of planning the party, her husbands sudden withdrawal into his past, and - well, there's enough packed into Rampling's performance for a lifetime of discussions about this character. It does not go without saying that she practically directs the film, knowing how to construct her character through a series of small gestures and trusting that they will all pay off. I know she is the biggest draw of the film - be assured that she does not disappoint. Blanchett's work in Carol was even better on second viewing, but Rampling still has my vote for best performance of the year. This is my first blog post. It does not go without saying that a good performance, an auteurish performance, can make or break a film for me. What could have been "wife sits back while husband works through some of his stupid nostalgia for his more virile times" becomes something that foregrounds the respect this film has for Rampling's character, and the ways she surprises herself in the course of a week.

It also does not go without saying that the film is beautifully photographed. There wasn't a single edit that upset me. If I've displayed it as a rich psychological portrait, don't think that's at the expense of lauding its formal dexterity. This is why I'm happy to start my blog with this ridiculous grade. And I really don't believe in grade inflation. 

Grade: A