At the age of 80 I find I am attending funerals quite often and at the last one it occurred to me how like a performance the rituals are.(see

Funerals in films are very common. In thrillers, the detectives stand aside and observe the behaviours of the mourners, in M. Hulot’s Holidays there is a funny episode where a tyre masquerade as a wreath, in the classic Tokyo Story the death and ritual are quiet and private. Departures, The Ballad of Narayama, Volver, Four Weddings and a Funeral  are some of the films featuring or touching on funerals. But it is Alan Rickman’s The Winter Guest  (1997) that came to mind after my last attendance, I imagine because it featured a couple of old women who attended funerals as a leisure activity. I saw the film when it was first released and I dismissed it.

Widely distributed in Europe and in spite of a few awards, the film attracted half as many people in the UK as in France, Italy or Spain. Ebert comments  may explain my less than enthusiastic response. (  “The Winter Guest” follows four sets of characters through a day in a Scottish village, and its purpose is not to draw a lesson or tell a story, but to evoke a mood…Since there is no plot engine to drag them all to the same station, we’re forced to decide why they find themselves in this film, and what connection they have. Is the Winter Guest death? Do these couples represent four stages of life? Childhood, courtship, parenthood and old age? … At the end there is an emptiness, like stepping into air, or like a play interrupted after the first act.

On a first viewing I shared Ebert’s impression. Concentrating again on the couple of Lily and Chloe in order to look at funerals as performance, I wonder if  it is not the fact that Rickman is telling too many stories with too many unconnected characters that gives this feeling of emptiness.  I think there are four stories in the film and I would like to trace the psychological trajectory of Chloe, Lily, and their relationship.  I found it difficult and time-consuming to follow the four narratives across so many jump cuts and fragmented sequences. Links between them were impossible to detect or remember. There are so many themes to trace : Death, Stages of Life, Friendship, Seduction and Desire, Loss and Grief, Closeness and Conflict, Contrasts, Passivity and Control.  The status of Phyllida Law as Elspeth and Emma Thompson as Frances (mother/daughter on and off-screen) bias the viewing as does the exceptional acting of Thompson as Frances in mourning. Of course the geographical location, the frozen sea, the snow and the white light, the wonderful cinematography also attract the attention and distract it.

We first see Lily and Chloe walking arm in arm down a passage in the snowed up village. They advance straight towards the camera, cross the main road. Elspeth in her long fur coat walks past them. They walk behind her. Lily:”Not long for this world” Chloe: “You cannot tell that… by looking”. Lily: “Can I not?’. These are the first words referring to death uttered in the film.  We then see Lily and Chloe through another old woman gaze:  Elspeth’s at the telescope.  It is extremely difficult to explain why Elspeth is so mean in her comments about Chloe’s fur collar :”Call that fox? Dyed rabbit. Died long ago. Wants burying that’s what that wants. Bury her with it. Best thing. Face on her! what’s she done to get a face like that?”

The two women are all dressed in black with matching hats and are on their way to a funeral. Lily is small, thin  and poised, Chloe is bigger with a round face and rather anxious looking. They are waiting at a bus stop. Lily is sitting on the bench reading the paper, Chloe complains of the cold  “you can die of cold” and walks restlessly: “Catch your death before you catch the bus”. We understand that these two women read obituaries in the local paper and they attend a  funeral every day of the week. They use the word death time and again.  Lily has discovered a new death notice in the paper and shows it to Chloe “Well well well. She will be remembered” “I saw her eating a chocolate meringue”.  When the bus arrives “It is a big funeral and I am not missing it” says Lily when Chloe “my running days are over” is reluctant to run for the bus.  In the bus  Lily: “Guess what I am thinking of”  Chloe: “Your mind is a mystery to me” Lily: “Do you know what I am thinking about?  I’m thinking of a French cake. Pink icing. Will we have one in town? It is a cremation after all,  we need a treat” Chloe: “I have seen nice cremations” Lily:  “Not as final Chloe. Know where you are with a burial. Permanent –  a burial. ” Lily talks incessantly and compares burial to cremation: “There is nothing like watching a coffin slip into the earth, the soil thudding down on the wood… It is a rare treat these days… factory deaths now. All this conservation…   this ecology …you’d think they’d want to save gas.” As Lily describes burials in detail Chloe’s face becomes more and more pensive, tense and anxious.  She suddenly interrupts:  “Why do you always take the window seat?” and she gets up to sit in the window seat in front of Lily. The funeral is postponed by an hour because the old hearse has broken down. Lily is critical of the unreliability while Chloe is more tolerant. The scene gives us the opportunity of seeing the two women in a tea shop eating cakes and salivating at the thought of a millefeuilles that they share.* A pan of the church hall and congregation listening to the religious service focuses on the two women. Lily is smiling but Chloe looks tense and anxious. At the end of the service a young man is about to blow a candle in an obvious symbolic dramatic gesture. Chloe expresses openly to Lily that she does not want him to blow it out. Although these two women seem to have witnessed many funerals it seems that it is the first time that Chloe reacts in an emotional way. This reaction carries on in the next scene. In the bus Chloe looks pensive and Lily shows concern. When the bus stops in the village, Chloe rushes out, runs across the street, falters, nearly falls and holds onto the railing and calls ”Lily Lily”. Lily is concerned and matter of fact  “Are you all right? … What is wrong?” Chloe: “I fell, I fell, …that ground is waiting for me.”  Lily offers her arm for support assuring her friend that she will not fall again, that she can hold her… . Chloe :”As God is my witness the world went away from me. I did not know where I am… Lily: “Take my arm you will not fall, I’ll make sure you won’t fall” A brief view of the sea.  Lily takes Chloe’s arm and they look in each other eyes. They walk away together arm in arm … Lily:”We have things to do… you will not fall while I am here.” Cut  to the teenager in the bathroom.

I have quoted in detail from the dialogue to demonstrate how Rickman here transforms the funeral as performance to personal feelings about death and dying. We also see the visual progression of feeling on close ups of  Chloe’s face from complaining and disgruntled to pure panic and overwhelming fear. There is also a progression in the relationship between the two women. Lily starts to be the controlling partner but ends up to be supportive and compassionate.

It is debatable that viewers can  perceive the meaning of the subtle exposition of these 13 sequences interrupted by scenes about the three other couples. The reviewers comment mainly on the Law/Thompson couple. For me when isolated and viewed continuously these scenes are a very good exposition of the transformation of a ritual that has lost its meaning into a personal consciousness of mortality and the importance of friendly support.

I am not surprised that so much had escaped me in the first viewing but glad to discover that the image of Lily and Chloe stayed in my memory.**

*There are many old women enjoying cakes in films.

** In the context of old women in film. A similar analysis of Elspeth and Frances story is worth doing to appreciate the film.


About rinaross

Born in 1935. MA in Film and Television Studies at the University of Westminster 1998. Studying the representation of older women in film since then.
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