And it pains me to say, I was wrong.
Love is not a symptom of time
time is just a symptom of love
– ‘Time, as a Symptom’, Joanna Newsom
Until her appalling recent comments about diversity in the film industry, the presence of Charlotte Rampling amongst this year’s Oscar nominees was a small beacon of hope. Rampling, nominated for her performance in 45 Years, will have turned 70 by the time the ceremony comes around; a rare sighting of an actress over the age of 40 in a main role.
The film itself is a triumph of understated sentiment, and, for a film about a comfortable middle class retired couple living in the Norfolk broads, draws in surprising ways on the subversion and defiance of narrative convention. Adapted by its director Andrew Haigh from David Constantine’s short story In Another Country, 45 Years unfolds over the course of a week in the life of Kate and Geoff Mercer– played by Rampling and Tom Courtenay– as they prepare to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary.
At the beginning of the week, Geoff receives a letter from the Swiss authorities informing him that the body of Katya, a previous girlfriend, has been found in the Alpine crevasse where she fell to her death 50 years previously. Her body, which is never shown, is perfectly preserved, “like something in a freezer”. The discovery provides a catalyst for a crisis of physical disassociation, as Geoff becomes astonished at his own decrepitude: “She’d look like what she did in 1962. And I look like this.”
From these domestic beginnings, the film expands into an investigation of the relationship between two initially familiar concepts: time, experienced via the ageing process, and jealousy. Rather than rely upon recognisable tropes, Haigh’s film avoids the expected portrayal of a jealous spouse and a late-life crisis, instead tracing the delicate, devastating impact of an envy that looks backwards, towards the untouchable past. The reappearance of Katya’s frozen body in the Mercers’ lives casts a shadow over their existence, compounded by the almost-doubling of the two women’s names and the revelation of Katya and Geoff’s false marriage, making Kate feel like her own conjugal bond is a cruel parody. Preserved as she is, Katya is the physical manifestation of the perfecting glow of nostalgia, a visual counterpart to Kate and Geoff’s ailing memories and weakening bodies: early in the film, Kate laments their lack of photographs together, and their abortive attempt at love-making feels like the ghost of intimacies past.
This kind of jealousy – unlike straightforward competition between rivals – is rarely investigated in film, for obvious reasons: it lacks forward momentum and the prospect of resolution. The static body of an ex-lover protected from the flow of time dissociates us from the unfolding of our own lives, engendering a kind of backwards momentum that induces emotional disintegration.
For his subject matter to work, Haigh must transcend the clichés that haunt the portrayal of jealous spouses in film and literature: the violent / tyrannical male (The Winter’s Tale, Othello, Raging Bull, Wuthering Heights) and the clingy / hysterical female (Medea, The Social Network, Jane Eyre, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince). In order to achieve this transcendence Haigh alters the focus of his source material, shifting it entirely to Kate’s perspective, and in so doing allows the emotional labour of its female protagonist to occupy the emotional and psychological centre of the narrative. 45 Years moves past sexist formulae, eschewing gendered models of hysterical jealousy: Kate remains rational, contained and functional to the last, despite battling a corrosive envy that wakes her in the middle of the night and leads her to the attic to search through Geoff’s old photographs.
Details of Geoff’s past become more than an issue of marital honesty: instead, they become the locus of a power struggle between Kate and her own neuroses. She becomes quietly desperate to know everything about Katya, as if arming herself against any further surprises, but Geoff refuses to share. Throughout the film, he calls her “my Katya”. As Mark Kermode has noted, the Michael Haneke-esque final shot of the film is left open to interpretation, focussing on Kate’s unreadable face in the well-practised clinch of their anniversary slow dance. This lack of a resolution is– for me– the culmination of a process set in motion far earlier in the narrative. It is Geoff’s endearingly, painfully honest answer to Kate’s most urgent question that begins to relocate their own relationship into the conditional: “Would you have married her?”
The film’s treatment of physicality is quietly revolutionary. Rather than relying upon the familiar trope in which the appearance of a young female body becomes an implicit criticism of her older counterpart, it is Geoff’s physical failings that become psychologically problematic. As the male body becomes threatened by the reminder of its own degeneration– Katya’s preserved youth– the emotional impact is left to Kate. The jealousy she experiences simultaneously inspires a kind of protective desperation, as she worries that the chronological precedence of Geoff’s love for Katya devalues his feelings for her, and triggers an unfavourable re-evaluation of their ‘happy’ life together.
As if to call attention to how depressingly anomalous this refusal of gendered stereotypes is, Brian Viner’s review of 45 Years in the Daily Mail featured a wilful misinterpretation of the film’s nuanced physicality. Synopsising in the salivating vocabulary of the Sidebar of Shame, Viner details how Rampling– ‘still a knockout!’– is threatened by Katya’s ‘fresh, youthful looks’. You sense that Viner might not be averse to the idea that all women should throw themselves into Alpine crevasses as they approach middle age, keeping their firm buttocks chilled for his enjoyment for all eternity. The Mail may occupy the far end of the sexism spectrum, but Viner’s praise of Rampling’s ‘controlled’ performance, in contrast to the typically ‘histrionic’ female of the ‘big-screen’, was echoed by many reviews, each taking the trope of hysterical, jealous women at face value.
The tail-end of 2015 brought with it another meditation on marriage and temporality that confounds societal expectations of jealousy and gender: Joanna Newsom’s fourth album, Divers. Densely allusive, musically innovative, the recurring theme throughout the 11 tracks is the desire to conquer time. Newsom, although writing from the perspective of someone who has only recently got married, rather than halfway through their fifth decade of marital life, addresses the difficulties of reconciling the present with the past in ways that chime uncannily with Haigh’s film.
In an interview with Uncut, Newsom discussed the way that her marriage had ushered death into her life: when you love someone truly, “it’s like a little shade of grief comes in when love is its most real version. Then it contains death inside of it, and then that death contains love inside of it.” Reminiscent of Frank O’Hara’s ‘Ode to Joy’, with its repeated, childish pleas for there to be ‘no more dying’ that coexist with a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of the ‘sweetness / near the grave of love’ – there is an explicit nod to O’Hara in the album’s eighth track, ‘Same Old Man’ – Newsom refuses the conventional love song, writing instead about the differing shades that make up the vast complexity of happiness.
As Laura Snapes of Pitchfork has noted, the album is circular: the final track, ‘Time, as a Symptom’ is cut off in the repetition of ‘transcending’, the hanging ‘trans–‘ corresponding with the opening of the first track, ‘Anecdotes’, which begins ‘sending’. It is tempting to read ‘Time, as a Symptom’ as a synthesis of the broader themes of the whole album, as a rallying cry for ‘brave life-livers’ ‘bleeding out your days / in the river of time’ to ‘stand brave’, to find the joy in the very fact of existence at all: ‘time moves both ways’. To read this notion of time moving ‘both ways’ as wholly optimistic, however, is to underestimate it. Newsom returns again and again to wounds that don’t quite heal, to images of battle and of the strange attraction of pain, as in’Goose Eggs’:
What’s redacted will repeat,
and you cannot learn that you burn when you touch the heat,
so we touch the heat.
This acknowledgement of the inevitability of change and loss (‘tumor, tremor’, but also human error) corresponds with the impossibility of banishing your partner’s intimate past. Retrospective jealousy is a strain that repeats throughout Divers. The title track frames it as self-doubt: the third verse’s ‘I ain’t saying that I loved you first / But I loved you best’ later becomes ‘I can’t claim that I knew you best / But did you know me at all?’ In the album’s sixth track, ‘The Things I Say’, Newsom’s fear of loss is expressed through a truculent meditation on the past that begins with self-remonstrance (‘I’m ashamed to have turned out this way’) and ends with a calm meditation on the relationship between memory and emotion:
When the sky goes pink in Paris, France,
do you think of the girl who used to dance
when you’d frame the movie within your hands
saying “This, I won’t forget”?
What happened to the man you were
when you loved somebody before her?
Did he die?
Or does that man endure, somewhere far away?
The frank, almost childlike questions refuse to shy away from the bald facts of envy. The fact that the person you love was involved with somebody else before they met you gives time the upper hand. It feels– almost– like an infidelity. We are in another country to Kate Mercer’s East Anglian anguish, but the ghosts are the same.
Like 45 Years, Newsom refuses to comply with the traditional requirements of female hysteria; indeed, of reductive generalisations of any kind. Divers, in its abruptly cut off final line, refuses to simplify itself in the service of a conclusion, just as the closing shot of 45 Years denies the viewer an easy answer.
In a less happy parallel to 45 Years, the majority of Divers reviews were problematic, a predictable continuation of that longstanding tradition, Male Critics being Condescending about Joanna Newsom.
Though most responses to the album were positive, they were phrased again and again as coded criticisms of the female voice. Many reviewers were relieved that Newsom was reigning in the ‘excessive’ length of her previous songs (hello, Leonard Cohen? Are you there?) and modulating the harsher edges of her singing voice: as Leah Finnegan puts it, ‘Man voice make music good. Woman voice music bad: Too high. Too sharp. Too warbly. Sounds like birds, screams, mother.’ In his review of the album in the New Yorker, Kelefa Sanneh praises Newsom for managing to conquer her old habit of over-sharing: ‘Divers isn’t quite so emo—or at least its emotions are more artfully concealed.’
Just like the praise for Rampling’s avoidance of ‘histrionics’, this strand of criticism implicitly reinforces the notion that the expression of what are considered to be ‘female’ emotions is habitually over the top, hysterical, hormonal. Divers and 45 Years succeed in moving beyond the clichés that govern cultural narratives of jealousy, re-evaluating the notion that ‘love’ is independent of the strange mutilations of passing time. The critical discourse in which we respond to them, however, seems more preoccupied with reinforcing what it thinks it knows than considering the possibility of something it doesn’t.
 A brief checklist of which is as follows:
i) A comparison to Kate Bush, Bjork, Joni Mitchell, or all three.
ii) A brief interlude in which Newsom is imagined variously as a highly sexualised woodland sprite, elven queen or mermaid.
ii) A reminder that her singing voice is recognisably a female one, and, therefore, either a ‘cackle’, a ‘coo’, or a ‘shriek’.