The unfortunate side effect of the way we live our lives is that who we become is just as much in the hands of others as it is in our own. Our spouses, our fellows, our families, our employers. These and more will shape “who we are” over the course of our time on earth. Who these people see us as – what they see us as – is completely out of our control, and that is a truly terrifying thought.
Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay) are a married English couple one week away from their 45th wedding anniversary. Since Geoff was in the midst of some tough health problems during their 40th, they postponed doing anything special for five years…prompting a splendid soirée to be planned for their 45th.
One week before the big night, the stability of their relationship is thrown a curve. Geoff receives a letter from the Swiss authorities. 50 years ago, Geoff was on a hiking trip with his then-partner, Katya. During the trip, she slipped into a crevasse in the alps and disappeared. When the search for her came up empty, she was presumed dead.The letter The Swiss have sent Geoff is one confirming that they have now found her body, preserved in ice.
The news devastates Geoff, and tears opens wounds he believed had long since healed over. He is suddenly a young man again, describing the way they would lie about being married to be granted rooms in B&B’s. He searches for photographs of her, and finds himself consumed with the life he left behind.
Kate, meanwhile, is left to hold herself together. Her marriage is in crisis, but not due to any tangible threat. She is forced to wonder about her place in her husband’s heart, and what she can possibly do to make any of this more bearable for him. On both fronts, her options suck.
45 years into their marriage, one might think that the stability of Geoff and Kate is rock solid. The truth of it is that nothing is rock solid any more…and sometimes we are just one bad memory away from having everything we know turned into a giant question mark.
It’s deeply affecting to consider how vulnerable we all remain for the entirety of our natural lives. The temptation is to look at “old married couples” and consider their connection something that has calcified. As we look to them for guidance and wisdom, it seems as though what they have has solidified into something bulletproof. It may not smoulder with passion like it once did, but in its place is something lasting and devoted. Well, that’s what we believe anyway.
The truth is that love is eternally fragile. A reconsideration of who we were can shake it just as swiftly as a change in who we are. We spend so long as the star our partners orbit around that we forget that they ever could have been a part of another universe. To be shaken by the true breadth of that reality isn’t selfish – it’s sobering. It’s a stark reminder that everything we know to be true could have gone quite differently had a person walked east instead of west. If anything, thinking on such things may be worse the more that time goes on. It means that more and more of who one has come to be was thanks to a lucky break (or an unlucky one)…and that’s just cruel.
Imagine being called into your boss’ office the day you retire after thirty successful years on the job and being told that the only reason why you were hired in the first place was because the person the company wanted turned them down. Sure some of us might shrug and say “Lucky for me”, but some of us might wonder if we had just spent all that time putting in top effort despite being someone’s back-up plan.
It’s easy to shake our head at someone like Geoff and condemn him for fixating on the past. After all, it doesn’t take much for men to start acting this way – speaking wistfully, wanting to relive days gone by. But that’s not what is consuming Geoff. He’s not experiencing a midlife crisis or blindly emailing the one that got away. He has unceremoniously been reminded about who he might have been…and what life he might be living. He is coping terribly, but all the same he is trying to cope. It’s not fair of us to condemn him for his misjudgment. Hell, when he sobers up a bit, even he will likely admit that he displayed deep misjudgment.
The same goes for Kate, since the temptation is to soak-up her jealousy and see it as a shrill reaction. Some might say that she’s being selfish, or not being considerate of her husband’s state of shock. Perhaps she should be more supportive and hold him tightly through his grief. However, that short-sells the way this all affects her too. Her journey through the ‘what-if’ of Geoff and Katya is a devastating one, especially consider the truly subtle deep discovery she makes when looking at slides of her husband’s former lover. With every longing answer her husband gives, and every pregnant pause, she sees more and more clearly that by rights, she is something of ‘the other woman’.
This is where Rampling excels – in finding the right hybrid of sympathy and rejection. It’s in her voice when she discusses wanting a better record of memories, and on her face when she watches her husband vomit from nerves. She is competing with ghosts and staring down the mortality of her adopted identity as one half of this couple. It’s not an enviable position to find one’s self in, since that conflict of emotions can leave even the best of us in bits. Rampling embodies that struggle, in her every word and gesture. She wants to be supportive, but doesn’t want to underline her position as second choice. The struggle is one the couple keeps private, which makes none of it any easier.
We all want to be ostriches. We want to bury our heads in the sand – believe that nothing of consequence happened before we arrived and that no more will after we leave. It’s foolish and selfish, but that doesn’t stop us. Perhaps it’s because so many of us are deeply insignificant, that to know our significance to one person gives our lives meaning. It’s not fair for that person to have felt that for someone else, is it?
That ache? That insecurity? It remains intact inside of us. Forever – as if it were frozen eternally in time.