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Framing the Open – A short Intro to Ian McEwans „Enduring Love“ (Analysis)

At the end of midsummer. A quiet deciduous forest. Birds twittering, sunbeams breaking through the leaf canopy. The first three pictures in the opening sequence of the film Enduring Love (1997) do not openly suggest the dramatic events to come.

The inevitable tragedy – inherent to many of Ian McEwan’s literary works – is nevertheless visible. It takes director Roger Mitchell only three shots to establish modern man’s syncope relation to nature. The first shot aims from the forests floor into the leaf canopy, the second shot provides an eye-level view into the forest, while the third shot is again a bottom-up perspective into the treetops. The two bottom-up shots reduce the human eye-level perception to absurdity. The framing shots are visually reminding the viewer of his insufficient horizontal, most rational, but useless efforts to understand his surroundings, whereas the look upwards suggests a transcendent perspective on the world. The disunity of interrelated views, the back and forth between eye-level (“reality”) and the glimpsing up into the “beyond reason” is fundamental for human experience and a most urgent motif in Ian McEwans novels and film adaptations. Thus, the opening sequence sets the opposing paradigms – i.e. the disturbing area of tension between ratio and emotion – for the plot about to evolve.

The contradistinction between ratio and the “beyond reason” is also vital in the next scene. The setting has changed. A wide angle shot shows a green countryside with the forest in the background. The main characters appear. Joe Rose (Daniel Craig) a college science lecturer and his long-time girlfriend Clarissa (Samantha Morton), a sculptor, enter the scene. Their appearance is strikingly similar to the entrance of actors on a theatre stage.

Parallel to the countryside backdrop Joe and Clarissa walk into the picture. The audience gains the faint suspicion that the situation is dominated by a certain (theatrical) artificiality – an impression that is enhanced by the countryside setting. The (formerly wild) forests in the background are contrasted by the obviously man-made, mono-cultural meadows. The two landscapes co-exist in unspoken conflict, constantly posing the threat to leak into one another (Wilderness into domesticated nature and vice versa). Reading the landscape metaphorically would include acknowledging that ratio and the “beyond reason”, i.e. transcendence, do not peacefully exist in paralleling, ideological vacuums, but move competitively in intersecting spaces.

In comparison to their (nevertheless) copious surrounding Joe and Clarissa are almost vanishing. Joe and Clarissa appear to be somewhat alienated from the scenery and from each other (while looking around they are facing opposite directions, not sharing the experience of the overwhelming prospect). They have not entirely grown apart though; neither from each other, nor from the “stage” backdrop. Here again the enormous tension between ratio (Joe) and emotion (Clarissa) flares up. The incompatible natures of the two concepts (ratio vs. transcendence) are constantly clashing into each other (may it be on an intrapersonal level between Joe and Clarissa or the setting) throughout these first two minutes of the movie. This clash is also inherent to the name and cast of Daniel Craig as Joe Rose.

The main characters’ name “Joe Rose” is a composition of the two mutually exclusive concepts discussed above. While “Joe” is one of the archetypical signifier for masculinity, which is classically connected with ratio, “Rose” is on of the most common symbols for love and transcendence. Thus, the name “Joe Rose” already constitutes a character of dichotomist proportions, already implying the struggle into which “Joe” and “Rose” will be involved.

From these observations I deduce that the story of Joe and Clarissa reduces them to playthings of fate, tossed about by the inconsistent powers of ratio vs. transcendence, or respectively nature vs. culture. An assumption that is confirmed by the tragic balloon-accident. Joe and Clarissa have just spread their picnic blanket on the ground when right next to them a hot air balloon performs a bad landing manoeuvre. At great speed the red balloon drags its basket, together with its occupants (father and son), over the Greenfield. The father is hurtled out of the basket. All the sudden there are many people from all around rushing towards the basket, Joe among them, trying desperately to keep the balloon (and the boy with it) from rising again. For a brief moment it looks like they are succeeding, when the balloon is brought to a halt. Just when the father is about to get the boy out of the basket a gust picks up the balloon and lifts it into the air again. The visual implementation of the gust is one of the finest cinematic moments in the film. Still holding on to the basket Joe turns around to the forest – his face expressing serious presentiment.[1] The leafs on the trees are shaking, foreboding the disaster. And then in a sudden change of perspective the camera is inside the gust. The audience is sucked into and caught up in the gusts peak speed, sweeping over the treetops and heading towards the balloon. Still inside the gust, the audience speeds towards the balloon and its awestruck rescuers. The scene’s tracking shot reminds me of Hitchcock’s work. In his works of suspense he used the tracking shot to involve his audience more immediately. Although I would not dare to compare, for example Psycho to Enduring Love, they contain scenes, which shift the viewer into uncomfortable positions: The viewer optionally becomes an aggressor, becomes evil, and even becomes fate. Just like the viewer is put into the position of Norman Bates in the infamous shower scene, the viewer of Enduring Love is visually transformed into the gust, thus it is the viewer himslef triggering the tragic events following. Even though the PsychoEnduring Love parallel might be a little far fetched, a comparison is justified, since inherent to the cinematographic technique of the tracking shot is the question whether or not the viewer (as a part of society) is causing serious distortion in human beings. May it either be the variation of the Oedipus complex in Norman Bates or Jed’s Erotomania. This question is further emphasized after the gust hauled up the balloon back up into the air and one after another, the rescuers have to let go of the basket in order to save their own lives.

Their falling to the ground and their standing back up, could be interpreted as a depiction of (re)birth. Like seeds they fall to the ground only to immediately burgeon. The creation of man according to the second chapter of Genesis reads in verse 7: “then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (English Standard Version). The balloon scene contains elements of the biblical creation account by depicting the rescuers, literally rising from “the dust of the ground”, facing a world that has drastically changed with the balloon accident. The scene is also cunningly playing with the concept of a “fallen creation”. The rescuers all fall (“die”) from the basket, get back on their feet (“rebirth”) and then go on to be involved in a series of events that include matters of deceit, murder, envy, lust etc. – in short, almost every cardinal sin available is exploited by the “fallen creation” and still the question lurking beneath all this is: “Have we (partly) caused this tragedy? Does the relentless, cold society we are part of create such tragedies or do they just happen on a random basis?”

The tracking shot clearly suggests that possibility, without clearly assigning guilt to the viewer or anybody else – knowing all too well, that between ratio and transcendence there are many shades of black, a scope far too vast to allow any conclusive wisdoms.


[1] It is striking that Joe – the ratio – is the first one to notice a sudden change. He appears to be more perceptive than all the others. Joe is realizing the danger even earlier than Clarissa and Jed  – the two characters located closer to transcendence, closer to nature.

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