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Innocence

This 2000 Australian film by Paul Cox, available on DVD, tells about two young lovers who meet again after forty years and try to recapture the relationship that was cut short by career and a disapproving parent. Andreas, now a widower of thirty years, has discovered that Clair lives nearby, and sends her a letter proposing that they meet. Naturally, there are complications. Clair is married, and has been for nearly forty years. She and her husband John have a distant but amicable relationship, and she has resigned herself to a rather colorless life.

With some misgivings (and vivid flashback memories), Clair agrees to meet Andreas. Their first few minutes in a restaurant are awkward, but soon they rekindle some of their old feelings. They part without an explicit agreement to continue. Andreas persists, however, and so the affair begins.

The story is Clairís. She is the one who faces the major dilemmaófollowing her passion or limiting herself to her unfulfilling marriage relationship. She confesses all to her husband John, and he is understandably flabbergasted, enraged, and hurt. His lack of understanding of what Clair is going through only serves to set her determination to explore her old dream. She has compassion and loyalty for her husband, grown over forty years of conventional marriage, but the old flame burns hot.

Itís an unusual theme for a movie, considering the ages of the main characters. In a series of flashback scenes, we are shown the youthful couple at the height of their intense and joyful passion, and then we see the contrasting hesitancy and timidity of those same people at the other end of their lives, hoping to recapture what they had lost so many years before. "Close your eyes," Clair tells Andreas as they undress for the first time. The viewer feels both embarrassment and sympathy with these aging lovers. The title of the film refers both to their original innocence and to that which urges them to attempt its rekindling.

Part of the theme, then, is an acknowledgment that while bodies age and sag and wither, emotions donít necessarily lose their intensity with time. Itís only the practical sameness of countless days and nights, and the resignation to our inevitable decline that robs life of its vividness. Discovery sometimes awakens one. In the comfortable, the unexpected can arouse either delight or terror, and sometimes both.

As Iíve thought about this story, Iíve been reminded that I donít always know who I am. Sometimes I feel like the same person who clumsily tugged at the clothing of that girl who was to become my first "real" loveóbreathless, gripped by urges I still didnít understand, totally at the mercy of her response. Other times, I watch the young in their ridiculous prancing and preening and pawing, and wish only that my feet didnít hurt. Iíve deliberately conditioned myself to look aside from scenes of uninhibited youth, to avoid eye contact with she of the pretty face and long, sensuous hair. Itís both gratifying and disconcerting to notice that sixty- and seventy-year-old women can be attractive. Not just "nice looking," but . . . well, yummy! The disconcerting part of that comes with the awareness of my own decrepit image.

Another theme of Innocence involves the difference between the passionate love that youth knows and the sublime love that grows ever-so-slowly with experience and wisdom. Love to the young is what someone gives me, the pleasurable sensations of out-of-control hormones. Real love is that which sees the connections between us all and the common frailty and impermanence of human existence. In the film, it is Andreasís character who first comes to see that fact. The specter of impending death clarifies his values. All three of the main characters faced the specter: Clair, whose heart condition reminds her each time she takes her medication; John, who cannot understand why she is acting young. "What an absurd way to spend the last few years of our lives!"; Andreas, who discovers that his cancer has spread. As he contemplates the irony of the situation, Andreas comes to terms with death, and his serenity contrasts with Clairís torment. Only at the end, when her own death begins to stir in her body, does she finally see.

Her final letter, to both Andreas and John and read after her funeral, reveals a new awareness of the meaning of love. "Iíve lived an ordinary life," she writes, and her words are read aloud over the final scene of Andreas and John walking together through the woods. "Maybe the only thing thatís special about me is I know my time has come. My heart has had quite enough.

"Iíve caused such hurt, and now I need to blossom again. I ask you all to forgive me.

"But any other way would have been wrong, would have killed me. The only way to be happy is to love. To love everybody and every thing. To love the world. Maybe some would say thatís naÔve or wrong. Iíve loved you both differently but completely. My love will always be with you. Be happy for me."

As the film credits scrolled up the screen, I felt a little disappointed. I guess I wanted Clair to be more eloquent. Indeed, as Andreas mouthed the philosophy of the screen writer earlier in the movie, I kept wishing he could express it better. Agape, or spiritual love, requires a major reorientation of oneís view of life, and itís not easily put into words. Paul Cox wrote the script himself in three weeks, and one has to admire his vision. I suppose itís too much to ask that he be as articulate with words as he is with cinema. Just as compassion asks gently that we take each person as they are and without judgment, perhaps we also need to accept this film as it stands, draw from its insights and forgive its shortcomings. The shortcomings are, after all, not his but our own.

 

Donald Skiff, January 9, 2003

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