“The Ghost in the Attic”
One of my favorite college memories is sitting in a small seminar room watching a VHS copy of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) on a small television screen as part of a class, “Philosophy and Film,” taught by Irving Singer, an expert on the nature of love, and a mesmerizing intellectual presence. The ending of the film—the Knight (Max Von Sydow) dancing away into the netherworld, having sacrificed himself so that a juggler and his family could escape from the plague—left Professor Singer in tears. I remember being perplexed: what about this dour black-and-white Existential film could possibly be so moving as to warrant an adult crying in front of clueless students?
As I journeyed through graduate school, I watched all of the films by Ingmar Bergman, at the precise time they were falling out of favor, a high cinematic art displaced by a new appreciation for commercial cinema. As I committed myself to bridging the gap between students’ love of Hollywood cinema and the obsessions of academic film studies, I began to see the value of Bergman’s staid compositions, conveying so much significance with so little visual fanfare. And, of course, I matured quite profoundly, less convinced of the ease of life, and confronted by ever darkening doubts about the ability of human beings to overcome the evil in the world.
There’s a scene in the middle of Andrew Haigh’s terrific new film, 45 Years (2015) that expresses the film’s complex relationship to the Hollywood melodrama and the films of Ingmar Bergman. Married to Geoff (Tom Courtenay) for almost fifty years, Kate (Charlotte Rampling) stares into the bathroom mirror, silent and devastated. She has recently learned that her husband has kept a secret from her for their entire relationship: in the early 1960s, before they met, Geoff was engaged to a German woman, Katya. She died after falling into a glacial ravine, pregnant with his baby, while he was helping her escape from Berlin at the height of the Cold War.
Kate’s placid gaze at herself in the bathroom is a stock moment from the Hollywood melodrama. The private space of the bathroom carries the emotional weight of those secrets we cannot allow exposed in public. In a similar scene in Bigger Than Life (1956), Nicholas Ray’s Hollywood melodrama, Ed Avery (James Mason) stares into the mirror of his upstairs bathroom. He has been abusing cortisone in order to work two jobs to support his middle-class family, but the drug is causing him to turn psychotic. Unstable, he orders his wife to fetch him more boiling hot water for his tub, and then slams the mirror attached to the door of the medicine cabinet, which shatters, revealing his face now fragmented into grotesque shards.
In 45 Years, Kate gets no such dramatic moment, nor does the film choose flashy aesthetics to express her pain. Instead, Haigh follows the path of Ingmar Bergman, whose European take on the film melodrama relies on studied compositions to express the ineffable suffering of human beings caught in the traps of interpersonal relationships. In choosing his list of ten great films for the Criterion Collection website, Haigh describes the absurdity of working during the day as an assistant editor on Shanghai Knights (David Dobkin, 2003), a kung-fu action film, and then returning home to watch Bergman’s Persona (1966). In the midst of a turn away from Hollywood filmmaking and toward personal expression—Haigh’s prior film, Weekend (2011) explores the intricacies of two men falling in love—45 Years represents the fruits of having followed Bergman’s path. Like the presentations of the reflected women in Persona, 45 Years is a film full of studied compositions that wordlessly tell an intensely moving story of a woman whose life was never what she thought it was.
The catalyst for the film is a letter Geoff receives informing him that Katya’s body has been found in a glacier, exposed by the effects of global warming. Geoff begins telling Kate about Katya, and it becomes clear that she meant far more to him that he has previously admitted to Kate. He takes up smoking again, against Kate’s wishes. He begins waking up in the middle of the night to sneak up into the attic.
The ghost of Katya in the attic begins destroying Kate’s relationship with Geoff. In the film’s most brutal scene, they lie in bed making love. At the precise moment she tells Geoff to open his eyes, he loses his erection, putting an end to their amorous adventure. Without words, Haigh makes it clear that Geoff was thinking not of Kate, but of Katya, and that Kate will not be able to exorcise her ghost from their deteriorating relationship. Immediately thereafter, Geoff goes up into the attic to find a photo of Katya. When he descends, Kate angrily demands that she be allowed to look at the ghost woman who has invaded their home after being dead for almost fifty years.
One day, Kate drives Geoff to a reunion at the factory where he used to work. She returns home. She stares at the attic, reluctant to explore what secrets Geoff has hidden up there. A jump cut reveals her outside smoking, a sign of how Geoff’s past is infecting her present in multiple dimensions. She finally succumbs to the temptation and climbs the stairs to the attic. Her dog Max responds with worry, whining and barking at her, but she disregards his warning.
In the attic, Kate finds the material traces of Geoff’s relationship with Katya. He has kept a scrap book filled with tickets, photos, and pressed flowers. Kate puts some slides into a machine and projects them onto a sheet draped over the rafters. This produces one of the most studied compositions in the film: in the right foreground, we see the back of the sheet onto which is projected an image of Katya. In the left background, we see Kate staring at the image. Like Persona, we see the two women doubled in the image. Indeed, also like Bergman’s film, we begin to doubt the existence of two women at all, something hinted at in 45 Years by the mirroring of their very names, short forms of Katherine in German and English.
A cut reveals Kate’s point of view for the first time, as she stares at an image of Katya holding her pregnant belly. This is the film’s shocking revelation, devastating to Kate since she and Geoff had decided not to have children, but unbeknownst to her because of the loss of his prior unborn child. Downstairs, the phone rings. Kate answers it and talks with the party planner: she is to select the songs to be played at their wedding anniversary party. She ironically chooses “Happy Together” and “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” While Kate is talking on the phone, she stands screen left, with the vertical ladder to the right of her. The rungs, bars to the side of her head suggest her imprisonment by the newly exposed ghost in her attic.
Kate drives to pick up Geoff from his work reunion. On the way home, he carries on about how awful it was, and expresses disbelief about how the job he used to have no longer exists. Kate has to stop the car so that Geoff can vomit by the side of the road. This action produces a composition with Kate in the right foreground sitting at the car’s steering wheel, with Geoff bent over in the left background. The shot echoes Kate in the attic, with revealing substitutions. Kate, who might have vomited at learning of the secret her husband kept about Katya, does not do so. Instead, Kate at the steering wheel takes the place of Katya in the image in the attic, having replaced the dead woman, having suffered not being able to have children for a reason she just now has uncovered.
The film proceeds like clockwork, finally climaxing at the elaborate 45th anniversary party. Kate has made it clear to Geoff that they will hold the party, no matter the circumstances, and by no means will they expose their private secrets in public. She bravely continues on with the party, revealing nothing externally to her friends and family. Geoff delivers a moving speech about how much Kate’s love for him has meant. Throughout the party, Kate is framed with extra room in the image, with Geoff deliberately not present. While she’s seated at a table, the camera gently pushes into a close-up on Kate. Even though Geoff is sitting immediately screen left of her, a waiter enters the image to blot him out. They are now a married couple in name only.
In the film’s devastating denouement, Geoff and Kate dance to “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” Geoff becomes increasingly spry, while Kate is deadened, with no expression on her face. When Geoff raises her arm in triumph after their dance is over, she angrily pulls it away and stands exposed on the dance floor. At this moment, the film ends. At precisely the moment when Geoff appears to have emotionally returned to Kate, her inability to express her emotions has left her alone and inconsolable.
It is a moment of high melodrama, revealing in the image that which words cannot express: Kate’s false belief in the reality of public appearances, and Geoff’s inability to have dealt with the death of Katya for fifty years, has left the couple stranded in despair. The image of Kate frozen on the dance floor at the end of 45 Years visually expresses the pain of a human being’s experience with such cinematic intensity, the kind we haven’t seen since the heyday of Bergman’s international art cinema. Professor Singer, I may not have understood wherefore the tears in 1986, but this forty-eight-year-old understands all too well.