Romantic movies have gotten a bad name?not due to Catherine Breillat's porn-screed Romance (which few saw anyway), but because people insist on viewing love stories trivially. Even positive reviews for The End of the Affair traduce it. You'd think critics never read Graham Greene?or Jean Rhys or Scott Fitzgerald or Bebe Moore Campbell. They've lost touch with delicate and profound emotional expression. The current spate of teen movies offer no help by merely inaugurating new viewers into the juvenile attitude toward love as sex (except for The Wood and Beautiful Thing the last credible teen romance was Say Anything in 1989). Sex/love confusion is the dynamo at the heart of the very adult emotional dilemma that The End of the Affair depicts. In godless times such a perception seems to come out of nowhere?a miracle.
The diaristic narrative spoken by Maurice Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes) describes a miracle no one was looking for. Remembering his affair with married Sarah (Julianne Moore) while befriending her husband Henry (Stephen Rea), Bendrix crosses compulsive action with inner turmoil. Confessing a sense of guilt that is also his quest for meaning, Bendrix's middle-class, urbane consciousness finds understanding and faith difficult. Neil Jordan adapts Graham Greene's novel of existential passion as if it were his own, taking on dreamlike events and circumstances with a felicity so exact that it proves his continued growth into a major movie artist. Always depicting life as somewhat enchanted, Jordan masterfully eases into feelings and experience that ordinarily distract consciousness, always testing romantic, subjective points of view. Yet his grip on Bendrix and Sarah's reality?on moral dilemma?turns The End of the Affair into more than a make-out flick but very nearly Jordan's finest expression of yearning and skepticism. The film's spiritual concerns and sensual atmosphere recall The Company of Wolves and The Miracle (from Jordan's own original scripts) and the very Greene-like sense of social/moral catastrophe that enhanced Jordan's The Butcher Boy gives The End of the Affair's World War II setting a compelling historical weight. Though taking place mostly during the London Blitz, the story is determinedly modern; its ethical conflicts are seismic. To simply note the romantic atmosphere?to get off on the vibe?only appreciates the movie's surface.
Greene's novel turned sexual passion into a matter of spiritual belief?something greater than seeking mere opportunities for lust. And Jordan appropriately gives lust its due but he isn't confused about it like Breillat. Instead of fighting the impulse to connect, Jordan, like Greene, looks at the deeper significance?and without today's simplified politics of socially constructed desire. Bendrix's memory of the first moments of an assignation comes across in a brief montage of a stairway climb where, arm-in-arm with Sarah, he gropes her crotch. Jordan shoots that gesture, and their later, fully clothed tryst, as a perfect symbol of bold eroticism. Bendrix and Sarah are seen in their social, earthly contexts and, fittingly, such a full image waits to be unveiled?it has consequences.
All Jordan's sensuality, and the dramatic plotting, undeniably increase the film's romantic effect, but as in the greatest movie love stories (like Frank Borzage's, Josef von Sternberg's, Max Ophuls') something larger is intimated. More than a tale of reckless ardor, Bendrix and Sarah's devotion reaches a level of commitment and caring. A fuller consciousness beyond swooning is required of them?and of the audience. Obviously movies like this get financed because of their exploitable elements?the debased sense of love, the manipulated gratification that can work for happy or tragic endings. But serious pop artists like Jordan and Greene transcend obviousness through perceptive detail and persuasive style. The End of the Affair isn't just emotive but it complicates romanticism with Immanence.
That's what The English Patient didn't have. Very likely, that was also why some people liked The English Patient; they got romanticism unadorned by anything other than costumes and faraway locales?fashion-magazine kitsch. That Jordan is not content with that trite level of wishing is plain from the way he turns his commercial obligation of casting Ralph Fiennes in the lead role to a risky advantage. Fiennes' cold-eyed reserve, used to exoticize him in The English Patient, here conveys an intellectually rigid soul. His moony gray eyes suggest worldly, cosmic guilt and a prideful refusal to admit it. Bendrix's literary pretension (he writes a novel titled The Vicarious Lover) distances him from naivete. "To be is to be perceived" is his impertinent lover's credo. He's as knowing as a dejected angel and Fiennes acts out that torment (as the foundering performers in Dogma cannot). Even when entangled with Sarah (or at odds with Henry) he tests his own satisfaction, defies his capacity for happiness.
As Sarah, Julianne Moore plays a similar conflict more extravagantly. Her pale beauty a litmus of romantic temperature, she importantly embodies the feminine principle in Greene's scheme as both a conscious individual and a spiritual instrument. Jordan employs Moore's sensuality imaginatively?she makes an all-the-more surprising display of psychological torment, passion and self-denial. Sarah's full being is vividly conflicted while Stephen Rea acts out Henry's complications in subtly graded monochrome. A betrayed husband more needful than jealous, Henry sinks inside his own timid misery.
Despite a fragrant, beseeching music score, Jordan's film conveys more than romantic suffering. Like another overlooked serious drama, 1997's The Proposition, The End of the Affair builds on the melodrama tradition to address contemporary moral crises, centering its tale around the rarely dealt-with issues of faith and propriety. Many, if not most, Hollywood romances are devoted to ignoring personal honor as an inconvenience?probably a sign of the times. But Jordan's film evokes a moral template with high (complicated) ideas; it's a stubbornly romantic edifice like the Brighton Pavilion that Bendrix tells Sarah was built as a lovers' monument?"this huge folly to impossibility."
At this point the Catholic issue can't be overlooked?especially since it's probably the root of a few critics' disdain for The End of the Affair. In The New Yorker, this extraordinary film's dismissal followed praise for the base romanticism of Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown as "a genuine poetic creation." (How long did it take him, six days?) Sweet and Lowdown isn't a gown by Balenciaga, it's not even a very good movie. That's just indulging an atheistic sentimentality over the ethical examination that Jordan (like Greene) performs with thorough, self-critical honesty. The presence of God in the characters' lives adds to the enormity of their complication?and not just as a sense of guilt. Bendrix, Sarah and Henry struggle with a need to be loving in the midst of chaos and suffering, to fulfill themselves yet not neglecting obligation to others. An unnerving subplot parallels their adultery with a private investigator's careless introduction of his preteen son to the sordidness of infidelity; it shifts the love story just enough to keep it startling rather than mushy, and connects to the world's unfairness and corruption. The spirituality in this film is an adult spirituality as opposed to the adolescent goofball catechisms in Dogma (a slacker's version of Greaser's Palace). Even tv's Touched by an Angel is better than that?not being about dogma but stories of faith. So it's silly that critics who are willing to take even Kevin Smith seriously won't countenance Jordan's and Greene's deeply felt viewpoint.
The film's crises are not only Catholic. As a Shakespeare character tauntingly advised, "I know thou art religious and hast a thing within thee called conscience." That explains why Jordan's triangle feel themselves dashed about. This is a great love (in more than one sense) story for the way Jordan and Greene show emotions affecting perceptions and those feelings twist beliefs?turning lust to love, trust to guilt. It happens in the copulation scene where Moore rises up orgasmically as bombs shake their bedroom and the air fills with settling dust. Through Jordan's sensuous filmmaking the amorous world becomes an intensified version of the social quakes everyone experiences. Jordan's technique showing this is as nimble and lyrical as Truffaut's in Stolen Kisses (where the private investigator subplot comically examined varieties of passion and of lovers' rationales). Jordan weaves the spiritual/rational together in the film's primary, time-shifting dynamic. Bendrix and Sarah relive in memory the moment their affair rose a level, turning into something else. No French New Wave film was more formally dexterous and evocative. With every colorfully detailed point of view, these small lives seem gripped by something larger. The final scene combines an image of the emotional trauma with Bendrix's quietly intense diary inscription, an ending both poignant and chilling.
Is there an audience for a movie this sensuous, complex and relatable? If The End of the Affair can't restore respect to peoples' notions about movie romance, what will? Currently pop media lets us shield our sensitivities about love through sarcasm and derision?whether the coarse teen comedies, the dishonest Nora Ephron excrescences or the shellshocked wit of HBO's Sex in the City. Through accident or necessity, The End of the Affair harkens to the moral values of an earlier era in romantic filmmaking?1940s wartime romances such as To Each His Own and Brief Encounter. In those movies, plots were wound around fateful disclosures and The End of the Affair also makes superb melodramatic use of taken-for-granted moments in the characters' lives played twice?with heavenly insight and anguished hindsight. Such reveries always allude to experience and sophistication, a knowledge of love that is greater than adolescent wish-fulfillment. But that tradition's so far past that contemporary audiences no longer appreciate it. Only fatuous love stories fit the mood. Spielberg's 1989 Always was the last time an adult romance could make serious claims to the term "love story." Now The End of the Affair asserts its own miracle against the trend. Think of it in the best 40s terms: The End of the Affair is to The English Patient what The Shanghai Gesture was to Casablanca?a triumph of sensuous intelligence over kitsch.