Me Without You

04/11/2010

U.K. / 2001 / English

Directed by Sandra Goldbacher

With Michelle Williams, Anna Friel, Oliver Milburn

Still from 'Me Without You'Sandra Goldbacher’s Me Without You follows two best friends, Marina and Holly, tracing from their girlhood as next-door neighbors in a suburb of London, and onward through their tribulations as teenagers and adults. Despite dissimilar upbringings (Marina with a pill-popping ex-croupier for a mom and an absent father, Holly from a dull and too-perfect Jewish household) their lives are intimately entwined from the start. As children, they refer to their aggregate entity as “Harina.”

While both girls’ personalities are forged in the boredom of extreme privilege, Marina is taught to take things and people by force, giving away all of herself in the process. Outgoing and hardly meek, she grows into the shallow and wasted modern take on the free spirit. Holly, her sidekick, is self-contained and quietly intellectual, nursing a childhood crush on Marina’s older brother, Nat, who plays guitar and takes dizzy spins around Europe. When Holly’s love for him is clumsily made physical during a stoned and sordid party, it only heightens her idealization of him, and precipitates a permanent yearning. After that he goes away but returns to her life periodically.

Holly does not model herself after her close companion but she does define herself according to her. The reverse is true as well, but with Marina there is an unconscious sabotage perpetually working in the background, as though she were trying to rig the results. She cannot endure a relationship between Holly and Nat, and so she destroys his letters to her, systematically coming between the two of them. This resurfaces in college, when Holly falls for their professor. The older man, who talks a lot about Baudrillard and Bergman but is more interested in bedding female students, quickly winds up dating both women, unbeknownst to the two of them. Holly satisfies a desire for intellectual depth, Marina for wanton amusements. For Marina all this plays out like an unspoken competition, for even after she finds out the truth, she continues the relationship, meanwhile using the knowledge to further complicate things with Holly and Nat. Anything that would make Holly happy, that would potentially lift her up and lead her away somewhere, terrifies Marina. There is a need to dictate what happens in her best friend’s life, if for nothing more than to keep her there, to maintain her codependence.

Marina has the aquatic name, but it is Holly, whose name ties her to the land, who seems to be the most ‘at sea.’ Oceanic cues wash up persistently with her, especially in relation to Nat, many of the crucial moments shared by the two of them taking place at the seaside. In a dream of hers in which he is her lover, her body is delicately fringed with kelp, as she imagines achieving the sturdiness of a tide-swept rock. Asked during a parlor game at his parents’ beachhouse what element she would be, Nat answers: “seawater” – dark, sundry, and with its own strange iridescence. The fluidity of her personality has he potential to become an asset, and is waiting to be understood and drawn upon. Meanwhile she drifts, too buoyant to know her own profundity.

Still from 'Me Without You'The time periods during which the film episodically transpires are defined more by atmospheres and cinematography rather than by such ordinary indicators as costuming and music. Although the latter two are certainly well-used and very present, and the film does fall into the ragged trap of over-representing the material culture of its eras (why, in the early 80’s, must there always be a character playing a home video game – weren’t most people dirt poor?), they are thankfully quite secondary to the intangible considerations. Holly and Marina’s teen years, made urgent by the Sex Pistols and The Clash, feel authentically mournful, as do their awkward attempts to grow up and indulge in a cultural shift about which they can or do understand little. If there is ever anything overtly anachronistic in the film’s representation of certain eras, it is the characters themselves, laden with media, accessories, and references. When we revisit Holly at university in 1982, as a budding postmodernist, the information inundation of her cluttered bedroom feels more like an early-millennial ideal of what that time was like – a nagging feeling that persists in the background for most of the film. But the dire and anarchic qualities of the period, seemingly of the air, are captured quite well, despite an overabundance of Joy Division posters plastering the walls.

The significance of color runs very deep in the fabric of the film – saturated greens appear throughout much of it, as well as the bachelor-pad cream of Marina’s parents’ home, the perennial pink of her wardrobe. Her tendency towards solid tones contrasts with Holly’s confused stripes or, as time progresses, muddled and vague browns. The colors through which the film moves denote season, time period, the social orders and psychological environments that the characters inhabit. We follow a shade gradient, from the vibrant hazes and low-rent decadence of a boundless late 1970’s to the bitter, realist patchwork of the beginning of Thatcher’s decade (Holly and Marina’s college years), up into 1989, and the dour hues and grim accoutrements of late capitalism, of ambition without desire.

In cinema, it can be a difficult task to find representations of friendships between females (particularly young females) that aren’t either vacuous or deleterious. Normally they are friendships of need, of mutual destruction. Though Goldbacher is at pains to show the parasitic and ultimately poisonous nature of Harina, it is also about much more than that: selfhood and identity, and determining a place for oneself in the world. “I don’t know who I am without you,” says Marina. Holly replies, “I don’t know ever.” It is both galling and gallingly true that someone as self-aware as Holly could fail to recognize that their relationship, while it has its hermetic specialness, also exerts a stunting effect on the rest of her life. So long has she looked to her friend as a mirror that if Marina were to disappear, so would Holly’s reflection.

Still from 'Me Without You'Of course the film cannot possibly draw satisfying conclusions from the issues that it summons to the table. Things fall something short of fulfilling in the interest of tidiness and romance. What Goldbacher only lightly brushes up against, and mostly at the very beginning of the film at that, is the instilled self-hatred that put her two main characters in such a mutually reliant position in the first place. The gentle bodily criticism they receive from a young age from their mothers causes each of them to secretly exalt what the other has, and the dearth of genuine relationships causes them to seek reciprocal validation. There remains the question of what Holly could be without her friend, as her only visible goal is in capturing her enduring love. Anything else is beyond the scope of the film. And what is the audience to do but pity Marina? As someone who relies on the comparison to feel real, against the falseness that she projects, she is equally if not more so casting about in a nameless void. For Holly the potential for growth lies in recognizing good change when it emerges. It seems that Marina, in her grasping self-service, is also impoverished for reference points, imagining that she would sink down into nothing without the buoy of her counterpart. For her, an answer (if the film could provide it) is complicated and not merely a matter of starting anew.

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