When I last saw this film, which was about twenty years ago, in those wonderful days of the BBC when it was a regular picture house of great movies, I didn’t understand it. Instead I marvelled over the photography, and the cinematic techniques; the atmosphere of its imagery is what I have always retained. It is so rich in places; like the warm sunlit day, the three characters crammed into a punt, floating down the river. This was film, it seemed to me then, as painting. You can still see why: there is a scene of a lightly coloured room cluttered with people, or at least I remember it that way, foregrounded against a wood panelled hall behind it. Rosalind, who the light somehow catches, is in the middle of that hall, with its tinges of red, and is waiting to ascend the stairs in her deep blue dress. The tones and composition are of a Dutch master; surely an influence. Anna and Stephen are walking down country paths in and out of the shifting patches of sunlight created by the moving clouds… The camera is interested in subtle shifts of light and shadow; redolent, of course, of other things; but it is the image that sticks, because there is so much attention on it. By the 1960s film technology had reached its apogee – it could do everything it wanted; and we see it here, as the artists revel in the camera’s possibilities.
There is the moment of revelation when Stephen returns home to find his colleague Charley on the stairs in his dressing gown. Almost immediately we see a woman’s legs and part of her chequered blouse… is he having an affair with Rosalind? Yet another confused moment in a film that likes to confuse.
In one scene Stephen, in London for a meeting with a television company, meets his old love Francesca. Their evening together is recorded almost entirely in voice over; as if Stephen is recollecting it later: is he driving home, looking at these scenes in his rear view mirror? It creates a distancing effect; perfect for a meeting between people once close who have not met for years.
We must not forget the opening scene. We hear a crash, the house door opens, and a man walks to the overturned car, which we can’t quite make out. It doesn’t look like a car, or anything at all really – something closer to Quatermass, is one thought at least. Inside this vehicle we see the shattered images of two young people that reverberate occasionally through the film. The scene is actually a later one, which we see again close to its end. Anna, who is alive, Stephen carries out, in her short white dress framed by feathers; an almost fantasy figure. When he helps her out of the car she stands on William’s, her fiancé’s, face, disturbing a bottle of booze; that flows over his nose and cheeks, creating an estuary of alcohol around his neck. When Stephen lays Anna on the ground we see William’s smashed face in the corner of the car. A tiny head at the bottom of the windscreen, a monstrous beast above it.
Anna is an Austrian princess. Or her name so long she has to be according to Stephen, when he later describes her to his wife. She is beautiful and sexually alive; almost from the first we see her attraction to this handsome academic who seems comfortable in his life and personality. No repressed puritan he; but a family man with a full sex life, and an equally attractive wife. His colleague, Charley, the media don and novelist, is infatuated with her. We find out later they are having an affair; and some of the puzzles are solved – for example, Charley appearing at a garden party at which he wasn’t invited (Anna must have told him). We sense a man looking back over the recent history and putting it into new shapes; filling the early holes with the knowledge he has acquired later.
Stephen is also attracted to Anna, and we see it in moments of tension with his wife – a name has the force of a magic potion; no wonder the old magicians were obsessed by words. But he holds himself back; a respectable family man and academic. We can imagine him thinking about this as he looks over the dark fields on the night of the accident, thinking about Anna, the shock of what has happened, his own missed chances with her; his jealousy of Charley. We feel, as we think about this film, in the bus on the way home, that as he reflects on this recent history these memories are opening him up, as water cracks in rock, creating the mental climate that produces what happens a little later.
Charley’s motivations are equally complex; reflected in how he speaks about them. He is a popular academic who has an easy fluency with vast acres of knowledge; although we sense a touch of contempt at his own superficiality. His favourite topic, and one that makes him popular, is sex. At the party when William asks him how he writes a novel Charley says it is easy: just describe what you see. He starts by describing the people on the lawn. Afterwards he goes behind the appearances – we are told that Rosalind is pregnant; the first time we are aware of it, though we should have seen the signs before. He talks about how Stephen is having an affair with a young woman… he is making it up; though pretending it is true, although no one believes him. Of course he is revealing himself; and encompassing a separate truth about the novel’s art. The film is full of such incidents – little puzzles, or frissons of tension, that are resolved in scenes that come later.
Anna hardly speaks. There are times she seems hardly more than a beautiful object. She is a source of sexual tension; a catalyst for these men’s desire. It is this I missed when I first saw the film. I didn’t realise how much hatred can be mixed up with sexuality. At the party tension is generated by jealousy; and leads to the occasional hard-edged banter. William, an aristocrat farmer studying philosophy (an in-joke one assumes), doesn’t enjoy the afternoon because Anna rejects him in favour of Stephen. He takes his revenge when he invites him home for the weekend and insists he play in a brutal form of “football”, a sort of boxing without the Queensberry rules. It could be a coincidence; but the scenes are so close its suggests a conscious link.
When Stephen discovers the affair, and they are in the house together, we see Charley treating Anna badly, shouting at her to get the mail – it is as if she is servant he dislikes. She is causing him great pain. The usual effects of a passionate love affair: the longing, the uncertainties, the complete helplessness, and the physical pain inside the mental mind. There are outside effects too: the separation from his family, the makeshift life he is living, sleeping in his rooms, the worry of being exposed... She is hurting him and he gets rid of it with these outbursts of anger. She ignores him. For she is the stronger one now; another source of pain and frustration for this once detached don. It is a great scene, made more so by Anna’s appearance: no longer made up into a Meissen doll she looks quite different, fresher and younger, more innocent; straight out of bed…
When Rosalind is told about Stephen’s discovery she calls Charley stupid. Indeed for a few minutes she calls everyone stupid! It is her violent reaction to the sexual energy Anna has switched on – she senses her husband’s attraction to his young student; her antennae now extremely sensitive when he mentions he has met Francesca.
Life was so easy. But now the pressures are starting: young love has exploded into a settled routine; sexual energy into old habits and a comfortably unthinking life. This causes tension, and repression, most of which is absorbed and assimilated, transformed into something else – into aristocratic sport or career rivalry. Sometimes though it breaks through, destroying a life or personality.
In an excellent narrative device we return to the first scene. Have we been watching just a memory; a flash of images when confronted with a shocking carnage? Or are these Stephen’s thoughts floating around the room as he sits alone during the night after the accident…. The scene moves on. We see him talking to two police officers, and hiding Anna – he doesn’t want them to know she is there. He believes she was driving the car. Everything has to be guessed at and worked out; obvious signs leading people astray: the detectives assume William was drunk, because he was flooded in alcohol; the bottle Anna overturned when she got out of the car.
Later we come to the film’s climax. Watching her lying on the bed Stephen touches her face gently and quietly. Complex emotions that he cannot control are overwhelming him. We believe he commits a rape.
They are all in love with her. However, she doesn’t exist as an independent character; only as a body to be enjoyed. This is the 1960s and it is a man’s world, where the women must be kept in their place. Anna is something new and dangerous, but she retains elements of tradition: she upsets the comfortable habits of an Oxbridge life, but she is still part of that life: a decoration and not a full human being. She is not their equal, although she has the power to disturb and destroy. How they hate her!
The film closes with a car crash. Is it a real one or a symbol? I think the latter. Who really can live with these events: a close pupil dead, a friend’s marriage wrecked, that friend emotionally mashed up; together with all the sensitivities these jealousies have unleashed. Then there is the guilt of forcing oneself on an injured girl, completely at your mercy; even though it was an accident. Maybe later she will take her own revenge… The old world is shattered. It will be a long time before it is put together again.