The Impossibility of Plans in ‘The Deep Blue Sea’: How a Movie about Suicide Helped Me to Survive

Music Box Films

I watched The Deep Blue Sea the same winter my dad attempted suicide for the second time. I didn’t know it at the time, but I needed the film in the desperate way that its protagonist Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz) needs love and warmth. And though in the film Hester is ultimately denied reciprocity in love, she and the movie, paradoxically, gave me life itself at a time when I couldn’t feel. This is a movie that depicts one foiled plan after another, but it gave me a way out of myself; all its foiled plans validated my existence at a time when it seemed like the road beneath my feet ran out and my mind lost the ability to weave a plan for my future.

It was the final week of the winter term of my final year of university and I felt as though my dad had beaten me to the punch. “It was supposed to be me,” I couldn’t help but think. I thought it would be fitting, ending it all the final year of post-secondary education because I couldn’t figure out a future for myself; because I was so hopelessly, quietly sad. But he beat me to the punch, and nothing about what happened felt apt, felt as though it had gone quite according to plan.

I was in my favourite class — epistemology of math — when I got the text from my sister. She said he was safe and at the hospital and that I didn’t have to leave my class to come home. But of course, I did. It was 9 p.m. and I’d just missed the last bus. Were it any other day, I’d have waited for my mom to come and pick me up — she was pretty prompt. But it was this day, and my mom was at the hospital. The bus that could take me home stopped running at 9 p.m., so I waited an hour in the dark December chill for my mom. I didn’t feel the cold, though, and when I got home I couldn’t see the sense in why I had left class early; nobody needed me to do anything. I sat on my bed, listening to my mom cleaning up downstairs: the aftermath.

The Deep Blue Sea is, in a sense, about all the ways in which plans inevitably fail, how they crumple like paper colliding against the massive rock that is reality. Directed by English screenwriter and director Terence Davies, the film is based on a 1952 play of the same name by Terence Rattigan. It’s threaded on a melodramatic score — lonely flute and swelling violins — and begins in 1950s post-war London. Rachel Weisz’s Hester Collyer is finishing up a suicide note to Freddie (Tom Hiddleston), her Royal Air Force pilot lover, the man with whom she lives, and with whom she cheated on her husband, a judge, Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale).

It’s Hester’s birthday and Freddie doesn’t remember; he’s away playing golf for the weekend. So, Hester will kill herself. She draws the curtains and locks the front door. She stops the space between the floor and door with a rag, swallows 60 grains of aspirin, places her note on the mantle, and fills the radiator with enough change. When the fireplace begins to hiss, she lies down as the wailing violins crescendo, her mind dissolving into the memory of the start of her affair with Freddie — the start of her plan for a beautiful future.

“I wanted to compose something elegant, but the words just don’t seem to be there,” her note reads.

This movie contains the exact saturation of sadness that quelled my own incomprehensible, inchoate mess of feelings. I felt guilt, regret, self-loathing, anger. I thought I could’ve done something. The morning of the night that my father was taken to hospital began in the way that The Deep Blue Sea begins, with the foiling of a well-laid plan. I’d heard him on the phone receiving bad news, and then I’d heard him working out in search of serotonin that might dissipate the bad feeling. I went to school, and later in the evening received word from my sister. The night my father was taken to the hospital, I became quiet and numb. I couldn’t cry, though my insides roiled like a wild sea. I turned to my coursework because it was easy minutiae to get lost in. The next day I watched The Deep Blue Sea without knowing anything substantial about it other than that it was on Netflix, it stars Rachel Weisz, and it is a period piece. I thought Weisz’s steady, smoky voice would be some kind of distraction at most, a beauty lacking from my life that I could momentarily fixate on. I didn’t expect to get caught in its undertow, breathlessly enraptured.

There’s a glossy veneer over this film as it’s shot, and also in my mind as I recall it. Watching it feels like being a voyeur to a tragedy unfolding next door, like looking through a warped windowpane. And when I recall that first time watching it, I see it through tears with a hollow pain behind my eyes and a cotton-ball mouth. Florian Hoffmeister is the director of photography, and in his hands the film is all diffused blue and yellow light, really seeming as though its action is taking place beneath the sea. Hoffmeister pays homage, in this way, to English dramas of the ‘50s, such as Brief Encounter. The blissful drama of Hester falling in love with Freddie is depicted through frames like photographs, tableaux underscored by Jo Stafford’s facetiously romantic You Belong to Me, with its drawn-out admonitions.

The blurry look of the film isn’t too hard on your eyes when you’re catatonic, and it certainly complemented my mood — when it gets sunny, it’s not a crisp brightness whose abundance laughs in face of the weighty nothingness you feel. I remember the movie through tears because Hester’s desperation made me sad. IMDb’s blurb of the movie describes Hester as “caught in a self-destructive love affair” with Freddie, but of course, it’s deeper than that. No love as visceral as the one Hester feels is as much about the other person as it is about oneself.

Time and again, the film shows us that Hester and Freddie are a bad match: the highs are dizzyingly high — a slice of the sublime — while the lows are dismally, apocalyptically low. Freddie has post-traumatic stress disorder and his moods are unpredictable. When he comes back from his weekend of golfing and finds the suicide note with the still-alive Hester, he thinks she planned on punishing him for forgetting her birthday. His understanding of the situation is superficial, right in the cursory ways but wrong in the direst one. Hester knew from the beginning of the affair that she loved him more than Freddie was ever capable of loving her because she needed him, while he could prosper on his own. He provided her with a superfluity of feeling — both good and bad — that was absent from her life before. Her father was a vicar and her husband an old judge, meaning her life was rigid, dictated by propriety and politeness, never punctuated or punctured by any kind of passion. When you live with a dearth like that, any kind of empirically positive emotion or experience is salutary because it is something, as opposed to nothing. She “[married] the first man who [asked] her and [fell] in love with the first man who [gave] her the eye,” Freddie says of Hester. And he’s right.

I thought school could save me, too. From myself. My dad thought his good news could save him, but it never came.

Hester’s plan at the start of the affair was to stick with Freddie forever, despite the fact that he doesn’t love her in the full and all-consuming way that she does him. But the suicide attempt is too much for Freddie; it’s not something he can have on his conscience, so he leaves her. When Hester’s suicide is frustrated, her plan for a not-boring future unravels, too. The scene that broke me the first time I watched it, that allowed me to cry for the first time — for Hester, for my dad — comes right after another of Hester’s foiled plans. Freddie, after discovering the note, leaves in a huff and goes to get drunk at a bar. Hester goes after him to try to explain herself, to try to make up, but they fight again. Freddie says he’ll spend the night at his friend’s and throws a coin at her, for the radiator, he says, in case she decides to kill herself again. Another of Hester’s plans thwarted. (Freddie returned from golf happy and excited about a new job prospect, but his happiness was expunged by Hester’s depressed state.)

After the fight outside of the bar, Hester walks home alone as yet another plan to rescue her life streaks through her mind. She stops at a payphone and calls Freddie at his friend’s. She asks him to tell her about the job opportunity, drinking in his voice because she knows he’s rationed it. He says it will have him leave England for South America the next day, so she negotiates with him to spend his final night with her. She promises him that she won’t try to make him stay with her forever; she promises she will be good so long as he spends just one more night with her. Freddie hangs up on her. Hester panics in the face of this, another loss that has struck her with the finality of decimation. She runs to the Underground. A subway is approaching, her breathing is shallow; she wants to throw herself onto the tracks. But something stops her. Being in the Underground brings back a memory of the time she spent in the tunnels during the war with William. This memory is what keeps her from killing herself.

For me, this scene is as poignant as the opening sequence because of its mundaneness. The camera closes in on Hester’s face as the subway runs past her out of the frame. She’s still panting as the air whips her hair across her eyes, and you can almost smell the hot, recycled air whirring about the place, heavy with the scent of fumes and heated rubber and wet, sandy stone. Weisz is at her most stunning here. Hester’s memory of sheltering in the subway tunnels during the bombing of London is drawn-out, a long enough distraction that it keeps her from jumping.

This is why I watch movies still, why I need them.

I re-watched The Deep Blue Sea every subsequent day of my winter break, in the moments when I wasn’t working on final assignments. I wanted to keep my brain busy, to snuff out any dead time that might leave my thoughts to think about the present. I saw myself in Hester for how much I wanted to disappear when school would end, when all the enthralling action that kept me occupied would be gone and I’d be left to myself. I didn’t want to be left to myself because I saw myself as a nothing — a flat line — and school was the drama that kept me going; it was my pulse. I also saw myself in Freddie for the anger I felt toward my dad, for how selfish the act, when committed by him, seemed to me. The hypocrisy in this was not lost on me.

After my third time watching the film, a thought flickered in my mind like the twitch of a curtain. Could I see my father in Hester? Of course, I could, though it was painful to look. I tried to find the threads of his plan in hers at the beginning of the movie. I kept thinking about the phone call and the sounds of him working out that morning. There’s a certain sanctimoniousness about the day — you perform every single task slowly, as though it were an ablution, hoping to feel every sensation to the fullest for the final time. (There’s a delicious mundaneness about The Deep Blue Sea that finds its parallel in 1975’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.) This understanding is what captivated me when I watched The Deep Blue Sea all that winter. I wouldn’t make my own attempt for three more years, so I didn’t know of this sacredness so acutely. But through Hester, I was able to understand what my dad might have felt. This film has a deep understanding of what it means to be alive, what it means to want to be alive so badly that you will extinguish yourself if you’re robbed of the opportunity to feel without qualification.

All plans are sterile, this movie says. The reason why things never go according to plan is because — platitudinous as this sounds — life is messy. Tempers run wild and tears stain and sting, you don’t take enough aspirin, your hand doesn’t have the strength to make a deep enough cut, a memory of the perfect length comes to mind for long enough to distract you. This movie is example par excellence of the fact that even the best-laid plans can never come fully to fruition because life contains none of the linear logic that inheres in plans. Words will fail you in your note to your lover, you won’t be able to convince them to stay with you, you won’t be able to convince yourself to not stay.

It’s difficult to find any kind of healing in all this failure: in face of this impossibility of the world to meet the sterile perfection of plans, in face of all of Hester’s failed plans. And yet, I continued to return to The Deep Blue Sea. The reason was that it not only provided me an opportunity to feel when my life got so chaotic that I shut down, but also because Rattigan and Davies smuggled in a boundless hope in the film’s final scene. The first time I watched, I didn’t catch it — I thought it ended as it began, with Hester alone, but if this was the case, then why did I feel proud of Hester?

The movie ends with a reverse of the sequence that opens it. Hester draws open her curtains and looks out of her window with a smile. Freddie has left for good and there is no way she can go back to William; she doesn’t want that life back. While it began with a plan, the movie ends with Hester knowing what isn’t a part of her plan. No death, no Freddie, and no William. The film ends with Hester smiling because she realizes that she needs to learn to be alone, which is much more difficult and circuitous than rushing toward death. That she survived Freddie’s leaving has proved to her that she is strong enough for life. In all the fighting with Freddie, in all their love-making, in all her sweet memories, and in the wealth of sadness and tears, she has found a resolution that few are lucky enough to find. She has become tired of being sad and has got a taste of being alone, and so she has a vague hope for herself in place of a stolid plan.

My dad, when he got back from the hospital and felt strong enough, noticed my silence and apologized. I knew then as fiercely as I know now that suicide isn’t something that a person should apologize for; it’s too heavy. (Though Hester would say, “Tragedy is too big a word. Sad perhaps, but hardly Sophocles.”) All I could do was try to understand his actions and continue to love. The Deep Blue Sea helped me to understand. I told him that it was okay because I knew that was what he wanted to hear; it made him feel better, and so it made me feel better.

The ending The Deep Blue Sea gives Hester always makes me jealous, but it’s also instructive as a textbook. Jealousy is a motivating force, and every time I watch Hester, I think, “If she could smile despite the weight dragging at her heart, then maybe I can, too.” I don’t have a plan — I never have — but I have found a vague hope like Hester’s that tells me to take life day by day. If Hester could smile, being as she was for the first time in the movie without a plan, then why can’t I? Finally, I have an example.



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