45 Yearsrecommended viewing

I can smell her perfume
Andrew Haigh
Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay
The Setup: 
Woman discovers something about her husband after 45 years of marriage.

I would have been interested in this anyway, but was very interested once I heard it was written and directed by Andrew Haigh, writer and director of the wonderful film Weekend. That was an especially well-written, sharply-observed gay movie that covered the lives of two guys who had a hookup, then gradually fell into an intimate relationship over the course of a weekend. He also went on to do the show Looking on HBO, which I did not watch, but my friend told me was very good. So here, since he’s doing a film about a long-time marriage, I wanted to know if he was bringing a gay sensibility to it, and if so, what would that look like?

The film is very slow and talky and all about small gestures and inflections. Charlotte Rampling is Kate, married to Geoff for 45 years. The movie covers the week leading up to their 45th wedding anniversary, which they are having a big party to celebrate. They didn’t have a party for their 40th because Geoff was having bypass surgery, so they’re having one now.

On the Saturday a week before the party, Geoff receives a letter saying that they have found the body of Katya, his girlfriend before Kate. They were hiking in the Alps, and she fell into a crevice and froze, and they have only dug out the body now, perfectly preserved. How’s that for a metaphor? The morning passes slowly—they successfully recreate the stalled time of a morning in which heavy emotional news has come—and Geoff goes very distant, going outside and smoking, assuring Kate that everything is fine, he’ll be fine, it’s nothing to worry about, but he obviously wants to be alone.

That night, he tells her that the police will assume that he and Katya were married, because he told authorities that they were at the time. She suddenly gets up and is going to take a bath, and I wish I could remember her exact line here, but it’s something like “Something that happened 45 years ago has nothing to do with our marriage,” gets up for her bath, then turns and says “Still…” and that perfectly sums it up: it IS nothing. But there is something. And that something continues to grow throughout the movie.

Geoff starts smoking again. He wanders off, and Kate receives a report that a friend saw him on a bench in town, and kept insisting that he was upset, even though he said he wasn’t. Later, Kate and a friend are driving through town, where she finds Geoff on the bench himself. He has obviously just wandered off to be alone and think, but it’s clear: he’s not staying home and opening up about his feelings to her. He suddenly becomes interested in climate change, which he feels is related to why the crevice thawed enough that they could recover Katya’s body.

Meanwhile, Kate goes about planning their big anniversary. The film is filled with silent details like her staring at a painting depicting Alpine mountains, although nothing is ever said about it. Apparently [I didn’t notice this] the weather outside changes according to the emotional chilliness of the marriage. She asks him if he’s going to be okay to have this party, and he says he is, but more and more it seems that his mind is elsewhere. Nevertheless, he’s always clear that it means nothing and he loves Kate very much and is happy with her. At the same time she finds him in the attic in the middle of the night, looking at old pictures of Katya. Kate says that she feels she can “smell Katya’s perfume in the room.”

The big bravura scene [and Rampling’s Oscar clip] comes when she goes upstairs to rummage through Geoff’s old things herself. She starts looking at old slides, and the shot is set up so that she is on the left, and we can see the photos she is seeing on the sheet at right. She looks through numerous photos, and the way it works is that the screen goes black between each slide, and when it comes back on, we can see that Kate is more upset. Especially when slides reveal that Katya was pregnant when she died. Geoff has said [under Kate’s prodding] that he would have married Katya had she not died. She now puts that together with the fact that she was pregnant—and that Geoff has never mentioned the baby.

Soon after, Kate says something like “There’s so much I have to say, only I can’t say any of it” [sorry, I wasn’t taking notes this time] which means that she has a lot to say—only much of it is about things he hasn’t told her, so she can’t really talk about them. She basically tells him she’d going to bed and when they wake up, the day of the party, they have to put it behind them. He agrees and says everything will be different. He wakes her the next morning with breakfast in bed and accompanies her on her morning walk. It’s a new Geoff! Still…

That night they have the party, where Geoff gives a big speech to everyone about how much he loves Kate and how lucky he is. She sits there, not quite overjoyed. You will note that she does not get to speak about their marriage, they let Geoff speak, then on to the dancing! They dance to the song they danced to 45 years ago, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” [dubious wedding song choice, just saying… proceed with caution if this is your wedding song], and as they dance, Kate seems to be getting more upset. She seems bewildered, unable to fully process what’s going on but NOT at all in happy celebration mode, and at last she vehemently yanks her hand away from Geoff’s. The end!

At first, I was skeptical. I was like “The only reason this movie is drawn out so much is this couple’s poor communication skills.” And I was a little annoyed, feeling like if we’d just had more articulate characters, we wouldn’t have been going through any of this. And I didn’t know quite what to make of the last scene, except that Kate obviously isn’t happy. A friend of mine said he’d heard the director said that the ending is purposely ambiguous, so I was content to leave it. But the more I processed it with my boyfriend, I began to think it’s quite brilliant. He later said “I think that movie was pretty devastating,” and I agree. And here’s why:

There’s no one at fault. She has asked all the right questions. He has made it clear that he loves her and that he is very committed to this marriage. He’s like many men, who don’t want to process something emotionally, he just wants to move on and make like everything is fine. Like the day of the party, he’s going to just make her tea in bed and be present again. And it’s NOT a big deal, and they COULD easily get over it, and their marriage IS stronger than this… only by the end, so much lack of honesty has passed between them, there is so much unspoken between them, that they may not be able to move beyond it. So that’s why I think it’s brilliant: because it’s not any of the events that happened, and not that they don’t love each other, but the sheer amount of dishonesty that has grown between them, that could destroy their marriage. I interpret the last moments as Kate having the horrible realization that she’s at the center of this hideous façade of a loving marriage, and she cannot participate any more. There’s also the double-entendre of the title… on the one hand, they’ve been together 45 years. On the other, she could be saying “For 45 years I’ve been in the dark about this man…”

So it is, definitively, Jamesian. It’s all about quiet moments of little incident but which constitute emotional depth charges, and how they can completely shake a marriage. So it’s a masterpiece of writing [as well as direction and acting], but I do have to tell you, there are no exploding spaceships. Many will consider it, as half the comments on IMDb do, “boring, boring, boring.” Many who do generally like it will not come out of it with a clear sense of what happened. It’s one you have to sit and think about, and only then do you realize what a total and unrelenting bummer it is. But at that point you’ll probably be in love with it.

So does it have a gay sensibility? Well, it’s complicated. On the surface, no. On the other, simply because all the action happens on an emotional level, and the film is primarily concerned with that level, it becomes kind of gay [or at least Jamesian… but Henry James was gay]. The direction is all beautifully keyed into emotion and nuance, small gestures and looks—which of course, old pros Rampling and Tom Courtenay have a field day with—and I sense several thematic nods to Rebecca,with it’s similar themes. There is even a hint of the supernatural, expertly deployed, as Kate holds her hand up to feel a draft coming out of the attic [where the explosive emotional material is], and the door behind her slowly creaks closed.

So there we are. Andrew Haigh, director to watch. This is an excellent movie, but very slow and on the quiet, emotional side. But if you get into it, devastating. Go see it.

Should you watch it: 

If you like ‘em slow and talky but emotionally astute.


I haven't seen this film, and all I have to go on is your review, but my impression is that the reason Kate is so devastated is because she realizes that she was not her husband's first choice for a wife. That, had Katya lived, Kate would not have had the 45 years of the title. So her emotion is not about her husband's dishonesty, but about her own (perceived) inadequacy. She has come by a great milestone (45 years of marriage) by a fluke, and is not the love of her husband's life due to her own merits, but by a terrible accident.. She might also feel great guilt because Katya would have had the wonderful 45 years if it were not for her death (of course, Katya and the guy might've divorced after 5 years, who knows?). Anyway, I will definitely watch this movie and see if I change my mind at all, but I thought that I'd express my thoughts since I'm pretty sure that if I were in Kate's shoes, that's what I'd be thinking.