Dear Friends and readers,
Precisely a month ago, I wrote a blog on a fine documentary about the fashion designer and collector, Iris Apfel, promising to write blogs on those women’s films this summer that I managed to see. Defined narrowly as a film made by women, one where a major figure in the film, director, screenplay writer, the majority of the producers are women, I’ve only watched three thus far. Iris Apfe is a documentary by Albert Maysles. Defined broadly as a film deeply empathetic to women’s points of views with an admirable likable heroine at its center I’m into my sixth.
On my life-writing political blog, Under the Sign of Sylvia II, I dealt (however briefly) with a superb re-make of Far from the Madding Crowd, with Cary Mulligan in the key role of Bathseeba derives from a novel by Thomas Hardy.
The screenplay is by David Nicholls and the director Thomas Vinterberg, but what distinguishes the film is its presentation of Bathseeba as a pro-active competent intelligent entrepreneurial farmer-businesswoman; she is not a semi-sullen sex kitten (as was Julie Christie in part). I’ll Dream of You, featuring Blythe Danner, also has a male director and writer, Brett Haley and Mark Brasch, producers Haley and Rebecca Green, but its deep empathy with the lives of older women living alone, comic and realistic makes it a film whose audience is women.
Izzy and I saw another re-make this time of a 1970s TV BBC mini-series, Testament of Youth, by Vera Brittain into a two-hour cinema film, comes closer to a true woman’s film as its scriptwriter is Juliette Towhidi, who was the central force in Calendar Girls and Death comes to Pemberley, not to omit The Jane Austen Book Club, from Karen Joy Fowler’s novel. It was deeply moving and I hope many people will see it and think of (or go see in order to frame the movie accurately) Towdhidi’s previous films.
I am hampered by my lack of memory of the TV mini-series in 1975 and lack of stills: it had 5 parts and was 275 minutes long, and I remember was much admired at the time — as the book is a masterpiece and it was a faithful progressive 1970s good film. This one was a mere 100 minutes. That a film is shorter need not make it inferior. The new Far from the Madding Crowd is much better than the old one; the 2007 Room with a View (by Andrew Davies) only some 95 minutes, a TV adaptation in some ways also better than the much lauded (perhaps overpraised) lush sensual Merchant-Ivory one, despised the especially effective performances of Denholm Elliot, Daniel Day-Lewis and Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Helena Bonham Carter.
The older mini-series focused on Vera’s career, her trouble getting to Oxford, and while it was filled with grief, much of the hard experience of war was put off-stage; it was decorous, discreet, repressed. The 2014 Testament of Youth, directed by James Kent, produced by Rosie Alison, is too romantic: but I suggest it be seen as expressionistic in the way of Towhidi’s Death Comes to Pemberley, the contrasts of lush green world and romance at the opening are meant symbolically with the wasteland and horror of the later parts, but it does work.
Miranda Richardson as the Headmistress of Somerville is memorable. Anna Chancellor is there as Vera’s financee’s mother; Emily Watson plays Alice’s mother. Cyclical structure, women’s imagery, depth of emotional charge, all are here in all three. The new one is vitriolically anti-war. Indeed I am not sure that if you have recently experienced the death of a beloved person which you feel is the result of social neglect, norms, someone thrown away, this film might not leave you distraught. Both Izzy and I were near that towards the end. But it is also cathartic, as Alice Vikander turns her life around to work as an pacifist. It’s not a great film but made explicitly appropriate to our world of ceaseless imperialistic war today.
Anne Fontaine’s Gemma Bovery has just about vanished after a week in my local moviehouses. It never played in DC itself and turned up in only one art cinema in Northern Virginia. I don’t know how it’s lasted in other areas of the US but if at all like Tamara Drewe, directed by Stephen Frears, screenplay Moira Buffini, produced by Alison Owen (which also played only in one art cinema in Northern Virginia at thee time), Gemma Bovery has hardly been shown and then vanished.
So my recommendation is probably to try it on Netflix, through streaming or a DVD. Like Tamara Drewe which is a re-write or updating of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, Gemma Bovery is a rewrite of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and the result has been that the few American reviewers who noticed it, have disliked it as not sufficiently like Flaubert. Since it’s based on Posy Simmonds’s rewrite, that’s not surprising. What did surprise me when I went back to Simmons’s graphic novel is how little it is like the mood of Simmonds’s book, so perhaps this stubborn mistake is just as well.
In a way as to major story line, it is more like what people remember Flaubert’s novel for: a woman bored by her husband, takes unworthy lovers and ends up dead.
Only in the film the framing is a POV from Martin Joubert, a French actor Fabrice Luchini who watches from his shop and himself throws a central wrench in the proceedings out of jealousy and as far as the film allows us to see Gemma has no romantic delusions. Posy Simmons’s book is a deeply melancholy one with (to me) a thoroughly unpleasant heroine surrounded by awful people; Joubert (with a different first name) is deeply remorseful; the only bearable character is Charles, an underdog type. The book is as bitter as Flaubert’s novel ultimately is, only not misogynistic: everyone is an egoistic ultimately mean person, all masquerading as ever so liberal, arty, but above all (what counts) upper class in habitas, objects, taste.
Fontaine’s film is comic, ironic: she omits the first half of the novel which explains why Gemma and Charlie have come to France (so Gemma can escape Charlie’s first wife’s demands and her children and her own memories of a affair with one Larry, a vicious handsome type who is of course successful in the world).
The film might have been much better if it was as bitter as the book but then no one anywhere would have gone to see it. Instead it presents these awful people neutrally, blandly, and makes Gemma still an utterly irresponsible selfish woman artist through the perspective of a now self-deprecating lecherous Joubert who sees the incongruities of what’s happening, is wry about the motives of the English people who live upper class lives in picturesque rural France. Enough of Posy Simmons comes through — but I’m not sure the effect is not both misogynistic (the other women of the film are jealous and spiteful and cold) and far from delighted by super-handsome rakish males or older lecherous ones. It’s almost misanthropic which is what I thought Flaubert’s cool book ulimately was. It could be said Charlie is again the only endurable character except here he is, as in Simmons, useless except for his income and as a person who restores works of art. Why anyone would want to restore them for people who are so worthless inwardly is a question one might ask after watching the film. A number of the characters are involved in kitsche art: Gemma restores old houses to look like 19th century artisans’ huts for huge amounts of money.
It’s a woman’s satire, and (as a couple of feminist critics of Austen argued in the 1970s, e.g. Alison Sulloway of JA and the Province of Womanhood), is not directed at large “universal norms,” but empirical, revealing the hellhole of meaningless at the of core of daily behaviors.
I saw it with my friend Sophie who is Parisian French, and she said it captured some absurd norms of French life and laughed away again and again. The photography was so alluring, shots capturing painting like scenes; it ends on a still on a window looking out, a long-standing woman artist motif.
Keeley Hawes as Lady Agnes just brought her baby home, Alex Kingston the new half-sister-in-law (2012 U/D, scripted and created by Heidi Thomas) — babies and children play a large role in both episodes I cover
I am probably cheating to include the second season of Upstairs Downstairs, the 40 year re-boot (to use Anibundel’s contemporary term) of the 1970s once much beloved Upstairs Downstairs, conceived by Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins. We are three years since. But I am experiencing deep pleasure and new insight over the past few weeks by watching this new series and have already praised strongly the new version, and summarized Giselle Bastin’s film study (in Taddeo and Leggott’s anthology of film criticism, Upstairs and Downstairs: British Costume Drama) where Bastin finds series excellent: it deals openly and directly with the Nazi politics of the era. She says it has been much misunderstood because it’s not comic, but serious, realistic melodrama insofar as its genre allows. Tonight I want to endorse Heidi Thomas’s re-make by agreeing with Bastin. As with The Bletchey Circle (Agent Carter, with Hayley Attwell) had a close call for next season), a real disservice to womens’ films was done when the new Upstairs Downstairs was cancelled because the standard for ratings is not just very high, but there is a strong prejudice against women’s aesthetics and norms.
I’ve watched only the first two episodes of the six of the second season but since I’m trying to keep this blog as a concise survey, this helps my purpose as I’ve seen enough to recognize the high quality of the second season. It takes much further the characteristics of the first and moves away from the original 40 year old show altogether. First by unhappy chance Jean Marsh (Rose Buck) had a real heart attack and had to remove herself from the series, and with her removal, Atkins decided to go too. No longer are we remembering 40 years ago.
In the first episode of the second season the attitude of mind is seriously anti-war at the same time as all justice is done to a critique of why Chamberlain gave in. It’s done through having the central character (Keeley Hawes, very good — she is the core of the two hours), having her baby and having two young children; plus in the house they have a Downs Syndrome young woman brought in as a half-sister. They really did hire a Downs Syndrome girl – the way on Breaking Bad the son was a disabled actor. Alex Kingston joins the cast as a half-sister of Atkins (replacing her as an older woman in the house). The thematic center is a justification of conscientious objection (though the story of the new butler who turns out to have been a conscientious objector in WW10 which offers a juxtaposing perspective on the critique of Chamberlain (against war as war). Tragically the monkey left to the protection of Amanjit Singh (Art Malik) is killed because people have been so frightened by the propaganda about chemical warfare (a footman uses the poor animal as a guinea pig).
The second episode takes us into Hitler Germany’s betrayal of the peace pact, the story of an attempt to rescue German Jewish children, again features the Nazi leanings of the aristocracy and Duke of Kent (Blake Ritson plays the part) and brings back Claire Foy (Lady Percy) as disaffected, rootless, exploitative of servants, who I can see is nonetheless going to be a bitter tragic figure. This time the cook-housekeeper Mrs Thackeray (Anne Reid) attempts to re-join her family and finds as an older woman she is obsolete, not wanted, will be taken advantage of, and returns to her job for independence and appreciation of her art.
There is a feast of films made by women, dealing intelligently with women’s issues, endorsing their lives, using a woman’s aesthetic available this summer. Don’t miss them. For myself later tonight I’ll be watching the third episode of the second season of the 2012 Upstairs Downstairs.