Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Terence Davies | The Deep Blue Sea

pleasure, passion, lust
by Douglas Messerli

Terence Davies (screenplay, based on the play by Terence Rattigan), Terence Davies (director) The Deep Blue Sea / 2011, USA 2012

Although director Terence Davies admits to some admiration for David Lean’s Brief Encounter, with nods to it in his new film, The Deep Blue Sea, I would argue that the two are utterly different in approaches and impacts. Certainly both films are stories of illicit love affairs in  Postwar England, a time when such behavior was not only—to use the language of the day—“frowned upon,” but was actually scandalous, particularly for the upper class, to which the  heroine of Davies’ work belongs. And both films end with their couples parting company, leaving, especially their women, lonely and romantically “devastated.” But whereas Lean’s heroine does not engage in sex and has little to show for her “romantic slip,” Lady Hester Collyer (the radiant Rachel Weisz) of The Deep Blue Sex is a woman of passion whose only link with her lover, Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston), is sex. While the suburban housewife of Brief Encounter is a meek and shy lover, Hester, as her Scarlet Letter-first name implies, is not only sexually active, but is a passionate woman determined, despite the mores of the day, to engage her whole being in sexuality. Like Lawrence’s male figures or the exceptional Lady Chatterly, Hester—as opposed to the advice of her dreadful mother-in-law—is willing commit herself wholeheartedly to passion, or, as her husband, Sir William Collyer describes it, lust. At the end of the day (and the movie), unlike the regretful Laura of Lean’s work, Hester is fully aware of what she has had and what she will now miss. Finally, Davies’ work, unlike Lean’s tepid black and white teashop drama, is a richly dark, color rendering of a cheap rooming house and backstreet bar which Hester has replaced from her beautiful but deadly boring manor house life.

     That is not to say she is any happier than Laura at film’s end. If anything, Laura will go on living as the faithful wife and mother, while Laura will face, perhaps, poverty and sexual deprivation. At least Hester knows who she is. Her only real failure in life is her attempted suicide at the film’s beginning, an event which catapults her into the haunting loneliness she must face at the end.

     As opposed to Rattigan’s chatty and somewhat musty melodrama, Davies (with the expressed permission of the Rattigan estate) plunges the audience into the midst of Hester’s life through its presentation of a woman so unhappy with her lot that she is determined to die. Not only does she feed herself her numerous barbiturates, Hester turns on the gas full-blast as she sits patiently down to face her end. Her busybody landlady, Mrs. Elton (Ann Mitchell) and medically knowledgeable neighbor, however, come to the rescue, saving her life. It is the aftermath and her retrieval of a suicide note to her lover, which he later discovers, that does her in.

     Having long ago left her libido-less husband, the boring Judge Collyer (played by the excellent actor, Simon Russell Beale), Hester has taken up with a dashing former pilot, Freddie, who, as she herself later explains, has no life beyond 1940, the dark days of the war in which he and friends lived out daring adventures every day. Like millions of World War II men, Freddie never got “over” the war, not because of its horrors, but because of the deep bonding between men that the war encouraged. Although Freddie is clearly a handsomely potent heterosexual on the outside and, apparently, an excellent lover, he has no “feeling” for women, no emotional way to truly relate to Hester, something she has recognized from the very beginning of their relationship yet is at the heart of her sorrow: he can never reach the depths of her emotional commitment.

      Far more sensitive, if almost asexual, is her wealthy husband. He would never go off golfing and forget his wife’s birthday, which Freddie has. He might never brutally scream at her for seeking out culture, for desiring to engage her mind as well as her body. But then, William, would prefer sleeping—as his mother and father clearly did—in separate beds. He is the kind of man, the son of the kind of woman, who, as Davies recently comically described in an Los Angeles Times interview, knows exactly how to spoon up soup: employing the spoon in the direction away from the diner, into the center of the bowl, instead of from the center toward oneself (as a Cambridge attendee of Davies’ movies explained to him). The action of the disavowal of self is symbolic, one might argue, and is at the heart of their loveless relationship: Sir Collyer has no self from which to love, while Hester would devour life—certainly a dangerous position to be in after the self-sacrifice and destruction of war-torn London, an image of which Davies leaves the viewer at film’s close.

     The problem with Hester is that she is a sensualist at a time when the society as a whole has been diminished, individuals transformed from living, breathing humans into somewhat frightened prescribers of the principles of life. Passion, as Hester’s mother-in-law has proclaimed, is a dangerous thing. Even her flowers, which Hester is passionate about, give her only pleasure, as if that were the best one might expect from life. As the Page’s landlady puts it, “Love is about wiping your lover’s ass,” of being there day after day, not worth killing oneself!

     In his own way, Hester’s Freddie is also willing to take chances, determined as he is to return to work as a test pilot as soon as he becomes sober again. Yet his adventure is one that excludes others except those of his same sex. And in that sense, although he may be a wonderful lover in bed, he has almost as sexless in life as Sir Collyer! Here, unlike Lean’s hysterically loyal Laura, Hester, in the penultimate scene of Davies’ beautiful film, has—again as Lawrence might have put it—“come through,” boldly pulling open the curtains as she stands determinedly looking out to the street, facing forward to the future.

Los Angeles, March 26, 2012

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