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Friday, Oct. 20, 2000

'END OF THE AFFAIR/BLOOD SIMPLE'

Two ways to leave your lover


Graham Greene's semi-autobiographical novel "The End of the Affair" ranks as one of literature's most poignant accounts of amor interruptum. Greene's tale was a searing portrait of love and loss, capturing the unceasingfrustration that tears at one's soul after seeing a relationship break off suddenly, for reasons unclear. Greene allows us to wallow in these feelings -- with classic bites of bitter romanticism, lines like "jealousy can only exist with desire" -- before finally turning to a bit of mystical Catholicism to suggest a love that transcends life and death.

The novel has finally reached the big screen, adapted by director Neil Jordan ("The Crying Game," "Michael Collins"), and featuring Ralph Fiennes as Maurice Bendrix, the jilted author who serves as Greene's thinly disguised alter-ego; Julianne Moore as Sarah Miles, his lover; and Stephen Rea as Sarah's hangdog husband, Henry. Set during the Blitz of Britain -- continuous bombing raids by the Nazi air force in the early stage of World War II -- the film follows the trio through questions of fidelity and jealousy, love and lust.

The film starts with Bendrix still tearing his hair out over Sarah, who left him suddenly after a torrid affair. Bendrix is convinced there's another man in the picture, and when he meets a dejected Henry in Hyde Park -- who knows nothing of his wife's affair -- Bendrix tries to convince him to hire a detective to follow Sarah and discover her secrets. Henry is too decent to go along with this ploy, but Bendrix knows no shame, and goes ahead and does it for him. (Ian Hart provides the film's sole ray of humor as the amateurish private eye.)

Bendrix seeks to exorcise his unrequited love for Sarah by proving her capriciousness and wanton ways -- such evidence would provide Bendrix with some reason with which to put their sudden break-up to rest. Unfortunately for him, the reality of the situation is far more complex than he can imagine.

Belief and faith -- central tenets of Greene's Catholic roots -- are at the core of the story: Bendrix's jealousy betrays a lack of faith in his lover, and he is, in a sense, punished for it. But what's more troubling is that his Sarah is seemingly punished for her faith as well, in order to prove it exists. This leads Bendrix from frustration to anger, rage against the divinity who could demand such suffering: "I hate you God," he writes; "I hate you as if you existed." Despair is a powerful fuel for disbelief, and for a cynic's rejection of "divine will," you can't beat the above for its simplicity.

Moore and Fiennes are both quite capable actors, and they manage to find moments that leave their mark. Fiennes captures the strange combination of cynicism and romanticism that makes Bendrix such a mess when he's jilted, while Moore remains suitably inscrutable until the film's final revelation.

They have to work hard to overcome the gloom that surrounds them, though. True to the era, the film's colors are damp drizzly gray skies, and dimly lit parlors full of muted browns and tweedy greens. The ambience is suffocatingly drab, and the romance never has the spark to transcend it. Bendrix doesn't even remove his tie when he makes love, in what must be one of cinema's least romantic onscreen couplings (despite the fact that Julianne Moore obviously learned how to fake a violent orgasm during "Boogie Nights").

The film's plot twist -- which I don't intend to ruin by revealing here -- may also leave some cold. Let's just say that buying it requires a greater degree of superstitious Catholicism -- namely, the belief that God is intently involved in a hands-on way in our day-to-day affairs -- than this viewer was able to provide. For those who believe that the hand of God lies on their shoulder, then this will probably be a moving, stunning denouement. For the doubting Thomases out there, however, the final reel isn't going to cause any conversions.

An affair also reaches its end in "Blood Simple" -- the Coen Brothers' debut film from 1983, now in revival -- albeit in a much more violent denouement.

"Blood Simple" kicks off with one of cinema's great voice-over intros, M. Emmet Walsh drawling a succinct and razor-sharp summary of what is to follow: "The world is full of complainers. But the fact is, nothing comes with a guarantee. I don't care if you're the Pope of Rome, President of the United States or even Man of the Year. Something can always go wrong. And go ahead, complain, tell your problems to your neighbor, ask for help -- watch him fly."

In Joel and Ethan Coen's flick, the jilted husband -- a seedy Texas nightclub owner named Marty (Dan Hedaya) -- does hire a private detective named Visser (Walsh) to tail his wife Abby (Frances McDormand, "Fargo") and take photos of her affair with bartender Ray (John Getz). But confronted with this proof of her infidelity, Marty goes one step further and asks the portly, amoral detective to solve the problem for him by offing the two lovers. Visser seems to agree, but Abby and Ray have their own plans as well. When corpses start popping up, it's anyone's guess as to who struck first and why, and the frame-ups commence . . .

The film is meticulously plotted, and chillingly executed, with not a drop of "Fargo"-esque humor to sweeten this grim depiction of stupid, blundering crimes of greed and passion. And unlike the divine will at the root of Greene's troubles in "The End of the Affair," the Coens see the hand of fate as random, whimsical and unsparing. While Greene's cosmology allows for rhyme and reason -- a rational god -- even in death, the Coens take a cynical view similar to that held by the doomed German soldiers in "Cross of Iron": "If there is a god, he's a bastard." The release of "Blood Simple: The Thriller" as a "director's cut" is a bit of a joke. In what must be a first, the Coens actually cut a minute off the original! But this is still a welcome rerelease; there's a whole generation of Coen fans who came to them late, and this is their most overlooked work, yet the closest in spirit to their biggest hit, "Fargo." Well worth seeing, and should tide over Coen fans until the release of their latest, "O Brother, Where Art Thou" next year.

"The End of the Affair" is now playing at Cine Switch Ginza. "Blood Simple: The Thriller" opens Nov. 4 at Shibuya's Cinema Rise.


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