The walls are thin in the The Varsity and invariably I'm not in the loudest film there. If I were, the booms, crashes, and thuds of Shit Happening in my own theater would drown out the negligable voices and music of the adjacent. But I was watching a matinee of "The Deep Blue Sea", so instead subwoofers bled through the walls in a kind of sinister growl. The resulting soundscape wasn't unfitting. For at least the first quarter of the film I had no idea the foreboding rumblings were from another theater. I marvelled at the use of horror conventions in a period melodrama. Actually even without the extra sound effects, there's still a bit of that. It's put together in a way both thoroughly manipulative and modernist.
It's a noisy film, too, in its way: It begins with an orchestral piece so embarrassingly loud that the images on the screen are overpowered. There's something ugly, tactless about such dramatic music continuing to play. It's like someone yelling to himself in the corner of a room--everyone fidgets awkwardly, pretending not to notice. I think "oh god, what have I gone in for?" Face burning, I wonder if the whole film will play out in this tiresome "The Tree Of Life" mode: epic music trying to inject deep signifigance into short scenes of banality. Then something surprised me. I don't remember what, but the brutality of the sequence was replaced by intrigue. The music fades with Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston interlocked, nude bodies spinning.
Someone I know avoided seeing it because it looked scary, and she's not wrong. The trailer, however, makes the film look like a belaboured, anachronistic shriek about adultery, which turns out not at all to be the fulcrum of its thrills. On IMDb the plot is summarized thus: "The wife of a British Judge is caught in a self-destructive love affair with a Royal Air Force pilot." "Caught" is misleading. She isn't trying to hide her affair in the first place. After bitching out her husband's mother at tea, she nonchalantly goes up to the bedroom and phones her lover. What really grabs me is the rash unpredictability of Rachel Weisz in this role.
To use the title as a metaphor, Weisz as Hester is a slippery fish. It's some time before she ever speaks. In the memories that float up to us--their balast released by her suicide attempt--it's never she who speaks, it's whichever man she's looking at. Either her husband or her lover. I scrutinize her face, looking for a sure sign written there. Which I think is, in a way, to become her. When someone in her building wakes her up from her gas-induced suicidal slumber, she remains abstracted, self-posessed, looking intently for her cigarettes while a woman acquaintance solicits her emotional state.
"Are you sure you're alright?"
"Yes I'm fine, just feeling a bit dopey," her expression full of everything else. She lights her cigarette, and smoking it becomes the present to which we return from her reminisces. She leans back onto the couch, takes a drag, and the camera follows the smoke swirling away from her into the dark room. This is exactly like the memories feel--drifting slowly into form.
While she broods around her apartment, the orchestral score comes up again. Like her initial voicelessness, omission is used to great effect. Her lover, Freddie, comes in, and the shock is triple: The affair she was remembering is still going on, she's living with him, and he turns the radio from the melancholy score to "something livelier." How to revitalize a script from 1955? Make it a psychological thriller. Who and where is Hester? Even as voices explode, the film keeps a tense distance.
Hester holds very little back from her husband's mother. Over dinner and tea the next day the two have a barely veiled argument about attachment. The mother favors "a guarded enthusiasm" and advises Hester to "beware of passion, it always leads to something ugly." Hester could not be more disgusted by this worldview. A life of strict control and practicality to her is unbearable to imagine. So she boldly dives head-first into Eros, but then what?
There is something to the historical connotations of this love plot. For the boastful soldier home from the war won she has passion, but absolutely no connection. (At the suggestion that "there is more to love than physicality" she instantly rebuts "for me there isn't.") Her old judge of a husband, her connection to the prewar past, to wealth and culture, she rejects. Nothing but the brutally erotic relationship she has with Freddie will do. The kind of cold consistency of heart her husband's mother classically prescribes is too late, no longer responsive to the world that has spring up since she married.
But then under this film's cold gaze her oaths of passion for Freddie don't ring true either. The contradictions of her passion are thrown into a harsh light. Utterances echo in a queer glass chamber. To her husband she declares that Freddie is "my whole world." He rules her emotions (which he "didn't ask for," to him becoming her will to power over him), but the specificity of him is nothing to her. His ignorance about art is an annoyance, especially as his insolance about the pointlessness of art doesn't allow her to believe she's getting through to him. When he comes in after her experiment with using the gas for something other than fire, she's looking out the window, smoking. He enthusiastically tells her about his golf game.
"Are you aware you haven't looked at me this whole time?" he asks jovially.
"I know what you look like, Freddie."
The cause of her suicide is always presumed and never confirmed. Before he finds out she tried to kill herself, Freddie assumes she's angry at him because he forgot her birthday. It's unclear whether she cares at all or if she's just using this as a plausible reason for her mood. When he does find her suicide note, he assumes it's all because of him, for which he rages at her. On this subject she pleadingly yells back "I wasn't blaming you!"
Her husband, too, assumes that her relationship with Freddie drove her to suicide, and advises her, as you would expect, to get out of it (and to come back to him, of course). She tells him it wasn't that, which he ignores.
Hester and her suicide are, in other words, empty signifiers. Well, not are--I'm just too willing to see her in that tired way. I've fallen in love with her mystique, distrusted every word and every gesture. Even if she said why she wanted to die, it would be to someone. There would be an audience and therefore an agenda. I wouldn't believe it. Ugh.