Last night I saw a movie at a theater, a current release I will not name because I am about to give away the ending: A man and a woman who want to be together but cannot due to political and social forces beyond their control, go — after half a lifetime of dealing with this anguish, and moving back and forth between several European countries — to an abandoned church. They pledge eternal devotion. They line up some white pills, which they then swallow. They sit on a bench, both gazing into the landscape with wistful, death-anticipating expressions. She says something like, “Let’s go over there to THE OTHER SIDE” (emphasis mine) and the movie ends.
Afterward I went to use the bathroom, which is just a single, as this is a small movie theater, in a small town. A man and a woman, probably in their sixties, were waiting in line. The woman had short gray hair and wore glasses and a plaid shirt and parka. The man wore an enormous parka, had a big, moonish face, and seemed friendly and happy. I was 99 percent sure they were friends and not a couple, and equally sure they were both gay.
“How did you like the movie?’ the man asked me, because we were all just standing there.
“I liked it in certain ways, but I didn’t really get why they didn’t just stay in France.” I said this instead of what I really wanted to say, which was that I was kind of sick of movies about straight people not managing to work their shit out, even though I am straight and can’t always work my shit out. But I did not think this was necessarily the best thing to say in a bathroom line in a small town on a Sunday afternoon, with snow falling lightly outside, even in front of probably gay people.
“Well,” the woman said, “I guess she just really missed home.”
“But she kept leaving,” I said. “And I guess that was the whole point. She wasn’t happy away from home, she wasn’t happy at home, they couldn’t be happy anywhere, so, in the end, they committed suicide.”
The woman had been smiling in easy agreement, but now, a cloud settled over her face. “What?” she said. “They didn’t commit suicide.”
A better person would have left it there, and said something like, “Oh gee, I thought they did, have a nice night.” Instead, I said, “But they did. I mean—that’s how the movie ends.”
The woman made sort of an affronted noise and I continued.
“I mean they lined up pills, divided them up and swallowed them,” I said. “And then they went and sat on a bench, and waited to die.”
“Oh, I don’t know if those things they swallowed were pills,” the woman said dubiously.
The man showed no signs of agreeing either with me or with her. I saw he was going to be no help.
“They were white, pill-shaped items that they swallowed, like pills,” I said, “So unless the entire point of the movie was ‘Sometimes there are objects that look like pills and people take them the way they take pills except sometimes they are not really pills,’ I would say, with every confidence, those were pills.”
Now the man said something like, “So interesting how everyone has their own take,” and the woman said something like “No, no, they were some sort of food, weren’t they,” but before I could formulate a response another man, slightly older than these two, exited the bathroom, and the woman went in and closed the door.
“We were just discussing possible interpretations of the end of the film, Paul,” the man said as the older man stood next to him.
“That’s not exactly how I would describe our conversation,” I said. Paul was neater and more formal than his friends, and as I spoke he was carefully adjusting a plaid wool scarf inside the neck of his overcoat. “I would say that I was simply explaining how the movie ended with the couple committing suicide.”
Paul forgot all about his scarf and exclaimed, “Explaining to who? Does someone not think it ends that way? Who were you explaining this to? To you, Steve?”
Steve didn’t say anything.
I made some mime-like pointing gestures at the closed bathroom door.
“Christine?” Paul was alarmed. “Christine thinks they didn’t commit suicide at the end?”
“Different interpretations,” Steve said again. I noticed that he was very tall, and had thus been allowed to develop a habit of saying everything into the space around his head rather than to actual people.
Paul took a deep breath, then smiled uncomfortably, then fiddled with his scarf again, even though at this point it was perfectly arranged. “Well what on earth does she think happens,” he said, but it was mostly to himself.
Christine exited the bathroom, and Steve gestured that I should go next, and I took him up on it. When I came out they were all still there, and Steve went into the bathroom, and Christine said to me, “You know, I thought about it, and I’m remembering, doesn’t she say something to him like, ‘You should take more than me, because you’re heavier?’”
“Yes,” I said. “She says that to make sure he will consume enough of the suicide-causing substance.”
Christine nodded thoughtfully. “I thought what they were doing might be some sort of—exercise?”
“An exercise in what? In practicing committing suicide, by actually committing suicide?”
I thought I saw Paul bristle a little at my tone.
“And then they just returned to their normal lives,” Christine said, seeming not to have heard the last thing I said. “I will certainly think about your interpretation!”
Then Paul said, “Isn’t it wonderful when you see a film and there’s so much to talk about after?”
I should have been gentler with Christine, I thought, and should have also remembered that objective facts are no match for the aggressively conciliatory nature of Northern California culture. There’s an idea in this part of America that if you do not entertain any and all opinions that cross your path, in a blissful state of total cultural, moral, and metaphysical relativism, you have sacrificed your will to “The Man.” In this case The Man is anyone who agrees that, as discussed above: a pill is a pill, that this item is traditionally taken in large quantities to cause death, and that the last thing the protagonists did in the film had been to swallow pills, for the purpose of dying.
By the way, Christine did not appear to be delusional. She was a person of sound mind who just happened to believe that a tragic love story had ended with the main characters lovingly sharing a handful of breath mints and repairing to a nearby field for a brisk constitutional.
I realize there are films with ambiguous endings. You could have a conversation about what the last scene of The Graduate means, if you were so inclined, or about how Inception ends, if you were fourteen, and a guy.
But I’m talking about something different here.
This is the second time in the last few months I’ve encountered this phenomenon. The first time was around Thanksgiving, when I saw a movie with a bunch of friends. Afterward, my friend Erica and I drove to a bar with our friend Peter to reconvene with our movie crowd, and Erica said, “I like that those two women hook up at the end.”
“But that doesn’t happen,” I said.
Peter agreed with me, because it does not happen. Erica said “But you could tell they were going to,” and Peter and I were like, “Yeah, not that, either.” When we got to the bar everyone confirmed that there is no reason to believe these two characters are about to hook up. The women run into each other randomly and are happy to see each other. The end.
“You guys are all crazy,” Erica said.
Today I called up a friend of mine who is a Freudian psychoanalyst. I told her about Christine and I told her about Erica. She told me: “When people don’t want to accept the reality of a situation they will just create an alternate reality in their head.”
“So they will just insist something happened on screen that actually never happened?”
“Somehow they will arrange it in their minds to see what they want to see,” she said.
This made some sense to me as far as the suicide went. Obviously I don’t know Christine, but for whatever reason, she couldn’t process that these two people had killed themselves, so she came up with implausible scenarios, which, though extremely unlikely given the context, could have been true. Like, yes, we did not actually see the characters drop dead, so I guess you could tell yourself that they had a pill-like snack and went for a stroll. But the film we saw at Thanksgiving already offered you a relatively happy ending, in the sense that these two characters were successfully coping with normal, everyday lives after weathering the dramatic and violent events of the main bulk of the film. Why imagine romance on top of this, I asked the analyst, who said, “Because mere survival, even if it’s seen as a victory, isn’t a strong enough resolution. Your friend needs the whole fairy tale. She needs everything to devolve into cliché.”
I called Erica.
“I don’t even remember that movie,” she said. “I was so high.”
I offered a few identifying details.
“Oh, oh, right, that movie. The one where the two women hook up at the end,” she said.
I told her that no, they did not, and then I told her what my friend the analyst said.
Erica groaned. “It’s all right there in the film,” she said. “Look. They were both treated horribly by men. There’s no way they were ever going to sleep with a man, again, ever trust a man again! Plus, they had this really amazing rapport.”
I think it’s worth mentioning at this point that my friend is straight.
“By that logic,” I said, “half of the women in the world would become lesbians.”
She sighed and said, “I’m just telling you what was in the movie!”