Oct 27, 2013

The Go-Between: Desire is Always Dangerous

"The past is a foreign country.  They do things differently there."

This is the beginning of the 1953 novel The Go Between, by gay novelist L. P. Hartley, which was adapted into a  film by Harold Pinter.  It's about the long-ago year of 1900, where the conventions and traumas of everyday life seemed utterly alien by 1953, and even moreso today.

1. Same-sex desire and behavior are literally unthinkable, not recognized even among the people who experience them.
2. Sexual experience is bizarre, unsettling, and dangerous. One night of passion can lead to insanity or death.
3. Class boundaries are obvious, rigid, and inflexible.

In this alien world,  middle-class Leo (child star Dominic Guard, who would later play in Picnic at Hanging Rock) goes to visit his upper-class school chum Marcus (Robert Gibson) for the holidays.  There he meets the farmer Ted Burgess (bisexual actor Alan Bates).

Leo has never met someone of the lower class before: rough, sweaty, savage, leering, hinting at erotic potential.  He seems Ted shirtless and feels the first stirrings of desire.

In a parallel story of transcending class boundaries, sophisticated Marcus is in love with the rough, uncultured Leo, but Leo is oblivious to the fact, and mostly ignores his school chum.

Ted is involved in an illicit, forbidden romance with Marcus' older sister, Marian (Julie Christie), on whom Leo also has a crush.  Leo finds himself in the awkward role of go-between, delivering messages between two people that he desires.  He is so naive that at first he doesn't understand why they are meeting, or why their meetings are forbidden.

When he does understand that their relationship is sexual, Leo becomes morally outraged, jealous, depressed, scandalized.  He tries to end his service, but the lovers coolly manipulate him to continue.

The film, like the novel, is rather depressing.   Ted commits suicide. Marcus dies in World War I.  Marian marries someone of her station and has children and grandchildren, but to the end of her life pines for her dead lover.  Leo is gay, but so traumatized by the events of 1900 that as the years and decades pass, he is unable to establish any intimate relationship at all.

Desire is always forbidden, dangerous, and destructive, but a life without desire is no life at all.