The theme of our class this session was “love and sex in movies” but during the course, there was another, underlying aspect that I found interesting. Desire can be considered an entity all its own, entirely apart from those other two. There are many ways to desire, in some circumstances the desire is a product of necessity, in others it is indulgent. The idea that the essential nature of humanity is not contentment with the things that we possess but rather desire for that which we do not or cannot possess is well represented in narrative fiction.
We are most alive when we feel desire and the stronger it is, the better. This state of being is probably when we are most fascinating; it is this condition that we most frequently capture and record in our art. Two of the films that we covered that tell stories of intense desire and pursuit were Hiroshima, Mon Amour, and Letter from an Unknown Woman.
Each film studies love and desire in its way, both reinforcing the idea that interpersonal desire is the most powerful force in human life.
In the first film out of the two, Letter from an Unknown Woman, the story takes place over more than a decade. Lisa’s fixation with Stefan begins while she is still a youth and long before he ever knows who she is, and continues until she died in middle age. The film uses every measure to show the hold that Stefan has over her heart.
Enamored with the womanizing musician who lives in her apartment building, the teenage Lisa creates a fantasy of him that lasts well into adulthood. Her infatuation with him prevents her from accepting a decent proposal from a decent man even after years without seeing him. The new man simply fails to inspire in her the enthrallment that Stefan did. Driven by her preoccupation, she goes to the extreme of waiting outside of his apartment building each night, hoping for an encounter. Whether you find that romantic or unsettling, the drive she displays for her chosen object is greater than almost any other, defining her life. She even says at one point in her letter that her life can be measured by encounters with him; profound, certainly, if not a bit melodramatic.
Alternatively, Stefan’s only real desire is for self-gratification. It is not towards any one woman, nor can it be satisfied by any one woman. We don’t see any burning, continuous desire for another individual on his part, it seems his appetite is only for new paramours. Even his other passion, music, fall to the wayside over the years as he is consumed by his thirst for women. His priorities are poor and his behavior irrefutable, he becomes the subject of ignominy among the aristocracy. Louis Jourdan offers a master class in silky, effortless, silver-tongued romancing, giving Stefan an unforgettable screen presence that sells the character. His game is finesse, and we are to assume that he uses it over and over, presumably in much the same way. All of the show and theatre of recognizing Lisa but not being able to place her may as well have just been part of the performance. Like a spider, compelled to spin threads, Stefan is compelled to draw women into his web.
In Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Nevers, our female protagonist is spinning on the exercise wheel of trauma, repeating over and over a rendezvous with the same man in the form of different men. After one night, she leaves them, having fulfilled her reenactment, and, in the act of adultery, satisfying her need for transgression. Her encounters with her lovers in the present day reflect the same proclivity that likely made her susceptible to a relationship with a German soldier, the desire to do wrong, or at least what is contrary to what others expect from her. For her, the thrill of hiding and acting in secret, the forbidden and shameful are what satisfies her. The brevity of the affair allows her to maintain control over the situation and her feelings, protecting her from attachment or loss.
Nevers’ need for control means that Hiroshima, the male protagonist, cannot have any over her. He desires her that much more due to her independence. She doesn’t need him and once he satisfies her purpose, she discards him. He asks to see her again and she refuses, and for that, he wants to have her that much more. Usually, the chase is over for a man after sex but she has triggered in him a powerful response by making herself unavailable, possibly forever. I don’t think I’ve seen the raw, burning energy of desire conveyed so masterfully in any other film. As he begins to pursue her through the city, following her from place to place, the tension is almost palpable, it fills the room as you watch the screen. The long, still shots, focusing on stares and gestures and mostly without dialogue, catalog what one might feel during months’ or years’ worth of pursuit into a few hours of screen time, which in turn take place over a day and a half of storytime. The film itself is a fire that burns on your screen, simmering and smoldering. The heat in the city itself, the heat in the hotel room with two sweating bodies inside, and the heat generated by the bomb in the archival footage all set the scene for heat yet still unmatched; illicit, ignoble, and sordid.
If one wanted to peel the layers back further, we can examine what causes a person to feel such unmitigated desire. For Nevers, it would seem, her compulsion is the result of the trauma of losing her lover the shortly thereafter being dishonored and ridiculed. She replays her affair, again and again, trapped in a cycle that never ends. Often, to fill the hole left by a traumatic experience, those who’ve experienced them feel a need to relive the tragedy to gain a sense of control.
Their desire from Lisa towards Stefan is almost like an adoration, even an idolization. At times you could say that she expresses the type of idealization that children show towards their fathers. The lack of a biological father in the film is telling; perhaps she’s projecting that desire for paternal intimacy onto the subject of her attraction.
It’s worth mentioning that at some point in each film, one or both of the parties involved in the affairs are married. Married life is frequently the butt of jokes, whether it be the lack of sex between the spouses or simply the lack of amiability. Familiarity breeds contempt as the saying goes, and having is intrinsically incompatible with wanting. Marriage is the end of fantasy, the end of desire, the end of passion. Domesticity takes the place of intensity, and those who need to yearn for something or someone must look outside of their marriage.
In Hiroshima, Mon Amour, the characters are both “happy” with their spouses and have no desire to terminate their marriages. This doesn’t stop them from sleeping with other people. This reality of human behavior reflects the idea that love and desire are generated from two entirely different sources in the human mind, reflecting different basic needs.
In Letter from an Unknown Woman, Lisa is married and living an enviable life. She has a child from her relationship with Stefan that her husband takes care of and treats well while providing a comely home and lifestyle. Although she certainly loves him and he provides security, that celestial, magnetic force continues to pull her towards Stefan. She knows she is risking everything she has but can’t convince herself that it isn’t worth putting it on the line for a chance to attain the unattainable. Marriage brings certainty and the key to desire is uncertainty. The titillation of possibly getting something out of reach, the gamble is what excites us most.
In one film, the pursued is a womanizer so self-absorbed that he fails to recognize a woman who was once his neighbor and years later stood outside of his home nightly. On the other, the pursued is a man-eater who inspires passion and then runs away from it. Both are classic archetypes, the types of people that leave a wake of destruction wherever they pass. Lisa, the pursuer who is naïve and sincere yet injudicious and impulsive, is beholden to a desire that borders on obsession. Hiroshima pursues Nevers with a longing based on infatuation, the feeling of being out of control that neuroscientists say is as powerful as drug addiction. This part of the human experience is what invigorates us more than anything, giving us the most meaning and purpose we ever have aside from perhaps the love of our children and self-preservation. For that reason, stories like this invoke such visceral reactions in each and endure for years.