A Marriage and a Seismic Upgrade

Last week, Bette and I went to see a British movie called 45 Years. The critics were nearly giddy about it; the viewers not so much. Great direction; great script; great cast. So I had my doubts. It is, in fact, the kind of movie Bette and I like best. It is very slow-paced. The characters are very slowly and richly developed. It is discouraging, though.

I’ve been thinking about it for a few days now and I have settled on an answer to the question, “What was it about?” [1]

45-4In the first scene in which Geoff Mercer and his wife Kate appear together, Geoff gets a letter. The rest of the movie is about the ramifications of message the letter contains. I am not really certain what the ultimate effect of the news is on the Mercers. David Constantine, who wrote the short story on which the movie is based, has no interest in our knowing what it will be. Google [David Constantine, telegraph, interview] for the whole pitch by the author. Andrew Haigh, the director, doesn’t care either.

I do, though. Here is a comment from a reviewer. He says that he saw this movie with his wife and quite a few other couples about their age.

I think that we were all looking for an affirmation that living with the same person decade after decade after decade, in spite of its trials and tribulations and irritations, is richly rewarded by so many shared memories and such deep love.

“Living with the same person decade after decade” is like practicing an athletic skill month after month. If you practice doing it well, you will get better and better at it. If you practice doing it badly, you will not get better. What is it you are doing “decade after decade?” Marking time? Running the marriage on autopilot? It isn’t “the decades” that are going to do what you want done.

Here’s the question I want to pose. “If Geoff and Kate had known that a potentially devastating revelation was going to rock their marriage, the world they had built together, what could they have done to give the marriage every chance to survive? [2] That’s why I want to talk about seismic upgrades.

45-3The marriage that director Haigh shows us is not bad, really. Geoff and Kate are still interested in each other. A little. They offer all the everyday courtesies that allow for domestic tranquility. [3] She is especially attentive to him, but it to his getting through the day and his taking his meds that she is attentive. If she knows there is more in there—and maybe there isn’t—it doesn’t show up. Getting through the day seems to take all the attention Geoff has to give.

I know I am running the risk of seeming grumpy or even of accusing a couple who are down to the hardest part of a life. I don’t want to seem blaming, but I know something they don’t know. I know that a huge earthquake is coming and they don’t look ready for an earthquake. They are badly in need of a seismic upgrade.

When I think about what they are going to need, I picture a marriage that is strong and current; that is resilient and forgiving. In that first scene, Kate learns that Geoff once had a girlfriend that he was really serious about. They both learn that her body has just been recovered from a crevasse in Switzerland. She looks in her mid-20s, just as she did when she fell in. Geoff now looks in his 70s and so does Kate.

Kate learns that at the time of the accident Geoff and Katya were pretending to be married. It was a convenience; it enabled them to get lodging together. And that harmless pretense required that Geoff be listed as the “next of kin,” which is why he is getting this letter. Kate knew none of this and she is now at a loss to understand why the effect on her husband seems to be so very powerful. We wonder how she will respond to what amounts to a “posthumous infidelity” on the part of her husband.

'Don and I rarely fight. Then again, we rarely talk.'

The shock waves are really powerful and Goeff and Kate are unprepared. The trust they had built up in their marriage, which looked adequate for the life they were living, is clearly not up to dealing with this. Geoff withdraws from Kate. Perfectly understandable. But, under the circumstances, Kate is free to imagine that he is withdrawing from her and reattaching himself to Katya. I want to argue that in a strong marriage—I specified both “resilient” and “forgiving” in the picture I gave above—she would not have been drawn in that direction. Geoff faces the vividness of the relationship that was and places it side by side with the care-worn relationship he and Kate have. Both of those reactions are understandable. Both are deeply subversive of the marriage.

So much for the introduction. Just two steps to go, but in one of them Goeff and Kate are naked in their bed, trying to see if they can’t resuscitate some fragment of their earlier erotic relationship. Maybe you can get through this next step if you know that one will conclude this piece. [4]

I have said so far that Geoff and Kate have not built a marriage adequate to withstand the shock wave caused by the discovery of Katya’s body. How could they have done that?

They could have practiced bringing into conversation the small frictions that will become issues if they are not dealt with. I have three practices in mind, but before I tell you what they are, let me defend myself against the eye rolling that always happens at this place in the argument. I’ll pick one. I get accused of devising “marriage goals” that no one could achieve. I plead guilty. The goals are orienting devices. They help you tell whether the marriage is going in the right direction or not. There are extremely achievable markers of progress along the way, each one of which deserves to be jointly and severally celebrated [5]

Here’s something they could do. They could take seriously their failure to achieve their goals as well as their transgressions against each other. Geoff and Kate are careful not to offend each other. They don’t always manage, but they do try. It is as if they think the marriage will become strong and sustaining provided that neither offends the other. That’s like thinking that a bank account will grow nicely if only you can keep from making withdrawals from it.

The marriage, like the bank account, needs to have new resources put into it from time to time. If they had intentions for their marriage, they could look at how things are going (completely apart from whether anyone’s feelings have been hurt). They could see that they are making progress toward the kind of marriage they both want or at least that they are not falling away from what they once had.

45-5Finally, they could have practiced the full restoration of relationship after the friction has stopped fricking. [6] You can look at the week of Geoff and Kate’s relationship that is treated in the movie and imagine that they have never so much as exchanged a heartfelt endearment. But it’s a lot more likely that they used to do that, back in the old days, and they one friction and another occurred, like so much tread wearing off a tire. A strong marriage has ways of restoring the lost tread; of repairing the wounds any marriage will suffer. And if you don’t do that, the tire will blow when you hit something unexpected on the road.

I said I was a fan of marriages that are resilient and forgiving. You get resilient by going to where the friction occurred and finding out why. Geoff and Kate look like their practice is that when it stops hurting, you can stop paying attention to it. [7] Resilience means that you can go through a bad patch and come back from it. But “being” resilient means practicing resilience. In the week of their lives that we see, no one is practicing “bouncing back.”

So much for the general stuff. I want to tell you about the one scene that suggests that sexual intimacy between Geoff and Kate is not really dead. It is fragile, but not dead. After Geoff persuades Kate to dance with him in the living room, they both get into the moment. Something almost celebratory begins to happen. They decide to try lovemaking. It has been a while, apparently. Geoff, particularly is tentative.

Geoff is lying on top of Kate. He is trying—desperately hoping, I imagine—to keep his erection. Kate is encouraging him. Then she sees that Geoff’s eyes are closed. That troubles her. Why are his eyes closed?

There are dozens of innocent possibilities, but this has been a tough week. I think Kate concludes that Geoff is imagining Katya—possibly some torrid scene from the vibrant sex life he and Katya had in their youth. Maybe it’s something else entirely, but under the circumstances that is the one that Kate fears. She tells him to open his eyes. I think she means, “Look at me. Make sure you know who you are in bed with.”

Given the fragility of Geoff’s performance in bed, that one demand is too much. “I lost it,” he says, as he rolls off her and lies there in the bed beside her. Did he hear her say what I think he heard? Did he hear her say, “I need for you to renounce Katya. I want her to be no part of your visual memory and no part of your affection. Not when you are in bed with me!” That’s what I think he heard. When she told him to open his eyes, I think he understood what that meant.

Maybe not. That’s what it looked like to me.

Interpretations vary about what the last scene in the movie means. It happens at the 45th anniversary celebration after an emotional speech by Geoff. I think it means that Kate is no longer willing to live with a man who can’t leave his past behind and live with her in their present. In the last moment, Kate makes a decisive gesture. The question of what that gesture means and how the marriage turns out are the same question.

[1] As always, I don’t pretend to answer that question from the standpoint of the author of the short story (“In Another Country” by David Constantine) on which the movie was based or from the standpoint of the director. They have every right to their views, but I value the movie because of what it was about for me.
[2] Bette wants to say that even if they did everything they could, there is no guarantee that would have been enough. Absolutely right. But making the marriage as strong as you can—as robust, as intimate, as resilient—is still the right thing to do. You never know whether it is going to be “enough.”
[3] It doesn’t seem quite right to crib phrases from the American Constitution and paste them into a British movie, but as recently deceased jurist Antonio Scalia was fond of saying, “Get over it.”
[4] I see that I am trying to suggest that the sex scene is steamy and salacious. The scene is pretty discouraging, actually, as is everything else in their lives.
[5] The phrase “jointly and severally” is usually used to refer to liabilities, but there is no reason it cannot refer to achievements to which each and both have contributed. To “joint and several,” I say, “Hey. Live a little.”
[6] There is no way to say, really, that frictions “frick” a marriage. The Latin is fricare, to rub on, to wear away. You can’t stop frictions without pulling back to a distance that is the enemy of real intimacy. It is recovery from all the fricking that I would have liked to see them aim for.
[7] We used to say that a concussed football player “had his bell rung.” The idea was that when the ringing stops, the danger is over and you can go back into the game and play some more. In fact, concussions are cumulative, both in brains and in marriages. The difference is that you can repair a marriage after it has been concussed.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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