O for your kiss! For your love
More enticing than wine,
For your scent and sweet name -
For all this they love you.
Take me away to your room,
Like a king to his rooms -
We'll rejoice there with wine.
No wonder they love you!
(Poem 1, in Marcia Falk's translation of The Song of Songs)
Of all the places you might expect to hear a bit of the Song of Songs, a rather black British comedy starring Rowan Atkinson would probably not be one of them. In the recent film Keeping Mum, however, the Song has an important role to play. The film itself is an odd mixture, combining black humour and some rather disturbing sub-plots with a quite profound story about a struggling marriage. There's an unevenness about it that reminds me of Love Actually, which managed to place a series of rom-com stories ranging from the frothy to the outrageous, next to a searingly honest and powerful story of a marriage betrayed.
Keeping Mum tells the story of the Reverend Walter Goodfellow, a rather ineffectual parish priest, trying to manage the endless tasks of ministry alongside a family that's wilting because of his neglect. His son is being bullied, his daughter is sleeping her way through a succession of boyfriends, and his wife Gloria (Kristen Scott Thomas, magnificent as always) is being seduced by the local golf coach (played by Patrick Swayze, who was born to play sleazy Americans!). Into their lives comes a new housekeeper Grace Hawkins, who immediately begins to transform their lives, through fair means and foul. Bodies pile up, self-discovery and the revelation of secrets ensues.
Apart from the rather clever play with names (Goodfellow, Gloria, Grace) the thing I really liked about this movie was the way it dealt with Walter and Gloria's marriage. It is on the rocks: Walter is obsessed with his parish and his sermon-writing: he is trying to be everything to everyone and failing miserably. Gloria, who married Walter because she recognised that he was different and special, is starved for attention and desperate for an escape from the stultifying world of the village. Grace engineers a solution, and in part it involves the Song. She encourages Walter to read the Song, brushing aside his suggestion that its an allegory of divine love. 'The Bible is full of sex!' she exclaims. In a beautiful scene, Walter reads the Song, while watching his wife prepare for bed. When I say that this scene makes Rowan Atkinson an extremely desirable man, fans of Mr Bean will appreciate the power of the Song!
In one sense, this is quite a conventional use of the Song: it expresses desire within the sanctioned context of marriage. Reading the Song itself, it's quite clear that the Song is not primarily about marriage, but about erotic desire. The Song assumes that this desire is connected to marriage (though not necessarily monogamous marriage, given the references to Solomon's concubines), but the language is of 'my bride', not 'my wife'. On the surface, the Song is about youth, beauty and honeymoons, not about a middle-aged vicar and his cardigan-wearing wife. But I think the insight of the movie is that this idealised depiction of youthful love among the pomegranates is also fittingly read within a tried and tested sexual relationship. In that context the Song points to the possibility of a continual rediscovery of desire, to the sudden recognition of the beauty of the other, and to the love 'stronger than death' that fuels these encounters. Against this background, the frantic promiscuity of the Goodfellows' beautiful daughter is clearly seen to have little to do with love or desire of such depth.