Sunday, November 08, 2009

Time Traveler's Wife = Tarkovskyian masterpiece?

Despite some resistance to its mawkish sentimentality, I found myself completely sucked in to The Time Traveler's Wife. I'll even say that if the film had been directed by Andrei Tarkovsky (with better actors), it would have been a masterpiece. As it stands, it's still a fascinating contribution to the time travel genre with some brilliant and original ideas [massive spoilers to follow].

The film's time travel movements actually complicate its sentimentality. Henry (Eric Bana) is such a fragmented character that the film's mawkishness is ultimately a compensation for the violence and indefineability of his subject position. His time travel is caused by a traumatic car crash in which his mother dies, while his relationship with Clare (Rachel McAdams) occurs at scattered points in her life, at which he appears in different ages, in different moods. Indeed, it's hard to know exactly what Clare loves about him. Her feelings towards Henry originate from her childhood, when Henry visited her as a 40 year old man and told her of his time traveling abilities and his relationship with her in the future. Is their love genuine or illusory? The film seems to assert an eternal substance to their relationship, a point in Henry that doesn't change despite his constantly varying age and differing attitudes. Yet what if what attracts Clare to Henry is actually what she keeps missing in her encounters with him? The Real that Bana's fragmented personalities circle around?

The question is whether love can truly exist in such a state of discontinuity. Here the film achieves a real vulnerability in the knowns and unknowns of the relationship - of not knowing or knowing too much, of a relationship that simultaneously exists in two different timelines for both subjects. Without a coherent narrative to their relationship, it often seems like Henry and Clare are being guided by an illusory notion of their coupledom - of which they receive elliptical signs from the future. Ultimately however this creates a relationship caught in the nexus of the Other, or as Zizek outlines, the Other as it is in the Real - "the Other of the Other". In response to the fragmentation of symbolic certainties (the death of Henry's mother, time travel), this belief in the Other of the Other is a way to maintain a consistency of meaning by positing someone else who is pulling the strings and who assures the relationship of its authenticity.

In the film, for example, Henry doesn't know who Clare is when they meet for the first time as adults (he has yet to travel back in time to see her), yet Clare at this stage knows everything about him and is already in love with him. When they make love that same night, Henry can only have faith that he, his future self (the Other of the Other), loves her. But even the love of his future self is a reflexive love originally based on what Clare tells him. Their relationship literally would not exist outside the discourse of the Other, and yet it's precisely this arbitrary and originating condition (its reflexivity) that allows love to develop.

To sustain itself, this reflexivity creates the little piece of the Real (the objet petit a) that can never be quite grasped. By abruptly moving back and forth across time, Henry creates a rupture in the relationship, a fragmentation, that can only become coherent when the Other posits a mysterious element in his character that accounts for this fragmentation. As a time traveler, Henry embodies objet petit a - that which is in him more than himself - and it is this that attracts Clare. Towards the end, the film increasingly associates this elusive point with death. At the beginning, Henry constantly returns to his mother's past in futile attempts to save her. But as the film goes on, Henry encounters his own dying body from the future mysteriously appearing in the present. The unknown and hidden component of Henry's subject position is ultimately his own death, the point when he shifts from subject to object (expressed in his forced and futile time travel movements), and it is here the film reveals its greatest twist. When Henry time travels to his death scene (and is accidentally shot by Clare's father) he is also time traveling to Clare's family garden. The twist is he lands in the same spot he had always returned to when Clare was a child. Earlier in the film, Henry says he is drawn to spots that have a deep emotional resonance for him and this appears to be the explanation for why he always returned to the garden - because of his love for Clare. But what if the real reason was because the garden was in fact the site of his death? At the very moment of his death, his love is instead realised as a horrific misinterpretation!

However, this scene is also the moment when his love achieves an autonomous, impossible, ethical component. At the point of his death, Henry no longer has the Other of the Other (his future self) to guarantee his love and his subject position in the relationship. The moment entails an literal annihilation of his identity in the Real (in the past/future) as well as a radical break from symbolic certainties. Yet at the point when his love is realised as a cosmic misinterpretation, something that simply does not have a hold in reality, that has no ground in the qualities of the Other, it is then that it is asserted all the more fully. As Zizek says:
"true love is performative in the sense that it CHANGES its object – not in the sense of idealization, but in the sense of opening up a gap in it, a gap between the object’s positive properties and the agalma, the mysterious core of the beloved (which is why I do not love you because of your properties which are worthy of love: on the contrary, it is only because of my love for you that your features appear to me as worthy of love)."

At the moment of his death, Henry's love for Clare becomes 'cause in itself'. Faced with the possibility that Fate (and the Other) had nothing to do with his love, Henry instead fully assumes love's utter contingency, attaining a truly 'eternal' and radical love without the guarantee of the Other's desire.

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Blogger Glen said...

Excellent post, David! I've been wondering about this film.

5:14 PM  

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