- Search for more notes on Deconstruction and makes notes in your blog. Then put what you have noticed into practise on an image, film, some literature or piece of music.
Please see my notes on Derrida and deconstruction for the first part of this project. Here I will deconstruct Truly Madly Deeply because the advert I have chosen for A3 contains the strapline, “Truly Madly Thinly”, a direct reference to the film, and so it will be useful to link back to.
Truly Madly Deeply is a film about two characters, Nina and Jamie. Jamie has died suddenly from a sore throat (unusual in our day), and Nina is experiencing grief but finding it difficult to move on. Struggling to come to terms with the loss, she has sunk into depression; her flat is falling apart, it is infested with rats, and she is missing days at work. Lots of men seem to be attracted to Nina but she’s not interested. Jamie reappears in her life one day and they have a heartfelt reunion. The relief to have Jamie back is huge. Jamie is almost the same as he is in life except for the fact he is freezing, so Nina must keep the flat very hot all the time which is uncomfortable for her. Nina misses days at work without realising it whilst they spend time together. Once she returns to work Jamie starts inviting more dead people into the home and also fixes things up, rearranges them, but the rat infestation is fixed as rats are apparently terrified of ghosts. Nina begins to view the relationship more realistically, accepts that is wasn’t perfect and that Jamie was in fact sometimes a bit annoying and overbearing. The ghosts start to become annoying as they take over her house and Nina realises in an instant when she acts as birth partner to her friend that life is for the living. She connects with a man she meets in a cafe briefly and although she goes on a short date with him, she can only allow herself to go out with him properly and then home to his place once she’s accepted the death of Jamie. Jamie and his ghost friends watch Nina go and are pleased they have succeeded in helping Nina to let go of the past. It’s sad for Jamie (the audience must assume) but he seems content with the outcome, since it would seem that his reappearance was all about achieving this outcome in the first place.
Stages of grief
Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s grief cycle probably underlies some of the plot structure in this film, perhaps unconsciously, but I suspect not. Ross identified denial, anger, depression, bargaining and finally acceptance as the key stages in the grieving process. A person might not experience these in any particular order and may only touch on one aspect whilst wallowing in another. A person may also experience each stage several times, swinging between each of the them repeatedly. In the model, a person cannot resolve the loss until they have experienced and ‘worked through’ each stage. Nina goes through each of the stages.
It is a neat and tidy model that appears to have a beginning, middle and end, much like the stories we watch on-screen. However, some therapists have dismissed the model suggesting it can’t really be substantiated. Instead, people find ways to cope, or they don’t. My father, for instance, never found a way to deal with his divorce and spent the last 30 years of his life depressed and angry about the loss of my mother. Others cope extremely well and resolve to get on with life relatively simply, perhaps always missing the person they have lost, but finding ways to live without them in a satisfactory way, which may or may not include a new person. I have experienced grief three times, first following a relatively late miscarriage, then with the death of my father, and when I went through an extremely toxic and bitter divorce. The pain in each was immense and my sanity was tested each time. The divorce was by far the most difficult and from the moment I knew it was on the cards I felt lost in a place that was absolutely terrifying and deeply traumatising. Truly, madly deeply, indeed, but without the bittersweet and tidy ending expressed in the film. Grief is in fact different for everyone and for each experience. Kubler Ross’s model perhaps fails to recognise the variants.
Nevertheless I enjoyed the film, recognising and identifying with signs of deep grief, carried away on an emotional journey to the song the characters sing together, and perhaps feeling some form of cathartic recognition. I found the rotting rat element extremely interesting. Nina realises she has a rat infestation and gets someone in to leave poison out for them. As I went through the breakup of my own marriage we lived in a flat that also had an infestation of mice. It was awful.They were everywhere and we lived at the end of a terrace which is where rodents are known to congregate and make their nests, apparently in a type of cul-de-sac. So when the poison was put down for them mid summer, despite assurances from the company that it would not smell, it absolutely did. A reek of death permeated our home as the marriage died, and the same thing happens in Nina’s home as she comes to terms with her lover’s death. Her sister comments on the smell. As she begins to accept Jamie’s death the live rat’s return, signifying an end to her denial. My own denial did not resolve itself so neatly.
Tropes in films/TV shows
Deconstruction asks us to look at stories and unpick the mythical elements from the real. In this story there is much that I can relate to; the virtuosic performance from Juliet Stevenson is one, even though her representation offers a short hand for life, and is therefore simplified. Stevenson is able to convincingly portray someone who is not coping with the pain and anguish of her loss. However, her very emotional expressions in the therapist’s room are probably more ‘filmic’ than might occur in reality. Everyone is different and so express grief differently. The influence of Hollywood culture means therapists and laypeople might be tempted to think that all that snot and crying in the therapist’s chair is the ultimate goal for a ‘satisfactory grief process’. Culture tries to homogenise human feelings and expressions. (I do not say this pejoratively). Grief in other cultures is expressed in alternative ways. Collective ‘keening’ – pulling one’s hair our and wailing together might be more usual but would seem very strange to us, for instance. The interface of reality we grow up in gives us a form to live with. This form is what we recognise as culture and is subject to change and evolution. Films promote some aspects of culture as does other media in the way in which religion used to. Sometimes the formulas are unhelpful as they may not address reality, or be too simplistic. The formulas we recognise in films may prevent us from actually moving through life effectively but I may only think that because I have grown up in a culture of therapy. Each culture has different ways of promoting an existential interface.
The following are a list of conventional tropes in the film listed by TVTropes.org, along with very brief notes by me beside each one.
- Bittersweet ending – Nina has gone through the different stages of grief and having done so she is ready to move on. Luckily for her she meets someone entirely suitable – although in fact they barely meet – she simply looks at him across a room and there is an instant connection. Although she’s extremely rude on their first date, meeting him hours late, (before mobile phones) and then says she can’t stay anyway, they do meet again and by the end of the film the future looks bright for them. In reality, people may or may not find ‘the right’ partner so easily after the loss of one. In fact, the idealisation of relationships in this film might be an unhelpful aspect of modern culture. Love relationships in reality are difficult and require compromise and constant attention in order to continue well. What actually happens following a loss is that someone might enter into a totally inappropriate relationship, or be like my great-aunt, who never met anyone after her air pilot ‘beaux’ died in action in WW2. I also know of someone who has been through a string of disastrous relationships following her decision to leave her husband. Films perpetuate the myth of the happy ever after. Love relationships are defined by culture as explored in a thesis I have posted previously, in relation to the long-term project I am working on, girlhood. https://www.academia.edu/12426041/Romantic_Love_and_Anthropology
- Cast showing off (virtuoso performances contradictory to Brechtian ‘making you think’) – The film was specifically written for Juliet Stevenson by Anthony Mingella and he included aspects that would allow her to show off her talents such as singing and playing the piano. In Brechtian terms this type of performance hinders any attempt at a collaborative process and the story becomes more about the actor than the underlying themes the story might be attempting to address. This would in his eyes get in the way of making an audience think. The film, despite its sad subject matter, is a feel-good film with manipulates feelings rather than engaging our minds or prompts us to action.
- Cruel to be kind – Jamie in the film returns in order to allow Nina to move on. To do this he must make her see that living with a house full of ghosts is not helpful in life and actually she will short change herself unless she can find a way past it. He does this by filling her house with strange dead men and telling her some home truths, rearranging her house. In fact, this may be tied to myth – that you can’t live well unless you let go through this specific and formulaic process of letting go. Cut Loose by Nan Bauer-Maglin is a book containing essays by people dealing with the loss of long-term relationship and the reality is far more variable and nuanced than the films would have us believe. It’s worth a read and is evidence of a world that is far messier than the films represent. The problem with films is they simplify complex situations and make us think reality can be formulaic, but mostly life doesn’t fit into neat story lines and often has no resolution.
- Dogged nice guy – of course the man Nina meets is terribly nice and seems perfect for her! In reality no one is perfect. People are difficult, mad, complex and awkward and the older you get the more that seems to be as people have to cope with all the stuff life throws at them.
- Elegant classical musicians – this seemed to me about class. The film is about privately educated middle class English people with cultural capital, but with a good dose of shabby chic to make them approachable. The film is in fact described as the “thinking man’s Ghost”, a hollywood blockbuster with a similar theme. It is aimed at a different audience, slightly less populist.
- Ghosts and impossible goals – this is pure fantasy. Ghosts have existed in stories for as long as stories have been around. An obsession with an afterlife is human and underlies our navigation of consciously knowing we will all die one day. In reality no one comes back from the dead. It would be horrific! A dead soul wandering round your house and moving in with you is probably as far from what anyone would want as it possible to be. However, coming to terms with death or endings is extremely difficult. I know someone who believed she had swallowed her late husband and he continued to live inside her, speaking through her. Grief can indeed make a person feel and appear quite ‘mad’.
- Her heart will go on – Films and stories often tell us that life will continue and you will heal. This isn’t always the case. Sometimes people don’t move on. Sometimes they are destroyed entirely by a loss. People are known to have committed suicide as it can be so awful, although of course, that is thankfully rare; but the issues surrounding this are complex. The film and the trope is simplistic.
- Hypercompetant side kick – Nina can do everything well. This seems to tie in with the elegant classical musician trope and might be considered class-based. It is also part of a habit of separating women out into two unrealistic types. Idealised and perfect on one hand or slutty and degenerate on the other. It is different to more current trope I have noticed which presents women in a less idealised way. Examples of this are BBC 3’s Fleabag or Netflix production, Love – both of which show women who are fallible, chaotic, flawed, self-destructive, challenging, attractive and intelligent all at once. Both newer TV programmes challenge the idealisation of women which exists in society and is sometimes cited as a trigger for emotional abuse. Women are idealised and when they fail to live up to those notions blamed and denigrated as being not good enough.
- Our ghosts are different – The site I’ve taken this lists from suggest several reasons for ghosts hanging around and I suspect the ‘Power Of Love’ is the trope most relevant here. Jamie’s love for Nina is so great that his ghostly return is the only thing that can help her realise acceptance and move on.
- Street musician – Nine sees one
To summarise the film provides a western-centric story about love, the process of grief, moving on to a new partner, and does so in way that is neat and tidy, much like the Kubler Ross model of grief that therapists have used to steer people through loss. It is a helpful film in that it normalises and shares the sense of madness one can experience when grieving. But in reality the idea of love is more complex as is the process of coming to terms with loss. The film romanticises grief. I found grief to be entirely unromantic. It is lonely, bleak, depressing and extremely difficult.
The title and story connect both love and grief to madness. The madness connection is crucial. When I was at the height of my own grief I discussed how I felt like I was going mad with a therapist and she alluded to grief as a form of madness, as well as love being so. Madness on one hand is seen as an undesirable state of mind from which we need to be cured or when connected to love, potentially beneficial but also dangerous and destructive. In fact it would seem madness is a ‘normal’ part of human experience and perhaps not ‘mad’ at all but a real and understandable reaction to existence. Charles Lindholm looks at this connection and how useful the term madness might be in his paper, Romantic Love and Anthropology. (2006)
Image (c)SJField 2015
Maglin, N. (2006). Cut loose. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.