December 10th, 2007
C. Way/ SnailCrow.com © 2007
“Away From Her” is set in Canada & based on an Alice Munro short story called “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.” A woman, Fiona, (Julie Christie, pictured, radiant) starts exhibiting signs of Alzheimer’s; she & her husband, Grant, cope with what follows.
The movie, like Munro’s best stories, is so honest and virtuosic in its exploration of human relations that it takes the wind out of you, like a slap to the chest. This is Munro territory — the complex & occasionally frightening range of emotions that live between people, never sentimentalized — and this movie maps that tract with the precision of detectives combing forests for boot prints.
The film does so many things well. For instance, the jagged sunken hull of the husband’s old infidelities hauled up and out of the deep by Fiona, glaring, rusted & clear, even while her other memories and faculties drift down deeper into murk. You’re never quite sure — as her condition worsens and she’s committed to a nursing home — how much of her discomfort around his visits is due to the pain of being reminded of her lost memory or the instinctive gut-reminder (divorced now from facts, made more primal for it) of pure pain this man, dimly remembered, caused her.
And then there’s the relationship she creates with a male patient, Aubrey, wheelchair bound and grumpy, not long after being committed. It’s a supporting & loving bond we watch develop, one whose intimacies the husband is forced to endure — and gradually accept and even encourage — with each of his bouquet-laden visits. As viewers we feel the tug of conflicting emotion, loyalties. First the husband, faithful & steadfast now but hurtful in the past. Then the wife, transferring affection to a new partner now that her old one belongs to another reality. No absolutes, no right or wrong, just the past and the present heaped together indissolubly and nothing to do but mortar new hearthstones atop the earth’s upheaval.
This is a rare kind of emotional portraiture so vivid & unsparing it hurts to keep your eyes on it for too long. And it only gets more blinding when Aubrey’s wife and Grant become involved — for reasons that are as much altruistic as they are emotionally & physically practical.
But for now I want to talk about Fiona. About Julie. About where she goes & what she leaves behind.
I can still see Julie skiing through snow, gliding, face rapt like a saint at vision, like an infant before a fireplace. Transported by the first tentative whispers of oblivion.
I can feel her groping that infinite grope for the something, the something, the something terribly important & just on the edge of language and thought, the always-slipping crux, the crackling will-o-wisp, always leading her out to snowed glades where she
her face a marvel of unutterable emotion,
grace dusted with fear & murmured over by gods
who are porters as much as midwives.
I can still see her shimmering in her liminal canoe,
just pushed off from reason and the rest of us,
but not yet bereft of sense, insight, even wry smiles about what’s to come;
slowly drifting toward islands, but not yet in their glowy lotus,
not yet in those softest keys, the alien bay where we’re taken when the brain
unspools and pools soft like an evening dress gradually undone
until shimmering at our feet.
I can still see her. Weeping against her husband. He who keeps her frustratingly tied to the confusing old world, who brings twisty annoying dates and names and a past — a past of mistakes and betrayals — a past she has already not so much forgotten as transcended, as a butterfly transcends the bough and the forming dark –
a husband who keeps coming to visit her anyhow, thorny past in tow, always with flowers. Always with hope and the pain of seeing her enter a new world whose language & logic –
(always renewing, always new, always lacking the roots of reason and memory, like magic birds which have learned to sleep love & die on the wing) –
is denied him.
Julie, your birth into oblivion
Life being a series of hallways & chambers where we are forced to wonder:
“What’s behind that door? And that one?” And
“Where’s the one with my name on it?” And
“How will I ever make it across this hall?”
And Julie, you’re not even in that castle anymore,
not even in the kingdom,
you’re walking by the pond now, taking flowers seriously,
making slower and slower circles;
no use for flagstones when there are foxgloves;
beyond all doors and echoing halls;
beyond yourself & having shucked all years like a molt,
now born back into void, no words & pure being.