Two Movies and a Wedding

It is fitting that On Chesil Beach and First Reformed opened on the same weekend as the Royal wedding. The former movie is critical of nostalgia, and the latter is cynical about spectacle. Both movies are genuine works of art in which sentimentality and fantasy have no purchase.

As I reflected on these movies, I felt there was another reason they are so welcome right now. In a moment in which our discourse is consumed with politics and identity, they assert that there are other important aspects to human experience — psychic levels that are not untouched by politics and identity, but where they are not primary.

On Chesil Beach is the story of a newly married couple whose deepening intimacy awakens traumas that neither has the psychological capacity to handle. We watch, both hopeful and horrified, as they navigate the confusion, shame, and anger they successively, and sometimes simultaneously, experience. Though their adolescent traumas are very different, they are identical on the level of their overwhelmingness. While it would be possible to read this film in identity terms — a man’s patriarchal entitlement cruelly trivializes a woman’s subjective experience — I believe such a reading lets the viewer off the hook. In On Chesil Beach, the tragedy is that we lack a sufficient language for our inner worlds and the traumas that are rooted there. While the last half-century has seen some cultural growth in this area, the film’s power suggests that we remain at odds with our psyches — especially when our deepest vulnerabilities become manifest through intimacy.

Intimacy is also at the center of First Reformed, although here the dilemma is more existential than romantic. The film’s hero, a priest of a small congregation, is preparing for a major anniversary celebration at his church, which is being organized by a larger and more popular megachurch nearby. As the preparations are underway, he ministers to the despairing husband of a young, pregnant congregant. Her husband is obsessed with environmental damage and is not sure how to live in, or bring life into, a world that is dying, corrupt, in denial. This stirs the priest’s own considerable demons, and as the film unfolds, we see him grapple with how to live a life of meaning and goodness within a superficial culture that seems hellbent on destruction.

On Chesil Beach and First Reformed both present complex central characters whose behavior dramatizes how hard it is to know ourselves and others, and therefore behave rationally and with compassion. While this is a timeless theme in drama, it’s easy to lose touch with it amidst our manic devotion to politics and identity concerns. Social media shows us that we are infrequently skeptical of ourselves, while being highly skeptical of others. I think this binary has subtly affected our dramatic representations, and even a cursory reading of TV and film reviews reveals that more and more, we are processing art via this binary. (One example: the hyperbolic critical reaction to This Is America — an artful music video that critiques the way we entertain ourselves amidst violence… by entertaining us amidst violence.)

Where does this cultural shift — away from self-scrutiny, towards accusation and blame — leave the psyche in all its complexity? In a lonely place, I think. But on a weekend in which the world tuned in to an exhausted ritual of an idealized past, it is a comfort to know that individual artists continued to ask us to look at how we really live — and what that means about who we really are.