“Less is more” could serve as a motto for Andrew Haigh’s latest film, 45 Years, screening in the Main Competition at the 65. Berlinale. Starring Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, and based on David Constantine’s short story In Another Country, the film tells a story of an elderly married couple about to celebrate their 45th anniversary. The film, effortless but important, is a delightful feast of subtlety, posing a striking contrast to such heavy-handed, tacky emotional bombs like Malick’s Knight of Cups or Herzog’s Queen of the Desert
One day Kate Mercer, a retired teacher, walks into the kitchen to find her husband Geoff tense and sullen at the table. He’s just received a letter from Switzerland, informing him that Katya – his previous girlfriend and big love, who died while hiking with him ages ago – has been found. Or rather that her body – frozen and intact – was discovered, something that Geoff has never expected. And just like that a ghost from the past creeps in, casting a shadow over the couple’s stable everyday life. Suddenly Kate finds herself facing an ideal. Katya is dead, but more present she’s ever been throughout 45 years of the marriage; preserved as a perfect memory, not tainted by the prosaic struggles and mundane routines of time.
Haigh, well renowned for Weekend and HBO’s Looking, is yet again reversing dominating cultural narratives. Cinema tends to attribute romantic longings and dilemmas to teens and twenty-somethings. Here this seemingly “young” problem becomes the domain of retirees, theoretically “too smart” and down to earth to be romantic.
His protagonists’ married in the sixties; there are not many contemporary love stories that could ever develop like theirs. Stuck in the take-away, love-on-demand culture, a 45 year anniversary seems like an abstract concept for my generation, despite not necessarily being an unwanted one. Formalized long term relationships serve as an arbitrary guarantee of civilizations endurance, something we’re taught to admire and praise. Yet somewhere in between the lines Haigh poses a question: Is it really so? What if…?
At one moment Geoff explains to Kate that Katya fell into a fissure, a small crack “that swallowed everything.” Katya’s reappearance exposes a vast untouched space of emotional and practical issues between the spouses. After all those years they still don’t know each other. Is their relationship precious solely because of its seniority? Is marital symbiosis a superior value? How important is self-reliance? How easily do we lose our independence, melting away in the warm, rising tide of relationship routine?
One of the last stages of party preparation is finishing the playlist. Track titles carry meaning: “Young Girl”, “Happy Together.” No, youth will never come back. But it shall not be missed – it had lasted long enough. 45 Years left a mark on me – some sort of unimpugnable sadness, but comfort, too. As long as we breathe, we doubt. And that is a clear enough signal that life, despite all its flaws, keeps going on.