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The Malignancy of a Marital Secret: The Film '45 Years'

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 4/11/2015 SaraKay Smullens
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In 1973, I saw Igmar Bergman's film, "Scenes from a Marriage," with explores the disintegration of a marriage between Marianne, a lawyer, and Johan, a professor, played respectively by Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson. The scene in this film that haunts me to this day is an opening one that foreshadows what is to follow: Marianne, a divorce lawyer, interviews a woman in her 70s seeking a divorce. "Why now?" asks an incredulous Marianne. "Everything is grey," she is told.
This is the scene I recalled at the opening moments of "45 Years," the intense film directed by Andrew Haigh about a couple and their lives in a village in the English countryside. It is not to be missed, except by those faint of heart or those who have no patience with slow, but brilliant character development. Here one finds the same foreboding sense of grey found in Bergman's marital examination. Yes, the grey is a matter of age, but far more, a matter of a malignant secret and its marital impact. (Spoiler Alert: To develop this perspective, I will discuss plot development. What I see, however, as the pivotal turning point of the film is omitted.)
"45 Years" speaks of the hazards of coming to terms with aging, but also of the hazards of the ghosts of a partner's unfinished emotional business. The film features a week in the lives of Kate (Charlotte Rampling), a retired teacher, and Goeff (Tom Courtenay), a retired manager of an engineering company, as the couple prepares for their 45th anniversary celebration. (Their celebration of 40 years of marriage had been abruptly cancelled because Geoff required coronary bypass surgery.)
As the film begins there are hints that Kate has been the far more giving in the relationship, and we are to learn why. Geoff has received a letter written in German by Swiss authorities. The body of his former lover, Katya, has been discovered in a crevasse on a Swiss mountain near the Italian border. The body has been perfectly preserved, "frozen in time," as bodies in documentaries the couple discuss have been, but Kate is to discover far more. There are secrets about Katya and Geoff in the couple's attic (always over them both, all they decided, all they shared) that are horrifying. However, you will hear no screams. Instead, you will witness rage and terror that is silent and chilling to your core.
At first Geoff tells Kate that he is sure he told her about Katya. He rationalizes. He defends himself, and he later admits she has never been discussed. Kate is told that although not married, Katya wore a wooden wedding band and that had she lived, the couple would have married. It is not part of the script, but Kate of course realizes that Katya and she have similar names.
Kate and Geoff have taken no photos of themselves, or even their dog, in their years together, and though it is not specifically stated, losses Kate will discover have led to Geoff's decision to have no children. He has been torn by guilt for reasons to be learned as the scenes unfold. Goeff's first relationship haunts him, but he was clearly ambivalent about it (clues abound). Still, Katya was always the unspoken presence in the lives of Kate and Goeff; and in the discovery of her body Geoff's obsession with her is obvious.
However, it is also apparent to the viewer, though not to Kate, that this obsession has much to do with Geoff's lost youth, lost feeling of purpose, and lost potency. As the week passes, Kate sees herself as a replacement, a second choice, a number two accommodation, and never a true love; and all she has given up in her marriage comes sharply into focus.
Though her father was not in favor of their marriage, Kate had fallen deeply in love with Geoff, and through the years acquiesced to his desires. In early scenes we see how patiently and tenderly she tends to him. The couple had once had passion, and a sad attempt to rekindle it results in Geoff's inability to complete love making, an experience that parallels his wishes to distance himself from old friends and colleagues and intensifies his obsession with Katya, forever young, a symbol of his lost youth.
The music chosen for this film illuminates the story of a ménage a trois, one member a ghost. At the 45th anniversary celebration the collage of photos, even of their dog, are ones that friends took. There are no adult children or grandchildren to celebrate the couple and ease the realities of aging and what this implies.
But "45 Years" is also a story of how couples can be blind to each other's truths, once finally recognized. When Geoff toasts his wife and weeps, Kate is sure he is weeping for his lost love and that she remains but a convenient replacement. Sadly, this couple's inability to confront truths earlier has make it impossible for Kate to see that the tears are really because Geoff sees his unfairness to her and the pain he has inflicted through the years. He sees finally that Kate has always been his deepest love. His regrets are authentic and profound.
As the couple dances once again to "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes," the first dance of their married life, Kate initially responds lovingly and sensuously as she and Geoff dance to her youthful certainty.
They said "someday 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 could doubt my love

However, as the song continues, Kate internally confronts all she has given up, lost and endured with a man whom she believes has always yearned for another:
Yet today my love has flown away,
I am without my love (without my love)
Now laughing friends deride
Tears I cannot hide
By this last refrain, Kate's response will haunt audiences as fiercely as her husband's secrets and their cost to them both have haunted Kate.

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