Se Souvenir des Belles Choses is a really interesting dissection of what it means to be in love. And I mean really be in love, not the fleeting, easily discardable fancies we usually think to be the real thing. It means leaping past the difficulties of living with the other person's previous relationships, of putting up with all of your lover's neuroses, psychological disabilities, of how someday, she wouldn't even recognize you if she ran into you on the street.
The film started with this girl Claire Poussin checking herself into an institution. She was 32 years old, and seemed in perfect health. But one summer evening in the middle of a walk in the woods, a storm started and she was struck by lightning. Then she started having difficulties remembering things. She suspects she might have inherited Alzheimer's disease from her mother, who died from it. It couldn't possibly happen to her, her sister insists. But she submits herself to a series of tests, and meets a variety of people who really are troubled. There was a guy who wouldn't take baths and constantly wore his pajamas. To every question he would only reply "Up yours." Two elderly men spent their days bent over an unending game of chess. And there was Philippe, a nicely man with a scar his left eye. His wife and child died from a car accident, but he couldn't remember anything. He spent his time raking leaves and sniffing wine he stored under his bed.
One day, Philippe's parents visit him and his mother bursts into hysterics, blaming him for the deaths for which he couldn't even show remorse. At the canteen, Philippe catches Claire staring at him and he attacks her, screaming that she must blame him, like everyone does. How can you grieve for something you cannot remember? How can you feel an emotion when you don't have the memories to link them to?
There was this moment in the film where Philippe tried apologizing to Claire about his outburst. They were in the canteen, crowded as it were. But the way the director filmed them, with Philippe facing Claire against a background that was filled with light, they seemed to face each other, when in truth they were in separate tables. You could see how their smiles, hesitant at first, started to widen and brighten up their faces. You could see how Claire pushed the hair out of her eyes, and we could not help but see how graceful her hand was, how the slow start of a smile was enough to fill that canteen with light.
Then at the museum, they sit in front of this painting of an angel. Philippe sits beside Claire, and he starts to tell her about the story of the Angel of Oblivion. "When babies are born, they know everything that happened from the fall of man, to the plagues, I want to kiss you, to the great war, the creation of instant soup, I want to kiss you." Claire turns to him, "What was that you said?" He says he couldn't remember, then repeats it again. "Then the Angel touches the baby's lips, so he wouldn't remember. The baby has to learn everything all over again. What's left of the Angel's touch is this cleft right above your lips." Then he hushes her. They kiss.
We know that they were starting to fall in love. It's strange how our remembrance of things create our feelings. We remember love by the way our fingers brushed together, by how the light brings out the most brilliant smiles, and the gracefulness with which you brushed the hair out of your eyes. It's the little things which attach themselves like glue to our memory. And those are the little things that make us smile when we remember them. Se souvenir des belles choses. Try to remember the small beautiful things. It's what makes life worth living, even when things start to get difficult. Even when your ability to retain those memories begin to fade and disappear.
That was the very thing that Claire feared. She cannot remember things anymore. She doesn't have the word for these things. And how can you remember love when you cannot even remember your lover's face? She knew that her memory was going to fade soon, but she wanted her life to be worth living, and the only way was to be in love, and to be enveloped by that love.
It was a crazy thing for a woman who is starting to lose her memory to live with a man whose very painful memories are starting to surface. But they took the risk. Their apartment was filled with post-its and clocks. They wrote their itineraries, a per hour guide of the day's tasks. It's like learning things for the first time.
Philippe cannot remember how it was to be with a woman, even though he had a wife and child. Don't worry, it will come back to you, the doctor said. In time you will remember, the way you can never forget how to ride a bike. He was falling in love with Claire as though he were an adolescent experiencing it for the first time. Philippe's awe was fascinating to watch. If only we can retain that awe every time we fall in love, but then it would require losing our cynicism accumulated through the years. [Unless we all decide to have collective amnesia, but that would be too difficult. I digress.]
It warmed me to see how these two people worked hard at building their life together. Philippe would repeat every so often the route of how to get to the hospital and back home. He would outline it on a map on the wall, and enumerate every corner and bus stop, to make sure that Claire gets home safe.
It breaks me when Claire really started to lose her memory. She was trying to bake a cake for dinner. She needed three eggs: one, two, three, she counted. The second she put the eggs in the bowl, she would read the cookbook and see that she needed three eggs. Start all over again. It was funny at first, how she repeated things. Then we see her staring at the schedule on her blackboard: 6.30pm, light up the oven at 180 degrees. As she does so, she sees that she had not completed the task for 6pm, prepare the cake batter. She turns and sees that the eggs were still there. Over their candlelit dinner, we see Philippe crunching on burned buttercake. But he smiled all throughout, insisting it was delicious. Claire is not convinced, and comes back to the table with a bowl of sugar. She forgot to put in the sugar. "So what," says Philippe. "We had a sugarfree buttercake."
Any man who would willingly eat sugarfree buttercake and patiently prepare audio guides for me must be a treasure. Philippe is like that. He realizes that he was happy with Claire, and it doesn't matter if the bad memories are coming back. He wants to be happy and he's willing to work at it even when it's becoming obvious that Claire's condition is going worse.
Claire disappears after one of her hospital visits. Philippe has convinced her to use the audio guides he made for her, but after making a wrong turn she couldn't find her way back. She roams through the streets and ends up in an out of the way warehouse and into the woods. It starts to rain. Meanwhile, Philippe searches the city all over for her. When he finally finds her the following morning, Claire sits, babbling, dancing around, with a gone look in her eyes. She can't even recognize him. He shows her his scar. "This is your nicely man." He kisses her. "This is how I taste." He hushes her and tells her the story of the angel of oblivion. But she doesn't remember. Not even the beautiful things.