Taking shelter from some disastrous sports results and worse weather over the last weekend, I caught two films which, at first blush seem to have little in common. 

The first, Carol Reed’s classic conjuring of Graham Greene’s The Third Man. Its zither refrain and film noir shadows depict a Europe at what seems its lowest ebb, the same Depression darkness and moral compromise which, in the US, gave birth to the genre. 

Set in Vienna in the immediate post-war period, it is a city impoverished and exhausted. Bombed out, half-starved, defeated and uncertain, its citizens are prey to black market spivs and Allied military policemen of variable sympathy and humanity. Men are either reduced or falsely elevated while women tread a fine moral line between self-respect and the pragmatism of what it takes, not just to get along, but to survive.

Resurrected from the underworld and flitting from one dark doorway to the next is the amoral Harry Lime (Orson Welles) who, having staged his own death, emerges to continue his trade in “chopped” black market penicillin in a city where medicine of any form, let alone the miracle drug of the times, is scarce. Ironically, Lime himself can’t even get hold of his favoured indigestion tablets. 

The effects of injection, as the hard-nosed but essentially decent Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) explains to innocent, imported American dupe “Holly” Martin, for injured men with infections, for women in childbirth and for children with meningitis, the choice is between lingering death or the madhouse. The hospital is a pitiable host of ownerless soft toys.

Lime himself dies, eventually, clawing to get out of the Hades of the Vienna sewage system and trapped by the prison bar weight of an iron drainage grid and his own heinousness.

Behind him, he leaves his lover Anna (Alida Valli), buffeted and torn between her love for this charismatic, enigmatic prince of lies, Holly’s essentially decent love for her and the pursuit of Russian policemen determined to repatriate her to her native Czechoslovakia, now behind its own iron curtain.

A Europe of the displaced. A Europe living, just, among the ruins of its old glories. And a Europe defined by shortage and sickness.

Fast forward to another European city. Contemporary Paris. And another woman buffeted by grief for a dead man, her husband, and another, compromised relationship with her married lover accompanied, as these things are wont to do, by desperate passion, frustration and a fraught jealousy. 

So much for the timeless vicissitudes of life and love. But, like many French films, One Fine Morning (Un Beau Matin) is a drama of the unadorned quotidian and the daily life it shows is Europe’s new crisis. One in which fractured people struggle with the competing demands of children, relationships and, more pressingly, the third man, the living dead of elderly parents caught in increasingly zombified decline. 

At the film’s heart lies Léa Seydoux, the unlikely Bond girl of the final two Daniel Craig incarnations, whose unglamorous but considerable allure lies dormant beneath the care she invests in her father, a one-time academic disappearing by degrees under the cognitive and physical predations of Benson’s syndrome, the bastard off-spring of Alzheimer’s.

While her divorced mother tries to revive her youth and the spirit of ’68 through militant environmentalism, Seydoux holds down a job as an interpreter and looks after a daughter prone to attention-seeking psychosomatic injuries.

Meanwhile, the family’s efforts to gain entry into the limited public care system, while avoiding the prohibitive costs of private homes mean her baffled father is forever being moved from one dismal facility to the next where roof terraces look like prison yards and the witless wander the over-lit corridors, forever lost. 

Immigrant care workers swim against the tide, astonished by the fractured Western world’s inability to take care of its own. “I’m embarrassed” says Seydoux when she asks a nurse to help her father to the commode. But she means so much more.

Displacement is everywhere. 

It is a crisis of plenty. We live longer, we medicate better. But Europe is simply sitting among its own demographic ruins once again. People creak under the burden. The state too. We make decisions that make our consciences cringe and not through choice. We look at what we are; ageing and exhausted. 

One film ends in the forlorn hope of love, the other in its promise. One in shadow and the other in the City of Light. But not since Harry Lime clawed for escape, has Europe looked so dark. Or so lost.

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