Category Archives: Movies

My 16-year-old self: Here to tell you all about the gender roles in Rosemary’s Baby


I was going through some stuff in my flat the other day, and I found a folder of assignments from my high school English class. One of them was an essay that we had been assigned to do on the novel Rosemary’s Baby which we had read in class. We were free to pick our own angle on the novel, and I had decided to go with the subject of the gender roles displayed in the novel. 

Pop culture, gender roles and all, it reads sort of like a blog entry from a time when I had no idea what a blog was and had only just discovered the internet (which I mainly used to surf fan sites about David Duchovny. They were almost exclusively set in Times New Roman or Comic Sans and they had lots of clip art and pixelled animation and glitter. Oh, the nineties!).  So I thought it would be fun to publish it here on the blog for you guys to see.

I should warn you, however, that it is in no way a groundbreaking, let alone good, piece of writing. It’s a perfectly average high school essay. English is not my first language and was even less so at the time, and I use the word “very” about 1.003 times, being the eloquent, versatile, sexy 16-year-old that I was.

 I actually got an A, though, if anyone’s interested. I also remember that my teacher also told me to read it aloud to the rest of the class, which I willingly, proudly did. Unrelated: I had very few dates in high school. This was a cause of much distress to me at the time, although it did leave me with much more time to go through David Duchovny fan sites online.

My English teacher was really awesome though, and in addition to my essay I will include a note she wrote in comment to some very naïve statements I made in the essay about the equalization of the sexes, setting me straight.

Here we go:

Rosemary’s Baby

by Marie [Mylastname], grade 2.c

As I read Rosemary’s Baby, I found that apart from being a horror story about Satanism and witchcraft, Rosemary’s Baby deals with gender roles and the liberation of women. This aspect of the story is very important, I think. It creates an image of the time in which it was written and takes place. It is of course up to the individual reader how much he [or she, gender-aware Marie of 1999! OR SHE!] wants to focuse [SIC] on this, but I do think that the gender roles play a crucial part in the story.

The gender roles in Rosemary’s Baby are terribly traditional. Rosemary is the sweet and sensitive hausfrau while Guy is the strong, rational man who goes to work in order to provide for his wife and family. Rosemary is also a very emotional person in comparison to the more cynical Guy. This is made clear by the fact that Rosemary – in her heart – is a Catholic and that Guy is an agnostic. But the traditional gender roles also have their effect on Guy and Rosemary’s every-day life. An example of this is the scene in which Rosemary and Guy are introduced to the Bramford:

‘It’s a marvelous apartment!’ Rosemary said back in the living-room. She spun about with opened arms as if to embrace it. ‘I love it!’
‘What’s she’s trying to do,’ Guy said ‘is to get you to lower the rent’.

Apart from acting in this little girl like manner, Rosemary also lives up to the old-fashioned ideal of a woman by being remarkably dependent on Guy, both financially, because she needs Guy’s income,  and emotionally. She does get angry with Guy, but she never really stands up to him and tells him what she wants. During Guy’s preoccupied phases, Rosemary has to wait for Guy to apologize. Even when Guy claims to have taken advantage of Rosemary’s unconscious body, she does not manage to tell him how she feels about it.

Rosemary tends to use her vulnerability and femininity when wanting to get her way. This is very obvious as Guy declines the Castevets’ dinner invitation:

‘You don’t have to sulk about it, he said.
‘I’m not sulking’, Rosemary said. ‘I see exactly what you mean. (…).’
‘Oh hell.’ Guy said. ‘We’ll go.’
‘No, no, what for? We don’t have to. I shopped for dinner before she came so *that*’s no problem.’
‘We’ll go.’ Guy said.

If these traditional gender roles had continued all through the story, I would have been on the verge of stating that Levin was simply an old-fashioned sexist, but when reading the last chapters of the book I found that the roles changed. Rosemary appears to be strong and independent while Guy is weak and insecure. Actuallay the last chapters make you understand that Guy was never the strong one in the relationship. Guy is willing to sell his own wife for a good acting career, and after having done this, he is not even able to stand up for himself. This is particularly clear as Rosemary enters the Castevets’ apartment in search of her baby:

He stood looking down at her, his hands rubbing his sides. ‘They promised me you wouldn’t be hurt’, he said. ‘And you haven’t been, really. I mean, suppose you’d had a baby and lost it, wouldn’t it be the same? And we’re getting so much in return, Ro.’
She put her handkerchief on the table and looked at him. As hard as she could she spat at him. He flushed and turned away, wiping at the front of his jacket.”

I think that it is very important for us to consider this apparent change, because I believe that this indicates that Levin has an idea with letting the gender roles of his character appear to be as traditional as they do.

The fact that Rosemary develops during the story supports this theory  Rosemary seems from the beginning and right up to the point where she figures out that Guy is somehow involved with the Satantists’ cult to be very much in love with Guy. It is actually her love for an loyalty to her husband which leads to the disaster – the fact that she is impregnated with Satan’s child. The one time we sense that Rosemary actually wants to be come an individual person is when she is by herself in Hutch’s cabin. Here she seems to allow herself to get a little angry with Guy:

On the third day she thought about him. He was vain, self-centered, shallow, and deceitful. He had married her to have an audience, not a mate. (Little Miss Just-out-of-Omaha, what a *goop* she had been!)

Shortly after, however, she gives up all thoughts of rebellion and elides to go home to Guy. By going home to go on as if nothing has happened, she accepts Guy’s alleged abuse of her body and by this, one might argue, she resigns to Guy and gives up her independence. As a result of such a resignation something awful is bound to happen.

The fact that something awful does happen, and how awful it actually is, is another side of the story, which I will not try to define nor explain here. However, it is remarkable that Rosemary, as soon as she learns that Guy is involved in the conspiracy, leaves him. At this point in the story, one experiences for the first time, that Rosemary is a strong person. She realizes that she needs to take care of herself in order to save herself and her baby. Eventually, however, Rosemary is forced to acknowledge the fact that she is too late – she is trapped, because she cannot leave her own son in the lurch.

I think that the liberation of women is one of Levin’s points with Rosemary’s Baby. That it is a main point is arguable, but I do believe that Levin has meant to discuss the old-fashioned woman’s situation with this story. How dependent should she allow herself to become in her marriage? What might the consequences be? These questions were indeed relevant in the sixties when this story was written and takes place, because the liberation of women was just about to begin at the time (1). Is it still relevant, one might ask, today, when the equalization of the sexes is almost total (2). I think it is. The gender roles in Rosemary’s Baby are probably a little too antiquated for us to identity with, but I do think that we an still learn from this  thriller story. I think that as long as we live in a society with even the slightest possibility of discrimination, we need to be reminded of the consequences of resignation, however bizarre they may be.”

(1) The struggle of the sexes and the process had been going on for a hundred years then – but the sixties saw the birth of the feminist movement.

(2) I wish you were right [about the equalization of the sexes being almost total] – but I’m afraid there is still a long way to go – I remember a heated discussion in a Scottish youth hostel with my best friend in 1962: She said that men and women were equal now, I said they were not. She learned her lesson later!

“It happened to someone who knows someone you know…You’re next” – Reviewing Urban Legend (1998)

I recently watched the 1998 horror movie Urban Legend. I don’t know what took me so long – I’ve been wanting to see it for a long time. I can actually remember the poster hanging on the wall of my high school cafeteria back when the movie was still in the theatres, or had just come out on VHS or whatever, and being intrigued by it. It’s not that I ever thought the movie looked particularly good, but as I’ve mentioned before I always loved urban legends, so I thought a horror movie based on the subject must be pretty interesting.

After having actually watched Urban Legend the idea of basing a horror flick on urban legend remains the best thing about the flick which, sadly, is not really all that well executed. Probably inspired by the wave of teen horror/thriller flicks that swept the world in the late ’90s (Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer), the movie focuses on a group of college kids at the fictional college Stanley Halls. The kids grow increasingly concerned as it seems a killer is on the loose on campus, killing college students, basing his murders on famous urban legends.

“Turn around, bright eyes”
Like I said, I really like that idea. Our culture has so many great gory legends, they seem to be almost begging to be filmed. And while the college setting was probably chosen chiefly because the movie was to be marketed to teenagers, I also like it that the urban legend horror flick is set in a dormitory milieu. Not only does the college campus serve as the frame of many a popular urban legend (like “Aren’t You Glad You Didn’t Turn on the Lights“, which is actually featured in the movie, and the “Our College Has No Virginal Women” one), college dorms also seem plausible as a setting for urban legends to get spread around.

The movie also has a compelling opening scene: A lovely co-ed is driving home one stormy night as she runs out of gas. She stops at a gas station but is unnerved by the creepy looking gas station attendant who happens to have a weird stutter. As he asks her to step out of the car and urges her follow into a locked garage, she freaks out and maces him, rushes to her car and drives off. Alas, as it turns out the poor attendant was only trying to warn her about a stranger hiding in her backseat. Once she’s back on the road, said stranger emerges, killing the girl with an axe. The plot will sound familiar to most people, and the movie pays great hommage to this famous legend, building up the suspense slowly. In a particularly nice move on the director’s part, the girl is listening to “Total Eclipse of the Heart” in her car, featuring the repeated lyrics “Turn around… turn around, bright eyes”, which I find to be a fun, and not too obvious piece of foreshadowing.

I actually think that most of the murder scenes of the movie are pretty effective. It’s simply a thrill to see these familiar old tales acted out, and the “Scratching Noise on the Car Roof” is very nicely done and quite scary, as is the movie’s rendition of the Flashing Headlights tale.

Hey! It’s that Guy!
The piecing together of these scenes into a movie plot with real, fleshed-out characters, however, goes down less smoothly. Urban legend characters are traditionally vaguely defined archtypes who don’t need any real introduction: The Babysitter, The Killer, The Ignorant Tourist etc. Since the urban legend-teller will usually insist that these are people he knows or at least knows of, we will usually be able to relate to the characters even if we know very little about them. This aspect is of course lost in a movie, where we’re constantly aware that we’re watching a piece of fiction played out by actors. So an urban legend movie is  dependant on our being able to identify with the characters on screen, and this is a huge problem in Urban Legend. The casting consists almost entirely of secondary actors from 1990s tv-shows. Between Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, Toni from 90210, Gersten from Twin Peaks, and Jordan from My So Called Life the H!ITG-factor  gets kind of distracting, and none of the actors really have the presence required for the big screen. I suppose Tara Reid is the one household name among the cast, having starred in a Coen brothers film, but she hardly stands a chance at carrying the movie by herself. The actors also aren’t given much help from the director, Jamie Blanks, who fails to guide his audience sufficiently in the exposition of the film. It took me forever to even figure out who the protagonist was supposed to be, and I never felt that I got to know the characters well enough to actually care about them. I suppose part of this is due to Blanks wishing to keep his audience guessing – will one of the main characters turn out to be the murderer? – but it is ultimately disruptive as it prevents the viewer from truly identifying with anyone.

Coincidence and plot holes
And speaking of the whodunnit aspect of the movie, the big revelation falls somewhat flat. For a while it seemed that the killer would be revealed to be some kind of supernatural power, like a vengeful ghost, and I liked that idea: There is something ghostly in the repetitive, ephemeral nature of folklore. But then the plot took a turn that revealed the murderer to be alive and kicking. And not only is this twist not very interesting, it also reveals a motherload of plot holes in the story.

The thing is that urban legend deaths usually depend on a series of outrageous coincidents – indeed Snopes has an entire section devoted to freak deaths. The killings portrayed in Urban Legend are no exceptions: There is really no way a person could plan something like a reenactment of the Killer in the Backseat, for example. Even if one could plan for the victim’s car to run out of gas in a precise spot, how would one plan for the gas station attendant to have a speech impediment that keeps him from warning the victim? And even if one could plan that how would one plan for him not to have the presence of mind to write down his warning once his voice failed him? Etc. etc. This breaking down of the story perhaps seems nitpicky, but my point is that the plot holes could have easily been avoided: If the director and the writers had allowed for a supernatural explanation of the events, the prosaic planning of the killings would have been irrelevant.

Pop rocks, rollercoasters and remakes
And that’s  my general point with this review of Urban Legend. I know it must seem like a bit of a cheap shot for me to be dissing a b-rated horror/slasher movie from 1998 the director of which did not go on to enjoy a glorious career. But I wanted to review it because I do think that the movie showed some great potential and presented an interesting idea for a horror flick. The writers certainly knew their folklore, and the filmmakers had a fun, meta approach to the subject. In some of the movie’s more succesful scenes, urban legends are casually worked into conversation, thus demonstrating how great a power folklore has over our conceptions of reality: A college professor dares a student to consume the alleged fatal combination of soda and pop rocks, and a guy tries to get our protagonist’s attention by telling her that a woman was killed during the recording of The Ohio Players’ “Love Rollercoaster”. It’s funny and relatable and again; urban legends will never not be fascinating as a subject.

So, while I normally detest the whole “re-make” craze going on in Hollywood these days, maybe it’s time for a re-make of Urban Legend?

I would go see it. And were I to go to the movies by car, I would probably check the backseat twice before closing the car door. So obviously the 1998 movie has managed to do a few things right.

The Mediocre Dancer – Reviewing Fish Tank (2009)

I recently watched Fish Tank. Just about three years later than everyone else, I know, but better late than never. And I’m glad I did finally get around to it because, my God, what an amazing film.

Some have called it a coming-of-age film, but to me that seems much too dramatic and maybe also too conventional for what Fish Tank is. The film only covers a very short period of time in the life of a 15-year-old girl, Mia, who lives in the ghettoish East London council estate with her mother and her younger sister. Mia is an aggressive, unruly girl who has recently been expelled from her school. Prone to violent behaviour and bursts of anger, she has alienated her friends and is now drifting about by herself, waiting for the system to send her off to a special school. Her sole passion is funk dancing, which she practises in an derelict flat in the estate. Her life changes, however, upon the arrival of a new man into her mother’s life: Handsome and charismatic Connor (Michael Fassbender). Connor takes the family on outings and seems genuinely interested in Mia’s thoughts and feelings, and a certain bond start to form between the two.

A lot of movies boasts their ability to cover several genres. Fish tank refreshingly and minimalistically sticks to just one genre, social realism, and it handles it beautiful and with a sure grasp of the genre’s purpose. ‘Realism’ is really the key word here – director Andrea Arnold stays 100% on track throughout the movie and doesn’t allow her movie to overdramatize or sentimentalise her subject matter which is the conditions of a teenage girl growing up in a ghetto-like environment with few or no role models to look up to and bleak prospects. Strictly realistic, the movie doesn’t offer any magic solutions to Mia’s prospects and, sympathetically, it doesn’t demand that Mia be an extraordinary person.

I’ve heard people compare Fish Tank to Precious, and this irritates me. I didn’t like Precious much, exactly because I really disagree with its point of departure: The fact that Precious is allowed to move upwards in life because she happens to be unusually gifted at math. I strongly disagree with the idea that a person is only interesting if he or she has a special talent. Talent is overrated in our culture, if you ask me. Not everyone has one, and not everyone is supposed to, and you should be able to feel that you are worth something even if you are not talented in the least. Which is why I found it so refreshing that Mia is not shown to be a particularly gifted dancer. She is good, considering how limited her access to any formal training is (Mia learns her moves from watching hip hop videos on youtube at an internet café), but she’s not phenomenal. Commenters on IMDB are complaining that she isn’t better, and they’re missing the point, I think. The point is, to me, that Mia likes to dance, just like you and I might like to play the guitar or write a blog. It doesn’t mean that she’s necessarily brilliant at it, it just means that she’s a person, and she likes something. She seems to like the world for a brief moment when she’s dancing. Sadly, that world has little to offer her, and as the movie shows, her dancing isn’t likely to form any fantastic pathway for her out of her council estate existence.

It does seem that way for a short while, as Connor enters Mia’s life. Playing the part of kind of make-shift father to Mia and her sister one would be happy to cast him as Mia’s mentor who will help her believe in herself and inspire her to pursue dancing. And maybe this would have been possible if it weren’t for the sexual tension between Mia and Connor which is there from the very beginning and which interferes with any potential cute father-daughter relationship between the two. Connor is attracted to Mia, she is crushing hopelessly on him, and he acts on it. But here again, Arnold doesn’t take the easy way out: Connor is not the perfect father figure, but he doesn’t fit into the category of a monster either. In Roger Ebert’s review he says, “Some reviews call Connor a pedophile. I think he’s more of an immoral opportunist.”. I’m not even sure that I would go as far as that. In Fassbender’s excellent portrayal, Connor becomes fallible in an incredibly human way. One scene has Connor aggressively wooing Mia by making vulgar, petty remarks about Mia’s boyfriend Billy. In another scene he is, however, tenderly stroking her hair or helping Mia practise her dance routine. And through her unmistakably feminine lense, Andrea Arnold allows us to enjoy Fassbender’s stunning good looks in numerous scenes that has the actor walk around half-naked, thus ensuring that even if we’re not charmed by the more benign sides of Connor’s personality, we will at least be enamoured by his enticing physical appearance.

The story offers little hints of a potential horror underlining Mia’s life and her choices. For a chilling moment towards the ending, I found myself on the edge of my seat, thinking that the story was going to turn into a horrific Boy A type scenario (it didn’t), and the cinematography and dramaturgy of this particular nervewracking scene is drawn so skillfully and tastefully that it never disrupts the social realism of the story. The imagery of the movie’s horror lies within the world that is Mia’s: In the troubled water rushing to the shore of a near-by beach, in the mean grins of a group of bullies attacking our protagonist. Likewise, Arnold explores the beauty of the estate council without romanticising it, framing beautiful shots of stormy summer skies above concrete buildings or a white horse chained to a fence. The movie even has its humorous elements, too, mostly via Mia’s foulmouthed younger sister Tyler (pricelessly played by Rebecca Griffiths).

If it sounds like Fish Tank is a dull movie that fails to make any actual statement, positive or negative, then it’s my fault and certainly not the movie’s. It is exactly Fish Tank’s ability to not spell anything out for its audience that makes it into such a powerful film. When one reaches the ending of Fish Tank one is sure of nothing other than the fact that whatever happens to Mia, there will be no easy solutions in store for her. And that this is exactly why she deserves our attention.

Feminist Frequency, the 2012 Oscars, and The Bechdel Test

Just in time for the Oscars, here’s Feminist Frequency‘s excellent video putting  the 2011 Oscar “Best Picture” nominees to the Bechdel Test.

Thought-provoking stuff and a must-see for anyone with an interest in modern cinema. I think it’s a problem for all of us – feminists or non-femininsts – that 50% of the population is still so badly represented in our cinematography. And I really like the FemFreq’s added 60-second appendum to the original test.

I would also like to add that Melancholia would have passed the test. If it had been nominated for best picture. Which it isn’t. Which is a travesty. Melancholia was, hands down, the most amazing, devastating, brilliant film I saw all year.

We’ll Take a Cup o’ Kindness Yet, for Auld Lang Syne

It’s New Year’s Eve, and the fireworks are going crazy outside my window while people are partying all over the city. I’m at home alone in bed, shivering and wrapped in a blanket while nibbling at a new year’s feast consisting of dry little crackers – the first thing I’ve been able to eat all day, because I have apparently caught some kind of stomach bug. (I know! Sometimes it’s scary how glamorous and exciting my life is. Try not to get too jealous.).

I hope you guys are having a much more festive evening and that you will have a wonderful new year. I want to thank you for reading along and commenting in the year that has passed. Blog-wise, 2011 was the year that I got quite a lot more readers and commenters (I have an average of about 100 more readers now than I did by the end of 2010), and I find this truly humbling. According to my stats surprisingly large number of you were readers stopping by to read my post about 1990s sitcom Blossom, but a lot of you also hung around and left me inspiring and insightful comments, especially on my posts from 2007 and 2010 about the tableau vivant in literature and about the character of Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto. Some of you I still owe an answer to your comments. I apologise for this – I will get to it ASAP, and I hope you know that your comments are deeply appreciated. You guys make it worth the effort to sit down in front of the keyboard after a long day of hard work.

As a token of my gratitude and a New Year’s present, I thought of sharing with you the insanely adorable video from Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt – “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve“, but I’m sure you’ve already seen that on a gazillion other blogs, no? Plus, the lyrics

“Who’s gonna be the one to hold you tight/when it’s exactly 12 o’clock at night?”

are making me a little verklempt in my bedridden, lonely state. So instead I’d like to end the year 2011 with the melancholy Farewell Waltz from Waterloo Bridge – “For Auld Lang Syne”. With the risk of tooting my own horn, I have to say that my post about this 1940 movie was a favourite of mine on the blog this year, and seeing the movie was one of my best film experiences of 2011, so it seems appropriate.

“What did you say?” – Reviewing Lantana (2001)

Last month I had my first commissioned assignment ever on this blog! And All Suns Are Darkened sent me a dvd with the 2001  Australian movie “Lantana”, asking me to do a review of it on the blog. I am so honoured that this excellent blogger would be interested in my opinion, and I am really sorry that it has taken me this long to write the review. As I’ve already hinted at, I’ve just been incredibly busy lately, and I didn’t want to do end up doing an inferior job of the review. But enough of my excuses, on with the review.

Lantana is directed by Ray Lawrence, and I knew absolutely nothing about it before I sat down to watch the dvd. The film did, however, affect me deeply, and I was sucked into the movie right from the first phrames of the film which showed the body of a woman lying in a lantana bush. It’s the classic way to open a crime story, but Lantana isn’t that, or not just that, it’s more of a love story about the things that unfold when evidence takes the place of testimony.

Still from "Lantana"

The film, most of which is composed as a flashback showing us the events leading up to the body being found in the bush, introduces a handful of characters that are all more or less directly linked to the woman’s body. Anthony LaPaglia plays police officer, Leon, whose marriage is crumbling. Leon is having an affair with Jane, a recently separated woman (played by Rachael Blake) while Leon’s wife Sonja is secretly consulting a therapist about her worries that she is losing Leon. The therapist, Valerie (Barbara Hershey), is having problems of her own: The book she has just written about the loss of her 11-year-old daughter Eleanor has failed to give her the release she desperately needs, and the grief is tearing Valerie and her husband John (Geoffrey Rush) apart. Troubled by the thought that John may be leaving her, Valerie finds herself threatened by the cynical persepectives of a client, Patrick, who is having an affair with a married man and blames his lover’s wife for her denial. In the middle of all this is Jane’s next-door neighbour unemployed Nik and his wife Paula, parents of three young children and struggling to pay the bills, but happily married. One night, Jane sees Nik toss a woman’s shoe into a bush…

Something gets broken
Is there really any way a man could throw a woman’s shoe into some bushes late at night without it being a sign of some awful crime having been comitted? Suspicion versus redeeming trust is at the core of the movie, and mistrust is an essential problem in almost all of the relationships in the movie. Valerie says as much in her speech at her book launching:

We don’t know what’s right or right or wrong anymore. (…) We ask, what can we believe in, what should be we believe in? Our politicians? Hardly. Our priests? You’d be amazed at how many of my clients come to see me because they once believed in priests. It’s not supposed to be that way, but it is. What then, our parents? Our home is our sanctuary. For a privileged few. For most it’s a battle ground. It’s not supposed to be that way, but it is.”

Geoffrey Rush’s character John confirms as much in a pivotal scene in which he and Leon discuss their respective marriages:

“Have you ever cheated on your wife? (…) Well, you’re a better man than I am. (…) There was someone once. A woman. Once that’s happened you’re never entirely believed again. Something gets broken, permanently – trust, I suppose. When that’s happened anything’s possible it woud seem.”

But what I like the best about the movie is that John is actually – subtly – proven wrong. In Lantana it’s not the mistrust itself that seems to be the most damaging, it’s the failure to communicate that lack of trust, and the scenes that deal with these breaches of communication are what really makes the movie stand out to me. Ray Lawrence has something truly original at heart here, I think. One amazing scene has a frantic Valerie standing at the side of a road, talking into a payphone to her husband’s answering machine. She’s asking John to come pick her up and telling him that she needs him, but the message gets muddled by a not-quite-articulated suspicion:

“I’m on the back road, and… I just wanted to get home. (…) I called road service, they said there were going to be a 90-minute wait. Where are you? You didn’t say you were going to be late. I can’t stand this! Please… Please, I need you. (…) John? There’s a man… Patrick. He’s a client and he’s… he’s gay. I don’t understand this, I don’t understand us… anymore. I don’t want this to be happening to us.”

The message goes unanswered by her husband – with disastrous results. And this is far from the only scene in the movie where communication goes horribly wrong. Sonja wisely makes the point during a therapy session that Leon cheating wouldn’t be a problem in itself, but him cheating and not telling her would be, and after being deeply upset by her client Patrick and not voicing her anger to him, Valerie has a miserable non-conversation with a random stranger (Pete – Jane’s husband) whom she happens to pass in the street:

Pete silently passes Valerie in the street
Valerie: What did you say?
Pete: What?
Valerie: You said something to me.
Pete: No, I didn’t.
Valerie: Yes, you did!
Pete: I didn’t.
Valerie (to a bystander): You heard him, didn’t you?! He said something!
Pete: This is bullshit…
Valerie: Bullshit? I want your name.
Pete starts walking away
Valerie: Give me your name! Your name!

And this scene mirrors another scene which, to me was the most powerful scene of the entire movie, and to which I wouldn’t do justice by quoting it here as it doesn’t actually have much dialogue: Jogging in his neighbourhood, Leon bumps into a stranger in the sidewalking while turning a corner without looking. The collision causes him to accidentally headbutt the stranger. This leaves Leon with a massive blow to the head and it seemingly breaks the stranger’s nose. Blood everywhere, Leon starts shouting abuse at the stranger, blaming him for the accident. The stranger cowers and starts stuttering away. Leon then sees the stranger’s groceries lying on the street, he picks them up and follows him, trying to make amends. The stranger breaks down sobbing in a startled Leon’s arms.

It’s really one of the most powerful scenes I’ve seen in a long time in any movie, and it actually had my crying. Not so much because of the blood and the implied physical injury (although this was certainly graphic enough! So much blood.), but because of the implied psychological impact: The shock, the misdirected aggression, the hurt, the emotional response – and the short glimpse of compassion between two people. If misunderstandings and mistrust are inevitable between people, then it’s at least possible for us to make amends by genuinely communication with each other, so the movie seems to say.

Ray Lawrence and the “Short Cutspremise
The actors’ performances are excellent all around, and the art direction is brilliant as well. The opening shot of the film – zooming in through the pretty surface of a beautiful, blooming lantana bush, uncovering a bloody corpse lying between the tangled, dark branches while insects are buzzing – is iconic and reminded me somewhat of some of the nature morte-ish shots from Peter Weir’s excellent Picnic at Hanging Rock. It sets the movie’s tone of merciless scrutiny which is balanced by the aforementioned subtle sense of hope in the interacting between the characters.

I’ll admit that I was a bit worried when I first realized that the various’ character stories were all going to be intertwined somehow. I loved that premise in Short Cuts, but so many directors have tried to pull it off since and failed (most notably the clumsy and pretentious Playing by Heart). However, Lantana does this really well, especially because Lawrence actually manages to use it in quite a clever way: Several times I was fooled by this premise into suspecting that there was going to be a connection between two stories that turned out not to have a connection at all. An ingenious way to demonstrate the theme of suspicion and misunderstanding even in the narrative level of the movie.

And All Suns are Darkened did a review of the movie in his Top 5 of Australian movies himself – read it here.

C’est la guerre – Waterloo Bridge (1940)

I’ve been in bed for three days with a cold. After two days I badly needed something to pass the time. I called my father who recommended the 1940 movie Waterloo Bridge starring Robert Taylor and Vivien Leigh.

Despite being, so I like to think, at least somewhat well-versed within the movie classics, I’d never even heard of this movie before, which really got me thinking about how arbitrary it is that some movies continue to be thought of as classics, while others sink into oblivion. Waterloo Bridge certainly deserves status as a classic as much as, say, Casablanca does, if you ask me. I expected an old-fashioned romantic movie, but I got a lot more than that.

Air-raid romance
Not that the romantic story of the movie isn’t fulfilling in and of itself – it is. It’s the story of Captain Roy Cronin (Robert Taylor) and ballerina Myra (Vivian Leigh), a young couple who have a chance encounter on Waterloo Bridge around the time of the on-set of World War I during an air-raid. After having spent some time together seeking shelter in the underground for the duration of the raid, the two are sad to part, and Roy goes to see Myra in her ballet company’s production of Swan Lake, taking her out afterwards. The two fall in love and Roy, destined to leave for France two days later, proposes the next day that they marry right away. Myra accepts, but before the two can be wed, Roy is given order to leave a day earlier than expected.

Courtship in wartime: Myra and Roy during the air raid

Taylor is dashing and Leigh displays a wonderfully sweet mien that will surprise anyone who associates her chiefly with the proud and capricious Scarlett O’Hara, and the two have great chemistry. Director Mervyn LeRoy has wisely chosen to let their quick attraction towards one another be shown through clever dialogue, which always seems more convincing and less forced to me than the lingering gazes movie directors sometimes resort to when depicting love at first sight. You really believe that these two people feel singularly comfortable with each other right away. The dialogue allows us to get to know the two main characters and the two characters to get to know each other:

Myra: What was it that you started to tell me in the restaurant that you didn’t understand about me?

Roy: No use getting into it now…

Myra: No, but tell me, please, I’d like to know.

Roy: Well, it struck me as curious ever since I met you… that you’re so young and so lovely and so… defeatist, you know? You don’t seem to expect much from life.

Myra: Well, aren’t I right? For instance, I met you. I liked you. And now so soon we have to part – perhaps we’ll never see each other again.

Waterloo Bridge as a “womance”
Myra is late for a ballet performance as she has to rush to the station to say goodbye to her war-bound fiancé, and for this misdemeanor she is excluded from the company by the strict manager Madame Kirowa. Myra’s best friend Kitty (Virginia Field) steps into character here as she stands up to Madame Kirowa trying to explain the urgent nature of Myra’s errand that night – and is thrown out along with Myra. This marks the beginning of the second half of the movie which is what really makes the movie stand out to me.

Because apart from being a romantic drama about boy meets girl, the movie is actually also a bit of a womance – the story of loving friendship between women. Kitty and Myra seem to be depicted deliberately as opposites: Brunette Myra is demure and meek, while blonde Kitty has a fiesty, outspoken temperament. Yet the two remain close and loyal  friends to each other, and after Roy has left to fight in the war, they move in together in a humble flat trying to make a living as dancers. The war leaves very few job opportunities for two young women ballet dancers, and as Myra is led mistakingly by a note in the newspaper that Roy has been killed, she sinks into depression and illness, leaving Kitty to desperately trying to support the both of them.

Sisterhood: Kitty and Myra

Kitty lies and tells Myra that she has got a job in a dance theatre production, but Myra catches her in the deception and confronts her. This leads to the most tremendously moving scene of the film:

Myra: Where is the money coming from? Where are you getting it?

Kitty: Where do you think I’ve been getting it?! …I tried to keep it from you, but… Well, you know now.

Myra: (sits down shakily) You did it for me.

Kitty: No, I didn’t! I’d have done it anyhow! C’est la guerre: No jobs. No boys who want to marry you. Only men who want to kill a few hours because they know it may be their last…

Myra: Kitty, you did it for me, to buy me food and medicine. I’d sooner have died…

Kitty: No no, you wouldn’t. You think you would, but you wouldn’t! I thought of that. But I wasn’t brave enough. I wanted to go on living. Heaven knows why, but I did, and so would you. We’re young, and it’s good to live! Even the life *I*’m leading, though God knows, it’s… I’ve heard them call it ‘the easiest way’. I wonder whoever came up with that little phrase. I know one thing: It couldn’t have been a woman. I suppose you think I’m dirt…

Myra: Oh, Kitty. (embracing her)

My quoting the scene doesn’t really do justice to it. The direction is absolutely ingenious here. The dialogue balances just on the verge of becoming an argument, and you think it will, but then it doesn’t, and it ends in an embrace. The feeling of solidarity between women that you sense in this scene is all the more important because of the subject matter, and it is also echoed significantly in Myra’s interaction with her mother-in-law Lady Margaret (a superb Lucile Watson) as the two share a scene of great compassion towards the ending of the movie when Myra is in a desperate state.

“If I were only casting the white swan…”
And the movie goes even further with that solidarity. Rather than letting Kitty play the part of the whore opposite Myra’s virtuous Madonna (like Kim and Amanda in the 2008 flick Taken which I recently reviewed), Myra, too, descends into prostitution in the aftermath of this scene. Kitty is right: Myra really does want to live, and there’s only one way to do that in their situation and it’s not the Madonna way. Surely it’s significant that Roy sees Myra dancing Swan Lake of all ballets. More than half a century before Black Swan, this movie explores the interesting duality that lies implicitly in the title character of the Tchaikovsky ballet – the white and the black swan embodied by one dancer.

In this movie, produced during the trying times of World War II, the theme is not, as in the Aronofsky movie, the destructive fulfilment of true art, but the hardships of women left behind as their men go off to the trenches. The reference, though kept very subtle, is most apparent in the heartbreaking scene,  beautifully played by Leigh, when Roy returns as a war hero and is overjoyed to find an astonished Myra there to receive him at the train station. He remains oblivious to the tragically ironic fact that she was really there to pick up customers . Once a white-clad ballerina, Myra is now wearing dark dress and a pitch-black hat. “It is you, isn’t it? It’s really you” Roy says, embracing her – as the swan theme from the Tchaikovsky ballet is struck up mournfully by the  orchestra in the soundtrack.

Metamorphosis. Left: Myra at the beginning of the story clad in white tutu as a bashful ballerina. Right: Myra as a prostitute in dark dress on the train station as Roy returns

Roy’s question goes unanswered by Myra who simply bursts into tears. This puzzles Roy – “This is a happy ending!”, he insists. In Mervin LeRoy’s directing, the returning war hero is optimistic and triumphant. But for the ones who have been left behind there is little triumph, the movie seems to say, and they have good reason to be, well, defeatist. For Myra and Kitty the war has been a humiliating defeat to the black-feathered side to them that has had to take over in order for them to go on living, and the home-coming of Roy assigns to Myra the impossible task of having to be the lily-white maiden that her war hero expects to find waiting for him.

Oh, ye’ll take the high road, and I’ll take the low road
The ending of the movie is concerned with the question of whether Myra will tell Roy what’s happened to her and whether Roy will be willing to accept and love Myra for what she is now. This makes for a satisfying ending to the romantic storyline, but it isn’t an urgent question. We have already been led to accept Myra and love her. I really like that, and I’m impressed that a movie from this era of partriachy, and directed by a man at that, got such a message through. I’m sure that the movie was marketed in part as an exploitation film because of its scandalous subject matter, but the prostitution storyline hardly gets an exploitation-like vulgar feel to it at any point in the actual movie.

Finally, the film has a very good soundtrack. Apart from introducing a fetching original love theme and, as mentioned above, remnants of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, the orchestral score includes fragments of Scottish sentimental ballads such as “For Auld Lang Syne“, and “The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond”, thus emphasizing discretely and effectively the themes of Myra’s metamorphosis, scottish-born Roy’s somewhat nostalgic approach to the world, as well as the moving story of affection and loss between two lovers.