Nora-Elinor (Camille Belle) and Mary-Marianne (Alexa Vega) in their aunt’s house in East L.A. (From Nada to Prada 2011)
Dear friends and readers,
A week ago I examined the tendency in recent films belonging to the emerging & ever increasing Austen canon to erase central themes and inferred conclusions in Austen’s books, focusing on the genre and characteristics of the most recent Emma film, the 2010 Aisha, arguably more a transposition into luxurious Indian terms of Amy Heckerling’s 1996 Clueless than Austen’s Emma: Aisha, or Emma through Clueless lenses?. I demonstrated the reversal of a theme particularly strong in Austen’s Emma, but important in all her books an indirect condemnation of a husband-hunt enforced on women as their best, indeed only “preservative from want,” with the implied corollary women who don’t marry are not made but actually inferior and useless. I also suggested that where Aisha was at its strongest was precisely in those places where it returned to Austen’s Emma for structure and motifs (the heroine’s evolving relationship with Mr Knightley, and her humiliation, however overdone the latter in the film), in these showing the directors probably studied the 2009 Emma (scripted by Sandy Welch) and possibly the studiedly ironic and faithful 1972 Emma (scripted by Denia Constanduros, directed by John Glenister)
Tonight I want to look at the 2011 analogous adaptation of Sense and Sensibility into From Prada to Nada. Unlike Aisha which despite its failure at the box office has been the subject of two excellent academic analyses and a number of popular reviews, From Prada to Nada has not attracted full scale serious examination as yet (it is dealt with by Karen Gevirtz as one of the newer kinds), possibly because its context-nexus includes telenovela romantic comedy, unlike Indian cinema not much explored in Eurocentric Anglo-American film studies. Like Aisha, From Prada to Nada transparently imitates previous Austen films precisely where these films depart from Austen’s books, to the point where its plot-design, key moments and hinge-points are a melange of the filmic Austen canon. I list just a few
when the girls are ejected from their house, we are shown the collapse of a gigantic outdoor dollhouse — an imitation of the huge tree-place in the 1995 S&S
The goodbye scenes (waving from the great-house of those left-behind) recall all the S&S films as does the peculiarly odious Fanny-Olivia (April Bowlby, very strong in the part)
Nora is presented as a near spinster and preferring it — like Emma Thompson as Elinor
Clueless is there in the sequences of Mary-Marianne’s speed-driving, the importance of her wardrobe and Prada shoes and handbag (Aisha-Emma-Cher is also a speed demon in a car and clothes-horse of the latest expensive name fashions)
When Edward Ferris (Nicholas d’Agosto) comes to the Dominguez aunt’s house in East L.A., and Nora-Elinor opens the door it’s love at first sight for them — like the first encounter of Somyra-Elinor and Manhor-Edward in I Have Found It
Nora-Elinor weeps over her father’s case of letters and manly accessories — as does Elinor in the 2008 S&S
Bruno-Brandon is modeled on the melancholy-proud protective, semi-resentful Brandon type David Morrisey conveyed in the 2007 S&S; he similarly directly saves and protects her
When Mary-Marianne is confronted by Marco Antonio-Willoughby (Oliverio Gareli) with his upper class rich wife, she rushes off into the pouring rain, gets herself into a horrible car accident and lands in hospital — this combined the 1995 S&S and I have found It
Edward’s final proposal to Nora-Elinor is not only like Hugh Grant as Edward’s proposal to Elinor, the very words are lifted from Grant’s speech, his very intonations
There are effective allusions to other romantic comedies in the Anglo canon: a kitchen scene with Nora-Elinor jumping onto a kitchen sink and making aspiring gestures is closely reminiscent of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (this is confirmed in the feature). Probably there are borrowing from hispanic films by Angel Garcia (a respected Spanish film director), but alas I can’t recognize them.
This is not to deny that From Prada to Nada nonetheless manages to become a unified film whose central purpose is (as the again the feature suggests) to present, make understandable and sympathetic Spanish-American culture as it has evolved in the US under impoverishing, marginalizing and stigmatizing circumstances. Austen’s first published novel’s story of a group of females ejected from a high vulnerable position to depend on the charity of relatives and live lives appropriate to a much lower poorer status has been appropriated to display the striking visible contrasts of wealth and poverty in Los Angeles (the girls move from the rich west suburbs to East inner city environs).
The problem here is the depiction of the lives and work of hispanic people in this part of town and the kinds of jobs they can get has been too softened. The film does not have the courage of its convictions. We are not sure the women sewing in the house are illegal immigrants. When Nora and Edward combine forces to threaten an exploitative employer of cleaning people, they win wit unreal ease. The screenplay producers, Gigi Pritzer and Linda McDonough are on record as meaning to make a joyous and fun (this seems to be how Austen films are seen commercially), commercial film (celebratory of Spanish people envisaged as centrally part of the audience) and they succeed in combining gaiety with very touching moments: two parties in the film correspond to two key party scenes in Austen’s book and three of the faithful S&S films, but they cannot at the same time (or at least do not) expose the real pain, hurt, lack of opportunity and fulfilment of latino people in the US. After all both our heroines end up doing very well by the end and their aunt thrives all along.
That there were problems and the film-makers were in conflict is admitted in the features. The film was given up on at least once, and took 6 years to complete. The producers began with one script-writer and switched to two others, revising the first script thoroughly, and then in the last go-round of filming, the film’s content changed again more thoroughly than usual.
I have not mentioned an analogy for Mrs Dashwood because there is none. This is not the first film to eliminate Margaret (the first 2 S&S films did), but it is the first to eliminate both the mother and Mrs Jennings. The girls’ long-dead mother’s sister, Carmina (Norma Reyna) takes them in and some of her overtly cheerful nature may remind the viewer who had read Austen’s book of Mrs Jennings, but this feels almost like a coincidence. Carmina never embarrasses the girls; she is far more tactful than Mary-Marianne; she shows some grief as she remembers her sister’s death (apparently from a car accident), but her note is one of industrious upbeat acceptance. As with Aisha, Bride and Prejudice, and the 1940 and recent (2003) Mormon Pride and Prejudice this film makes little room for any real deprivation, lasting depth of sorrow, or doubt about the way life today is lived, families treat their members, and human nature is not seriously flawed — except in the case of the cardboard villains. As with I Have Found it, the John Dashwood character, here an illegitimate son, Gabriel Dominguez (Pablo Cruz) is pressured into bad behavior by his greedy snobbish wife: in the Indian film, the man dies; in this one he separates himself from his unworthy wife. We also lose the viciously materialistic Mrs Ferrars, Sir John and Lady Middleton, their children, Mr and Mrs Palmer. Lucy Steele survives as Olivia-Fanny’s sycophantic friend who Edward briefly engages himself to (and easily breaks off from), but her important contrasting sister, the foolishly vulnerable, needy Nancy Steele has been cut.
The effect of the cutting in Aisha was to eliminate all reference to risk of poverty, to unmarried women. Here disquiet, unease, discord, irreconcilable conflicts. There is no need daily, hourly, continually and forever to endure or struggle in the latest entries into the Austen film canon (as there is in all her novels) any more.
It’s in this area of real human emotions and thought and problems that this film’s erasure of a central theme of S&S, one found across Austen’s oeuvre occurs. Austen’s opposition of two girls where both experience acute feelings, sensibility, but one (Elinor) is able to control this for her protection, self-respect and safety as well as peace, and the other (Marianne) rejects this kind of control and conformity as hypocritical and getting in the way of living a genuinely authentic existence; Austen’s Marianne regards ardor, idealism, willed enthusiasm, openness, sincerity as noble.
The film presents the central contrast between Nora-Elinor and Mary-Marianne as a matter of goals: Nora wants a career as a lawyer, and is presented as a reading, studying girl (signalled by her wearing glasses most of the time); she seeks a job (like Somyra-Elinor in I Have Found It); she says that she fears sexual entanglement because this will get in the way of her 10 year plan. As the film shows, Nora really fears emotional vulnerability but not because she is not sure her feelings are reciprocated. From the get-go Edward clearly loves her. In contrast, Mary rejects Bruno-Brandon as a poor working class Spaniard not worthy respect, a mannerless man beneath her notice, a servant-type. She goes for Marco Antonio-Willoughby because he is a college lecturer, seems rich, glamorous.
When Nora tells Mary she hardly knows him in their quarrel scenes, Mary replies he will be able to provide her with what she wants materially. Mary says she does not want to have to work for a living because it’s unpleasant and stressful (one cannot disagree I suppose). She reads a Lorca play (House of Bernardo Alba) to please Marco Antonio as he is presented as a guest lecturer, but shows no comprehension of its presentation of the repression of women’s passionate sexuality (which might have had some connection to Austen). Mary goes to bed with Marco Antonio the first chance she gets, and in a clashing quarrel that ensues between the sisters then, Nora calls Mary a whore.
It may be that this kind of conflict is part of contemporary Spanish films: shall you give in to man and enjoy your sexuality freely by way of attaching a wealthy presentable male to you. If so, the question is not resolved, since the plot-design remains to some extent Austen’s and in order to be like Sense and Sensibility, Mary must see that Bruno-Brandon is much better husband material, actually the finer man and end up with him, and she does. In the film he is always honest with her, he fixes her car, he is responsible for making the aunt’s house adequate for her party; he is there for her at the party genuinely wanting to dance with her (not just going along with what she wants as the casual Marco Antonio does) and there for her when she gets out of hospital, all forgiving, all giving. There is no sense of them as the truly congenial pair, though maybe like Darcy and Elizabeth the idea is they are attracted by their very initial antagonisms:
We don’t know why she’d want to him as her partner because clearly he would not keep her in high fashion. She really goes for him because he’s there, and its time for the film to come to an end.
One real flaw in this film is it’s not long enough: 107 minutes forces them to skirt (whiz past) episodes and foreshorten the denouement. Edward and Nora take less than 5 minutes to get back together again, and like the 1995 S&S all ends in a wedding (Nora’s), with Bruno and Mary seen dancing gaily together as the camera man snaps stills that turn into into black-and-white shot-photos fit for a wedding album.
More to the point, Nora and Mary are not Spanish enough. They are not truly subaltern women. Nora cannot speak Spanish and Mary identifies with upper class American culture. To use them as cynosures for young Spanish women could be taken as more than an easy-out, it’s a meretricious substitute. The women on the bus that Nora helps are genuinely hispanic women but they are presented as simpletons. The Spanish women in the aunt’s house act clownishly to make comedy.
Amid the modernizing changes, cultural transposition, time and budget constraints of From Prada to Nada a fundamental mentality of Austen is lost from view, and I think like Austen’s serious critique of family life and demonstration of the shallowness and dysfunctionality of friendship, her defense of not marrying, and braving poverty rather than selling one’s soul and body for one’s keep and social acceptance, her perception of human nature is not wanted. Austen objects to a blindness to the prosaic realities of existence; she prizes ardor, warmth, sincerity, but we must curb them or we will be taken advantage of or find ourselves living in delusions — as Emma does. I think some of this is found in the all the S&S films until this one, in the 1972 and Andrew Davies’s 1996 Emma, in two earlier analogous adaptations, Stillman’s Metropolitan and Victor Nunez’s Ruby in Paradise.
It may be argued that Austen’s original structure where Elinor is the basic consciousness of the novel re-asserts itself in this film in the form of Nora providing the norms of behavior we are to approve her, and her wedding and securing of an individual lawyer’s practice (on Edward’s money and connections) its climax.
I don’t mean to be too solemn or break a butterfly on a wheel here. The film is intendedly light — where Austen Sense and Sensibility is not — nor are her other books, though it is true that commercial presentation of her in films does make her into light romantic entertainment, more than slightly unreal.
As with Aisha, by the time the film came to an end I had become involved and enjoyed much in it. It has genuinely moving moments. It’s filled with familiar Spanish songs and refrains, filmed on location in Monterey, Mexico and parts of West L.A., and large murals painted by young Spanish artists are central to the mise-en-scene. Its strength is in the two sisters’ relationship and their evolving changes with their decreasing circumstances — which is the fundamental basis for all the S&S films.
Throughout the film we follow one and then the other in their contrasting as well as parallel adventures, with them we go through their crises; these trajectories are punctuated (as it were) by scenes of them talking, dreaming, dressing one another, arguing and supporting one another, quarreling and making up together.
At the same time they have the triangular heterosexual relationships, Nora with Edward and (although too briefly) Bruno as confidant, and Mary keeping Bruno at a distance until she is betrayed by Marco Antonio. These relationships are presented with great delicacy of feeling and comic wit, and we feel relieved for the girls when at the close of the film they seem to be on their way to stable and secure happiness.
It’s a matter of subjective judgement here, but my sense is this film attempts to hold onto its connection with S&S by keeping the sisters’ relationship so solidly to the fore structurally, dramatically, emotionally (as Aisha maintains its connection with Emma through making Aisha and Arjun-Mr Knightley central). And after all women’s relationships with one another, not just sisters, is central to Austen’s desired vision of women’s lives.