Gate of Heaven, The Place of the Other
for Elena, in her absence
|What is behind that door? What is it that Nickie Ferrante (Cary Grant) fears and desires so much? How is it possible that he acts this way if he has never noticed it before, not even during the time he was in the room talking to Terry McKay (Deborah Kerr), the woman with whom he thought he would spend the rest of his life? How does the audience know the character in the movie is having these feelings? Why does a movie like An Affair to Remember (1957), which apparently mixes comedy and drama, end up being a tale of mystery about a door that keeps a secret with an ambiguous meaning?
A painting, just a painting. But a painting that, like the majority of bodies and objects within the movie, carries a vast memory. Nickie himself painted it and, in truth, it is not terribly good. The camera shows it fleetingly, as if fearing its presence. Does the camera fear the painting because it could spoil the amazing beauty of the frames, or because there is something in it that should be feared? The painting was done by Nickie when he was alone, feeling deserted after Terry failed to make it to the top floor of the Empire State Building, thus breaking her promise to meet him – or so he thinks. They are both wealthy and famous, and they travelled on a luxury liner sailing towards New York, en route to their respective partners. But they fell in love. On board the ship, they have all the time in the world, and a very similar sense of humour, so they can hardly do anything else but fall for each other. In a port of call, they together visit Janou (Cathleen Nesbitt), Nickie’s grandmother, who lives in Villefranche – her ‘small world’ as she herself calls it. And in front of this humble old woman, who spends her last days on earth with only the company of her dead husband’s memories, they continue their romance, believing in their love more than ever before. So, when they go back to the liner, they both agree to put an end to their former lives, to learn how to face life on their own, and to meet again at the top of the Empire State Building (‘the nearest thing to heaven’) six months later. But on the very same day they are about to reunite, Terry is knocked down by a car, preventing her from making it to the meeting. Right on the top floor of the skyscraper, under the rain, Nickie does not know what is happening on the ground, so he interprets Terry’s absence as a betrayal. In fact, she became paralytic. He starts painting again, and never ceases tormenting himself. Almost at the very end of the movie, they once again meet. In the final scene, he visits her on Christmas Day, without knowing what really happened to her – something he cannot not really find out behind the door, but in her crippled legs.
So what is behind that door which upsets Nickie so much? Of course, it is the answer to all his questions – but also something else as well, something he could not have expected. His dealer told him that a young woman without much money, and restricted to a wheelchair, fell for the painting, the very same way - and Nickie Ferrante knows this already - Terry fell for him before. Once he knows this, he tells his dealer to give her the painting as a present; after all, he wanted just to forget it, to get rid of that image: Janou, Terry, the shawl that the former promised to give the latter after her death, the shawl she now has over her shoulders, in the room, sitting on the sofa with a blanket covering her legs. Although the painting represents all this in a very vague way, it does indeed suggest it – and that is what matters, rather than the specific way the painting represents it.
The suspense lasts for only a couple of seconds. Nickie has just given the shawl to Terry and is about to leave, but then he remembers the story of the girl, retraces his steps, and starts to tell the story to Terry, who listens from the sofa, scared. He seems agitated, ready to continue to the very end, but when he gets to the point of saying that the girl cannot walk, he suddenly stops: ‘She was ... She was ... ’ He cannot continue the story even though he keeps talking, trying to catch the listener’s attention while he goes to the bedroom – the bedroom to which he had previously paid no attention, the same bedroom that now inexplicably draws his attention, as if he knew it from long ago. He paces around the apartment several times, alternating his gaze between Terry and the door – the door neither he nor we has noticed up to this very moment. He suddenly opens it and enters the bedroom. Then he looks to the right of the frame, to something we cannot yet see. The camera moves outwards for a few seconds, and also to the right of the frame, showing a mirror in which we see the reflection of a painting of an old lady, a young girl, and a white shawl. Everything is shown very briefly; in a way, we hardly realise what is in the painting, or even its coarseness. But Nickie shuts his eyes and leans his head on the door: he experiences a realisation, then he feels the pain, and subsequently the ecstasy.
In those final moments the whole scene shines: the absence, the narration, the doubt, the ghost. In the end, everything moves around Janou, around her obsessive remembrance, around the implicit oath the couple made in front of her, around the impossibility of deceiving her or harming her memory. For Nickie, Janou’s absence is like Terry’s absence – in any case, it signals the total lack of feminine company. When Terry puts on the shawl, she becomes Janou, and then Nickie cannot do nothing but fulfill his remembrances, to reconstruct the scene, to look for the painting and show it – show it to himself. Is it, then, a way of symbolically representing the unconscious: the unknown door to which no one has ever paid any attention, the door that contains the key to the whole mystery? However, the film needs to put an end to the story, the story Terry cannot finish on his own, that very same story in which he entangles himself more and more – ‘She was ... she was ... ’ – in the same way that he goes to the room, agitatedly, looking at Terry and the door alternately. Is it a weak story, of minor interest? Only Nickie’s story, or the film’s, can be considered weak. But Janou’s story is not, because it has established, mid-way in the film, a narration-pattern – one that is going to be followed by the lovers and their story. Once Nickie’s narrative myth has failed – a product of planning and pragmatism – the couple welcomes the grandmother’s myth (the myth of romantic love) at the end. Beyond the world and death.
That is why the insecurity of speech takes place, those moments when neither he nor she can finish their sentences, when the narration holds back and takes dead ends. A revelation is needed, a miracle, the apparition of a ghost that puts an end to all doubts. But then, if Terry has become Janou, who has Nickie become? The grandfather’s ghost, the reflection of that other picture which the old woman showed them in Villefranche, that honourable old man to whom she has decided to devote the rest of her life? Are Nickie and Terry, now that the revelation has taken place, only a representation of the past, a reincarnation of that spectral universe?
Several symptoms could support this conclusion. Terry is wearing the shawl and has been transformed into Janou. Nickie, then, oversteps the threshold of the mysterious door and also the frontier that divides the world of the living creatures from the world of the dead. When he comes out, transformed by his view of the picture, he is not the same. In Villefranche, the grandmother cannot pass what she calls ‘the boundary of my small world’. Her domain could now be considered as the domain of death – and we can consider this to be also the domain of Nickie and Terry, not only when they penetrate the territory of the old woman, but also when they rebuild it in the apartment, in that last scene. Nickie’s strategy could even be to recreate the woman he loved and lost, now like his grandmother: instead of rescuing her, like Orpheus, from the world of the dead, he goes to her territory to himself become one of the dead.
Is An Affair to Remember a fantasy film? A ghost story, in which a couple crosses the lines between life and death without realising it, then gets trapped and only reaches happiness after accepting the condition of being dead? Could it be said that visiting Villefranche is just a hallucination, and that the lovers reunite after dying? Is this hypothesis so ludicrous, when the film itself borders on ludicrousness at every step, using melodramatic archetypes to the point of exhaustion, until they are nothing but silhouettes? When Terry is knocked down by the car, the camera moves to the top of the Empire State Building, not just to show the unapproachable object, but to suggest an ascent to Heaven that might be real: the woman disappears from the visible world and from Nickie’s life, her new condition transforming her into her own ghost for, in a way, she is dead.
In another scene, when Nickie goes back to Villefranche after her grandmother’s literal death, the echoes of his former visit resonate everywhere, accompanied by the song that his grandmother and Terry sang in the past (‘Affaire de cœur’/‘Our Love Affair’) – a song that is heard again when Terry puts the shawl over her shoulders in the final scene (a scene that lacks music up until that point). Nickie touches the seats her grandmother and Terry previously occupied, and then he closes his eyes – as he does at the end, when looking at the painting he finds behind the mysterious door. The passage from one world to another takes the space of an absence: that of the dead, and of the things one’s eyes cannot see when they are closed. And all this thanks to the Gorgon-like painting, which no one can see except through the eyes of the woman who becomes an old lady, a saint who gives up the world in exchange for love.
Above all, the bog question comes back, yet again: why does Nickie go to that particular door? In some shots of the final scene, his body is framed between two doors: the one he entered through, and another that is never opened. And in between those two doors there is a small table with a blue vase on it. Beyond the second door, a piano reminds us of Janou’s own, on which Nickie leans on a couple of times, beside a tiny Christmas tree. He chooses the door that he ‘transgresses’ because, somehow, he knows it is the door. And even though it is his first time in the apartment, he is truly ‘on the other side’: on the other side of the sofa where Terry lies down, beyond the chimney, just on the other side of the main door, the furthest place Terry goes while wandering through the apartment.
Behind the piano, the vast window (beyond which one can imagine a snowy terrace) shows an urban landscape falling into a winter sleep. The geography of the room where the whole scene takes place is very important, because Nickie’s movements through this tiny labyrinth give us a notion of his fluctuating state. His first appearance is also by a door, at the entrance, and its frame surrounds him as if he was a painting. Like the silhouettes in the painting, his silhouette also comes from another world – from the external world rather than from the internal one – and it is seeking the eternal happiness that Terry the ghost promises him. He always keeps a distance between himself and her – or, when sitting close to each other, he prefers to remain behind the cover of the sofa, maintaining this distance that might be preferable for both of them. There is a moment when he tries to sit beside her, on the same sofa, but Terry does not allow him to do so – because she wants to keep her secret, and also keep him away from her universe. Ultimately, his final conversion takes place at the frame of the other door, the one that leads to the unknown world. But it also takes place in front of another frame, that of the painting, which is doubly framed on the surface of a mirror. In a trance, Nickie has gone to that door because of his own story, the one inw hcih wants to take a part.
There is another film in Leo McCarey’s filmography with the same plot. Its title is Love Affair; it was produced in 1939 and the cast includes Charles Boyer as Michel Marney (the source for Nickie Ferrante), and Irene Dunne as Terry McKay. If we compare its final scene with that of An Affair to Remember, the differences between them are obvious. Beyond the greater stiffness of the first version, or the more prominent role of short takes over the longer ones used in the second version, what really makes the difference between the two versions is the tone of the conversation. After all, what is the sense of Nickie and Terry quarrelling with each other in either film? In both cases, it is just a conversation between two lovers who pretend not to love each other anymore. In the 1939 version, Michel’s remorse makes Terry smile. She knows his pain is real, but she cannot help seeing the playboy he used to be and still is, the comedian who pretends to be a romantic, gloomy hero. The game between the two characters is closer to comedy than drama, closer to an exchange between two people who are about to marry than a mutual reproach. The size of the room is also smaller. Michel appears through the entrance door in a mid-shot, seeming neither to be a ghost, nor a threatening visitor. Apart from that, the other door, the door, does not exist. The size of the apartment does not allow for such mysteries. Michel can walk about it freely; there are no obstacles. In the final moments, when he discovers the truth, he looks everywhere ostentatiously, without Nickie’s elegant shyness. He wants to find what he is looking for, and finally does so: the door that leads from the living room to a small room where the painting is. After a brusque camera movement we see the painting, less refined than the one in An Affair to Remember, almost carnal in its directness. Then they both embrace. Terry eventually says: ‘It doesn’t have to be a miracle. If you can paint, I can walk. Anything can happen, don’t you think?’ And these words sound like a sarcastic commentary, before the couple burst out laughing.
Those words, nothing less. In the better scene of the 1957 version – in which there is no partnership between the characters, only a remorse that fades little by little – Terry does not say, ‘It doesn’t have to be a miracle’ – because miracles are, in a way or other, truly necessary here. Nor does she laugh, mixing tears and smiles in the final seconds. And when she says, ‘If you can paint, I can walk. Anything can happen, don’t you think?’, Nickie’s answer is not a laugh but a grimace of resignation and an expression of consolation, both for her and for himself: ‘Yes, darling, yes, yes, yes ... ’ From a celebration of life, even in adversity, to the acceptance of a morbid fate. However, anything is better than solitude.
Those words ... for years I have considered them, I have studied the scenes in both films, and yet I cannot reach their true meaning. ‘If you can paint, I can walk. Anything can happen, don’t you think?’: those words refer to Nickie’s meagre talent for painting. But they are not meant to hurt him. Irene Dunne uses them as a reply in a couple’s quarrel; Deborah Kerr uses them as a prayer: ‘Please, don’t leave us in this darkness’, that is what she means. Those words ... Do they really mean that she’ll ever be able to walk again, as Jane Wyman sees again in Douglas Sirk’s Magnicent Obssession (1954)? ‘Yes, darling, yes, yes, yes ... ’ It sounds like the patter we use with children when they are sick, and fever does not let them sleep peacefully. ‘Don’t worry, darling, I’m with you’. We say things like that even though we know it will mean nothing to our children, at least will not make them sleep any better or relieve their pain. The conversation between the two halves of a couple, between two old friends who loved each other long ago and now can do so again, becomes an embrace between two dead people who are waiting for a new opportunity to enter the world of the living. What if Terry walked again? It does not matter, because that is not in the movie; and besides, it would not change anything. An Affair to Remember would still be an epic romance about the will to love – whether enjoyed in this world or in the other.
And yet I only discovered quite recently that there is more, much more. Maybe just an alternative, maybe just the entirely expected answer. An Affair to Remember’s last scene is divided into several stages, like the corresponding scene in Love Affair. The difference between the two is that the former has elements which radically change the film’s meaning, just as it changes Nickie’s stride when he opens that mysterious door. There is a question of identity. Nickie is not Nickie anymore; he is Terry, and Terry becomes Nickie. He tells her he never made it to their appointment, and then he uses the girl’s story to tell Terry of the time he spent at the top of the Empire State Building waiting under the rain, almost until midnight ... Suddenly, the bodies become different bodies, and the voices become different voices, as if a ventriloquist was talking. And that first stage of the scene ends up with a series of questions without answers and unfinished sentences, things only dimly perceived in Love Affair:
Nickie: Isn’t that wonderful? I walked all the way here just to ... And now I’m not even supposed to ask you why you weren’t there. Isn’t it strange? We used to read each other thoughts. It’s not the same, is it?
Terry: Not quite.
Nickie: It doesn’t seem ...
Terry: I know.
Nickie: I don’t know what happens to me whenever I ...
Why can’t they read each other’s minds? Perhaps due to their living in different worlds, waiting until one of them crosses the line that separates them from the other side? Or just because that ceremony, orchestrated by Nickie’s movements from one side to the other in the room, always close to Terry’s still body, is a preparation for something bigger and more important? In this second stage, it is simply a matter of masochism. Nickie needs to come out of himself to contemplate his own pain from a distance; he needs to stop being himself so he can stop feeling pity for himself. He now speaks in the third person, so that he can become someone searching for beautiful women, just to make them wait. And (Terry asks, dragged on by the story’s force), where is he, meanwhile? ‘Waiting’, answers Nickie. Michel smiles ironically as he performs the same reply, holding his lit cigarette – a gesture that gets a cold response from Terry/Dunne; while Nickie, who has left his unlit cigarette on the ashtray, ceases his body’s incessant movement, lets his arms fall, and pronounces the word ‘waiting’ with a weary desolation. And then another twist in the plot takes place, which cannot be found in the first version. Terry: ‘But you can’t go on like that. It isn’t right for you. I wish I could say you were wrong’. Nickie: ‘I was, once’. The wounds are still bleeding, in suspense until the great revelation arrives.
But no, it cannot be like this. Words cannot substitute for the evident desire of bodies. And neither can they become the great fetish of a stupid romanticism. So what happens then? The door, once more the door. And the words ... those words that are no longer words, because they appear once an awesome revelation has been made; then they reveal their troubling meaning, after the masks have slipped. It all happens once the notion of time has ceased being a reason for unhappiness, becoming instead a reason for the melancholy that announces death – not as a threat, but as a celebration. To become a ghost, or to become something else? The door: one last time, let’s go back to it. Is it the joy of standing on the brink of ruin, or the joy of light? Why does a mesmerised Nickie cross that door? To forget it once and for all, or to pull himself together?
Four gestures, four movements from that tortured body in search of a posture that can provide comfort and relaxation. First, his stiffness at the entrance, on his arrival. His face partly covered by shadows, his silhouette framed by the door. Second, the sexual impulse, the tense walk around the unprotected zone, the coming and going of his story, his trying to attract her attention. Third, surrender. Surrender, hands all over the body. And fourth ... the door. The painting. The mirror. And that way of moving the head backwards, that way of closing the eyes while the head moves backwards. That moment in which the shadow at the main door becomes a man who emerges from another door. And also the return to life, when the body regains its flexibility and shows its feelings, awakens and stretches. On the way out of the secret room, the camera frames Nickie’s back, a dark mass coming to the light, showing Nickie’s illuminated face. Is it like entering the world of the dead and surrendering, or like bringing the living back to life? And what about the resurrection? Is it a sinless resurrection, like Jesus’, or is it a resurrection in which all past sins tag along? Sins that will never be washed away. Is it the resurrection of a man or the resurrection of a god?
A terrifying presence has intruded into that room, and tried to capture the woman with a cobweb of tales, wherein a dispersed identity lies. It is like a recreation of the past, using the shape of an intense pain. But, in the end, that presence has surrendered to the evidence of the no-body: Janou’s, even Terry’s. Death within the still figures of the painting, behind the door, on the sofa. And he emerges to all this, without surrendering to it, but also without forgetting it. To become a body, one cannot spare anything; everything is necessary. Those words, the many fantasies within them, and also the hope, and the lies; to believe or not to believe. Her will to give herself, and his reluctance. A couple gets together, thanks to their sins and also their wishes. ‘Yes, darling, yes, yes, yes ... ’ That modern subject, once and for all reincarnated, disjointed, alienated. Plenitude within imperfection.
|Translated from the Spanish by Hilario J. Rodríguez, revised by Rouge.
© Carlos Losilla and Rouge 2006. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and the editors.