Like the best books, sometimes the right films have to find you at the right moment for their emotional impact and resonance to be optimal.
This rings true for my viewing of Now, Voyager (1942)this week. Somehow I always had an inkling that this film and I would connect; we just needed to meet each other at the right time. As a 30 year old “spinster” so much of Charlotte Vale’s (Bette Davis) borrowed butterfly wings and contentment with the stars (while just evading the moon) hit me on the deepest level.
To say that for two hours my heart was caught so tightly in my throat I had to remind myself to breathe is not hyperbole. Now, two days later, snaps of dialogue run on repeat mode through my head.
I had seen clips of this famed romantic film and have probably caught long lapses of it at some points in 30 years: especially as a gal who loves to catch interludes of black and white films. The other night , I saw it through for the first time and learned that like “It Never Entered My Mind”as sung by Sarah Vaughn or the TSO straining Ravel’s 'Pavane for a Dead Princess 'on a gloomy November night that there is a melancholy un-breaking here and a terse sense of nostalgia that burrows itself within my imaginative consciousness.
Here, as in The Blue Castle ( a favourite book) a 30ish woman has been stripped of her life by an over-bearing mother who feeds her belief that she has little self worth. Cocooned in a society house and watching years tick her by, her romantic and artistic nature is harbored in scrapbooks of a voyage past and the blissful carvings she etches into beautiful boxes.
She is mocked by her pretty niece and goaded by her mother and her existence seems to be that of standing on shore when all that excites, delights and smacks of love glistens on the waves beyond.
In fact, the theme of voyage pervades the story: from Charlotte’s recounting of a romance on deck in her early 20s (stifled, of course, by her mother) through the insertion of Whitman’s poem, "The Untold Want" by a kind doctor willing Charlotte to finally set sail (figuratively and literally) and penultimately in the voyage that defines her life and her burgeoning relationship with married architect Jerry, played by Paul Henreid. There is immediate kinship and an ethereally preternatural connection between the two fortunate enough to cross paths in the most unlikely circumstances. For those of us who subscribe to the Brontean tradition of kinship, this will hit a hard chord. What follows is a week of sheer delight as Charlotte finds herself validated in the eyes of a stranger. Her strength is drawn from the fact that someone loves her, yes, but in her acceptance that all she has bottled up in her mind and soul, now reflected in her being, is enough to set eyes to magnetically seeking her and conversation to circling her as an orb.
When an unexpected interlude with Jerry in Rio ends, Charlotte is left to recognize that which has just past was probably the peak of her life. She says goodbye to Jerry and returns home. The slow walk that takes her in her front door and into the holds of her old life is tragic. Again, I think of The Blue Castle, when Valancy, circumstances changed, rips herself from Barney and returns to her mother and her drab existence.
A short engagement with an eligible widower and a few encounters with Jerry sustain her as she redefines herself under the watchful eye of a woman who no longer possesses her. Charlotte is a woman who is content to bottle memory, to live on the small mementoes of a love past and of the promise of helping someone who direly needs her.
The film ends with Charlotte accepting that happiness and contentment for her can be a slice of what others would grab all of. She is able to recognize worth in helping someone who reminds her so of herself and with the formation of a kind of family, she is able to experience, distantly, the relationship she has waited her entire life for.
This is romance without Hollywood consummation. The music swells and we are left without the final kiss; just the promise or dream of something beyond the characters due to circumstances, timing and sacrificial loss. Instead, we are left with one of the most tense and real and palpable moments ever filmed: Jerry, as he has done always, takes two cigarettes to his lips and lights them and, in silent, teary communion, the two recognize that what they have: untouchable, unbreakable, a forged strip of territory ( to paraphrase a line of the script) is heaven compared to the years of emptiness before.
In The Blue Castle Valancy admits: “"Isn't it better to have your heart broken than to have it wither up?[…]Before it could be broken it must have felt something splendid. That would be worth the pain." At the end of the film my heart was breaking. Somehow since I had invested in a bit of mirrored reflection with a character I identified with I willed the outcome to change. Instead, wish fulfillment is slightly tweaked from convention to acceptance. The happy ending lies not in traditional relationship; yet in the acceptance of a different kind of happiness and in two characters realizing that the pivotal point of their relationship is cemented when they are both free to come into their own. A symbiotic and touching relationship, yes, even though wedding bells will not peal and the moon is still far off.