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A Lover’s Discourse: Terence Davies’s Films

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A Lover’s Discourse: Terence Davies’s Films

In a dark room, two women regard each other, the older one cloaked in shadow, the younger one better lit but turned away. The older is caring for her sick husband, wrapped up in bed sheets, while the younger thinks of killing herself due to the pangs of lost, despised love. “Sometimes it’s tough to judge when you’re caught between the devil and the deep blue sea,” she says, a little bent over, to which her staunch, stiff counterpart snaps back: “A lot of rubbish is talked about love. You know what real love is? It’s wiping someone’s ass, or changing the sheets when they’ve wet themselves, and letting ’em keep their dignity so you can both go on. Suicide? No one’s worth it.”

The moment comes late in Terence Davies’s new film, The Deep Blue Sea, which opens theatrically tomorrow, and a sneak preview of which began the BAMcinématek’s retrospective of the British director’s nine-film career (next week, Film Forum will screen a new 35mm print of 1992’s gently gliding The Long Day Closes). This Deep Blue Sea scene, coming late into the story of a London woman struggling to move on post-WWII and post-love, in some ways sets the tone for all of Davies’s work.

What’s striking about the encounter is that, though each woman is extreme in her position, neither one is wrong. As they stand on opposite sides of the frame, their remembered and immediate views of love complement each other. They’re speaking jointly about the feeling of loving someone who isn’t present to love back, and about how the loved one’s presence is in fact less important than love and the act of loving are. For both women, love sustains them. The old woman already knows what the young woman learns—that memory is, in a way, the opposite of death, which proves its absence. The memory of love in particular is what keeps these people alive and in motion, however grim the present seems.

Critics often talk about the sense Davies’s films give of the past being borne ceaselessly into the present, without mentioning that love is carrying it. Davies’s movies often run on multiple kinds of consciousness, many of which Roland Barthes explains in his book A Lover’s Discourse. When a person loves, he or she always simultaneously imagines himself or herself as both lover and beloved; in whichever single way one presents love in the moment, one is also always simultaneously performing an imagined ideal of love while bringing forth remembrances of love past. Yet however many forces commingle within a network of love, the networking inevitably takes place within one lonely imagination. We often think of love, I suspect, as being a relation between two people. I’m not sure that’s true, but even if it is, the act of loving is one person’s, and takes place in isolation.

That’s certainly how love plays out in Davies’s world, where the people are rarely regarding each other directly. A typical Davies shot depicting a character’s longing, whether it’s a boy watching his mother or something more nakedly sexual, shows a person alone, with eyes wide and mouth slightly open, seen from the waist up and standing out in front of a flat, still background; the person they’re looking at, seen in the next shot, is never matching their gaze, with their eyes somewhere away or off. When the couple is seen together, the acting changes as their bodies do. Just as one member of the couple emotes a desire that the other greets with either gentle, pitying kindness or with a blank expression, the torsos and faces themselves rarely seem to line up exactly, encountering each other at odd, subtly off angles. Even when people are together, their need for companionship goes unfulfilled.

The Long Day ClosesClassic film melodramas do sometimes present relationships this way, and indeed, Davies quotes Mildred Pierce in one of his films and Brief Encounter in another. Yet a big difference in his presentation of melodrama is the sense that the scene you’re watching is personal, often because it literally happened to the director. The filmmaker was born in Liverpool in 1945, the year the war ended, and a society rebuilding itself amidst bombed-out wreckage becomes a metaphor for the heroine’s struggle to keep on after losing love in The Deep Blue Sea, and vice versa.

The streets and the ways that people walked through them appear meticulously recreated to fit the director’s memories, both in The Deep Blue Sea and in his first several films. Davies’s first three shorts—Children (1976), Madonna and Child (1980), and Death and Transformation (1983)—together form a trilogy that evokes his growing up in black-and-white 16mm; his subsequent two features, Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes, do the same in color 35. Everywhere he went in those days, he’s often said, was a traumatic site. He was born into a working-class family with 10 children and a drunken father who would frequently beat their mother; the sight of a woman mouthing “Don’t go to bed” to her son appears in Children, and we see a woman’s husband actually pummeling her by a stairwell in Distant Voices. However terrible it was to watch his father die of cancer at home for two years (a process the trilogy reenacts), Davies has said that life was infinitely better with the man incapacitated, and better still when he was dead. The tension arising from the father’s repeated outbursts in Distant Voices’s first half gives way to a much gentler, flowing tone in the second, after his funeral. The Long Day Closes is the most optimistic film of the group by far, partly because there’s no father around.

A father suggests a child. Each of these films stars a different young man, who together stand in for Davies. Even when the boy leaves home, any place he goes is a traumatic site. The character is, and the filmmaker was, throttled by bullies every day after school for a period of four years (Davies has said he’s never gotten over it); the classroom is/was barely better, since the teacher always are/were waiting to whack kids with their rulers for making mistakes. Before and after class, the students were shuffled into Catholic ceremonies, Jesus stuffed down their throats. Yet as the trilogy’s camera lingers on a wooden Christ, we realize that the view is not religious, but erotic. The bare-chested Savior gave Davies a sense of what a naked grown man might look like; the filmmaker has said that after realizing he was gay, he knelt in prayer until his knees bled.

The movies don’t have traditional narratives or plotting; the brief scenes of people at home or at the pub singing slide into each other elliptically, linked lightly by music (a mixture of classical and 1950s pop) and graceful dissolves. But they certainly use structuring principles, and the two features in particular use binaries. Distant Voices cleaves itself in two to show a life before father and after. In The Long Day Closes, which takes place at the time that Davies approached puberty, the binary organizes around the mother, washing dishes and singing softly as the boy looks at her between the two other kinds of objects of his gaze. “Bud,” as he’s called here, is slowly watching his homosexual longings emerge: the bare-chested bricklayer winks at him, and he trembles at having to wash his older brother’s bare back. The feelings he represses for social and legal reasons (sodomy was against the law in England until 1967) end up coming out at the cinema, where he watches films in a reverie. The mother reconciles the two parts of her boy toward film’s end when, after Bud complains that the friend he agreed to go to the pictures with abandoned him, she suggests that he take someone else.

Life goes on, she assures him, though how long it’ll stay in its current form seems less certain, and we sense an endangered time early on when the roses, full and fresh at the start of the credits, have withered by their end. The movies Bud watches also frequently deal with endings; both The Magnificent Ambersons and Meet Me in St. Louis melancholically equate Christmas with the end of an era, and even the delightful Ealing comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets milks laughs from characters being murdered. We never actually see clips from any of the movies Bud goes to, only hearing them on the soundtrack. Bud and Davies both seem to love these films and film stars (especially Doris Day), but the movie also offers the films as part of a reverberating lost world.

The Neon BibleDistant Voices is, it’s softened by the darkly >comforting chiaroscuro lighting that calls to mind Davies’s favorite painter, Vermeer. And in that way his films become metonyms of themselves. Over and over, we catch a primal scene of a young man seeing something he shouldn’t have—and over and over, he escapes from real life into the sweet joys of art.

This scene happens, too, in The Neon Bible, Davies’s 1994 follow-up to The Long Day Closes. A young man sees a couple making advances, is told to beat it, and goes to a show instead. It’s one of many things the film holds in common with Davies’s others. Again, the center is a young man who escapes from real sadness into his imagination, and reimagines his life by doing it. Again, the father is a petty tyrant, and the mother and other adult women surrounding her form a comforting base. Again, World War II hangs over everything.

But there are differences as well, the major one being that for the first time Davies was adapting someone else’s memories to film. The movie was based on Southern American John Kennedy Toole’s autobiographical first novel, which opens in Georgia in the late 1930s. Wind blowing through grass replaces rain on cobblestones, farmers arrive instead of factory workers, and the war actually happens during the movie, as opposed to being something ever-present but never discussed. The boy is also straight here, which changes his relationship to his still-fixated-on mother; instead of forming a kinship of loneliness with her, he ends up taking his father’s place and tries to serve as her protector.

And what happens with this is that, as evocative as it grows (a full moon shining delicately through a train window on the left-hand side of the Scope frame), the movie also gains a different kind of familiar feeling from the one that one gets watching Davies’s Liverpool. We’ve heard the chirping crickets and seen the huckster preacher character before, and lovely as a wrinkled Gena Rowlands may be in the role of the boy’s Auntie Mame, it’s still awfully hard for the mind to transplant her from Cassavetes’s urban Northeast or West Coast to the rural South. She leaves the film eventually, as the boy’s mother (Diana Scarwid) grows mad in response to her husband’s wartime death. The more the young man screams and fights to protect her from the local asylum’s ward keepers, the more the movie evolves into a strange animal, deeply felt and remembered, and full of genre tropes.

The House of Mirth, from 2000, was also based on a novel (Edith Wharton’s, set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York), and it seems like a goodbye to all that, as though Davies were savagely discarding memory. You can’t say that the central witnessing man is an adult looking back on childhood; the moneyed idiot Lawrence Selden is an ineffectual adult acting with childlike simplicity, which Eric Stoltz’s awkward miscasting underlines. Yet all the main players—Gillian Anderson, Dan Aykroyd, and Laura Linney among them—are recognizable from American films and television, unlike the unknowns in Davies’s first several features; and unlike Rowlands’s casting in The Neon Bible, the fact that one never forgets about them as stars helps the film rather than distracts from it. The movie implicitly becomes a spectacle of its own making, as hard, clear light shows actors walking through period sets in period costumes and speaking with unnaturally affected accents.

The film’s straightforward, linear story contains the socialite Lily Bart’s fall to the bottom of society; its style presents the past as an artificial construct, with no moment save the present. A man can watch a woman in trouble, but can do nothing to help her, not even give her the favor of remembering her to others. When Lily Bart leans forward in a vast day-lit room and weeps (“I am a useless person!”), the moment is unnerving because of how fake it seems. The real Lily Barts aren’t in this movie. You can feel sorry for someone you don’t know, but you can’t love her.

Davies felt useless for a time making The House of Mirth; he told Sight & Sound in 2008 that the period since the film had been “eight very, very lean years.” The occasion for the interview was a new work, his first documentary, and the first film he’d shot in Liverpool since The Long Day Closes. Of Time and the City opens with a digital camera’s pan across a church front, as Davies’s voice recites a poem:

We love the place we hate
We hate the place we love
We leave the place we hate
Then spend a lifetime trying to regain it
Come closer now, and see your dreams
Come closer now and see mine

The House of MirthThis is the present looking back on the past, as color images of a clean, present-day developed city mix with grainy black-and-white archive footage of a developing one. Reverie and ecstasy in the images mix with acrimony and even apoplexy on the soundtrack, as the filmmaker settles scores, saving his harshest criticism for the Beatles (whose screaming, he says, “turned the witty lyric, and the well crafted love song [into] seeming as antiquated as antimacassars or curling tongs”). As in earlier works, he’s mixing personal history with film history; a key reference point becomes Humphrey Jennings’s series of documentaries, like 1942’s Listen to Britain, which captured mundane routines of people working and playing, sitting at home and going to the pub, and throughout makes the ordinary extraordinary.

Jennings’s need to document transformed into Davies’s need to remember, and this need is given a special poignancy in light of the war. WWII, like Distant Voices’s patriarch, divides this movie. Sometimes we see bombed-out piles of rubble where there were once buildings; sometimes we see buildings, and know that they’ll turn into rubble. Some of the buildings lost included the movie theaters recreated in The Long Day Closes; as the curtain slowly opens in front of a movie screen, Davies says (by way of A.E. Housman), “The happy highways where I went and cannot come again.”

This sense of loss informs The Deep Blue Sea, based on a 1952 Terence Rattigan play that Davies’s script drastically rewrites. It’s about a woman who leaves her husband for another man during the war, and won’t go to back to him afterward. She can’t, as that part of her life is over. But as she stands in front of the mirror, deliberating whether to keep living, her mind travels through time as smoothly as a tracking shot.

She walks alone through a metro station years after the war, and recalls seeking shelter with her husband from a bombing during it. The film’s heroine is played by Rachel Weisz, who looks right, and here a star’s presence slides us into the period rather than takes us out of it. We’re looking at someone we recognize, who stands in for us as we travel through the sensations of England during WWII. A familiar face and a host of unknown, previously unseen others stand together underground and sing, loudly enough to hear each other but not loudly enough to be heard above, a song whose refrain consists of, “Alive, alive, oh.”

Love keeps people alive. It can inspire one person to care for another in sickness and health; it can also inspire one to remember another after death does them part. For Davies, love often forms initially out of pain, but then, as time passes, it bridges the space between the past and the present by caressing these old wounds with a touch as soft as a kiss and a sound as sweet as a mother’s song. His films invite an imaginary communion, in which the mind watching and the mind creating are working together, and never turning off. Love underlies the artist’s memories, which he shares through the movies in his head.

Thanks to Michał Oleszczyk for help with research.

Aaron Cutler lives in São Paulo with his wife, the artist Mariana Shellard. He keeps a site, The Moviegoer, at