There, my frank admission of the week. I shouldn’t, because it has so many immoral aspects and a questionable conclusion, but like every unrepentant sinner, I have justifications for all of them. Why I love it is not a question easily answered, because this is one of the most nuanced movies I have ever seen. It is multi-layered, deeply complicated, full of internal emotions and motivations, and above all, may be the most romantic film of its age. Or any age, for that matter. You know it’s good when passing in a corridor, the two main characters can entwine hands and lean against one another longingly, and it’s more memorable and erotic than any number of graphic love scenes.
In order to pay off her father’s massive debts, Swiss governess Elizabeth (Marceau) agrees to bear the child of an unidentified English landowner (Dillane). Both of them assume it will be a platonic weekend but instead both are unnerved with how much the encounters cause them to form an emotional bond. Ten years later, Elizabeth has thought of nothing but her daughter, who was taken away from her and sent to live as agreed with her father. She learns the identity of the Englishman and seeks a position as her daughter’s governess. Her arrival reveals that their child, Louisa, is a stubborn, spoiled, temper tantrum-throwing brat, and Charles is horrified at the prospect that Elizabeth’s presence in the house will unearth the “scandal” and besmirch his reputation. (He has no wish to be like his father, a notorious philanderer.) More than that, he’s afraid what might happen between them if she remains.
And that’s not even the half of it. Mrs. Charles is in residence — in a vegetative state after a horrific horseback riding accident a decade earlier (hence, Charles’ wish for a child and the need for a surrogate). The result is an atmospheric Victorian Gothic romance with a mild dose of Jane Eyre that has so many layers to it, it would be impossible to address them all. Putting aside the plot (which is downright impossible), just the look of the movie is significant. Most of it is cold, gray, and icy, a reflection of the society in which these two individuals survive (distant, obscure, disapproving, and frosty) and the state of Charles’ emotions since the “death” of his wife. (In truth, her death would have been a mercy — her continued catatonic state of existence only prolongs his suffering.) By contrast, the most significant moments of his life take place — where else? — by firelight. It is by firelight that he and Elizabeth conceive Louisa, and by firelight that they are reunited. By firelight that he confesses everything — including his regrets — to his wife, and renews his love for Elizabeth. The absence of firelight is significant in one scene, when something sad happens.
Elizabeth sums all up in a single sentence — she had no idea desire was so powerful, for it is indeed desire which fuels the film. Charles’ desire to love someone, to be loved, to have love. Estranged from his father, with a wife who is for all intensive purposes “dead,” he desires a child into which to pour his affection and comes to rely on her completely as his source of unassuming adoration — until Elizabeth’s return. This is apparent in his distress at having to allow Louisa to be disciplined — he fears the loss of her love, and is crushed when she spits out, “I HATE YOU!” Further, his increased desire for Elizabeth — both physically and emotionally — forces him into a situation filled with both happiness and guilt. This desire compels him to take an action that is morally questionable, but even his motives are not all entirely selfish.
This is contrasted with Elizabeth’s desire to be loved. At one point she sits Louisa down and tells her that her life will be meaningless if she does not learn to read, because while others can “imprison her body” (as a servant, a governess, even a wife who has married without love), they cannot imprison her mind. Though she would never admit it, she desires a husband and family, and desires to be married. Ironically, she defeated the possibility of marrying anyone BUT Charles the moment she entered into their “arrangement.” (I suppose the sweetness of this film is that she winds up with the one man who would never condemn her for that past indiscretion.)
Beyond these numerous subtleties lies something most audiences seem astutely aware of, and viewers comment on again and again… that casual sex is never just casual. I almost never see this in movies. Two people become involved on that level and it does not create a bond, merely convinces the audience it is “true love.” They break up and move on without repercussions or emotional devastation, implying that “sex is just sex.” But scripture tells us that intimacy on that level is making two people “one flesh.” In God’s eyes, it marries them and whether people like to acknowledge it or not, intimacy does generate a supernatural bond between two people. Rarely do we see the repercussions of this in film — but it haunts both of them. Charles finds that he remembers “too much,” and Elizabeth is left incomplete and brokenhearted.
Arguments could be posed as to the motivations, whether their actions were right or wrong, and so forth, but the movie is one that stays with you for weeks afterwards. It connects on a deeper level somehow that fascinates me. It’s completely controversial and at times shocking… but so utterly beautiful. Why? Is it the awkwardness of Charles on their introduction in person, the tenderness of his awareness of her feelings? The moments when Elizabeth wins over our heart with her closeted emotions and deep desires? It would be easy to argue that it is lust and nothing more, but I beg to differ — just watching these characters, you know that it might have begun that way, but has evolved into love.
Maybe that’s what it is — it brings out the romantic in me.