I trailed this post a few days ago – Consequence driven by Catastrophe. As I said at the time, I’ve been very fortunate not to have the experience of that kind of event, and it’s not a subject I want to speculate on without that experience – I can’t truly know how sudden loss impacts someone, or how you feel or deal with the consequences when it happens.
But I saw a film recently that deals with aspects of sudden loss, and it triggered a number of thoughts that I felt were worth exploring further.
The film is 45 Years, directed by Andrew Haigh and starring Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling. It’s the story of how Geoff and Kate’s preparations for the celebration of their 45th wedding anniversary are disrupted when Geoff receives a letter telling him that the body of his girlfriend, Katya, has been found, 50 years after she fell from a mountain path in Switzerland while they were on a walking holiday together. It’s based on a short story by David Constantine.
Writing what I want to write is going to be tricky without giving away spoilers, so I’m going to try to do this in two parts. First I’ll address things that occur to me from the basic plot outline above, then I’ll put in a break with a SPOILER ALERT warning, then have Part 2 where I’ll cover points that come up later in the film , which I can’t do without revealing major plot developments and the closing of the film. Then I’ll try to pull together a conclusion that anyone can read without worrying about spoilers. Hope that works.
Part 1 (the initial set-up)
Geoff and Kate have been married 45 years when Geoff gets the letter. Geoff’s girlfriend, Katya, died 50 years earlier and her body was never recovered, but following the melting of the glacier the body has now turned up (there’s a global warming thread to the story, but to me that felt like a plot device to explain the discovery of the body – or I’m missing a very big metaphor).
How much does Kate know of Katya? How much has she wanted to know? How much did Geoff want to talk about Katya, or about what happened? Would he be able to talk about it with Kate, or would he internalise it all because he knows that Kate may be hurt by him talking about his former girlfriend?
Geoff and Kate are solidly, maybe stereotypically, English middle class – he’s now retired from a job as a manager in a local factory, she used to teach in the Norfolk village where they live. They have a nice cottage on the edge of the countryside, Kate walks the labrador each morning. We can estimate that they’re both in their late sixties or early seventies. And in that quintessentially English middle-class way, you get the impression that neither is comfortable discussing feelings. You keep things to yourself, you don’t share your concerns with other people, not even your spouse, partly to avoid upsetting the other person, even at the risk of causing damage to yourself.
So it’s quite believable that the death of Katya is something that’s been there throughout the forty-five years of marriage, but neither of them has ever spoken of her or the event for most of that time. You just wouldn’t – it’s not part of everyday life. Kate knows of Katya – we have to assume they talked a bit about former partners during their courtship, maybe that was even part of the attraction: Geoff needed someone after Katya, Kate wanted to take care of Geoff.
And Katya is (literally and metaphorically) frozen in time. She’s still young, and always will be. Geoff is 50 years older, but all his memories of Katya are of her as a young woman. He hasn’t had to deal with her aging, changing into a different person (as we all do, to a greater or lesser extent), getting ill, getting old. He’s seen that in Kate, seen her turn gradually from a (presumably beautiful – this is Charlotte Rampling, after all) young woman into a 70-year old pensioner, still elegant and attractive but definitely not the young woman he married. That may be a good thing – we don’t know what young Kate was like: she may have been horrid and selfish before maturing into the caring, loving woman we see in the film – but irrespective, she’s changed while Katya hasn’t.
OK, that’s about as far as I can get without going further into the plot so at this point:
SIGNIFICANT PLOT POINTS REVEALED BELOW!
JUMP TO THE END TO AVOID SPOILERS!
Still with me?
Here’s what happens after Geoff gets the letter….
Geoff starts to fall apart. He retreats into himself with his thoughts, feelings and memories. He still doesn’t really want to talk about it, though he does go into the attic and comes down (“Found it!”) with a tattered photo of Katya which he shows to Kate. Kate’s naturally sympathetic to his pain – this couple loves each other very much, and they’ve been through a lot (the reason for celebrating their 45th is that Geoff was recovering from heart surgery at their 40th anniversary), so of course she feels his pain and wants to help him.
But Kate’s struggling to understand why it’s hitting Geoff so hard, why he’s feeling a desire to go to Switzerland. She’s not the one who experienced the loss, and how can something that happened so long ago still hit Geoff that hard, particularly after 45 years of happy marriage to her? Does she feel that Geoff’s had a long time to get over Katya, so why is he falling into such an obsession now that her body has been found?
Sympathetic to Geoff’s pain, Kate encourages him to talk about Katya. And for the first time (one imagines) in fifty years he can talk about this girl that he once loved. It’s now causing pain to Kate to hear this, but she loves Geoff and this is support she can offer him. “Talk to me about her” is the right thing to say.
And Geoff reveals that he didn’t see Katya fall from the mountain. They were with a guide, and Katya and the guide were a little way ahead of Geoff, round a corner. He heard Katya laugh, then the scream as she fell, and when he got round the corner she’d gone. This is another pain he’s carried – he didn’t even say goodbye to her, didn’t know the moment when he was seeing her for the last time.
Then Kate asks the wrong question:
“Would you have married her?”
And that changes everything for her.
Now where does she stand? What should she feel? What does this 45 years of marriage mean now? She was Geoff’s second choice – if Katya hadn’t died, he would have married her, and probably never met Kate. Unknown to Kate, she has always been on the branch of the road which wasn’t meant to happen, and which she only has because of Katya’s death. If Geoff had said “No, we wouldn’t have got married”, or “Well, it wasn’t really working out, we’d probably have split up.” that would have been OK – Kate could have seen her path still leading to the present. But that’s not what Geoff wanted – he loved Katya, wanted to marry her, wanted the other branch of the road, and her fall from that mountain took that away. Kate’s looking at their happy 45 year marriage and now seeing Geoff as really wanting something else all that time. That may not be true – Geoff may think he’s much happier with Kate than he ever could have been with Katya – but Kate can’t be sure of that. All she knows is that Geoff and Katya were supposed to marry, and “Geoff-and-Kate” was supposed not to have happened.
Kate doesn’t want to talk about Katya any more. Those 45 happy years of marriage are suddenly all suspect for her.
And then things get worse. Geoff has been disappearing into the attic and one day when he’s out of the house Kate goes up to look. She finds that Geoff’s got a projector and screen rigged up, with a carousel of slides….from that fateful, fatal walking holiday in Switzerland. Photos of Katya, which Geoff’s been going into the attic to look at.
And in the photos, Katya is clearly pregnant.
Kate and Geoff never had children – I don’t recall if we know why, whether it was a decision they took or if they simply couldn’t – but now Kate knows that this dead girl who Geoff wanted to marry was expecting his child when she died. And that tears her apart more.
And of course, Geoff’s “Found it” when he brought Kate the picture of Katya was a deception – he’s got plenty of photos of her in that slide projector, photos that were on the film in his camera when he came back from Switzerland, that he went to the trouble of getting developed and made into slides after he got back, his last, lasting memories of Katya, and which he’s kept for 50 years. How often over that time has he gone up to the attic to look at them without Kate knowing?
There’s a confrontation of sorts, but even that’s not an open discussion. They’re both holding back, because neither wants to say things that will hurt the other. At no point are we in any doubt that these two people love each other, but that stops them from being fully open.
This is now the day before the anniversary party, which Kate has been progressing with throughout the week while Geoff wraps himself in memories and melancholy. Kate decides that enough is enough, and the stopper needs to be put back in the bottle: “We’re going to drink this wine, then we’re going to bed, and in the morning we’re going to have put this aside and start again and enjoy the day.” (Apologies: I can’t remember the exact quote)
And the next morning, that’s what Geoff does – he gets up early, brings Kate coffee in bed, is ready to enjoy the anniversary party. It’s as if he’s taken Kate’s words to heart, put the Katya thoughts back where he’s kept them for fifty years, and come back to the marriage.
And it’s all OK till the evening. Geoff gives a nice speech, says lovely things about Kate and the wonderful 45 years they’ve had together, and no-one else in the room would know anything had been wrong (and that’s very much the English way – putting on an outward show for others). Then Geoff and Kate take the floor for the first dance, which is the final, long, lingering, unbroken shot of the movie, focused entirely on Kate’s face, and we see how she feels – it’s all broken.
Geoff’s 50 years of pain have been transferred to her to carry for the rest of their lives.
Does she feel betrayed? A usurper? Just disappointed that she wasn’t Geoff’s first choice? Or thinking that, despite those 45 years, she hasn’t been able to give Geoff the things he really wanted. He’s seemed happy and content, and they’ve had a good marriage, but now she knows the story – Katya, Geoff’s wish to marry her, the pregnancy – and she feels like she’s failed. What is clear is that, despite her words, Kate’s the one who couldn’t put it behind her.
Geoff’s had 50 years of practice at putting the lid on Katya’s death. The letter has opened the box, and he’s spent a week thinking of little else but Katya, and now that he’s finally been able to talk about her, and possibly being able to say out loud for the first time that he would have married her, he’s finally able to get some closure. Or maybe he simply rationalises it – he knows how happy he and Kate have been, there’s no point dwelling on might-have-beens, get back to enjoying the happy retirement they have together.
But that ghost that has been on the edge of his vision for 50 years suddenly came into the light, and now is haunting Kate.
The title of the story may provide a clue. Kate and Geoff married five years after the devastating and unresolved catastrophe. Just five years after Geoff’s vision of the happy future with Katya, future wife and mother-to-be, disappeared. Did he have the time to deal with it – and how on earth do you deal with something like that? – before starting the relationship which led to his marriage to Kate a few years later?
Were they both happier not talking about? They seem to have had a happy marriage – it’s lasted 45 years and there’s still great affection between them (and sex!) but Geoff’s been carrying this with him. But how is this situation better? Geoff’s got a degree of closure from knowing that Katya’s body has been found, but he’s no nearer knowing exactly what happened, and it’s opened up new chasms between him and Kate. But now it’s Kate who will internalise and carry the pain, and maintain the happy, loving relationship through it all.
If I’ve planned this right, you could have jumped to the end and be able to read this section without seeing anything of Part 2 and any spoilers. I can’t guarantee that, so apologies if there’s something lingering on your screen that you didn’t want to know – I did my best. And I’ve tried to avoid introducing any more spoilers in this section.
I’m conscious that this post has turned into an essay on the movie and some of the questions it raises for me about the central couple’s relationship, rather than an exploration of the Consequences theme. Let me see if I can redress that in a conclusion.
With regard to Catastrophe, the conclusion I’m drawing is that the branching moment is frozen in time. Under my definition of my other categories of Consequence – Chance and Choice – all branches could have played out, and there is the possibility of the branches joining back up to a common outcome. For example, If I hadn’t met my wife when and how I did (that’s a post that’s still to be written), who’s to say I wouldn’t still have met her in some other way? It’s just that one of the routes to the outcome had a 100% probability (i.e. it actually happened) and other routes would have had a much lower, but still non-zero, probability.
With Catastrophe that isn’t the case. The branch is closed. I’m essentially talking here about a death, as in the film, but an unexpected or unlooked-for separation or divorce (in effect the top five or six items on the Holmes and Rahr Stress Scale) could have the same impact – the life route mapped out, however vaguely, suddenly isn’t there, cannot be regained, and defies speculation.
Reaction will vary from person to person – in Geoff’s case in the film he probably thinks he’s dealt with Katya’s death, internalised his pain, moved on, married Kate, and had 45 years of happy marriage; but the melting ice that revealed her body also revealed his unresolved issues from the branch he couldn’t follow. He now starts to consider that stalled, closed branch but from a position far down the road. He knows any speculation of other outcomes is futile – the Katya Branch is closed – but he’s caught sight of the fading, lost path again.
Kate is in the opposite situation. Her life with Geoff started after the branching point, and she can’t see back to a time prior to that – her life with Geoff starts at a kind of “Big Bang” moment: just as there is no valid concept of space and time before the cosmological Big Bang, there is no valid concept of “Geoff-and-Kate” before Katya’s death. Geoff can go back to the time before, but Kate can’t go there with him.
The Catastrophe becomes the end of a branch for one, the start of a branch for the other, but cannot be reconciled for either. That feels a bleak conclusion, but I’m only writing in the context of 45 Years. I wouldn’t seek to generalise from that.
I’ve been drafting and amending this post on and off for a while, and finally got round to hitting the Publish button. I’m not sure it’s actually finished, and it’s something I feel I’ll be coming back to.
It’s probably the longest, most complex and most ambitious post I’ve written yet, one that ended up trying to explore something that I think is very complex and also to deconstruct the emotional and intellectual impact of a film. Did I bite off too much here? Have I wandered into territory I should have kept away from? Have I over-reached? Have I even been coherent? I’d welcome any comments.