“Don’t we most of all resent the person who helps?” — Victor Quinn
It seems to me no accident that, while Americans didn’t invent alcoholism, they had to invent its demonology. I don’t know to what extent David Hare was speaking from experience, but his script for the film (aka “TV Drama”) My Zinc Bed,1 adapted from his stage play, does mention some of the horrors of alcoholism. But he also brings up one of the best arguments against AA: that it does little more than replace one addiction with another, trading alcohol for a methadone of misery.
The best definition — and best narration of the nightmare — of addiction that I know was written by the Frenchman Pierre Drieu La Rochelle in his novel Le Feu Follet:
And, having reached the abstract and illusory point of the cure, that is, when his [Alain’s] intake was down to zero, he finally realized what the habit meant. Although he seemed to be physically separated from drugs, all their effects remained within his being. Narcotics had changed the color of his life, and though they seemed to have gone, that color persisted. Whatever life drugs had left now seemed impregnated with them and drew him back to them. He could not make a gesture, pronounce a word, go somewhere, meet someone, without an association of ideas leading him back to drugs. All of his gestures resembled that of injecting himself (for he had taken heroin in solution): the very sound of his own voice could no longer awaken anything within him but his fate. He had been touched by death, drugs were death, he could not, from death, return to life. He could only plunge deeper into death, and so back into drugs. This is the sophistry drugs inspire to justify relapse: I am lost, therefore I can take drugs again.2)
This is the diagnosis of a man who has already resolved to end his own life. And yet look at how easily this passage can be used to describe the condition of anyone who is in the thrall of desire. That would appear to be what Victor Quinn, in My Zinc Bed, has learned from life, and he tries to pass his knowledge on to two people, Elsa, the woman he marries, and Paul Peplow, a writer he employs. Both of them are “recovered” addicts — she of cocaine, he of alcohol. What Victor ultimately imparts to the two of them is that being cured of addiction may be good for their bodies but not at all for their emotional or creative selves.
John Cheever, a lifelong drinker, wrote in his journal of 1968: “I must convince myself that writing is not for a man of my disposition, a self-destructive vocation. I hope and think it is not, but I am not genuinely sure. It has given me money and renown, but I suspect that it may have something to do with my drinking habits. The excitement of alcohol and the excitement of fantasy are very similar.”
The ultimate model for this sort of thing is one or another of Bergman’s great “chamber films”: — intense dramas involving three or four people (or just two in Persona). Bergman had a visual sense that made these potentially claustrophobic films satisfying as films.
At one point in the film, Pryce looks out of a window and says, “Summer’s end.” I suppose it would have seemed trite for the director to give us a shot of something outside that would have made those evocative words more substantial. Some directors would have at least run the camera around the block a few times just to break the monotony of three people yammering away.
When we last see Paul walking along a sunlit street, narrating the death of Victor and the fate of Elsa, and asking Victor’s ultimately rhetorical question, “Who wants to be cured of desire?,” the sense of relief is too great for a film that only lasts an hour and nine minutes.