45 YEARS, the new film by Andrew Haigh, takes place over the course of five days, beginning with the arrival of a letter and ending with the titular anniversary party of Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate (Charlotte Rampling). On the first day, Kate returns home from her daily walk with the dog to find Geoff with a letter, written in German, about a woman who died nearly five decades earlier. The dead woman is Katya: she was Geoff’s girlfriend before Geoff met Kate, she died when she and Geoff were in Switzerland, and her body has just now been found, frozen intact in an Alpine glacier. Initially, Kate is sympathetic to Geoff’s loss and belated closure, and Geoff is careful not to dwell so much as to make Kate uncomfortable. That evening, when asked if she is upset by the news, Kate replies, “I can hardly be cross with something that happened before we existed.”
We later learn that Geoff was Kate’s first serious relationship. When Geoff speaks about what it was like to suddenly lose Katya down the side of the mountain, Kate recalls that she lost her mother around the same time; while Geoff was out in the world with a lover, Kate was still at home with her parents. Her first residence outside her family home was her first house with Geoff. Kate’s entire adult life — her independence, her sexuality, her mature development, her German shepherds — coincides completely with her life with Geoff. But Geoff’s adult life does not coincide with Kate’s. There was a time before with Katya. At one point he wistfully describes that time in the mountains as a time when his days were purposeful without a purpose: there was always something to do, but no concerns beyond the immediate. A self-contained world of two. A few days after the letter arrives, as both characters begin to show the strain of containing a past preserved in ice that has not felt the wear of time, Kate asks Geoff as they lay in their bed: “If she hadn’t died would you have married her?” Geoff says yes: “We would have married each other.”
If Katya hadn’t died, Geoff would not have gone to Italy. Geoff and Kate would have never met, because Geoff wouldn’t have been looking, since he would already be in love, he would already be with Katya. Geoff could have lived out his life with Katya, another dark-haired woman, so similar to a Kate, just one extra syllable. But Katya happened to slip and die, and Geoff met Kate, and now these two are living out their lives together, instead of the other pair.
Why is it devastating to learn that if things had been different, things would be different? How is it possible to feel betrayed by a partner’s past when it precedes our presence in their life? Rediscovering Katya pulls Geoff out of his present with Kate, while it pins Kate to the knowledge that there are places in Geoff’s mind and memory to which she has never gone, can never go. While much of his behavior and her mothering responses suggest that he is the more needier of the two, the arrival of Katya shows his independence, his life without Kate, just as it reveals the way her adult life has depended on Geoff’s. Not only does he have memories of a distant, almost other-worldly time, but still-living feelings drive him nightly to the attic searching for diaries and old photographs. “I found her picture,” Geoff explains. Kate responds, “No, you went looking.”
The letter occasions a brutal eruption of separateness. It is perhaps the more brutal because Kate appears to be not naive about separateness, about the essential and difficult need for privacy and distance within intimacy. She goes for walks by herself, filmed in expansive wide shots, her body surrounded by space and sky. She reads while Geoff is in the room, finding a way to be separate together. She listens to Geoff tell her about Katya, first with kindness and measure, gradually with impatience and hurt, the camera intent on her face. For all her efforts at tolerance and understanding, Geoff’s separateness now resounds as a betrayal, his history as a secret.
The film does not suggest that everything is just in Kate’s head. We see Geoff’s insomnia, his distraction and absorption in thought, we watch him move around in a fog that only lifts when he has a chance to speak animatedly about Katya. But the audience is never given a chance to be alone with Geoff, while we spend much time alone with Kate. The orienting axis of the movie is her disorienting experience of her husband, which is at once her disorienting experience of herself. The film shows us the way lives are knotted and bound together — Katya haunts Geoff, Geoff’s suffering from reminiscences tilts Kate’s life off its center — and also the ways in which the sharing of a life is never complete.
Part of what shakes Kate, it seems, is not quite that Geoff was in love, nor even that part of him might still be. And it is not only the fear that she has not be “enough” for Geoff, as she puts it, nor that she has not been everything for him, a fear she would never admit. The intolerable thought is that something as simple and small as unsteady footing on an Alpine ridge separates the life Kate has from the life that could have been Katya’s — as though the foundation of Kate’s life were only some loose dirt. As we watch her watch Geoff, it seems as though Kate cannot shake the sense that, because it was not by choice that Katya died and so not by choice that he didn’t marry her, Geoff did not really choose his life with Kate. Of course, one might fantasize that Katya’s fate only proves that Geoff and Kate were meant to be, as though preordained. But this fantasy does not seem available to Kate — as we see throughout the film, she is eminently sensible. Yet even as she refuses such romantic ideals, she is not unbothered by the fact that their lives only contingently and just barely converged, the fact that her marriage is not supported by a cosmic order, but rests instead on accident and the daily work of ordinary human commitment. The fact that Geoff could have lived a different life unravels Kate’s faith that he is truly invested in the life that he has, as though an essential loose thread running back 45 years has begun to pull.
Haigh’s successful 2011 film Weekend also explores the basic human difficulty of being with someone who is not you, but from the opposite pole of the relationship, in its fragile initial moments. Russell and Glen meet at a gay bar and have what was supposed to be a one-night stand, but that becomes something different. Like 45 Years, Weekend studies the different ways that people avoid the challenge of intimacy. At first it seems that Russell — somewhat closeted, fairly shy — is the one with the most to work through to get to the point where he can be in a real relationship. But then we see that Glen — unapologetically out, politically enraged, flirtatious and demanding — might simply be subtler in his strategies of avoidance, and that for him sex and talk allow him to maintain distance, rather than to connect. Indeed it is much harder for Glen, the champion of critical thinking and non-conformity, to tolerate Russell’s differences from him, from the way Russell lives his sexuality to his unapologetic desire to be happy, which Glen at first can only dismiss as bourgeois.
While both Weekend and 45 Years track the rhythms of a changing relationship, both films are anchored in a single character, not only narratively but formally. The camera watches Russell looking out his high-rise window, and follows him biking through the streets, navigating the world by himself. In 45 Years — which marks each of the five days with a title card (an overly mechanical and interruptive device) — Kate begins each morning walking through country fields with the dog. When characters are shown together, conversations are often shot in single takes, with both characters together in the frame. By avoiding shot-reverse-shots, which divide characters from each other by placing them in separate spaces, Haigh is able to capture the beauty and difficulty of spontaneous human responsiveness. Weekend shows the difficulty of being present with someone you don’t really know. 45 Years shows the difficulty of being present with someone you do.
In interviews Haigh has said that he didn’t try to imagine what it would be like to be old when he wrote his script, he just wrote what he imagined he might do or say in such a situation. And Rampling spoke of her joy of reading a script that involved a relationship between people her age that wasn’t about being old. Yet age, time, and memory are essential to this story. Kate’s loss of orientation and balance, and her special sense of betrayal, depend upon having shared so many orienting, balancing years with her partner. And Geoff’s absorption in nostalgic longing appears more disruptive and destabilizing because of his age, his distraction by memory sometimes taking the guise of senility. Film seems an especially effective medium for telling a story about memory and years, as we are given a visual presentation of the experience and effects of both in the basic physicality of the actors’ bodies. Rampling’s face and eyes especially — and as always — harbor unfathomable recesses, swells of feeling and thought disclosed not through expressiveness but often through unnerving placidity.
After listening to Geoff rummage around in his boxes of keepsakes night after night, Kate eventually goes to the attic by herself, climbing the unsteady ladder, pulling it up behind her, and closing the door. In the cramped windowless space, she fingers pressed flowers in a journal. She looks at photos. She sets up the projector and illuminates the walls with images of a dead woman, scrutinizing her face for traces of her love for Geoff, even traces of Geoff himself. Is Geoff present in Katya’s face, in her loving gaze? Is he present in the feeling of the picture itself, in the way the camera clearly adores its subject? But then Kate stops abruptly, as though suddenly aware of what she is doing, as though waking from a kind of trance.
So what is she doing and why does she only belatedly realize there is something wrong with it? And what exactly is wrong with it? Why do we slam shut diaries we shouldn’t be reading or drawers we shouldn’t be sifting through?
Sometimes, of course, it’s that we learn some fact or detail that we didn’t know before, and weren’t meant to know. But Kate knows about Katya, knows she had dark hair, and that she and Geoff were in love. Much of what she finds is what she already knows. But in reading others’ diaries, what we get is not just unknown facts, but an uncanny kind of access to a person that bypasses communication with the person himself. Looking at a diary or at private photos doesn’t just expose the other, it exposes us to the other’s unmediated memories and experiences, memories and experiences that are meant to be known through that person’s telling, by their narrating their life and providing context and tone and sense. But when Kate looks at Geoff’s journal and pictures without him, she is trying to learn something about him without his being the one to tell her, trying to know him without or despite of their relationship.
The philosopher Stanley Cavell saw that acknowledging another a person in their particularity and separateness can be a maddening task, and in his work he analyzes the human tendency to turn the other person into a vertiginous depth that cannot be accessed; a tendency which transforms the work of sustaining a relationship into an effort to know what is inside another person’s head, and the urge to be present with another can express itself in a confessional urge to tell everything. It can be paradoxically easier to imagine the other person as essentially, metaphysically, unreachable, than to accept and navigate the merely human ways we have to reach one other. Cavell saw this as a tendency with tragic potential because it is a tendency that cannot find satisfaction: trying to know another person by bypassing a relationship with them does not give us what we thought we wanted, nor does trying to be known through unchecked confession.
We sometimes feel the need to know more about the people we love because it is can be so hard to do the work of knowing them, where that involves not finding out what they know or what they did, but being ready to listen to what they tell us, in their own words, and only ever to the extent that they can or are willing. It is so hard because this doesn’t lay them fully bare. Their sheer separateness can be astounding. Toward the end of the film, Kate says to Geoff, with some desperation in her voice: “I’d like to be able to tell you everything I’m thinking and everything I know. But I can’t. Do you understand?”
There is so much in others, so much that is part of them that has nothing to do with us. And there is so much in each of us that we cannot give. It’s inevitable. It will break your heart.