Anthony Minghella wrote and directed his first film, “Truly, Madly, Deeply,” as a commentary about grief and how people deal with it. Although he never says so and may not consciously have intended it, the film also works beautifully as a re-imagining of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. It explores the hermetic qualities of communication that enable a grieving person to pass through the underworld of loss and return once again to the daylight world of ongoing life and love.
Ovid tells this story as a tragedy. No sooner have Orpheus and Eurydice married than “the bride, just wed, met death” by snakebite. Orpheus refuses to accept the loss of his love. As Monteverdi tells the story in his opera Orfeo, he cries, “Gone from me forever, and no more may I see you. Yet I remain here? No!” He dares to cross over into the land of the dead and, using the power of his song, begs Pluto and Proserpina to “lend” Eurydice to him for a normal lifetime, or let him die as well. The gods relent, but with a condition: he must not turn to look at Eurydice as she follows him until they are out in the sunlight once again. Orpheus agrees, but in his desire for her cannot keep his promise.
They’d almost reached the upper world, when he, afraid that she might disappear again and longing so to see her, turned to gaze back at his wife. At once she slipped away—and down.
Orpheus ultimately is reunited with Eurydice through death, but his death is a judgment and punishment for his greatest sin of refusing to accept what life requires of him. He becomes the sacrifice he would not make when he is torn to pieces by the women he has rejected. As they attack him, “for the first time [he] spoke words without effect; for the first time, his voice did not enchant.” His gift in life was to charm others through song; when he rejects life, his gift fails him.
Nina, the lead character of “Truly, Madly, Deeply” also cannot let go of her dead love Jamie. She turns away from the living and huddles in her flat, holding Jamie’s cello and her memories of him close to her, refusing the love others offer her. Ultimately, her unrelenting pain pulls Jamie back to her—but Jamie is a ghost and cannot come all the way into the world of the living. Instead, Nina’s flat becomes a limbo where the dead can enter, and other ghosts begin to take it over. Nina eventually realizes that she does not want to stay in limbo, that she wants life, her own life, even at the cost of losing Jamie forever.
In the very last scene of the movie, Nina cleans up her flat, reclaiming it as a place of life, no longer a Hades where the dead are welcome. She carefully puts Jamie’s cello back into its case and shuts and locks it, burying his body at last. As she closes the door behind her, the ghosts reappear at the window. They watch as Nina greets Mark, a new love interest, at the front gate. Jamie smiles and wipes away a tear as Nina kisses Mark and, without looking back, takes his hand and walks away with him from Hades into life.
Minghella shows us in this movie just how dangerous unchecked grief can be. It can lead us to separate so completely from life that we enter the land of the dead while still alive, just as Orpheus went into Hades after his lost love, Eurydice. In the case of Orpheus, he was unable to recover, but Nina through a period of grieving was able to once again engage in the beauty and wonder of life.
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