Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)

This movie is generally considered a frothy diversion, seldon rated as an all time favorite, even by those who recall it with fondness. But for me, it's a Top Ten classic. As is usually the case, it reaches that status for reasons that transcend the facile plot and visits the themes we find as poignant in life, as in the films that reflect it.

Lucy Muir, a young widow and mother, moves into a home she finds is haunted by a rather debonair sea captain. He's as charming as he is contrary, so naturally the 2 bicker frequently. But alas the UST (unresolved sexual tension) between them, must remain so, because he's dead and she's alive and you can't get more star-crossed than that. So, Lucy is determined to get on with her life and overcome the constant interference of the meddling captain, who disturbs all her visitors with his meddlesome pranks. When he sabotages the efforts of one too many suitors, Lucy explodes.

Although there's more bark than bite to her anger, the captain realizes that he's holding her back. The more she's in his ghostly company, the less she's with the world. He doesn't want to selfishly deprive her of the life she still has, just because his is gone. Therefore, the Captain makes the decision to stop haunting Lucy. More importantly, to set her completely free, he erases memory of himself from Lucy's mind.

Thence forward, she goes on ghost-free, but one can't really call it living. The visitors stop coming, her daughter grows up and doesn't need her constant attention any longer. Lucy withdraws, because although she doesn't remember the Captain, she misses him terribly. He remains a vague thought in her head that she cannot fully recover. Familiar sounds make her look around, expecting to see -- she knows not what. She can't remember. She carries around her this sense of loss, made worse because she doesn't even know what she's longing for.

Once merry and spirited, she grows somber and closed before her time, nursing the nameless void. All those suitors the Captain chased away hold no interest for her now.

For me, that image of Lucy feeling incomplete and unfulfilled, missing something she can't describe has universal meaning. Ghosts are fantasy, but vague dissatisfaction and sense of longing for that intangible something more is very real. It plagues widows languishing in sea side mansions and business men thumbing their blackberrys alike.

Of course's Mrs. Muir's problem would have been easier to solve than most of ours. Why didn't the Captain just return? Once he saw that she wasn't moving on without him and would have been happier sharing an imperfect life with him, than an empty one with corporal companions, he should have materialized again. He left, so as not to stand in her way, but in his absence, Lucy created barriers between herself and the living world that were more impenetrable than any obstacles the Captain could have strewn in her path. He left so that she could go forward, but having known him, she couldn't go back. She was not the same woman she'd been before meeting him. He erased her recollection of him, but not the impression he left behind. She spent the rest of her days alone, as a testament to the ghost she did not even remember.

Lucy's is no different than other failed relationships. How many other heroines, literary or flesh and blood, have spent years mourning relationships they left, because the would-be mate was too poor, too old, too different? Too late they learn that the problems they foresaw in pursuing the troubled love are nothing compared to the travail of living without it.

Eventually, death stole upon Lucy as she dozed in a rocking chair. The moment she passed away, the Captain came and escorted Lucy's young soul into their happily ever after. Yet, I was left mourning for all their wasted years apart.

Why is it that an eternity of joy is still insufficient to override relatively transient pain? For me, joy is fleeting, while sorrow is infinite, capable of being relived repeatedly, with a pain that is nearly undiluted, while the moments of delight can never be completely recaptured. Maybe, it's because happiness is light, buoyant, uplifting, and weightless, while sorrow is heavy, permeable, sinking so deeply as to leave a scar that is never completely healed.

Though the movie is fun and fanciful, it leaves me with thoughts that are complex and bittersweet. Questions about fulfillment, imperfect love, and the endless nature of grief, with answers as elusive as the Captain's ghostly chuckle.

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