I realize this is an odd choice, but I’m going to start talking about this movie by talking about another movie.
Years ago I watched and really, really liked the movie Atonement. It wasn’t exactly a threat to this list – I doubt it would make my top 100 if pressed – but I was extremely impressed with and very taken by it, even with the fact that, as I described at the time, the last five minutes of the movie hits you in the back of the head with the flat side of a 20 pound sledge.
I was describing how much I liked it to a friend of mine, and he said, “what did you expect? Jesus, look at you. Your favorite movies are [SPOILER.] [SPOILER.] The English Patient. And now you like Atonement so much. It’s like you’re sexually attracted to misery.”
We laughed for a second, but then I stopped laughing and said, “wait, now that I think about it that actually explains a lot.”
Watching The English Patient last night, I was reminded of that story. I was reminded of the story because about halfway through I was struck by two very clear and very explicit thoughts:
“This is my fifth-favorite movie. Out of every movie on earth, there are only four that I like more than this.”
“Dear God, WHY?!”
That question of why would plague me for the rest of the night. And all of today. And maybe, I’m starting to think, for a long time.
The answer isn’t just because it’s a good movie. It’s obviously good. Everything about it is… I don’t want to say “perfect,” because it’s not a perfect film, but somehow that… I dunno, sort of works in its favor? I imagine there is some sort of tortured metaphor to be made here about diamonds and flaws and similar horseshit; let’s pretend I made one and move on. It’s not perfect, but the stuff that is good is so, so, so good – i.e. almost everything – and the stuff that isn’t good is short, and isn’t even that bad to begin with – i.e. about five minutes towards the end – that on balance, yeah, your movie only being, what, 94% amazing, you know, we’ll just round up to a hundred. This is, in a purely objective sense, an incredible movie. Full stop.
So it’s not that. We haven’t broken into the All Time Top 5 on purely quantitative merit alone. There’s clearly something going on here beyond acting and writing and cinematography, and while I was sitting here watching it last night I started to really think about those things, in direct relation to the movie, for the first time.
As I said to a friend last night, this ended up involving some fairly uncomfortable revelations.
I went through a couple surface-level ideas and discarded them pretty quickly. Not even worth repeating. There were a few that seemed promising, though, and I explored them a little further. Eventually they all sort of petered out, but as these things go the exploration was valuable.
Is it the “sexually attracted to misery” joke? Nah. I mean, that’s funny, and there are some things in my life you can point at and say “huh? Huh?” while snickering and making your point. At the end of the day, though, I feel it’s important to state unequivocally that I am not some kind of… emotional sadist? Is that the term for it? I am not actually, literally attracted to unhappiness. That things have sort of ended up in such a way enough times that one can make the joke, well… I am a lot of things, but as I have repeatedly said, remember that above all else I am the plaything of an angry trickster god.
Is it because of Kristin Scott Thomas? Her and Emma Thompson sort of cohabitate this odd little space in my brain set aside for Slightly Older British Actresses I Have A Really Weird Thing For. She was in Four Weddings and a Funeral, a movie that no one should be surprised by now actually WAS a late threat to this list, probably somewhere in the 30-40ish range. She is the Epitome of Cool. Her Katherine is intelligent, beautiful and absolutely heartbreaking. But, no, don’t think that’s it either. I mean, I’m not swooning over the first Mission Impossible. (WHICH SHE WAS THE BEST PART OF.)
Is it the fact that this was the Big Time Prestige Movie right when I started really getting into movies? This was the theory I toyed with the longest, and I think of the ones that didn’t make the cut it has the most merit. Yes, this was around right when I entered my budding-cineaste period, and it coincides with the rise of Miramax and indies dominating awards season – this movie is more or less the highwater mark for Miramax – and all that other shit I have since learned to more or less disregard about movies. I know it wasn’t the first one to do so, but it was the first arthouse movie that I REMEMBER having real mainstream cred (it was the center of a classic Seinfeld episode, remember) and that probably gives the movie some gravity in my thoughts that it might not have had otherwise.
But this isn’t one of my mostest-bestest favorite movies because of any of those things. They were good ideas, sure, but they weren’t the answer.
Finally, though, I did hit on the answer, and I’m not going to lie to you: I didn’t really like what I found.
I love this movie – and I do, if nothing else last night also proved that I deeply, profoundly, unreservedly and unabashedly LOVE this movie – because I connect with it personally.
I love this movie because when I look at Laszlo Almasy I see myself.
That is not a good place to stand.
Okay, so, let’s get the snickering and the dirty looks out of the way. Obviously, I am not a Hungarian count. (That I am aware of.) I do not possess Ralph Fiennes’ matinee idol good looks or talent. I have not had a torrid affair with a British noblewoman in North Africa. (Again, that I am aware of, there was a time when I was REALLY drunk and a lot of it is hazy.)
I would say something like “I do not possess his charm,” but on balance I am frankly pretty sure that I actually possess MORE charm than Almasy. Charm is not exactly his strong suit.
No, that’s not what I mean. Here is what I mean.
When I decided that I really needed to answer the question of “WHY?!” I went back and actually started watching more closely than I normally would when I am planning to write about something.
I watched, thinking to myself, “the answer is here. The answer is right in front of you. You just have to see it.” And as the flashbacks start to unfold – and the flashbacks are the part of the movie I’m interested in, not to take anything away from Juliette Binoche just yet – I started to pay attention to Almasy, really, REALLY pay attention, to his behavior, and his scenes with Katherine…
I paid attention to his scenes with Katherine and I felt myself start to get overtaken by a creeping, unsettling deja vu. Not because I’ve seen the movie or those scenes before. I’ve seen them, by my estimate, eight or nine times over the years.
I started to get the sort of deja vu where I was watching the movie, and thinking, I did that.
I did that too.
I’ve done that.
I’ve acted like that.
There’s the scene where Almasy tries to get Clifton to take Katherine back with him to “Cairo” not because he is actually worried about her safety, or about the expedition, or the desert, or any of the other bullshit excuses he gives. He wants her to go back because he’s terrified of his own feelings, and of being alone with her, even when he’s surrounded by other people.
It was uncomfortably familiar.
Then comes the scene after the night in the sandstorm, when they get back to her hotel, and he refuses to go in with her. And I remember doing exactly that. Doing the exact same stupid shit he does. Standing at the bottom of the steps or outside the open door listening to that voice in my head, just like he is in that moment, that voice everyone hears at some point, telling you that what you want is right there, right in front of you, that you can have it and it’s waiting for you, and then refusing to go and get it because of the other voice in your head that makes up some bullshit reason why you can’t have it, or why you don’t deserve it, the voice that eventually makes you say, “nah, I should go.”
And then not much later they’re finally together – no thanks to him, also a popular theme in my biography* – and I see what he does, the mistakes he makes, and how twisted up his insides get by fear, by his fear of his feelings, of exposing himself, of opening up to someone else, of other people and the world in general. Because, folks, don’t misunderstand: from the second he first sees Katherine until he gets cooked in that plane, every single thing Laszlo Almasy does is driven by fear.
Trust me on this point.
Sting once sang that “those who fear are lost,” and good lord does that apply here. How many people die because of Laszlo Almasy’s fear? Never mind the thousands of people in Cairo that die – as Almasy correctly points out, thousands of people would have died either way, just different ones. No. Not war casualties, not statistics. How many individual people – people he knows, his friends – die because Almasy can’t deal with his fear? Katherine. Clifton. Maddox. Hell, even the German general who cuts off Caravaggio’s thumbs ends up getting it in the neck because of what Almasy did, though admittedly he probably deserved it.
Almasy, for his sins, gets to spend the entire war dying.
In trying to figure out why I love this movie so much – partially through sitting here typing this and partially through long periods pointedly NOT sitting here typing this – I did at least manage to come to a realization that was a lot more comfortable than my similarities with Count Dumbass: the movie, itself, is also asking the question “why?” The opening scenes are purposefully opaque: a man, a woman, a plane, and a fire. Then we go back, and for the first time the movie poses the question, “why is this happening?” All the major action in the movie more or less centers around the question of why. Katherine wants to know why Almasy writes about her in his book. Clifton wants to know why he wasn’t good enough for Katherine. (Shoulda gone for brooding, dude.) Caravaggio wants to know why he lost his thumbs. Hana…
Okay, here’s my sort-of apostasy about this movie: I don’t really get Hana’s story. I mean I functionally UNDERSTAND it, I comprehend the plot, but I don’t know… what purpose it serves? Laszlo and Katherine is the movie. Their story is Why We’re Here. We set Hana up with this tragic backstory about her blown up Canadian boyfriend, and her blown-up girlfriend, and then she tries to blow herself up, and then… she decides to ride out the war in a crumbling castle with a mummy? Is it supposed to be some sort of counterpoint to Almasy’s story? Because you can’t really touch that on the whole “tragic love” front. Oh, your boyfriend got blown up. (In a goddamn war, we might add.) And then your best girlfriend got blown up (in the same damn war). And then you meet a perfectly nice young lad who you break up with for never satisfactorily explained reasons which possibly have something to do with him pointedly NOT getting blown up, which considering your luck should be considered a sign from the universe that he’s The One.
Boo fucking hoo! Lemme tell you a little story about Laszlo Almasy and Katherine Clifton, and buckle your seatbelt cause this is the mother of all tragic love stories. Did your husband try to kill himself with a plane with you in it? Did you jump off a train to try and save someone you love (blown up or otherwise) from dying alone in a cave? I think not.
(It is worth noting in passing that the movie’s plot summary on Wikipedia omits Hana’s story entirely, and not wholly to its detriment.)
Hana’s story – it’s existence – is one of the very few flaws in the movie. The other is what heppens between when Almasy leaves Katherine and when he gets back to her. As I’ve said, I’ve seen this movie close to a dozen times, and every time we get the knobheaded British soldiers dragging Almasy to and fro across the desert, and strangling people with handcuff chains, and Nazi plane swaps, I just kind of shake my head and wonder what the hell was going through Minghella’s head for that stretch. Tonally, in terms of performance, in terms of staging, everything, that one reel is from some other movie that is certainly NOT in my top 5. Every time a British soldier says “Fritz” I want to travel back in time and whack Minghella upside the head with a newspaper and make him rewrite those parts. I get that you can’t have “tragic love story” without, you know, tragedy, but isn’t there SOME other way we can get to it?
Hang on, though. Is “tragic love story” it? Hell, tragic love story is no less autobiographical for me than Almasy’s cowardice, though again in fairness I have never been set on fire because of my doomed love for an unattainable woman**. Maybe my deep-seated love of the movie is just pure identification, on every level, character AND theme? God, that would be depressing, wouldn’t it? That would be more depressing than this movie, which is actually something of an accomplishment considering the underlying message of The English Patient – my fifth favorite movie of all time – is “no matter how hard you try you can’t escape the past, love is a poison, and both of them will kill you.”
Note to self: stop asking “why.”
Oh, and, next time?
Go up the damn steps.
* That motherfucker is ASLEEP when she shows up!