Editor’s Note: One of my preoccupations of late has been the question, “Is there a transcendent aesthetic or embodiment of the holy in cinema? And if so, what does it look like?” While we can easily point to some films (e.g. The Passion) as being “Christian,” are there not many other films that have nothing “religious” going on and yet feel spiritually significant, even holy? My exploration of these questions will consist in an ongoing series of articles looking at films and their non-traditional correspondences with my faith. This is the first installment.

What is Regret?

I often wonder when people proclaim, “I don’t believe in regrets,” what exactly they are not believing in. Do they not believe that regret exists, or is it just that we should ignore regret when it seeps into our consciousness? Is regret (Webster defined as “to mourn the loss or death of; to miss very much; to be very sorry for”) just another counterproductive voice in our heads akin to those restless voices that tell us we need more, are not happy, etc? Or, is regret something altogether crucial to our existence within and understanding of grace, God and eternity?

I tend to think it is the latter, which probably makes me sound like some sort of depressed fatalist who listens to Elliott Smith a little too much. But before you write me off as a glutton for existential torment, let me explain: I don’t like regret, anymore than I like its close cousin, guilt. But I appreciate them in a weird sort of way; I understand why they’re in me persistently, hauntingly, sometimes painfully: they point me to the other; they direct me to God.

Regret is that consciousness—closely tied to memory and imagination—which is constantly checking our predicament against “what if?” alternatives. We look back to a certain point in our lives and wonder what if I’d done such-and-such differently? Or we look at the apparent success and happiness of others and wonder what if I had their life? At the core of these thoughts is a deep discontent about our identity, an ever-unsettled self-conception that casts our “self” as a character which is always less than it could be. I feel this regret on a daily basis. My better part reminds me that I am where God wants me to be, I’m part of a grand and perfect design, blah blah blah… yeah, that’s a kind of comfort, I guess. But I still cannot help second-guessing decisions, wondering what could have been, aching for the beautiful past where all futures are created equal.

I’m sure you’ve felt these achings as well, though our “think positive! Purpose-driven!” culture emphatically tries to have us ignore them. And even though I’m no psychologist, theologian or self-help guru, I’m pretty sure that a healthier path is to acknowledge our regrets and work through them. To me, there is something simultaneously sad and beautiful about regret (in the way that a sunset can feel both sad and beautiful), and I’d like to look at three films which have—for me—embodied this paradox.

Before Sunset: The Jolt of Memory

If you haven’t seen Before Sunset (2004), please queue it up immediately. But first make sure you have seen Before Sunrise, the 1995 film for which Sunset is the sequel. The films, directed by Richard Linklater (Slacker, Waking Life) follow an American guy (Ethan Hawke) and a French girl (Julie Delpy) as they randomly connect for one night in Vienna (Sunrise), and then 10 years later meet again—by chance—in Paris (Sunset).

What is interesting about these two films is that their temporal situation in plot (one story takes place a decade after the other) is mirrored by the real life passing of time—as seen in the slight wrinkles of age in Hawke and Delpy’s faces, and in their generally more mature demeanors. In Sunset, their characters meet up by chance and are suddenly thrust into their shared memory of the one night in Vienna all those years ago. Since then, much has changed—in the world, in their lives, in their hopes—and for the next 90 minutes of real time, Linklater’s camera luxuriously follows them around Paris as they walk, talk and imagine what was and might’ve been.

The film has a palpable sense of urgency—as anyone who has ever had a second chance to right a regret can relate to. There is an extended sequence near the end of Sunset in which Hawke and Delpy are in a car, seemingly at the end of their brief reunion, opening up in wrenching honesty about their present discontents. Every time I watch this scene my heart breaks anew—because in this conversation (miraculously acted by Hawke and Delpy) is so much truth about love, longing and regret. Each character wonders what the 10 years in between might have been like had they stayed together after Vienna, rather than gone on separate paths. Is it too late to revisit those old dreams? Now that they’ve moved on and established “other” lives, is there anything they can do but wonder what if?

Man on the Train: The Pain of Identity

Sometimes the question what if pertains not just to the paths our lives take, but to our identities in the larger sense, as in the beautiful French film, Man on The Train (L’ Homme du train), from director Patrice Leconte. Like Sunrise/Sunset, this film follows two characters whose paths serendipitously cross.

Jean Rochefort plays an aging teacher/poet who lives a lonely, domestic, Mr. Rogers-type life (i.e. boring but comfy…with loafers and cardigans). Johnny Hallyday plays a leather-clad career criminal who arrives in town on a train (planning to lead a heist of the local bank), with no place to stay and no real enthusiasm for his upcoming crime. Rochefort’s character happens upon Hallyday’s, and offers him a place to stay for the week. As the two men from opposite sides of the track (figuratively and literally) gradually experience each other’s lives, a funny thing happens. They each begin to wonder if they might have been better suited with the other man’s life. Rochefort sees in Hallyday the risqué, rule-breaking, unconventional life he never had but retrospectively longs for. And Hallyday, worn out and jaded from his wayfaring criminal ways, finds the comfortable quietness and stability of Rochefort’s life desperately appealing.

As the film goes on, we begin to see—and feel—the pain of these characters as they experience the universal want of the other. We know—and deep down, the two men know it as well—that they really aren’t suited for the other’s life. Still, it is not as if their desires are false. There is not a human alive who has not at one point wished his identity were different in some way, however minor or major. Even as we realize that we are free—to an extent—to change who we are, there is still the realization, and subsequent regret, that some of what we are is out of our control. That we have the capacity—indeed, the inclination—to reflect on what is and yet long for what is other, seems to indicate that the world is not as it should be; that ours is a life of holy unsettledness and, as Chesterton put it, “divine discontent.”

The New World: Regret and Renewal

Whenever I feel sunk in the mire of the world, for whatever reason, I turn to the films of Terrence Malick (as anyone who knows me or has read my writings over the years will know). Malick’s last film, the appropriately misunderstood masterpiece, The New World, is case in point. To my mind, it is the cure for the common regret. The film is the story of Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher)—how she was pushed and pulled between two worlds/cultures, manipulated and used by both, and ultimately left to her own devices to make the most of a chaotic collision of forces and events beyond her reach. The first two thirds of the film follows Pocahontas as she falls in love with the wide-eyed, passionate explorer, John Smith (Colin Farrell). But Smith suddenly abandons her, succumbing to the manifest destiny that calls him to parts unknown. Pocahontas is left in shambles, a captive alien among the white settlers in Jamestown, an unfamiliar setting where she must live without the man for whom she forsook her former life. In the tragic eyes of Pocahontas (now “Rebecca”) we see the crystallization of regret and what it means, on the simplest level: when the remembrance of some former glory meets the realization of its terminal absence.

But this remembrance—this regret—does not paralyze Pocahontas, but fortifies her and eventually fades with time. John Rolfe (Christian Bale) arrives on the scene, and Rebecca moves on. Rolfe takes her to England—a “new world” for her in more ways than one—and when John Smith visits her there, it is he for whom regret remains. Rebecca has taken to heart the following advice, given to her by her handmaiden, Mary: “All this sorrow will give you strength, and point you on a higher way. Think of a tree—how it grows ‘round its roots. If a branch breaks off, it don’t stop; it keeps reaching … towards the light.”

The symbol of a tree—central in Malick’s films, especially World—is helpful as we reflect on regret and renewal. If each of our lives is like a tree, then we can say that our regrets are the broken branches that have fallen onto the forest floor. It is sad—these once-vibrant shoots of our lives, these dreams with so much potential, now dead and decaying. But even as we are losing branches, shedding leaves and amassing more debris, we are still growing. We sprout more branches, more buds, some of which will one day litter the forest floor, alongside many other might have beens. But the light is always beckoning us forward, upward towards itself. Even so, like a tree and its fallen branches, our regrets are never far from us. Some stay on the floor of our lives for many years, but eventually they all decompose, becoming the very nutrients that nurture our growth.