Haigh: 45 Years (2015)
Over the last few years, it feels as if dramas about older people have taken a different turn. Whereas it once felt that films about the aged were made for the young, or at least the middle-aged, as a way of contemplating their future selves, it increasingly feels as if a new kind of film has emerged that is specifically targeting older people as a viable demographic. In part, that makes good business sense, since research shows that people in their 60s and older are likely to be the last generation with a steadfast attachment to cinema as cinema, as well as to the theatre itself as the prime venue for experiencing cinema, which explains why a franchise like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel can afford such a lavish cast of actors and shooting locales. At the same time, the increasing precarity of everyday life in a post-GFC world often hits the aged hardest of all, especially those counting upon superannuation, retirement plans or other investments, while the more general dissolutions of time and space that have occurred in the wake of digital technology and massive economic destabilisation have also tended to undo a certain fantasy of the good life that depends, for its meaning, upon a certain linear progression from childhood to adulthood to marriage to old age, but also upon a certain cyclical logic whereby old age becomes a second childhood at the same time. For the most part, more exploitative visions of old age tend to oscillate between these two versions, with tragedy generally reserved as the appropriate register for depictions of old age as an endpoint, and kitsch generally reserved for depictions of old age as part of the circle of life. Sometimes, a film will embrace one narrative in a particularly extreme way, making for a vision that seems quite bracing or original in the conviction with which it sets forth its tragic or kitsch manifesto. At the same time, these kinds of films also tend to be more complicit than might appear at first glance, and quite distinct from the more provisional, hypothetical and open-ended approaches to age that have arisen in recent years.
Collectively, this new wave of films constitute something like what Judith Halberstam terms an “epistemology of youth,” opening up “those specific models of temporality that emerge within postmodernism once one leaves the temporal frames of bourgeois reproduction and family, longevity, risk/safety and inheritance.” Halberstam identifies the AIDS crisis of the 1980s as a formative moment in the development of this “queer time,” where it frequently involved negotiating drastically foreclosed futures, as well as the removal of what he describes as “horizons of possibility” Of course, queer time isn’t limited to AIDS-related communities, and in fact one of the reasons that queer time emerged within those communities in the first place was because the virulence, rapidity and mercilessness with which the disease aged and ravaged its victims produced an entire generation that was effectively forced to contemplate and come to terms with the experience of old age decades before its time, and often with very little warning or notice. Displaced from both linear and cyclical modes of contextualisation, old age became, in the hands of AIDS communities, a queer time and place, confounding generational expectations and often producing a reparative approach to apocalyptism, in which the looming sense of catastrophe, destruction and finitude was offset by a prescience for the way in which conventional notions of time and space themselves dissolved in the approach to the end times.
In recent years, various factors have somewhat generalised this experience of the AIDS crisis, with the result that society at large has had to adjust to the radically foreclosed futures that were faced by these early communities in the 1980s. In fact, you could argue that the gradual movement of AIDS away from a rhetoric of precarity has not only been a product of the increased medical opportunities for those suffering from the disease, but also a symptom of the extent to which that level of precarity has become somewhat the norm. Of course, that is not to deny the singularity and specificity of the AIDS crisis either, but instead to suggest that the experience of old age as kind of queer time that is bracketed from both linear and cyclical models of futurity has become pervasive in a new kind of way. At one level, that’s clear from the vast number of apocalyptic films, television series and video games, as well as the apocalyptic affect lingering around the fringes of franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, while these more visible apocalyptic visions often evince a certain masochistic glee in the spectacle of catastrophic destruction, they all tend to be somewhat anti-apocalyptic in their sensibility, not simply in the very obvious fear, anxiety and horror that they experience in the face of apocalypse, but also in the more subtle way in which they encourage us to passively submit to the spectacles of apocalypse – or even to masochistically get off on them – rather than using them as the opportunity for any genuinely constructive approach to a new way of being.
Of course, there are exceptions, with one of the most notable being Abel Ferrara’s 4:44: Last Day on Earth, a drama set in New York on what turns out to be the last night of the world, in which Ferrara largely refrains from any apocalyptic sense of spectacle or scale to focus on a small collection of characters who are forced to find some way to go about their lives “as normal” in the face of this uncomputable horizon. In fact, it’s the very way in which Ferrara downplays the spectacle and scale of that horizon that allows his film to deal so reparatively with apocalypse, which becomes a sense of exponentially compressed and distorted time more than the anticipation of a discrete event, a trend that has continued into his two subsequent films, which both deal with a similar pressing awareness of finitude – Welcome to New York, which revolves around the last few hours in the career of French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was found guilty of assault a prostitute at a New York nightclub; and Pasolini, which revolves around the last few days in the life of Pier Paolo Pasolini, before he was murdered by a rent boy in the Roman seaside resort of Ostila. While both films are ostensibly biopics, they are really more continuous with the apocalyptic contemplation of 4:44: Last Day on Earth, dealing with characters who traverse the boundaries of bourgeois linearity to discover a new sense of time that just as quickly ends up consuming them, and can only consume them so rapidly because of its novelty. As a result, all three films are forced to unfold in something close to real time as well – or, rather, their condensation of the story to the length of a film feels like real time, just because their respective characters are already dealing with a somewhat condensed timeframe to begin with. Against the plastic spectacles of mass apocalyptic cinema, then, Ferrara discovers something like an apocalyptic naturalism, a synergy between the compressed demands of film-time and the compressed demands of the queer-time we increasingly inhabit.
While there are directors, then, like Ferrara, who are clearly playing with that apocalyptic affect in a reparative way, there is a whole body of films that manage to deal with a similar affect but without any overt or direct references to the kinds of apocalyptic imagery that are still somewhat residually present in Ferrara’s body of work. For me, depictions of old age, and of aging more generally, are where that move most often occurs, with Michael Haneke’s Amour, Alexander Payne’s Nebraska and The Best Exotic Marigold franchise being some of the best examples of this trend, which I date roughly from the release of The Bucket List in 2007, a film that took both the linear and cyclical sentimentalities of old age to their logical conclusion and seemed to utterly exhaust them, once and for all, in the process. In fact, one of the most notable trends at this year’s Cannes film festival was the frequency with which directors dealt with aging as a kind of queer possibility, with disrupted temporalities, lineages and expectations forming the subject matter of such films as The Sea of Trees, Mountains May Depart, The Lobster and – above all – Youth, originally titled In The Future, as well as Justin Kurzel’s particular vision of Macbeth, in which Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are singled out first and foremost for their childlessness, just as their murder is subsumed into their grief at not being able to assure their lineage into their old age. Although this was always a part of the Macbeth tradition, there was something akin to a reinvention of the play for the twenty-first century in the way in which Kurzel drew it out and made it the driving force behind the drama. By the end, it felt as if Macbeth and Lady Macbeth had murdered Duncan purely to compensate for their lack of offspring – a desperate stab at longevity – while Macbeth’s murder of Banquo – and horror at the prospect of Banquo’s children succeeding him as a king – was given such an incredible visceral kick that you had to wonder whether Kurzel was completing the play more than adapting it, and whether this backstory had actually been more present in Shakespeare’s original text, now lost to us in what seems to be a heavily redacted “prompt” copy of the play.
While Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years may not have played at Cannes, it does feel very much of its moment in the way in which it queers old age, and certainly made a splash in Berlin, where Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling took out the Silver Bear for best Actor and Actress respectively. If the unprecedented decision to award the 2013 Palme d’or to Abdellatif Keciche and lead actresses Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos signalled a new, collective and queer conception of artistic collaboration, then this shared Silver Bear was a similar kind of gesture, albeit in a more modest way. In both cases, there was a sense that the jury had somehow divined that it would only make sense to reward the film through some kind of deforming of the apparatus of reward itself, as well as its own rhetorics of lineage, inheritance and continuity. Of course, the decision to award the Palme d’Or collectively was also an important rhetorical gesture in terms of the same-sex marriage debate that was gaining a new kind of traction and visibility around this time, but I would argue that 45 Years is queer in an equally original manner, despite the fact that it centres on a heterosexual couple. In fact, I would like to posit the existence of a New Queer Cinema – or a Non-New Queer Cinema, since the very rhetoric of a linear progression from novelty to age is what is at stake – that often takes the heterosexual couple as precisely its subject matter – virtually every other film I’ve described at Cannes would fall into this category – and interrogates it in order to contemplate the best way to envision a world in which heterosexual coupledom is neither hegemonic nor discarded but simply one option among many, which in many ways is a much more radical prospect than queer isolationism. This is quite different from a parallel project that I discern within indie comedy television in particular, in which the focus on self-deprecating, unsympathetic and “perverse” heterosexual couples creates a kind of modesty topos whereby heterosexuality is redeemed as the only queer identity precisely by way of exercises designed to emphasise everything about it that might be considered an affront to good taste. In their efforts to sequester off queerness as a heterosexual privilege, these shows – which include Catastophe, Difficult People and Aziz Ansari’s Master of None as the moment at which they have been granted the middlebrow imprimatur for which they are all secretly striving – are really not that all different from series in which queerness is aggressively and emphatically “othered,” since the one thing they can’t abide is the prospect of a queerness that lives, imperfectly and inconsistently, here and there, among some of us, if not all.
In that sense, and as paradoxical as it may seem, Andrew Haigh may have only discovered his true queerness now that he has moved away from exclusively gay subcultures as his primary mode of enquiry. Alternatively, what 45 Years clarifies is that it was always the sense of time, rather than the specific gay subcultures involved, that made Haigh’s works so queer. In his first feature-length outing, Greek Pete, Haigh focused on a year in the life of a London rent boy, and his various relationships with clients, other rent boys and the people he encountered incidentally and fleetingly over the course of his working days and nights. While cruising and flanerie have often been linked as modes of urban apprehension and reclamation, Haigh discovered a similar sense of liberated time in the rhythms of the sex trade, and especially the gay sex trade, which has enjoyed less tacit approval and integration into the linearities of heterosexual time than, say, the instutitions of heterosexual prostitute, stripclubs and escort services; there is, after all, no “boyfriend experience” that I’m aware of. Rather than a series of directed, discrete and teleological sex acts, Greek Pete instead offered a panoply of emergent, incomplete and provisional encounters that often seemed to defy, diffuse and disperse any distinctions between sex scenes and non-sex scenes. Not only did that help clarify what I found unconvincing about a film like Shortbus – which had queer aspirations but a veritable Aristotelian temporality when it came to the depiction of individual sex acts – but it felt like something of a forerunner to the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, and its “attention to the many dimensions of the world, both animate and inanimate, that may only with difficulty, if at all, be rendered with propositional prose.” While Manakamana and Leviathan have been quite rightly acclaimed as two of the most extraordinary works to come out of the Lab, they build upon a series of earlier trailblazers, most notably Noelle Stout’s Luchando, a study of queer sex workers in Havana that arguably effects the greatest fusion of academic and cinematic ethnography from the Lab so far, paving the way for her incredible study After Love: Queer Intimacy and Erotic Economies in Post-Soviet Cuba, released in 2014 in Duke University Press. In a beautiful encapsulation of the compression characteristic of queer time, Stout presents a “day in the life” of four queer sex workers that in fact draws upon footage shot over the course of a single year, blurring diurnal, annual and sexual rhythms to create an emergent temporality that propels the film’s erotics more than any single sex act, most of which are incomplete or provisional at best.
While I’ve got a bit more to say about the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab in another post, I’d like to suggest that it forms part of this general movement towards queer temporality and offers a powerful strategy for doing so that is particularly evident in Luchando – namely, a collapse of different physiological, social and economic rhythms into something akin to what Henry Lefebvre termed rhythmanalysis. In his book of the same name – Rhythmanalysis: Time, Space and Everyday Life – Lefebvre suggested that urban life is structured by two basic types of rhythm – the linear and cyclical rhythms that have been discussed in terms of old age – but that rhythms are rarely equivalent (isorythmic), and may exist in any state from co-existence (polyrhythmic) to constructive collaboration (eurythmic) to dissonance (arrhythmic). In Lefebvre’s terms, then, the Harvard Lab is particularly interested in aestheticising and exploring the shifting zone between eurythmic and arrythmic ways of being in the world, perhaps explaining why so many of the Lab’s films seem to involve the perpetual sensory dissolution and recreation of the world, whether in the way in which Leviathan’s omniscient cameras seem to reframe our perspective of the sea afresh with every new and unbelievable perspective, or in the continual reinvention of the cable car and its vistas with each new ride in Manakamana, a process that finds an earlier echo in Ernst Karel’s Swiss Mountain Transport Systems, suggesting the the cable car, funicular and gondola are all somehow privileged images of this emergent form of queer temporality. In Greek Pete, as well as Haigh’s two subsequent ventures, that state between eurythmia and arrythmia is figured in terms of gay nightlife, taking the foreclosed time that gay nightlife putatively celebrates and trying to figure out, how, exactly, to occupy it with as much commitment to longevity as a distended or indefinite present. On the one hand, in Weekend, Haigh’s follow-up to Greek Pete and his breakout film, we’re presented with a pair of gay characters who are quite comfortable living their lives in one forty-eight-hour burst after another, until they meet each other, fall in love, and are forced to face the fact that one of them is actually due to leave the country – it is set in Nottingham – within precisely that forty-eight-hour period, On the other hand, Haigh has also played a critical role in the development of Looking, an HBO series dedicated to gay life in and around San Francisco in the second decade of the new millennium. Opening with a character receiving a handjob in a park only to immediately go out on a Grindr-located date, it’s torn between older and newer modes of gay sociability, as well as older and newer expectations of the amount of futurity that gay people can be expected to command, creating an unusual atmosphere whereby Haigh effectively tries to envisage the serial experience of gay nightlife as a series, just as the series is formally obsessed with trying to imbue a sequence of random hookups, improvisational sex scenes and confused near-misses with the continuity of a linear, extended narrative. While many fans were outraged that it was cancelled after two seasons, then, there was also something apposite about that limited life-span – any shorter and it would have felt too episodic, any longer and it would have felt too linear.
While there can be no doubt that Weekend and Looking have both been massively critically acclaimed, I must admit that both of them left me cold in some ways as well, as much as I admired the project. Looking back on them, I wonder if the radicality of Haigh’s sense of time required a reversion to an older model of gayness as a kind of apologia, since I recall feeling strangely conflicted between what felt to me like an extraordinarily atmospheric mood, atmosphere and lifeworld, but a strangely staid set of characters, situations and scenarios. I’ve always felt a bit funny about depictions of the gay scene, or of any collection of gay friends who’ve managed to somehow constellate in and around a gay scene, since I’ve always felt a bit obliquely related to all that, so it may just be my personal hangups talking here too. At the same time, the sheer obliqueness of Haigh’s temporality seemed to require some kind of expository compensation that I found a bit distantiating as well, especially in Weekend, where the relationship between the two men plays out largely by way of a documentary that one of them is making about “the gay experience,” in a kind of nested or residual version of the more conventional film Haigh could have made that, once again, often felt like an apologia for the film he had made. Again, that kind of discursive, expository and explanatory angle always leaves me a bit cold – there are only so many times you can channel Sex, Lies and Videotape – and combined with the focus on a more archaic or restrictive notion of gayness, there was something about the subject matter of Weekend and Looking that seemed to cut against the tone.
It was a wonderful surprise, then, to find that this queer temporality was taken to a whole new level with 45 Years, Haigh’s adapation of “In Another Country,” a short story by David Constantine. Sometimes, the best films are based on short stories – or collections of short stories – since something about the medium forces directors into a visual ingenuity and economy that’s not always possible when adapting more literary, theatrical or verbose sources, curbing any tendencies towards excessive exposition in the process. At the same time, short stories are unique in the way that they can capture a temporality outside the strictures of linear, novelistic realism – fragments of time, or dissonant experiences of time – which is particularly appropriate for Haigh’s project here as well. And from the very beginning of the film, there is a sense of time being slightly out of joint, as we’re introduced to an elderly couple, Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Tom (Tom Courtenay), who have both retired and are living in a farmhouse just outside of a small town on the Norfolk Broads. As the film commences, Kate and Tom are planning celebrations for their 45th wedding anniversary, since – as we gradually find out – they were prevented from celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary due to Tom’s need for last-minute bypass surgery. From the start, then, there’s a sense that the events we’re watching are somehow dislocated from their intended trajectory, just as the 45th celebration itself feels somewhat bypassed by the previous anniversary, even if Kate, in particular, is doing everything in her power to smooth over that difference and transform the upcoming party – the film unfolds over the course of a single week – into a seamless simulation of the 40th they never had.
However, it’s only a matter of time before an even more drastic dislocation occurs. On the Monday before the party is to be held, Tom receives a letter informing him that the body of his first lover – Katya, a Frenchwoman, who died in a mountaineering accident – has been discovered. What’s more, the body has been perfectly preserved in a glacier, meaning that she looks much as she did in 1962, when the accident took place. Since this occurs so early in the film, we never really experience Tom and Kate’s relationship outside of this revelation, which syncs up quite powerfully – but also dissonantly – with Kate’s gradual realisation that their relationship has never been free from the spectre of Tom’s earlier love, even if it took her forty-five years to realise it. On paper, that might sound like a fairly melodramatic, ghoulish prospect, but part of what is so special about the film is the way in which Haigh pairs this quite outlandish revelation with a kind of heightened naturalism, immediately resuming his focus on the buildup to the anniversary party and never once leaving the environs of Tom and Kate’s local community. Having heard about the premise before I saw the film, I think I was expecting that the story would head to the Alps and make some kind of concession to the spectacle of Katya’s perfectly preserved body – perhaps I was picturing a kind of companion piece to Clouds of Sils Maria – but there’s never the slightest hint of that, with this uncanny time capsule from the early 1960s instead percolating across the pair’s relationship as they go about their daily lives.
Accordingly, the film is first and foremost a portrait of a relationship – or, perhaps more accurately, a portrait of two people who happen to be in a relationship, since the inviolability of their relationship as an assurance of longevity, durability and continuity is exactly what dissolves over the course of the film. From the very outset, it is clear that there is an ineffable difference in the way in which Kate and Tom respond to each other, which initially feels as if it might be explicable by Tom’s shock, distance and confusion upon hearing of Katya’s plight, but gradually feels as if it is somehow more integral to the way they relate to each other. In that sense, the audience’s trajectory mirrors Kate’s, who also initially responds to Tom’s behaviour as a symptom of this surprising revelation, but gradually comes to understand its continuity with a certain dissonance that has persisted over the course of their whole relationship as well. While the film is very much a dual effort, then, it also tends to be anchored in Rampling’s performance, which has to be one of the strongest of her entire career. My boyfriend is a particular Charlotte Rampling fan – he first introduced me to Swimming Pool – and, after watching the film, he made the great observation that her screen persona always manages to be steely and permeable at the same time, which makes her little moments of sympathy and communion all the more revelatory when they do occur. In that sense, part of what makes 45 Years so powerful is how clinically those two aspects of her screen persona are dissociated, making for a film that feels as much about Rampling’s screen persona – and what it represents – as about the events taking place, in a kind of sly tribute to her divaesque intensity that perhaps only a gay male director could really pull off. On the one hand, Kate adopts quite a cool, detached and brittle manner when it comes to dealing with her friends, acquaintances and the local townspeople, but, on the other hand, she has a kind of infinitely vulnerable, gentle and forgiving manner when it comes to her her husband, which paradoxically creates the sense that she, in turn, has spent the entirety of her marriage seeking his forgiveness, as if forgiving him, time and time again, were the best way to model or implore for the forgiveness she seems to require simply by virtue of their marriage, even if she’s not aware of why she needs it, or that she’s even requesting it, in every little motion, gesture and movement she makes towards him.
In that sense, the revelation of Katya’s body quickly becomes secondary to Kate’s realisation that it’s the very spectacle of this body that has pervaded her marriage over the last forty-five years. At one level, that makes for a familiar story about a wife living in the shadows of her husband’s first great love, but it also leads to Kate’s more unsettling realisation that her marriage has been haunted by another temporality, another timeline, and another future, especially when Tom concedes that he would have married Katya had she lived. Crucially, that’s not to say that Tom necessarily loved Katya more than he loved Kate – something Kate quickly realises – but that the very suddenness of her glacier accident cemented her as a fantasy that has somewhat supplanted the fantasy of the good life that normally drives a married couple. While the film suggests various ways in which that fantasy has been supplanted, the most poignant is in Tom and Kate’s decision to not have children, which is never fully articulated, explained or justified in any way, nor exactly attributed to the couple as a unified entity either, but instead gradually comes to feel associated with the way in which the spectacle of Katya has tended to leach all sense of futurity from Kate’s role in the marriage. In films about the elderly, children and grandchildren are nearly always an obligation – even in films that are most concerned to push the envelope – while childlessness, when it does occur, is often explicitly cordoned off as something akin to a different orientation rather than another iteration of heterosexual coupledom. What ensues in 45 Years, however, is a quite painful and poignant deconstruction of the ways in which progeny and futurity are intertwined, as Kate and Tom contemplate the last stage of their life before needing care without having the children and grandchildren that, in their particular lifeworld, ensure that care can occurs in a proper way. For that reason, my favourite sequence in the film was a beautiful episode in which Kate assists with an paddlesteamer outing for seniors along one of the Broads. Serving tea and sandwiches to a collection of elderly women who are really only a couple of years older than her, she fuses the roles of carer and patient, daughter and mother, with the same beautiful and painful tact with which she offers herself as both caring wife and doting daughter to Tom, while leaving very little for herself in the process – something that’s achingly clear when she goes out on the back for a breath of fresh air and glimpses a father and son taking their boat out for a spin, a fleeting glimpse of family-driven futurity before we settle back into the drab, dour palette of the Broads.
One of the things the film clarifies, then, is that futurity is often very much a heterosexual male concept, at least as it currently stands, insofar as wives can be expected to fulfil the role of surrogate children when children are lacking – something that has clearly been happening in this relationship, with Kate gradually realising that Tom hasn’t exactly denied her children but has forced her to tend on him as both daughter and wife. My university supervisor once made the point that patriarchy pretty much comes down to men parenting wives, and that’s very much the case in this film, which is perhaps why Haigh’s queer futurity tends to constellate around Kate in particular, who gradually becomes the locus of two quite different rhythms. On the one hand, as the inexorable movement from Monday to Saturday might suggest, there is a diurnal, quotidian, everyday rhythm here that allows Haigh to really show off the diffuse naturalism that distinguished Weekend, as he follows Kate through her daily routine with an exquisite taste for all the small differences – especially the weather – that serve to clarify the deep continuity between one day and the next. At the same time, there is a more abrasive, abrupt and alienating rhythm, as Kate’s instinctive movement towards her husband is increasingly thrown off course by her gradual apprehension of Katya as an unnamed third party in their relationship, a cipher for the daughter that they never had and the daughter she has been forced to mimic. What initially seems to be an utterly isorhythmic existence – if only by virtue of Kate’s massive efforts to make it so – gradually becomes an arrhythmic existence that yearns for eurythmia but can never quite attain it, culminating with the final scene, which takes place on the dance floor at the anniversary party and subsumes all Kate’s struggles into a striking selection of dance moves, part fluid, part jagged, as befits the first and last moment in the film in which her steely public persona and vulnerable private persona are forced to come together in one space. One of the great advantages of rhythmanalysis from a cinematic perspective is that its focus on gestures, postures and poses almost seems to demand the language of cinema to fully consummate or articulate it, something that the Harvard Lab seems to have realised in their determination to move beyond the propositional prosaic style that positions so much cinema as an offshoot of theatre, literature any other of the language-based arts. At its strongest, the rhythmnanalytical tendencies of this recent queer cinema are therefore invested in a queerness that also exceeds propositional prose, and instead has to be partly or full embodied to be understood, in something like a translation of Helene Cixous’ notion of ecriture feminine into cinema feminine. For Haigh, the dancefloor is where this queer confluence of dissonant rhythmic registers is most pronounced, and the dancefloor that concludes 45 Years is one of his most memorable, forming a kind of counterpoint to Rampling’s angular explorations during the dance sequence in Swimming Pool, my favourite moment in the film.
In fact, much of the way 45 Years positions Rampling feels drawn from Swimming Pool, just as Francois Ozon makes for an interesting precursor to this mode of queer temporality as well in the way in which his films gradually move away from queer acts towards a queer time that exceeds any discrete depiction of acts, a process that’s foreshadowed quite poetically in Little Death, an early film that revolves around a photographer obsessed with capturing and fixing the faces of gay men during orgasm. In 45 Years, Haigh particularly draws on the way in which Ozon creates a kind of kinaesthetic continuity between Rampling and her immediate environment, subsuming the film into the interstitial space between the two, as the audience is eddied and swept along by the contradictory rhythms passing between them, as if Rampling’s physiology and the patterns of the natural world were drawn into a single system and had to find some way to negotiate their difference. In 45 Years, that process takes on a more urgent, apocalyptic quality as the week progresses and the future feels more and more foreclosed, but I’d suggest that there is already something apocalyptic in this subsumption – or at least partial subsumption – of the body’s spatiotemporal coordinates into those of an increasingly looming and all-consuming lifeworld. In fact, one of the ways in which queer temporality is peculiarly true to the magnitude of apocalyptic expectation is in the manner in which it genuinely envisions apocalypse as the condition of possibility for a new world, rather than the mere destruction of an existing one, as occurs in so much disaster porn. In Swimming Pool, that’s figured as breaking through writer’s block, but there’s also a more general sense in which Rampling’s character has only been able to get back to writing by allowing a new world to rewrite her – or partially rewrite her –as Ozon sketches out a landscape that has travelled to her body, rather than vice versa, continually recalibrating itself against across the surface of her skin. In thrillers of this kind, inanimate spaces often become psychologised, repositories of unspoken or unorthodox thoughts and desires, but here Ozon goes a step, as the house where the action unfolds is physiologised, kinaesthethically attuned to sensations and palpitations that not even Rampling’s character can fully articulate, even or especially in her writing. And just as her body language is continually on the cusp of coalescing into writerly postures, so Ozon’s spaces feel like they’re about to be articulated, about to be visualised – they have all the deep richness of a creative vision just before it’s captured, with the world disappearance as Rampling’s novel proceeds – it’s an act of erasure as much as creation – which means that something about her disappears as well, if only because the house knew her better than she knows herself. Like watching someone write themselves out of existence, then, it’s often hard to know whether Rampling’s the disappearer or the disappeared, or both at once, making for a quite natural companion piece to Under the Sand, as Ozon diffuses Rampling to a slinky Anglo-French liquidity, a point of transition, translation and departure.
If Rampling reprises that role in 45 Years, however, it is less as an apocalyptic allegory of writer’s block than in the name of what – gradually and subliminally – comes to feel like a way of figuring climate change as an apocalyptic horizon as well. For the reason that Katya’s body has been discovered is that global warming has caused the layer of snow to melt on top of the glacier in which she is preserved, leading Tom to seek out books on climate change at the local library and become a bit of an environmentalist advocate for a day or two, although this peters out pretty quickly. Critically, then, the film is able to acknowledge climate change as driving cause of the entire drama, but never able to fully articulate it, to the point where I found myself wondering whether the decision to relegate the action to Kate and Tom’s town was not so much to remove the alpine repository of Katya’s body to an uncanny distance, but the climactic factors that had disclosed it in the first place. In Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher observes that the most realistic way to address climate change in art is to simply assume that it has already happened, since, occuring to most scientists, it is a foregone conclusion anyway, at least if drastic changes aren’t made at this very instant. To some extent, that explains the banality of climate change as it is presented in 45 Years, but there is also a sense that climate change is incapable of being represented in its entirety – even if it has already occurred – that brings to mind Timothy Morton’s recent development of the ontological category of “hyperobjects” to address phenomena, like global warming, that are “entities of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions that they defeat traditional ideas of what a thing is in the first place.” Describing hyperobjects as the proper objects of “philosophy for the end of the world” – that is, philosophy for a temporality in which apocalypse is always imminent, or has perhaps already occurred – Morton suggests a new approach for the foreclosed futures typical of queer temporality in the form of a conception of time and space so massive, distributed and depersonalised that the very idea of futurity ceases to ramify in any kind of individualist, genealogical or linear way any more. And in some ways, that is the final note of 45 Years as well, with Kate neither quite gaining nor losing her own particular futurity so much as seeming to commune with a deep future just as she has communed with the deep past of Katya’s commensurate with Katya’s body. Of course, the fact that Katya’s body has also somehow managed to occupy a perfectly preserved, indefinite present tense means that this deep future always feels indefinitely present as well, resulting in one of the most beautiful visions of how to live in the midst of queered time, or apocalyptic time, that has graced our
Leave a Reply