“45 Years” and Past Selves

I caught a showing of the movie 45 Years over the weekend.  A couple–Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay)–are preparing to celebrate 45 years of marriage when a letter related to Geoff’s past threatens to derail their relationship. The letter informs him that  the body of Katya, his former girlfriend who fell into a glacier while they were hiking in the Alps, has been found.

Kate is puzzled. “I know I told you about my Katya,” offers Geoff. though his comment seems more an indication that he wants to be perceived as open than evidence that he actually had told her. And why the possessive–“my Katia”? Geoff muses about his fast-frozen ex, “How strange would that be. She looks like she did in 1962 and I look like this.” What a peculiar concern: that he doesn’t look as good as a 50 year-old corpse does.

Over the next few days, Kate notices subtle changes in Geoff: he’s playing different music, he picks up a book by Kierkegaard again, he starts smoking, he doesn’t want to attend a much-anticipated reunion of former co-workers. Other things he does are more clearly related to Katya, such as rummaging through the attic in the middle of the night to look for her picture. He gradually tells Kate more about that earlier relationship, and what she learns isn’t always reassuring. The camera follows Kate, and the viewer only knows as much as she does about Geoff’s reactions. It’s looking to her, and to us, that he once wanted to be with Katya and only considered Kate because Katya was dead. Perhaps it’s worse than that; perhaps all these years she has been no more than a stand-in for a ghost.

Poor Kate! She tries to be understanding, but the foundations of her life are crumbling. She laments to Geoff that they have so few photos of their life together, and it’s easy to read her thoughts: if he really wanted their relationship, he would have created more record of it. Her friend Lena gushes about the upcoming 45th anniversary party, predicting that Geoff will break down when he’s there because that’s what guys do when they realize how important their mate is to them. Kate sits stone-faced and miserable, the upcoming celebration looking more like an endurance test than a joyful occasion.

As an older adult myself, I empathize with Kate. How difficult it would be to suspect that something you had devoted your life to is hollow at its core! I empathize with Geoff, too. He is not so much trying to pull away from Kate as being pulled away by an interior force. It is almost as if, 50 years later, he is falling down the same crevasse that swallowed Katya. Had he been hiding a preoccupation with his ex-girlfriend all those years? If he had been, I think he would have been more defensive and less disoriented than he is after the letter arrives. Instead, I suspect that the letter awoke something slumbering in him. I wonder, what would it be like to have an episode that had been tucked into some mental closet years ago burst out again, threatening to wreck havoc with one’s life? Geoff may have deceived Kate by not having mentioned Katya, but it’s as likely as not that he was deceiving himself, too. He probably thought his feelings for Katya would slumber forever and was as surprised as Kate when they awoke.

At one point, Geoff tells Kate “It doesn’t seem like it was me who was there.” That could be an excuse, but might also be a description that many of us could give for something we did a long time ago that was different from our subsequent lives. I attended a meeting of the John Birch Society when was about 14; I can’t now understand how I ever could have done such a thing (well, it was under the influence of a teacher I admired, but still…).  More significantly, my first job after my professional training was teaching college. After four years, I left that job for psychological practice, thinking I would be back teaching before long. The years went by, and after a while I didn’t think much about teaching. It did eventually seem strange that I had written and delivered all those lectures. Then, shortly after I turned 50, teaching was something I was again interested in doing, and so I did, for a little over 10 years.

Maybe we all have alternative selves that we’ve filed away somewhere and give little thought to unless, as with Geoff, something reminds us that there is another us that used to walk the earth and do things we now wouldn’t think of doing. Without some prompting, that alternative self may never emerge. Or events may make it emerge so strongly that it competes with our present self for our allegiance. Geoff’s uncharacteristic behavior seems to be a manifestation of such an inner struggle. He apparently resolves that conflict by the end of the movie; go see the film if you’re curious about what happens to him.

About Bob Ritzema

I am a fourth-generation American of Dutch ancestry and am trained as a clinical psychologist. In 2012, I retired from Methodist University in North Carolina to return to . Michigan to help family, and, in 2023, I started again with a move to Milwaukee to be near my children. I maintain a part-time therapy practice. I can be reached at bobritzema@hotmail.com.
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