Some songs are so beautiful that it takes six or seven or fifty listens before you really hear the words. High on the list of the greatest American songwriters, Jerome Kern crafted many such melodies: perfect enough to momentarily short-circuit the more analytical parts of the brain while zapping the pleasure centers to life. So when you finally allow lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II’s romantic exaltations to shine through Kern’s effortlessly descending chords in “All the Things You Are” (“You are the promised kiss of springtime / that makes the lonely winter seem long”), it moves beyond pleasure into revelation. This is especially the case with Kern’s rightly beloved “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” a pop chestnut so flawlessly composed, and whose swooning major-chord ascent is so heavenly, that one could easily overlook the unsettling ambiguity of Otto Harbach’s lyrics, which flicker between the fiery passion of first love and the smoldering ash of wistfulness and regret.
It’s this combination that makes it an apt anthem for 45 Years. Andrew Haigh’s heartsick portrait of a very difficult week in the life of a long-married Norfolk couple—at the end of which beckons an elaborate anniversary party five years shy of their golden—refuses to fall into the mollifying gentility that typifies many films about people past middle age. There’s nothing adorable here, just a quick cut-to-the-heart rendering of the crippling unknowability of human desire and regret that can keep even the closest people at a distance from one another. The plot is told with scalpel precision: in the first scene, we barely have time to register the comfortable domestic routine of Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) before it’s already disrupted. A letter is delivered from Switzerland, informing Geoff that the body of a woman named Katya has been discovered in a glacier, her corpse frozen for decades. This, Kate recalls, was Geoff’s first love; she had disappeared right before his eyes so many years ago, fallen through a crack in the ice, summarily and cruelly erased from the world. It’s a memory that Kate has perhaps hoped Geoff has repressed, especially since their marriage is a strong and loving one, either despite or because of their lack of children. Yet it’s clear from Geoff’s increasingly haunted desperation throughout the ensuing days after receiving the letter that the repressed has indeed returned, and that, for Kate, an encroaching horror has invaded their otherwise beautiful home: the idea that Geoff may have loved another more deeply.
With her heavy eyelids and trembling cheeks, Rampling makes subtly visible the creeping realization of her seemingly loving husband’s distance from her. Like Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, 45 Years is a film about a marriage put in jeopardy by something so dastardly simple as a thought; just as that film’s Dr. Bill Harford is sent into spirals of agonizing self-doubt by his wife’s articulation of a sexual fantasy that never even was, Kate is emotionally decimated by the idea that her husband may have all along been imagining an alternative reality with Katya. Had the woman not missed her step and fallen, preserved for eternity as a symbol of a road not taken, where would Kate be today? Who would Kate be today? And then, the terrifying question: who is Kate? Haigh doesn’t follow a simple trajectory toward this aging woman’s self-actualization, but rather palpates the edges of her disillusionment.
“The phrases are musically perfect, but also wonderfully ambiguous. To put it simply: is it a good thing that one should feel so much heart-scorching desire that it blinds you?”
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