In the ten years between her divorce and remarriage, my mother spent Christmas with her mother. Their habit was a matinee, then a simple meal. The movie was likely my grandmother’s idea; through her eighties, she averaged a couple of trips to the Cineplex per week. Her movie going appetites were omnivorous: whatever was playing, she was interested and available—the outing was half the thing. A good watch became a happy bonus. For my mother, at that time, the Christmas matinee might be the only film she saw all year. She was running a federal government agency as CEO; free time wasn’t really her thing. Popcorn, though—another story.
Christmas brought my mother back to London, Ontario, where her mother lived, and where I was born and raised. It wasn’t a comfortable visit for any number of reasons. The one I want to mention now is that I never saw my mother and grandmother at ease in each other’s presence. I could hardly imagine them alone together, what they talked about, where they looked. A movie ate up the afternoon nicely. They could relax. Across town, I maintained a holiday allegiance to my father, his family, and the house where I grew up. Some years, a peace was brokered—by me—and my mother and grandmother joined us for dinner at my father’s house. After the movie.
Only once, in 1999, did I join in their Christmas tradition. The movie was The Talented Mr. Ripley. In my memory, the three of us were keen to see it, but I was especially so. I was recently out of college, working my first full-time job, and earlier that year had made my first trip to Europe—Florence, specifically. I chose Italy in part because I am Italian on my father’s side, and once there I told myself—it may have been true—that I had never felt so at home.
The other place I felt at home, especially in those years, was seated inside a movie theater. Most often I was alone. I worried a little about seeing Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel in the company of my mom and grandmother; the Italian Riviera, the landscapes, Rome—I wanted them to myself. I had learned to hold the better part of myself back from my mother, as she had done with hers. Swooning in her presence—showing much of any emotion—would have been like disrobing in the Piazza del Popolo.
The movie dazzled the three of us, overwhelming all possible worries. The radiant, ominous fantasy of it, the elegance, the chill of horror and sadness. My mother, my grandmother, and I agreed it was a new classic; we had swooned together, at last. We noted the exquisite casting: I remember falling into a particular sort of hate with Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Freddie Miles. That voice, the magnetism and vulgar, American swagger. Fifteen years later, after Hoffman died, I watched The Talented Mr. Ripley again, this time on my laptop. His loss was only one among several that the experience magnified. My grandmother had died three years earlier; Minghella had died three years before her. My trips to a movie theater were becoming more rare. But the movie, even on a thirteen-inch screen, held up.
Periodically, over the years, I have gotten it into my head that no one really appreciated The Talented Mr. Ripley, that it has never received its due as the classic my mother, grandmother, and I believed it to be. I came to think of it as a film we alone understood to be great. A quick check for award and review attention contradicts this idea somewhat, but I’ve held onto it anyway, perhaps as a way to affirm the singularity not only of the film but the experience of seeing it the way I did.
My mother doesn’t remember going to see The Talented Mr. Ripley, but knows she did. I texted her to ask. When I reminded her of the specifics, and mentioned that I was writing about them, she made a suggestion: “Should be about how grandma and I never knew before xmas day if we were invited for turkey dinner. So we always scheduled a movie and had a chicken in the fridge.” What I had construed as their “Christmas tradition” was, in her telling, a grim contingency plan.
It seems to me that both things must be true. Divorce is confusing. Holidays are fraught. Memory is flawed. At their best, movies offer a form of protection from such clichés, and movie-going an escape from the things they describe. For a few hours that afternoon, our faces painted with the film’s honey light, free of both tradition and contingency, we were together and at ease. We were family. •
Michelle Orange is the author of This Is Running for Your Life: Essays and the forthcoming Pure Flame.