The End of the Affair

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

Romantic movies have gotten
a bad name–not due to Catherine Breillat’s porn-screed Romance
(which few saw anyway), but because people insist on viewing love stories trivially.
Even positive reviews for The End of the Affair traduce it. You’d
think critics never read Graham Greene–or Jean Rhys or Scott Fitzgerald
or Bebe Moore Campbell. They’ve lost touch with delicate and profound emotional
expression. The current spate of teen movies offer no help by merely inaugurating
new viewers into the juvenile attitude toward love as sex (except for The
and Beautiful Thing the last credible teen romance was Say
in 1989). Sex/love confusion is the dynamo at the heart of the
very adult emotional dilemma that The End of the Affair depicts. In godless
times such a perception seems to come out of nowhere–a miracle.

The diaristic narrative
spoken by Maurice Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes) describes a miracle no one was looking
for. Remembering his affair with married Sarah (Julianne Moore) while befriending
her husband Henry (Stephen Rea), Bendrix crosses compulsive action with inner
turmoil. Confessing a sense of guilt that is also his quest for meaning, Bendrix’s
middle-class, urbane consciousness finds understanding and faith difficult.
Neil Jordan adapts Graham Greene’s novel of existential passion as if it
were his own, taking on dreamlike events and circumstances with a felicity so
exact that it proves his continued growth into a major movie artist. Always
depicting life as somewhat enchanted, Jordan masterfully eases into feelings
and experience that ordinarily distract consciousness, always testing romantic,
subjective points of view. Yet his grip on Bendrix and Sarah’s reality–on
moral dilemma–turns The End of the Affair into more than a make-out
flick but very nearly Jordan’s finest expression of yearning and skepticism.
The film’s spiritual concerns and sensual atmosphere recall The Company
of Wolves
and The Miracle (from Jordan’s own original scripts)
and the very Greene-like sense of social/moral catastrophe that enhanced Jordan’s
The Butcher Boy gives The End of the Affair’s World War II
setting a compelling historical weight. Though taking place mostly during the
London Blitz, the story is determinedly modern; its ethical conflicts are seismic.
To simply note the romantic atmosphere–to get off on the vibe–only
appreciates the movie’s surface.

Greene’s novel turned
sexual passion into a matter of spiritual belief–something greater than
seeking mere opportunities for lust. And Jordan appropriately gives lust its
due but he isn’t confused about it like Breillat. Instead of fighting the
impulse to connect, Jordan, like Greene, looks at the deeper significance–and
without today’s simplified politics of socially constructed desire. Bendrix’s
memory of the first moments of an assignation comes across in a brief montage
of a stairway climb where, arm-in-arm with Sarah, he gropes her crotch. Jordan
shoots that gesture, and their later, fully clothed tryst, as a perfect symbol
of bold eroticism. Bendrix and Sarah are seen in their social, earthly contexts
and, fittingly, such a full image waits to be unveiled–it has consequences.

All Jordan’s sensuality,
and the dramatic plotting, undeniably increase the film’s romantic effect,
but as in the greatest movie love stories (like Frank Borzage’s, Josef
von Sternberg’s, Max Ophuls’) something larger is intimated. More
than a tale of reckless ardor, Bendrix and Sarah’s devotion reaches a level
of commitment and caring. A fuller consciousness beyond swooning is required
of them–and of the audience. Obviously movies like this get financed because
of their exploitable elements–the debased sense of love, the manipulated
gratification that can work for happy or tragic endings. But serious pop artists
like Jordan and Greene transcend obviousness through perceptive detail and persuasive
style. The End of the Affair isn’t just emotive but it complicates
romanticism with Immanence.

That’s what The
English Patient
didn’t have. Very likely, that was also why some people
liked The English Patient; they got romanticism unadorned by anything
other than costumes and faraway locales–fashion-magazine kitsch. That Jordan
is not content with that trite level of wishing is plain from the way he turns
his commercial obligation of casting Ralph Fiennes in the lead role to a risky
advantage. Fiennes’ cold-eyed reserve, used to exoticize him in The
English Patient
, here conveys an intellectually rigid soul. His moony gray
eyes suggest worldly, cosmic guilt and a prideful refusal to admit it. Bendrix’s
literary pretension (he writes a novel titled The Vicarious Lover) distances
him from naivete. "To be is to be perceived" is his impertinent lover’s
credo. He’s as knowing as a dejected angel and Fiennes acts out that torment
(as the foundering performers in Dogma cannot). Even when entangled with
Sarah (or at odds with Henry) he tests his own satisfaction, defies his capacity
for happiness.

As Sarah, Julianne Moore
plays a similar conflict more extravagantly. Her pale beauty a litmus of romantic
temperature, she importantly embodies the feminine principle in Greene’s
scheme as both a conscious individual and a spiritual instrument. Jordan employs
Moore’s sensuality imaginatively–she makes an all-the-more surprising
display of psychological torment, passion and self-denial. Sarah’s full
being is vividly conflicted while Stephen Rea acts out Henry’s complications
in subtly graded monochrome. A betrayed husband more needful than

jealous, Henry sinks inside his own timid


Despite a fragrant, beseeching
music score, Jordan’s film conveys more than romantic suffering. Like another
overlooked serious drama, 1997’s The Proposition, The End of
the Affair
builds on the melodrama tradition to address contemporary moral
crises, centering its tale around the rarely dealt-with issues of faith and
propriety. Many, if not most, Hollywood romances are devoted to ignoring personal
honor as an inconvenience–probably a sign of the times. But Jordan’s
film evokes a moral template with high (complicated) ideas; it’s a stubbornly
romantic edifice like the Brighton Pavilion that Bendrix tells Sarah was built
as a lovers’ monument–"this huge folly to impossibility."

At this point the Catholic
issue can’t be overlooked–especially since it’s probably the
root of a few critics’ disdain for The End of the Affair. In The
New Yorker
, this extraordinary film’s dismissal followed praise for
the base romanticism of Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown as "a
genuine poetic creation." (How long did it take him, six days?) Sweet
and Lowdown
isn’t a gown by Balenciaga, it’s not even a very good
movie. That’s just indulging an atheistic sentimentality over the ethical
examination that Jordan (like Greene) performs with thorough, self-critical
honesty. The presence of God in the characters’ lives adds to the enormity
of their complication–and not just as a sense of guilt. Bendrix, Sarah
and Henry struggle with a need to be loving in the midst of chaos and suffering,
to fulfill themselves yet not neglecting obligation to others. An unnerving
subplot parallels their adultery with a private investigator’s careless
introduction of his preteen son to the sordidness of infidelity; it shifts the
love story just enough to keep it startling rather than mushy, and connects
to the world’s unfairness and corruption. The spirituality in this film
is an adult spirituality as opposed to the adolescent goofball catechisms in
Dogma (a slacker’s version of Greaser’s Palace). Even
tv’s Touched by an Angel is better than that–not being about
dogma but stories of faith. So it’s silly that critics who are willing
to take even Kevin Smith seriously won’t countenance Jordan’s and
Greene’s deeply felt viewpoint.

The film’s crises are
not only Catholic. As a Shakespeare character tauntingly advised, "I know
thou art religious and hast a thing within thee called conscience." That
explains why Jordan’s triangle feel themselves dashed about. This is a
great love (in more than one sense) story for the way Jordan and Greene show
emotions affecting perceptions and those feelings twist beliefs–turning
lust to love, trust to guilt. It happens in the copulation scene where Moore
rises up orgasmically as bombs shake their bedroom and the air fills with settling
dust. Through Jordan’s sensuous filmmaking the amorous world becomes an
intensified version of the social quakes everyone experiences. Jordan’s
technique showing this is as nimble and lyrical as Truffaut’s in Stolen
(where the private investigator subplot comically examined varieties
of passion and of lovers’ rationales). Jordan weaves the spiritual/rational
together in the film’s primary, time-shifting dynamic. Bendrix and Sarah
relive in memory the moment their affair rose a level, turning into something
else. No French New Wave film was more formally dexterous and evocative. With
every colorfully detailed point of view, these small lives seem gripped by something
larger. The final scene combines an image of the emotional trauma with Bendrix’s
quietly intense diary inscription, an ending both poignant and chilling.

Is there an audience for
a movie this sensuous, complex and relatable? If The End of the Affair
can’t restore respect to peoples’ notions about movie romance, what
will? Currently pop media lets us shield our sensitivities about love through
sarcasm and derision–whether the coarse teen comedies, the dishonest Nora
Ephron excrescences or the shellshocked wit of HBO’s Sex in the City.
Through accident or necessity, The End of the Affair harkens to the moral
values of an earlier era in romantic filmmaking–1940s wartime romances
such as To Each His Own and Brief Encounter. In those movies,
plots were wound around fateful disclosures and The End of the Affair
also makes superb melodramatic use of taken-for-granted moments in the characters’
lives played twice–with heavenly insight and anguished hindsight. Such
reveries always allude to experience and sophistication, a knowledge of love
that is greater than adolescent wish-fulfillment. But that tradition’s
so far past that contemporary audiences no longer appreciate it. Only fatuous
love stories fit the mood. Spielberg’s 1989 Always was the last
time an adult romance could make serious claims to the term "love story."
Now The End of the Affair asserts its own miracle against the trend.
Think of it in the best 40s terms: The End of the Affair is to The
English Patient
what The Shanghai Gesture was to Casablanca–a
triumph of sensuous intelligence over kitsch.