Friday, February 23, 2024

Couple chaos: Anatomy of Present and Past Lives

(On new films about language barriers, ambiguity and memory. Did this for my Economic Times column)

Many Indian movie buffs will have noted the striking coincidental similarities between Avinash Arun’s Three of Us and Celine Song’s Oscar-nominated Past Lives – both films being about a temporary reunion between a woman and a man who were very close as adolescents, and separated by circumstances before they could grapple with such possibilities as romantic love or commitment. Another important element in each story is the woman’s husband, a decent man who, even as he wants to be supportive, is a bit rattled by suddenly feeling peripheral.

In Three of Us, the catalyst for this is that the protagonist has dementia and we sense that some of her distant memories – including her childhood ones – are more immediate than recent ones involving her family. In Past Lives the woman is a Korean inhabiting an Anglophone world with her husband in America, but her old friend can only speak with her in Korean – this creates a situation where the husband realises she dreams in a language he doesn’t even understand, that there exists an inner world he can’t grasp.

Language – as bridge or barrier, or as an uneasy middle ground between two people – is also central to Justine Triet’s excellent Anatomy of a Fall (another best picture nominee this year). Sandra, a German writer living with her husband Samuel in his French village, needs English to express complex thoughts – especially during a court trial after the depressed Samuel falls (or jumps? Or is pushed?) to his death. Sandra’s struggle with French felt to me like a part-metaphor for what it’s like when we have to explain ourselves and our relationships in a way that would be easily digested by someone on the outside. Because this is what Anatomy of a Fall repeatedly stresses – the unknowability of people, and of even our closest bonds. Though the film plays like a metaphysical thriller, by the end “what really happened” is almost beside the point, and there certainly is more than one possible interpretation.

Triet’s film is about two people who have cared deeply for each other over a long time, but have also been navigating very dark waters. A couple is “a kind of chaos”, Sandra says at one point. Responding to the prosecutor’s take on a damning audio recording of a fight between her and Samuel the day before his death, she says: “It’s an argument – people exaggerate and alter facts when they argue.” What you heard on the tape wasn’t all that we were, she means – we were many things at many times. This ambiguity runs through the film anyway, and adds layers to its mystery: early on, it’s notable that Sandra doesn’t give her lawyer the sort of information that might help her own case – e.g. she says her husband wasn’t careless, he was slow and meticulous (meaning an accidental fall was unlikely). Even much later in court, after the lawyer makes a statement conjecturing Samuel’s last year, painting a picture of a man heading towards self-obliteration, Sandra reaches out to tell him “no, he wasn’t like that”.

Without getting into deep personal exegesis in this short space: I could relate with the central messy relationship in this film. I even have a parallel in my life for the tragic event that began a downward spiral for Sandra and Samuel – their four-year-old son blinded after an accident – and I know what it’s like to feel like your own time doesn’t matter, only the other person’s does, while you carry on making sacrifices and putting life on hold. Yet there can’t be precise one-on-one mapping when it comes to these things. Part of the power of the argument scene (which is presented to us visually while the courtroom hears the audio version) comes from its overturning of gender expectations. We see this in what Samuel and Sandra say to each other, and their body language as they say it: Samuel’s despair, his feeble repeating of words and phrases like “you impose on me” as he teeters on the edge of panic; Sandra’s poised, unblinking display of control as she responds to his accusations, or even when she appreciates the food he has just made. However, power does subtly shift back and forth during the argument too, and it would be limiting this film – with its understanding of couple dynamics – to view it through a rigid gender-politics lens. It knows that we can all be different people in different contexts – and that over the course of a long relationship that is founded, to at least some degree, on affection, it is possible for each person to behave in ways that might broadly be labelled “male” or “female” (with the specific types of toxic behaviour associated with each of those categories).

As I exited the hall with the (woman) friend I had watched the film with, it transpired that in that argument scene we had both identified more with Samuel. This was funny because this friend and I have been prolific writers in the past, exactly the sort of people the tortured Samuel would resent; and yet here we were relating to a man who has tied himself up in knots of paranoia because he is unable to write and needs to rationalise this. It was a reminder of how a well-told story can allow you to be many people at once, or to tap into the conflicting parts of your own personality: dominant and submissive, victim and persecutor, even man and woman. 

(Related post: a recent piece about two other films - 96 and Blue Jay - involving reunions between two people who were once very close)

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