The French Lieutenant's Person
Karel Reisz, an anglicized Czechoslovak, is one of the world’s most accomplished film directors. His Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Morgan are considered central works in the 60′s renaissance of British cinema. John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman has won that most enviable combination for an ambitious novel: serious esteem from critics and over a year on the New York Times best-seller list. Meryl Streep has attained an even more luminous position among this country’s film actresses. The darling of critics since her years at the Yale Drama School and a sparkling season or so on the New York stage, she got off to a fast start in the movies in Michael Cimino’s The Deerhunter (assisted by a leading role in television’s Holocaust), and three films later co-starred with Dustin Hoffman in Kramer vs. Kramer, 1980′s second-biggest box-office success, for which she won an Academy Award. Bonuses were cover stories in both Newsweek (“A Star for the 80′s”) and now Time (“Magic Meryl”). And Harold Pinter, author of the screenplay of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, is Harold Pinter. So this new movie is positively bristling with prestige credits.
It has another particularity. Neither John Fowles nor Harold Pinter has up to this point been known as an ardent feminist. Fowles’s first novel, The Collector, in fact, is about an English football-pool winner who uses his newfound wealth and leisure to abduct an attractive woman, tie her up in a secluded place, and keep her tied up for much of the book—not exactly a fantasy of your average ERA supporter. Over much of Pinter’s work there hangs a faint whiff of misogyny, although this is perhaps only an aspect of his rather dark view of human character in general. Meryl Streep, on the other hand, is a proclaimed feminist. She is known to have extensively rewritten her own final courtroom speech in Kramer vs. Kramer to give “the woman’s point of view,” and her success was such as to send millions of women out of the film with a virtuous glow. These days it is often the star of a movie who has the final word on the shooting script, but in The French Lieutenant’s Woman Meryl Streep, said to be highly contentious, was mixing it up with some formidable figures. A rather heterogeneous group, you will say. Hard to know how they will sort it out. Let us see what they have wrought.
The scene is mid-19th-century Lyme Regis, a beautiful, small resort town in Devon on the English Channel. Before the credits roll, we see an actress in period costume (Meryl Streep) sitting at the foot of a great stone jetty which juts out into the sea. “Everybody ready?” a voice calls. Meryl Streep nods and starts to rise and a man with a clapperboard cries, “Shot 32. Take 2,” and bangs the clapper together. So this is a movie about people making a movie. Yet we do not proceed directly to the scene played by Meryl Streep but, under the credits, wander through Lyme Regis in 1867. It is a jewel of a seaside town: cobblestones, old gas lights, old store fronts, steep streets that plunge straight down to the docks, and square-rigged ships and old cannon, recalling Drake and Hawkins, for it was seamen from Devon who sailed forth in the time of the first Elizabeth to battle the Spanish Armada.
The age of Victoria was less precarious. In our first fully developed scene, we see a spun-sugar little Victorian heiress, Ernestina (Lynsey Baxter), in a luxurious family summer home, being told that her handsome suitor, Mr. Charles Smithson (Jeremy Irons), has just arrived. “Oh, what dress shall I wear, Mary?” she asks her maid, her eyes dancing with excitement. “Your pink is so lovely, Miss,” says Mary. “You look pretty as a picture in your pink.” “My pink!” exclaims Ernestina. “Yes, my pink! I’ll wear that!” Before long she is receiving Charles in a kind of winter garden. His demeanor is most grave. “It cannot have escaped your notice, my dear Tina, that it is fully six weeks since I came down here to Lyme from London,” he begins. “No, Charles,” answers Tina, demure but with a toying note, as if she knows she holds the bottom card. “It has not escaped my notice.” Elaborately, formally, Charles asks for her hand, or, rather, asks if Tina would allow him to ask her father for her hand. “Yes, Charles,” says Tina, still demure, still toying. “I would allow it.” Soon the viewpoint shifts and we are seeing the scene from outside the glass windows with Sam, Charles’s servant, and Tina’s maid Mary. Sam smiles. “He’s home and dry.”
There is a sharp cut. We are in a darkened bedroom. A man and a woman are asleep in bed, apparently nude under the covers. For a moment we cannot tell who they are. A telephone rings (hence we are in the modern age). Charles answers, mumbling, half awake, “Yes? . . . Yes, it is. [A pause.] I’ll tell her.” He lights a bedlamp and we perceive that the woman asleep beside him is the actress, Anna (Meryl Streep), whom we saw on the jetty getting ready to play a scene at the opening of the film. In fact Charles is not Charles but (still Jeremy Irons) is now the actor who plays his role and whose real name, we learn, is Mike. “You’re late,” he says to Anna. “Makeup’s waiting.” In her period costume, on the jetty, the actress’s reddish-brown hair had been all frizzy, long, fastened at the back. Now it is the same color but short, sleek, and, even disheveled from bed, stylishly shaped. Her voice still thick from sleep, her accent American, she asks, “Did you answer the phone?” We realize it is her room, and it is roughly six o’clock in the morning. “Then they know!” she says. There is sharp regret in her tone. She would have wished the love affair to remain more discreet. But there is no pang of disgrace or shame. Perhaps she is not yet fully awake, but, at first glance, discovery would not appear to be the end of the world.
Another straight cut. Sarah Woodruff (Meryl Streep again), her hair in the Victorian mode, is sitting by the inner staircase of a Victorian dwelling as men carry out a coffin. She is wearing a greenish-black dress, like some superior form of servant. “You can’t stay here, Miss,” a man says to her. “Mrs. Talfer has made no provision for you in her will.”
Soon we see Charles and Tina strolling along the Lyme Regis waterfront. The seas are heavy, breaking over “The Cobb,” Lyme’s great, curving, gray-stone jetty, said to be the most beautiful sea rampart in southern England. Charles warns Tina back, as the heavy seas and winds are dangerous, to which his fiancée replies saucily, “I should think you would have welcomed an occasion to hold my hand without impropriety.” Charles then spies at the far end of the jetty a solitary female figure, wearing a great, black, hooded cloak, staring out at the stormy sea, beyond which lies the coast of France. Charles feels he must warn her that she is in danger and dashes onto the jetty, calling out. The figure turns and, against the wild winds and the wild, gray sea, we see the face of Sarah Woodruff, the “French Lieutenant’s Woman.” It is a face filled with suffering, doom, above all mystery—woman as fascination, woman as an impenetrable enigma. Charles learns that, not long before, a French frigate was shipwrecked off the coast and one of its officers fetched up, grievously wounded, on the shore near Lyme. He was nursed back to health in a home at which Sarah Woodruff was a governess. She fell in love with this dashing figure, had an affair with him—no light matter in those respectable times—and finally was cruelly abandoned. She is now married to her shame, as it were, ostracized by many in the town, and spends her time gazing endlessly at the sea, waiting, no doubt in vain, for the return of her false love.
Sarah Woodruff, in short, is a romantic figure of deepest hue. Charles, encountering her occasionally in Lyme’s “Undercliff,” a secluded, overgrown area between the cliffs and the sea where she goes to be alone, soon falls completely under her spell. Discussing the tragic case with a local resort doctor, Charles hears the view of Dr. Grogan (Leo McKern) that there are three types of melancholia: natural, or born of a sad temperament; occasional, or “springing from an occasion”; and obscure, meaning we don’t know “what the devil causes it.” Grogan places Sarah Woodruff firmly in the “obscure” category. “It was as if the woman had become addicted to melancholia as one becomes addicted to opium. Her torture has become her delight. She wants to be a sacrificial victim, Smithson. She does not want to be cured.”
During a further meeting with Charles in the Undercliff, Sarah, in a tone of desperation, tells him of the true circumstances of her love affair with the French Lieutenant. She had not been seduced, but had given herself freely. “I did it so that I should never be the same again, so that I should be seen for the outcast I am,” she says in a state of high emotion. “It is my shame that has kept me alive, my knowing that I am truly not like other women. . . . Sometimes I pity them. I have a freedom they cannot understand. No insult, no blame, can touch me. I have set myself beyond the pale. I am nothing. I am hardly human any more. I am the French Lieutenant’s wh—[the word catches in her throat but she finally overcomes her emotion and spits it out]—whore.” Immediately after this highly charged meeting, Sarah is seen emerging from the Undercliff, considered to be a local lover’s lane, is dismissed by her employer, then abruptly disappears. High-strung as she is, she is thought to be lost or to have killed herself. Only Charles, who has received one last imploring note, knows where she can be found.
On a night of storm and lightning, with search parties out, Charles, highly distraught, once more consults Dr. Grogan, this time in an asylum-hospital filled with the groans of suffering women. In their earlier conversation, Grogan had seemed rather sympathetic toward this poor Sarah Woodruff, suffering from obscure melancholia, but now he has quite swung around, painting a more threatening picture of her. “I am a young woman of superior intelligence and some education,” he says to Charles. “I am not in full command of my emotions. What is worse, I have fallen in love with being a victim of fate. [He gestures at Charles.] . . . Enter a young god. Intelligent. Goodlooking. Kind. I have but one weapon. The pity I inspire in him. So what do I do? I seize my chance.” Grogan’s view is cynical. Sarah deliberately caused herself to be seen emerging from the Undercliff and deliberately invited her dismissal. She disappears. “And then, in extremis, I cry to my savior for help.” When Grogan suggests that one of Sarah’s purposes was to compromise Charles, Charles objects and the doctor replies angrily, “I have known many prostitutes and I wish I had a guinea for every one I have heard gloat over the fact that a majority of their victims are husbands and fathers.” Charles is outraged. “But she is not a prostitute! Neither is she a fiend!” “My dear man,” says Grogan coolly. “You are half in love with her.”
Charles rejects the warning and the next morning at dawn finds Sarah hiding in an old barn on the Undercliff. She falls to her knees, kissing the hands of her benefactor. He raises her to her feet, gazes into “eyes a man could drown in.” They kiss. Then, horrified, Charles pushes her away and tells her they must never meet again. He gives her money and tells her to leave Lyme—where there are plans to commit her to an asylum—and to go to Exeter, where his solicitor in London will keep her in funds until she finds employment. Parting, determined never to see her again but visibly still smitten, he brings out almost in awe, “You are a remarkable person, Miss Woodruff.” Sarah answers with great dignity, “Yes, I am a remarkable person.”
But the spell is too strong. Unable to prevent himself, Charles joins her in Exeter. They make love. Stunned, he discovers that she is a virgin. And Sarah admits it. The whole love affair with the French Lieutenant was a total fabrication. There was a lieutenant, but no love affair. Charles has fallen victim to an enchantress. Even the sprained ankle Sarah has been nursing which has made possible his visit to her in her room at the hotel (not the usual thing in the Victorian period) is a deceit. Her ankle is not sprained at all. Asked by Charles why she has invented such thumping lies, Sarah pleads in anguish, “I don’t know. I don’t know. I cannot explain. I don’t know,” Exalted, she swears that now that she knows there was a day when he truly loved her she can bear anything, that he has given her the strength to live. This seems good enough for Charles and he tells her to wait for him there in Exeter where he will rejoin her shortly. He goes to Lyme where he breaks off with Tina in a scene of great intensity (“My father will drag your name through the mire! You will be despised and detested by all who know you! You will be hounded out of England!”), Charles thereby throwing out the window both a great fortune and his good name as a gentleman. But when he returns to Exeter to find Sarah, she is gone. Inexplicably, incomprehensibly, she has disappeared, leaving not the slightest indication of her whereabouts. For three years, Charles searches desperately for this sorceress, this Circe, this Calypso, this Siren: Unfathomable Woman.
Meanwhile, interspersed with this deeply romantic Victorian story about Charles and Sarah, we have continued to see scenes from the modern story of Mike and Anna, the British actor and American actress who play their roles. In a series of a dozen episodes entirely original to Harold Pinter, Mike and Anna rehearse, picnic, lunch together on the set, cohabit. Stirred from sleep one night, Anna gestures toward the other side of the bed and says, “David?” (pronouncing it in French). To which Mike answers grimly, “It’s not David. It’s Mike.”
Although there remains something enigmatic about this relationship, we learn, bit by bit, that Anna has what seems to be a boyfriend, this David, that Mike has a wife and children, and that Anna’s and Mike’s relationship is merely a “location fling.” We are left in no doubt, however, that Mike has become far more stuck on Anna than Anna is on Mike. He is looking forward to the end of the film and their parting with foreboding, she with equanimity. “Why are you sad?” he asks her one day by the beach. “I’m not,” she assures him. As the location shooting in Devon draws to a close and Anna is leaving for London, Mike sees her to the train station and pleads desperately, “I want you!” She slips out of his grasp, laughing, “You just had me.” Arriving in London himself, Mike telephones her in her suite at the Savoy, where David has arrived, and declares his love over the telephone. “How lovely,” she says, covering with some embarrassment (David is within earshot). “Yes, we’d love to come Sunday. See you then.” At an English Sunday lunch at Mike’s home, and in his garden, we meet all the members of our Victorian cast in their modern clothes, Mike’s wife and children, David (a Frenchman). Sam, Charles’s servant in the other story, is playing Mozart on the piano. All is conventional, connubial. Mike manages to catch Anna in the hall as she is leaving and bursts out, “This is pure, bloody hell!” But Anna is not upset at all and a moment later, her composure flawless, she drives off with David. Whereupon, with everybody back in Victorian costume, the legend “three years later” appears on the screen.
Before examining what Harold Pinter, Karel Reisz, and perhaps Meryl Streep have done to the end of this story, we must first return to the original novel to see what they started from. Now I am of the opinion that, at least in dealing with contemporary literary material, film-makers are perfectly free to make of a work what they will, and if the resulting movie is dramatically successful in its own terms, then good luck to them and Godspeed. This is particularly true when the talents assembled to work on a film are more considerable than the one which produced the original book (or play). Harold Pinter is a far more intelligent and stylish writer than John Fowles. Karel Reisz’s mastery of his medium is incomparably superior to Fowles’s rather clumsy grasp of his. When to this is added a sparkling cast (for in the dramatic arts there is no substitute for the magnetic performance), we have in the movie version of The French Lieutenant’s Woman a work that is incomparably more skillful, more brilliant, and even more gorgeous than Fowles’s novel. Nonetheless, the book, almost unfairly, remains there, a dead carcass, permanent evidence of what the film-makers did not want to do. It is as if one had attended a private early story conference on a coming picture and the movie-makers, if only indirectly, had revealed their secret intentions. The changes made in an original novel, not reprehensible in themselves, are often unmistakable signs of where a film is headed.
This novel’s foundation, presumably the reason it remained on the best-seller lists for over a year, is a steamy if frequently inept romantic style:
Her hair, already enhanced by the green shawl, was ravishingly alive where the firelight touched it; as if all her mystery, this most intimate self, was exposed before him: proud and submissive, bound and unbound, his slave and his equal. . . . Her defenseless weeping was perhaps the breach through which the knowledge sprang—but suddenly he comprehended why her face haunted him, why he felt this terrible need to see her again: it was to possess her, to melt into her, to burn, to burn to ashes on that body and in those eyes.
The notion of burning to ashes inside a lady’s eyeballs is typical of the adroitness with which Fowles wields a metaphor. He is, moreover, relentlessly pedantic. The novel is divided into sixty-one chapters, with most of the chapters having, not one, but two epigrams: Marx, Thomas Hardy, Darwin, Tennyson, Jane Austen, Marx again, Matthew Arnold—over a hundred. This is a lot of epigrams. And the great names keep popping out of the main body of the text as well: Proust, Dickens, Cervantes, Flaubert, Coleridge, Hieronymus Bosch, Goethe, John Stuart Mill, Homer, Burke, Bentham, Malthus, Hegel, Catullus, Sappho, John Bunyan, Voltaire. I am tempted to think that rarely has a man read so much and understood so little. Fowles has also, unfortunately, delved into Bertolt Brecht, and in homage to his celebrated “alienation effect” and perhaps to some other modern writers, upon arriving at his sinister Chapter 13 declares bravely that there is not a word of truth in this tale he has been telling! He has made it all up! After which he reverts instantly to his steamy romantic style.
But the novel’s most distinctive trait is said to be Fowles’s persistent introduction into this Victorian romance of what has been described as a “modern point of view.” It is for this reason, in fact, that Pinter was called upon to write his entire interpolated modern story, with actor Mike and actress Anna—to give the period tale a modern perspective. In the novel, however, this “modern point of view” consists wholly of tireless references to such distinguished modern institutions as Marshall McLuhan, Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls, Stanislavsky “method” acting, existentialism, Hollywood, and, of course, atomic warfare. In order to convey that Sarah’s intelligence is of the intuitive kind, she is said, more than once, to have “a computer in her heart” (this is perhaps the most disastrous image in the book, since a computer not only is inhuman but operates on the principles of pure reason). Bentham is described as a “crypto-Fascist,” Burke as a “crypto-Liberal.” Given the differences between the modern age and the Victorian, Fowles is at pains to point out obscure facts about the earlier period of which the modern reader might otherwise be unaware. There being more horses, for instance, there was more horse manure in the streets. Since there were no automobiles, men lavished on these horses the kind of attention they now lavish on motor cars. Suntans were not then “a desirable social-sexual status symbol.” Women wore hair oil.
Fowles also does a good deal of projecting into the future. The peasant’s cottage in which Sarah grew up is now the property of a fashionable London architect. A pretty maidservant’s great-great-granddaughter has a face known throughout the world today for she is a celebrated English film star. Sarah’s Toby mug is now in the possession of none other than the famous author himself, John Fowles.
But Fowles is perhaps best at foreseeing the past. “Charles knew nothing of the beavered German Jew quietly working, as it so happened, that very afternoon in the British Museum Library; and whose work in those somber walls was to bear such bright red fruit.” Charles even glimpses, “by virtue of a Darwinian analogy,” America superseding its original mother country. All this labored to-ing and fro-ing between the past and the present leaves the reader with an utterly conventional, stale view of the Victorian period, as one marked by the stiff observance of proprieties, the sexual repression of women of the middle and upper classes, and hence (Fowles’s special concern) female hysteria.
Up until the three-year hiatus, the film’s main story line follows that of the book fairly closely, with differences largely of emphasis. The movie gives much more prominence to the social injustices of the period, particularly the sufferings of women, and goes a long way toward rationalizing Sarah’s behavior, making it seem reasonable in the circumstances, the best a girl could do. In the novel, on the other hand, most of the debate seems to be about whether Sarah is a calculating schemer or a simple hysteric, with the weight coming down fairly heavily on the side of hysteria. Sarah does not lose her first job because her mistress dies; she leaves for no clear reason (Charles does not make his appearance until much later). In the book Sarah refuses numerous offers of marriage and of employment. She deliberately seeks work in a household where her life will be a living hell, and in every way appears to be setting a course for her own destruction.
There is something egregious, it must be said, in Fowles’s conventional deploring of the lot of women in the Victorian period and in his expressed desire to bring them into the light and freedom of the modern age. It is not so much that he seems to enjoy the contemplation of women in desperate straits, or in any event in a state of abject dependence (although there is a bit of this). It is that the dark mysteries of female behavior—calculated or hysterical—provide whatever energy his novel has. Where would he be without the imponderable, ominous nature of women? For women, in Fowles, are dangerous. Tina, Charles’s fiancée, although demure on the surface, is as predatory and domineering as Sarah, as are all the book’s major female characters: Mrs. Poulteney, Sarah’s sadistic mistress; Bella Tomkins, the adventuress who snatches away Charles’s fortune by marrying his uncle. Fowles plainly shudders with delight at what these she-devils will do next, and his most cherished image for the relationship between Charles and Sarah is, yes: the Moth and the Flame. One can only think that if women are as fraught with danger as Fowles clearly feels they are, perhaps keeping one tied up—as the hero does in his first novel—might not be such a bad idea; one can only think too that Fowles on the face of it is a rather odd person to call for the liberation of all these Flames, who might after all burn up all those poor Moths. But we can see what Fowles understands to be the liberated modern woman when we consider the condition Sarah attains at the end of his novel.
When Charles finally finds Sarah after searching for her for three years it is in a handsome wisteria-covered home in Chelsea, already a fashionable, upper-bohemian district of London. Expecting to find what she was before, a form of servant, he discovers instead what seems to be the lady of the house, dressed in “the full uniform of the New Woman,” which is to say without bustles, stays, or crinolines. Sarah is not particularly glad to see Charles. She has become, you see, the “amanuensis” and model of no less a figure than Dante Gabriel Rossetti—in whose home we find ourselves. Also living under the same roof are Algernon Charles Swinburne, none other, and the painter’s brother, W. M. Rossetti, editor of The Germ, high organ of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. Visiting the Rossettis on the day Charles arrives is John Ruskin. Other frequent visitors are William Morris, George Meredith, and, of course, Christina Rossetti. All in all, a pretty swanky crowd, probably the most glamorous, stylish, artistic set in London at that time. Sarah tells Charles that she has found happiness, that she has at last arrived where she belongs. “I am admitted to the daily conversation of genius,” she says. “I have no genius myself, I have no more than the capacity to aid genius in very small and humble ways.” So Sarah finds happiness as a celebrity groupie, playing Ultra Violet to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Andy Warhol.
As for the mechanics of the Charles-and-Sarah love story, Fowles yields to one of his worst faults and closes the novel in a blaze of equivocation, with a double ending. After giving Charles a half-dozen reasons why she wants to stay as she is and will not marry him, Sarah suddenly introduces the baby girl born of their one sexual union. Sarah falls into Charles’s arms. Charles kisses her auburn hair. She is his. This is the end of the next-to-last chapter. Whereupon, in the last chapter, Fowles offers the reader a “no less plausible” ending. For a knotty tangle of reasons the Charles-Sarah reunion does not go well and Charles sets forth for America: “thirty-four years of struggling upwards—all in vain, in vain, in vain.” So even without their bustles and crinolines, beware of women.
Well, Pinter, Reisz, Streep, and company hit Fowles’s last act the way Grant hit Vicksburg. It is of course anathema to the feminist movement that a woman should find fulfillment via a man, so draconian measures were called for. Rossetti: out! Swinburne: out! Ruskin: out! Amanuensis: out! Our fulfilled Sarah is going to be nobody’s amanuensis.
In the movie version’s Victorian story, when Charles finds Sarah after the three-year hiatus, it would be a gross exaggeration to say that she has become Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but she seems launched in that direction. She is living in a beautiful home. She is dressed in a radiant near-white gown (whereas her costume in the old days had always been near-black). She is serene, self-possessed, her own woman. We are told, in defiance of all credibility, that she is still a governess. But “I am free to do my own work,” she explains, ushering Charles into her studio, only slightly more modest than that of James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Around the studio are drawings, works in charcoal, some with color wash. In the early part of the film we have seen Sarah scribbling sketches once or twice, and now Charles mumbles in awe, “You have found your gift.” “There was a madness in me then,” Sarah says gravely, explaining her earlier behavior, her seemingly incomprehensible flight just when happiness was within their grasp. “It has taken me this time to find my own life, to find my freedom. If you love me, you can forgive me.” He apparently does, meeting her on her own terms, respecting her now as a free, liberated, fulfilled woman, not beholden to him in any way. (She would appear rather beholden to the householder who provides such leisure and grand facilities to a mere governess, but let’s not think about that.) Sarah does not seem in any way knocked off her balance by love, gratitude, or any other overwhelming emotion at Charles’s acceptance of her terms, taking it all in tranquility. In the last shots we see them rowing peacefully together out onto a lake (Charles at the oars), emerging from the darkness of a boathouse into the golden sunlight of freedom and sexual equality.
The last scene of the modern story of actor Mike and actress Anna is the “wrap party” celebrating the end of shooting on the film. The whole cast and crew are dancing disco on the set of the same house in which Charles has just done his last scene with Sarah. Everyone is in modern clothes. The music is hard rock, heavy metal. Anna is lively, gay, at ease; Mike haggard. When Anna leaves the party with David, Mike starts to go after her and then dashes through the set of Sarah’s art studio and cries desperately out the window at the automobile zooming away, “Sarah!”—not Anna’s name, of course, but that of the character she has been playing. Mike remains in bleak despair on the set of Sarah’s studio while, under the credits, we see one last shot of Charles and Sarah boating placidly on the lake.
For reasons of trickiness and sheer lack of dramatic coherence (and other reasons I shall go into later), my expectation is that this movie’s ending may turn out to be less of a crowd pleaser among feminists, para-feminists, and just plain women than the Meryl Streep ending in Kramer vs. Kramer. With a double ending to the novel and a different double ending to the film, in any case, there are now no fewer than four oranges in the air, and I shall attempt to bring them down as tidily as possible.
On the simple boy-girl level: in one ending of the novel Charles gets Sarah, and in the other he does not. The movie observes the same split. In one story boy gets girl; in the other he doesn’t. In the most superficial manner possible, moreover, there is a similarity on another point as well. In both endings in the novel, as in both endings in the movie, the female is in the ascendant. She calls the shots. But the contexts of novel and film are totally different. There is little doubt in my mind that, in most matters other than the hold they can obtain on men, women are considered by Fowles to be alien and intrinsically accessory creatures. What women do among themselves, whether they “fulfill themselves” or whether they don’t, hardly concerns him at all. If, in his novel, women scheme to dominate men, it is because Fowles clearly enjoys this in them. Without the female capacity to astonish, threaten, baffle, and horrify, relations between the sexes would have no spice for Fowles, would be all bland and flat. Without mystery and danger, O Love, where would be thy savor? In the closing sequence of the Reisz-Pinter movie, on the other hand, we are breathing the desiccated air of feminist doctrine.
I have already indicated the doctrinal changes made to the ending of the Victorian part of the movie. The twelve-part modern playlet written by Pinter in counterpoint is not much more difficult to interpret. Fowles’s view of the Victorian period is so conventional that it is pretty much what most people already think of it, and one wonders why a fragmented modern counterpoint was considered necessary to “preserve the modern point of view.” Nonetheless, the counterpoint is there, and it too can easily be seen as incorporating attitudes dear to a certain wing of the women’s movement.
For thousands of years men have been engaging in casual, callous, adulterous love affairs and coming through unscathed, the reasoning goes, so why shouldn’t women have the same privilege? Men have been selfish, thinking only of themselves; why shouldn’t Anna be selfish? In this way Anna is animated by something of the same spirit as the movie’s Sarah, and not just in being self-centered. There is plainly great significance in the fact that both women achieve fulfillment (if that’s what they’re doing) alone, without any dependence on men. And, even more than with Sarah, there is something remarkably self-absorbed about Anna. Not for one second do we have the feeling that she is giving up Mike because she is so devoted to her regular boyfriend David—to whom, indeed, she shows not the slightest sign of affection. Nor do we sense that she is rejecting Mike so as not to break up his home, out of respect for the sanctity of marriage, or even, on the other hand, that she might conceivably accept him if he were to give up his wife and children. No, Mike was all right for a brief fling while they were making the movie; now the movie’s over; she has no further use for him; and that’s it. Anna shows not the faintest trace of remorse, sorrow, or even regret that she is leaving Mike in such a desperate, woebegone state and seems, in fact, quite heartless. She is a far colder article than Sarah in either book or movie because Sarah, after all, has genuine grievances, real resentments against the world, over her poverty if nothing else. If Anna has grievances we certainly do not see them. Her coldness is unmotivated. In order to find Anna’s behavior appealing one would have to be a hard-core, vindictive feminist intent on exacting reparations for the thousands of years of mistreatment women have undergone at men’s hands.
By and large, I think it extremely unlikely that Harold Pinter considers himself as having gone to Canossa on the women’s issue or as capitulating to the reparations faction of the feminist movement. Pinter’s plays, if I read them correctly, often concern struggles for dominance in which characters’ motivations are deliberately left obscure and darkly menacing. So, for Harold Pinter, what is one more menacing character, male or female?
But Pinter’s introduction of a heartless Anna as the fully modern woman—logically a further development and even freer specimen of the Sarah we see liberated from the bonds of Victorianism—closes the movie on an ominous note. My suspicion is that the film-makers would bridle at the character of Anna being subjected to strict doctrinal analysis, protesting that, in his handling of Anna, Pinter was just being Pinter. To which all I can answer is that, given the extraordinarily didactic ending of the main body of his screenplay (which for all practical purposes might have been dictated to him by Meryl Streep), Pinter chose a very odd moment to “just be Pinter,” particularly with everyone connected with the production stressing that the Anna-Mike relationship is indispensable to the movie, absolutely necessary for the presentation of the modern point of view. Of course it could well be argued that in his heart of hearts Pinter actually does feel uneasy about the emergence of this wholly “free,” heartless woman, and even about ultra-feminism per se, and that with his ending he is saving his self-respect (and perhaps even tricking Meryl Streep). But if so, Pinter is a very dark character indeed.
For the very least sin of which Pinter and Reisz stand charged is that of incoherence. To conclude a dramatic work with a bifurcated ending, on any account, is to conclude it in a state of some confusion. The film could possibly be recut, of course, to give one of these endings preeminence over the other. But in the version I saw the two go down to the wire neck and neck: happy, sad; happy, sad; he gets her, he doesn’t; fruition, despair; transcendence, woe. I cannot but think it was all a terrible mistake.
But the film of The French Lieutenant’s Woman might serve, quite incidentally, as an interesting indicator as to which aspects of feminist doctrine are attractive to the public at large—or at least to the movie-going public—and which are not. Most films, as any analysis of their contents indicates at a glance, are made for men. Women are not entirely neglected. Survivors of the old-fashioned women’s movie can still be found here and there. But the novelty is that the “New Woman” is beginning to occupy a noticeable part of the film market. An Unmarried Woman, The Seduction of Joe Tynan, Kramer vs. Kramer, the Australian My Brilliant Career: they are coming now in a slow but regular stream, and even when the story features men as much as women, feminist principles are easily discernible.
Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman was perhaps the first big movie to go resolutely after this new market. Jill Clayburgh plays an affluent Upper East Side Manhattan housewife. In the opening scene she is jogging in the morning with her husband (Michael Murphy) on the East River Drive. They are that sort. But soon her husband leaves her for another woman and she is in for an unsettled time. She meets periodically with her women friends and they talk about men, love affairs. She herself has a brief, unfortunate affair with a quite obnoxious partner (Cliff Gorman). Then she gets a job as secretary in an art gallery and, lo, there soon appears a visiting English modern painter (Alan Bates), famous, rich, admired, handsome—the answer not only to a maiden’s prayer, but to an abandoned wife’s prayer as well, it seems. He is taken with her. She is taken with him. And that is almost the end of our story.
Both doctrinaire feminists and I objected to the Alan Bates plot development, if for different reasons: they because of a settled hostility to a woman’s finding happiness by winning a “great man,” I because the film had so shamelessly reneged on its promises. We had been promised a study of the problems a solitary woman faces in this cold, cruel world, and what we got was a rather short, aimless period followed by the dazzling appearance of a new Mr.” Right, a decided improvement, in fact, on the old Mr. Right. But Mazursky ends his movie with a little twist, intended, I assume, to bring his story into line with what he understands to be the feminist Zeitgeist. Our famous painter is packing a van to go off to the country to do some serious art work and wants our heroine to come with him. They love each other, don’t they? But she won’t go. No, she won’t. She’s been burned before, you see, devoting herself to a man. She has to fulfill herself, keep “her own space,” and besides there are all those important letters to type at the art gallery. Now Jill Clayburgh has a very ingratiating personality, and somehow we know the two aren’t breaking up, saying goodbye to each other for the last time. Still, in defiance of all common sense, Jill Clayburgh smiles wistfully as the man she loves, at her own insistence, leaves her behind and drives off in his van while the music swells, signaling the end of a movie relentlessly determined to have it both ways.
Sweet partings, it should be said in passing, are one of the new fixtures of contemporary cinema. Given the present divorce rate as well as the limited duration of many non-marital relationships, it was clear that the general subject would inevitably be dealt with in films, but it is the manner with which it is being dealt that seems eerie. A generation ago a staple of Hollywood movies was boy and girl “meeting cute.” Now, with anxiety apparently directed at the other end of a relationship but with feminist doctrine playing a role as well, boy and girl are “separating cute.”
In Burt Reynolds’s Starting Over, before warily starting life again with (the same) Jill Clayburgh, Reynolds has a rather winsome divorce from Candice Bergen. The comment of a Los Angeles woman divorce lawyer of my acquaintance was a grim, “I’ve yet to see a cute divorce.” In The Electric Horseman, one of the ten top moneymakers of 1980, Robert Redford, a cowboy, and Jane Fonda, an “investigative reporter,” have a brief love affair, at the end of which they say goodbye sweetly, fetchingly, with no regrets, no unfulfilled longings. He, after all, has his horses, she, her investigative reporting. One expects them to say, “Thank you very much for the lovely affair. I really enjoyed it.”
It has been remarked that this sort of thing happens all the time, to which I can only reply by hewing to my divorce lawyer and saying that people may well be breaking up all the time, but not like that. People don’t divorce cute, and they don’t separate cute. After a love affair of any intensity, one partner or the other is hurt, wounded, resentful, bitter. People do not like to be left, and the chances of bringing a love affair to a close with both parties simultaneously sated and sanguine about the rupture are not much better than of achieving a tie in an election for mayor of New York.
Continental Divide, the story of a love affair involving John Belushi and Blair Brown, is unlikely to have the success of The Electric Horseman, although it was co-scripted by Lawrence Kasdan (Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back) and directed by Michael Apted (Coal Miner’s Daughter), two film-makers thought to have the Midas touch these days. This time it is Belushi who plays the investigative reporter (decidedly a high-prestige profession from Watergate to Janet Cooke), while Blair Brown is a dedicated ornithologist living like a hermit in a shack in the Rocky Mountains. She loves bald eagles, hates the city. He loves Chicago, hates nature. It would be hard to find a more thin, strained, artificial basis for a romantic comedy, but this did not stop Janet Maslin of the New York Times from finding the picture convincing and possessing “real tension,” and from feeling that Blair Brown—this dedicated ornithologist fiercely refusing to leave her hermit’s life among bald eagles—had gotten “the best role of any heroine in ages.” But the film has a “kicker,” as they say in the movie business. They get married, and then they separate cute.
But a much more systematic attempt to advance feminist doctrine was made by Alan Alda—a feminist true believer—in his The Seduction of Joe Tynan. Tynan (Alda) is a Democratic U.S. Senator from New York. His wardrobe recalls that of Senator Daniel P. Moynihan, the resemblance ending there. But the story should really be told from the other side. There is this successful New York psychiatrist named Dr. Tynan (Barbara Harris). She has a going practice, patients, children. Unfortunately she is cursed with a feckless husband who finds nothing better to do with his time than to go off to Washington as a United States Senator. He asks her to come to Washington with him, but how could he think for one moment that she could do so? Her patients need her. The community needs her. Moving the children from one school to another would disrupt their lives. But Tynan is just self, self, self, and returns to Washington without his family, even having a brief affair with a woman lawyer and political groupie (Meryl Streep). Given Alda’s popularity (he is one of the country’s top box-office draws), the film had an unexpectedly mediocre run, and he has acknowledged that it failed in its instructive purpose as well. The public was too accustomed to seeing him play “good guys,” he now sees, and quite failed to realize that this Senator Tynan he played was really a very bad person. Alda seems at least to entertain the notion that if audiences had only realized the true selfishness of this Senator, and the true virtue of his wife, they might have turned out in droves.
The Australian My Brilliant Career is another of these cases, and a particularly curious one. It is the story of late-teenager, Sybylla Melvyn (Judy Davis), born poor in turn-of-the-century Australia. Luckily, Sybylla has rich relatives, and before the movie is far advanced she has gone to live with them, enjoying the serene life of the leisure class of another age: stately homes, immense green lawns, limpid ponds and babbling brooks, servants at one’s call, the ladies in silk gowns. It is all beautifully directed and photographed, very well acted by a good-looking cast. (The dialogue tells us that Sybylla is plain, but, needless to say, she is played by a very attractive young actress.) All in all, it is a pretty picture.
The main drama of the film is provided by its handsome young men, who all, despite her alleged plainness, are in love with Sybylla. One in particular, Harry Beecham (Sam Neill), is especially appealing in his offers of marriage. But now we come to the movie’s moral center and dramatic dénouement. After much tender hand-holding, Sybylla firmly refuses to marry Beecham—because she plans to be a writer and being married would get in the way. As luck would have it, I saw My Brilliant Career at a special screening for an organization called Women in Film (or some such title)—in short, a group of perceptibly feminist orientation. Now I cannot honestly claim to remember cries of “Right on!” in the screening room when Sybylla refused marriage, but that was rather the feeling. And it was certainly the feeling when the lights went up at the end and we met the woman producer, and the woman star. Only the woman director was absent.
But what was so obvious and right to these Women in Film seemed baffling and arbitrary to me. Sybylla is shown being very affectionate to Beecham, so there can be no objection to marriage on that score. And why should marriage be such an impediment to a literary career? I have no wish to appear cynical, but I have always heard from persons of the Left as well as of the Right, and not always in jest, that the first duty of someone with serious literary aspirations who has the misfortune to be born without a private income is whenever possible to marry money. Beecham is rich. Sybylla is very spoony with him. She could have married him and, with servants all about, found plenty of time for writing. There is something missing from the story. Even beyond an evident, undeclared hostility to marriage per se, I had a feeling that these women who made My Brilliant Career were not coming clean.
My Brilliant Career turns out to have been based on a novel with the same title by someone named Miles Franklin. And Miles Franklin, despite the masculine name, turns out to be an Australian female called Stella Franklin, who wrote the book when she was sixteen. A glance at her biographical note indicates that even in her teens the author developed an animus against what she called “the artificial bonds called feminine,” that she was resentful of a prettier sister who was in fact the one invited to live with a rich relative, that Stella upset her family and left Australia. In Chicago, she joined with Alice Henry in organizing the Women’s Trade Union League. She served in World War I in the Scottish Women’s Hospital Unit. And she wrote a number of novels under another masculine-sounding pseudonym. I asked the woman producer of My Brilliant Career if Stella Frankin (referred to in the literature only as “Miles”) had ever married, and received a reaction at once defensive and evasive, and finally an embarrassed “no.” All of which leaves me with the faintest suspicion (which I should be perfectly happy to see disproved) that American feminists are falling about with delight at a vision of marriage and the relations between men and women conceived by a sixteen-year-old Australian lesbian.
But it would be a mistake to exaggerate the level of popular enthusiasm for a film like My Brilliant Career. It was one of 1980′s big prestige hits in New York. Which is to say that nationwide, in the box-office standings, it stood exactly 122 from the top. Whereas Alan Alda’s The Seduction of Joe Tynan, a film already almost forgotten, was, 40 from the top and seen by seven times as many people, most of whom, according to Alda, got it all upside down anyway.
Kramer vs. Kramer, on the other hand, was a massive hit; there are no two ways about it. What’s more, I believe it to have been perfectly understood by almost everyone who saw it.
The opening scenes of the film show a young New York advertising man (Dustin Hoffman) returning home in triumph on the day he has been appointed vice-president of his firm. He is greeted by a wife (Meryl Streep) whose nerves are at the breaking point. Kramer has been all self, self, self (again), out there selfishly earning a living for his family. His wife’s needs have not been seen to. She wants to fulfill herself. And she chooses this moment to announce that she is abandoning not only her husband but their six-year-old child as well. And, zip, she is gone. Most of the movie is devoted to Kramer struggling, often at great sacrifice, to bring up the little boy (Justin Henry) by himself. But at the movie’s end the former Mrs. Kramer suddenly reappears, in a single year having become a successful sportswear designer in California (surely a place of miracles) and now earning more money than her ex-husband. Cool, composed, with her attorney in the wings, she demands custody of the child she abandoned.
Now the novel from which the movie is drawn is strongly biased against this woman who, abandoning her child in order to “fulfill herself,” has the gall to come back when she is riding high and sue for his custody. But Robert Benton, the film’s scenario writer and director, sensing quite accurately how many women out there in the movie audience would identify with the dissatisfied wife, and presumably unwilling to forfeit their sympathy, gave the former Mrs. Kramer much better lines in his movie than she had in the book. And Meryl Streep, by the time she finished rewriting her final courtroom speech, had turned her character into a positive paragon: martyr, heroine, perhaps even saint. How she suffered when “forced” to abandon her child. How she missed the child out in California while she and her therapist struggled to repair the damage that her husband had done. But now, with mental health and a sense of self-respect regained, how desperately she wants her baby back! Mother-love is not to be denied! But it is denied, in the end, and by the mother herself. In addition to all the other sterling qualities the former Mrs. Kramer has been shown to possess, she proves herself at the film’s conclusion to be capable of still one more: self-sacrifice. Seeing how strongly attached her ex-husband is to the child, and realizing above all that in a full-scale bitter legal battle it is the boy himself who will suffer, she decides to abandon her custody suit, nobly sacrificing that which is most dear to her in life: her beloved child.
Well, the women ate it up. And the men ate it up (if in more measured gulps). Child-lovers ate it up. Or at least people who think children are cute ate it up. Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, and little Justin Henry are all excellent actors, and Meryl Streep, for her part, turns in a most eloquent performance. But there is no doubt that Kramer vs. Kramer represents a regression to the Hollywood of a generation ago, where, as a matter of principle, the movies were considered a vehicle for mass flattery; the more people flattered the better. Flatter the men; flatter the women. Flatter the farmers; flatter the city dwellers. But it will surprise no one to hear that the line on what will flatter women has rather changed over a generation. We have had, after all, the women’s movement. But if films are any indication, and I were called upon to say which elements of feminist doctrine cause great masses of women to feel all warm and happy and pleased with themselves, and which, on the other hand, bring gratification to only a restricted coterie of zealots, I would draw a clear line between Kramer vs. Kramer on the mass-woman side, and My Brilliant Career for the feminist jingos. An Unmarried Woman, despite its flirtation with New Ideas (and leaving aside its honesty or dishonesty), I would place on the same side with Kramer vs. Kramer.
Which is to say, the credos of the feminist movement now palatable to vast numbers of women are these: If you’re unhappy, it’s your husband’s fault. If you don’t have a successful career, are tired of cooking, or taking care of the kid, are bored, feel that you’re not fulfilling yourself, or that life in any way at all is not giving you what you expected, it’s his fault, too, or the fault of men in general. He did it to you. They did it to you. You have a right to be selfish. You deserve better than what you’ve been getting.
The feminist credos that are not palatable to large numbers of women, on the other hand, are equally clear: Women must find their destiny alone. They must not depend on men. They must not be loving or devoted. They must show no pity or compassion. Of these ideas perhaps the most unpopular of all is the idea of being independent of men, living in magnificent, feminist-solitude. An idea such as this risks battering itself bloody against a stone wall of female rejection.
Now a motion picture is compounded of many elements. And there are intelligent people who allowed themselves to be lulled in My Brilliant Career by the performances, the lush landscapes, the leisurely pace of a more graceful age—all of which is their privilege. Dismissing the ending as vaguely nonsensical or simply not “reading” it at all, they emerged praising Career as a “beautiful,” “old-fashioned” movie. The movie as a whole, of course, is not old-fashioned at all. It is a feminist tract.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman holds the possibility of a similar double interpretation, and the commercial success of the film might well depend on whether audiences fall under the spell of the main body of the story—the part it shares with the original novel—or whether their attention becomes fastened on the Harold Pinter counterpoint and on the film’s complex ending, which has the double disadvantage both of being abstruse and of purveying a doctrine which mass audiences might find repugnant. If the film is commercially disappointing, despite its glamorous star, despite its other prestigious names, despite the cover of Time magazine, I suspect that its doctrinal beliefs will have played a large part in the disappointment.
But the distribution and advertising departments of major movie companies are often cannier than they are given credit for. Notwithstanding the tremendous amount of free advance publicity for this picture, United Artists plainly decided that The French Lieutenant’s Woman was going to be a tricky film to market. Banking on good reviews to identify the movie as a “quality” product, the company decided on a restricted release pattern, thus playing for rarity, milking the book’s reputation and the film’s good notices for snob appeal.
The advertising campaign was also interesting: huge pictures of mysterious, doomed Meryl Streep against the wild seas, above the legend: “She was lost from the moment she saw him.” Now in actual fact, he was lost from the moment he saw her, but there is no hint of this. Nor are there any hints of women’s liberation, sexual equality, or the new spirit of female independence of men. One has a feeling the advertising department at United Artists wishes that its film had a completely different ending, and that it had never even heard the name of Harold Pinter. And if modish audiences, cued by the advertisements, ignore Pinter’s contribution and succumb to the mood of the bulk of the story—the Victorian romance at the heart of Fowles’s novel—the distribution and advertising boys might have helped save the bacon.
For the main theme of Fowles’s tale, regardless of all the “modern” claptrap, is nothing if not traditional. Mysterious, imponderable Woman. Dangerous, too: watch out. In modern literature alone the theme has been holding its own for a good two hundred and fifty years, at least since Abbé Prévost’s Manon Lescaut. Over the centuries it has proved itself popular with both men and women. Many men—although this has been declining sharply—have placed women up there on the exhilarating level of gambling, drink, and even war: a virile way to go. Women have been equally partial to the theme, seeming to enjoy the vicarious power of enslaving some poor wretch, manipulating the unfortunate devil this way and that. If one is too wicked, of course, one pays the price. Manon is deported in chains to the French colonies in America. But no matter how abominably Manon treats the Chevalier des Grieux, she never really leaves him. She enslaves him—something rather different. She never coldly and callously casts him aside.
Now, as it happens, casting him aside callously is almost exactly what Anna does to Mike in Pinter’s counterpoint to the main story of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the modern story that gives a direction to it all, the wave of the future, as it were. And even in the new ending to the Victorian story Sarah hardly binds Charles to her with hoops of steel. There is a take-it-or-leave-it quality to her in the movie ending as if, should Charles not accept the terms of this New Woman, she will do very well by herself, thank you. And Charles is unmistakably humbled and chastised, made to pay by three agonizing years of waiting and searching for Sarah’s grievances against society, for the inequality that once separated them. Say what you will, even the “happy” part of the movie’s double ending is rather tepid. And what with the tepid acceptance of Charles, and the icy rejection of Mike, it remains to be seen if vast numbers of women will find their deepest desires gratified.
The last shot of Mike, hopeless and heartbroken, with Anna lost, might well give satisfaction to women if Mike were only being punished for something he had himself done, if he had personally wronged Anna in some way. But he has done nothing worse than fall hopelessly in love with her. Will millions of female hearts exult at seeing Mike punished for the sins of the male sex since the creation of the human species?
A romantic sensibility dies hard, however. Weaving out of the packed theater during the opening week in Manhattan, still under the movie’s spell, a stylish young woman was somehow convinced that both stories had ended happily. “Mike and Anna?” she said. “The actor and actress? Oh, they’ll get back together. Wasn’t it romantic?”
If views like this prevail, poor Meryl Streep might be doomed to be utterly misunderstood, and the film to be successful.