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The Deep Blue Sea: Terence Davies and the Woman’s Melodrama

By Christopher Sharrett.

The woman’s melodrama has fallen on hard times, as is the case with any genre that takes its material seriously in the age of the Hollywood blockbuster. The continuing plight of women under the oppression of patriarchy simply isn’t much of a topic of interest in the current cinema—films of the caliber of Stella Dallas, Now, Voyager, Dark Victory, They Were Sisters, The Reckless Moment, Beyond the Forest, Ruby Gentry and All That Heaven Allows cannot be found. The most significant recent achievements are mainly from European cinemas: I think of Catherine Corsini’s extraordinary Leaving, Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love, and perhaps most significantly, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. I am not sure at this writing if Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea can be ranked with these films (mainly because of its studied aspect, to which I shall return), but it is a significant work that looks critically at the impossibility of romantic love, and the connections between class and gender in patriarchal capitalist society.

Davies has made Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play very much his own work, through the film’s non-linear structure and a tone recurrent in his other films (his poetic documentary/tone poem for Liverpool [“a love song and a eulogy”] Of Time and the City, as well as his only slightly fictionalized memoirs of childhood, Distant Voices, Still Lives, The Long Day Closes, and his trilogy of short films, Death, Madonna and Child, Transfiguration). The term that I most think of when watching Davies is anguish, a quality of terrible pain mixed with a peculiar nostalgia, peculiar because although Davies constantly evokes the past and its relevance to him, he has no desire to revisit it, nor does he harbor any illusions about a lost golden age.

Through his narrative strategy in The Deep Blue Sea, Davies is able to “open up” Rattigan’s very awkward play (the original film adaptation is, as Davies says, “unwatchable”) with varied locations, but its use of color, light, and space gives the film its most important element—a sense of suffocation, even the interment of its three central characters. People and objects are often in pools of light that seem struggling to penetrate the dark black/brown hues surrounding them. The female lead’s bright red topcoat and red nail polish are the few evidences of primary colors, and signs of life and passion in the dreary postwar cityscape.

As the film opens on a bleak nighttime postwar London street, the camera panning left to capture the slightly shabby townhouse in which the female character is about to attempt suicide (the film starts with her near-death, pointing to the doom facing her and her society, as the moment also establishes the emotions that quickly overtake romantic love), I could not help but think of Ophuls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman, the camera panning left on a night street, a title reading “Vienna, about 1900.” A similar title card opens Davies’ film—“London, around 1950.” There is of course the sense that a few years either way really don’t matter, but there is also the notion that we are entering a mythic space of sorts, where place and time don’t mean a great deal in matters of patriarchal oppression. Yet, with both films, place is also essential. Davies attempts, with his depressing, overbearing mise-en-scene, to debunk the postwar triumphalism that came with the Allied victory, suggesting that life goes on in its same miserable way, the position of women and the relationship between the sexes as awful as ever. The narrative flashes back to various moments in the woman’s affair with a lover and her conflicts with her husband. As she recovers from the suicide attempt, her memory is restored, so it seems, the narrative moving back and forth slowly, as if under the conditions of sickness, death, or nightmare.

The film concerns the archetypal heterosexual triad born out of the dissatisfaction with monogamous married life. Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz) is married to a heavy-set High Court judge, Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale), who seems a good deal older than Hester in manner rather than merely age. The nature of their relationship is established early in the film as we see Hester and William seated in their study, William looking with a peculiarly reserved affection at Hester, then averting his gaze to his desk. In the countershot, Hester returns William’s smiling gaze, then she too suddenly averts her eyes; her pained expression suggests fully the incomplete, largely dead nature of this marriage.

Hester meets Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston), a former RAF pilot whose war experiences seem to make up the total of his identity. Freddie courts her at a pub, then on the veranda of what seems to be the Colliers’ opulent summer home (he is a friend of the judge). (The well-heeled position of these people has relevance toward the end of the film, where a telling scene set in the underground makes a distinction between the classes, and reminds us that the bourgeoisie has time to waste on tortured emotions rather than on simple survival.) They gaze longingly at each other, as Freddie woos Hester with predictable jokes (to win her confidence) and typical flattery (“I really mean it—it’s not just a line. I really think you are the most attractive girl I’ve met”). Freddie seems charmingly naïve in making such a statement, but the moment is held, emphasizing both the tenderness and pitiable banality of the remark. (Do men actually think complementing a woman’s looks alone will “win” her? Do women indeed still fall for such a form of seduction? The answer is obvious and continues to tell us a lot.) The performances suggest simultaneously the intensity and shallowness of the affair. The contradictions of the relationship cause it to unravel in a way that may be seen as predictable were Davies not so adept at underscoring the nature of the problem.

As the illicit relationship develops, Hester endures life with the judge. Davies assumes, justifiably, that vignettes suffice in conveying the predicament of Hester, and that linearity and exposition are fairly pointless. Hester and William have dinner with William’s awful “mummy” (Barbara Jefford), a prickly woman who embodies British “proper behavior” and reminds us of the impossibility of honesty within the bourgeois family construct. When Hester says she has no interest in sports, saying it’s “one of the more pointless of human activities,” the angry mother replies, “That was almost offensive!” Mummy is cautious about “passion” (“it always leads to something ugly”), preferring “guarded enthusiasm—it’s safer!” Nothing that Hester says can win favor from mummy—on the contrary, her every gesture underscores the impossibility of her relationship with William, who won’t challenge his mother on her demand that the married couple sleep in separate beds.

The erotic moment Hester enjoys with Freddie (warmly shot) is a respite from this awfulness until it reveals its consequences—and its other face. When William learns of the affair (through Hester’s carelessness—as if she wants punishment, even death), his wrath is unsparing (“I intend to make life as difficult as possible for you!”). Hester responds that William, in his self-righteousness, sounds like “my father”—the relationship of love to patriarchal law becomes stark in the scene, as it does when Hester see the local vicar for succor, only to be told “Do the right thing—go back to your husband.” But Hester’s worst revelation is not the cruelty of the male but his depthlessness.

Hester and Freddie go to an art museum (another scene not in Rattigan). As Hester looks with interest at a Cubist painting, Freddie quips that it’s “bric-a-brac,” punning on Braque and enjoying both his own wit and what he sees as Hester’s pretentions. As Hester takes a stand, Freddie reminds her of his wartime bravery, and how he saved “people like you.” Freddie becomes enraged when Hester, not too advisedly, comments on the quality of his mind. Freddie says she is totally “FUBAR” (“fucked up beyond all recognition”). This encounter, and another angry row outside of a pub, makes the film’s essential point. Hester’s erotic needs are ignored (she admits “I was brought up to believe that it was more proper for the man to do the loving”—suggesting that sexual pleasure is the male’s entitlement, a basic principle indeed of patriarchal civilization), but so too is her emotional life left wanting. Freddie has little if any inner life, certainly not much of an emotional nature. He believes that Hester, because of her suicide attempt, is the “fucked up” person of the relationship—it would be asking too much of this character to have him understand the circumstances of Hester, the chances she takes merely to have a fulfilling life where the woman can “do the loving.” Nor does Freddie recognize his own alcoholism, and the death wish implied in his taking a job as a flyer in South America (Hester must stay behind because she is too neurotic). Freddie’s assertion toward the end of the film that they are deadly for each other may be partly true, but only partly. The deadly part is on Tom’s side alone, due to his utter blindness, his inability to grasp the totality of the situation, including especially the needs and circumstances of Hester, who is as emblematic a woman of her era as one might imagine.

For a moment William pulls back his wrath and visits Hester at the apartment where she has enjoyed rendezvous with Freddie. But here he is mostly pathetic, a hunched figure as much interested in sympathy for himself as comfort for Hester. It has been noted that the film humanizes everyone, and that no one is a true ogre. This is an acceptable argument, if one fails to step back and see the ways that the film is concerned as much with social/political circumstance in a highly repressed Britain after its “victory” as it is with individuals. There is a little irony in William being a High Court judge, since a crucial point is that power doesn’t reside with individual choice alone, but with systems and structures internalized by people, at various levels of consciousness. One moment that would seem, at first glance, to represent the “even-handedness” of the film is Hester’s confrontation with her landlady, Mrs. Elton (Ann Mitchel), whom she observes tending to her ailing, aged husband. Mrs. Elton admonishes Hester about her suicide attempt, saying she doesn’t want more of “that nonsense,” further stating that “a lot of rubbish has been said about love.” For her, real love is being willing to “wipe their arse” and change their soiled bedclothes so that they can live with dignity. This seems like a commonsensical, solid-citizen approach to the topic, but it relocates “true love” in the realm of the moribund, or, at best, the horribly banal, a contract one forms to ward off loneliness, ending in vomit pans, wiped arses, and death. The point is emphasized elsewhere in the film, but it is stated bluntly in the Hester/Mrs. Elton encounter, the mise-en-scene shrouded in deep shadow.

A few reviews have noted that Freddie’s departure signifies Hester’s liberation, Samuel Barber’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra op. 14 soaring on the soundtrack as Hester pulls open the drapes to reveal a gray morning. As the camera reverses, showing her at her window, the camera now tracking right as people begin their day, we see the ruins of the street, representing not only the bloodletting of inter-imperial war but the exteriorization of Hester’s emotional devastation. If she is now “liberated” under these terrible conditions of social and sexual repression, one must ask, what for? What afterstory could follow this one that contains any joy?

Music

The musical score of this film, both its diegetic and non-diegetic elements, plays a large role in helping to craft the characters. In one scene in a crowded pub, revelers enjoy a singalong to the Jo Stafford rendition of “You Belong to Me.” The title of the song, representative of any number of similar refrains in pop music, is both endearing and chilling: the notion of people “belonging” to one another might be seen as a romantic conceit, but a moment’s serious reflection makes one grapple with the idea of possession under the patriarchal order (at this writing, U.S. politicians actually debate taking birth control away from women, along with, of course, their right to abortion, making the “belonging” of those torch songs all the more frightening in this supposedly enlightened, “post-feminist” epoch). During the singalong, the camera tracks right, showing us all the couples singing to each other. The camera finishes its track as it picks up Freddie and Hester. Freddie sings with verve. Hester is tentative, only moving her lips at the last moment, capturing perfectly the woman’s simultaneous needs and reluctance.

In another scene, Hester runs frantically down the stairs to the underground trains after an awful encounter with Freddie; she appears ready for another suicide attempt, but she pauses and looks to her left. We see the end of the tunnel that is the fixation of her gaze as we go to flashback—it is the same or similar tunnel during the war. Bombs explode, causing dirt to fall into the tunnel, now a home for the besieged citizens of London during the blitz. A young man with a fine tenor voice sings the traditional ballad “Molly Malone,” about the young, female fishmonger who “died of a fever” selling “cockles and mussles” on the street, shouting “Alive, Alive-O” as she passed. Again the camera tracks to the left, catching the crowd of hardly cheery, very rattled citizens, some of whom indeed join in the song. The camera settles on William and a younger Hester. She plays with his coat collar for comfort, intimacy, and security (a summing-up of marriage for the female at that time—and now?). She doesn’t sing. William isn’t looking at her; he sings “Molly Malone.” The scene is beautifully orchestrated and encapsulates much. The people of London, especially Hester and William, are temporarily buried alive, but by the conditions of their society as much as the Nazi bombs. I will always think of “Molly Malone” as a grave-robbers’ song, so often has it been used (at least in my memory—no research here) in horror films—it is done to death in Corman’s Premature Burial. Molly Malone could well be Hester, the woman who leads a desolate life (although much less desolate than Hester due to class status), and faces a lonely, ignored death, while yelling out defiantly “Alive-o!”

I mentioned Samuel Barber’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, op. 14—it is used insistently on the soundtrack. Barber has gained a reputation as the most lugubrious of modern composers, especially as his work, notably his Adagio for Strings, has been appropriated by mass culture (I think of Oliver Stone’s wretched Platoon). In my view, this reputation has indeed been gained (imposed), but not earned. I attended some years ago a performance of the Adagio by the Emerson String Quartet at the Tanglewood summer music festival in Massachusetts. The effect on the audience—and on me—was palpable. An audience known for its poise and its emphasis on intellectual scrutiny was as deeply moved as I have rarely seen it. Afterward, a woman said to me she thought of all those she has lost, and all those in hospital. Can a work of art be more meaningful, more nourishing and sympathetic to human beings? And yet, in The Deep Blue Sea we must confront the extent to which the Barber Concerto, like so much non-diegetic music, is profoundly manipulative, causing me, for a moment, to take a position……

Against The Deep Blue Sea

Davies is obviously in love with the woman’s melodrama, and with the cinema (he evokes Brief Encounter), but perhaps his enthusiasm could be a bit tempered. The use of Barber indeed seems excessive, as is the indulgence in numerous longeurs, which the lead actors aren’t always able to justify. The camera lingers for some time on Hester—I have no trouble at all with long takes, but it strikes me that Rachel Weisz isn’t up to all that Davies wants her to accomplish. She is a fine actor (as much as I admire her, I’m afraid that a Tilda Swinton in the same role would produce too much hysteria) but by no means a great one. The long takes therefore give the film somewhat of a studied, stilted aspect. Hiddleston is more successful, since the character calls for all rage and depthlessness, and an adolescent sense of self and ignorance of the world around him. I could not help but think of James Mason and Joan Bennett in Ophuls’s The Reckless Moment, the subtlety and depth of their performances in contrast to the dependence on stylistic excess here. That said, The Deep Blue Sea is a rare type of film in an age when women (people in general?) are not taken seriously by cinema, and are usually topics for snide derision. And it is valuable as another small riposte, in a time of incredible reaction, to those who think that all the battles have been fought, all the victories won, back in the good old days of the 60s.

Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He has published several books and writes frequently for Film International and other publications. He has been listening to and studying obsessively the Goldberg Variations, playing renditions by Andrei Gavrilov, Murray Perahia, Wilhelm Kempff (even), and most especially Glenn Gould, whose 1955 recording (the “piss and vinegar” interpretation) and 1981 version (a supremely ruminative work that forces us to think about what the Goldbergs are, what they suggest symbolically. Gould, the greatest classical artist of the last century, is both artist and teacher when we settle down to listen to his Goldberg Variations—and everything else he recorded.

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