Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Sex, Love, Feminism: Jean Rhys and Julia Leigh's "Sleeping Beauty"

I first read Jean Rhys in college, Voyage in the Dark, in a modernism class. It's funny: I wasn't crazy about the class itself (it was fine), but I adored practically everything we read: Mrs. Dalloway, Women in Love, Portrait of an Artist, The Waste Land. And Jean Rhys. I loved Rhys. Particularly her language: so direct and blunt it was disarming -- the only way, really, to communicate life's harsh, absurd cruelties.

These cruelties, for Rhys as well as her protagonists, included poverty, sexual exploitation and alcoholism. A white Creole female living in England, Rhys was in almost every way an outsider. And she wrote about colonialism, sexism, class and morality with unsparring, cool clarity.

For December the book group my friends and I formed (we read lady authors!) picked Rhys' Wise Sargasso Sea, which she wrote in 1966, more than 30 years after Voyage in the Dark. Indeed, when Sargasso was published Rhys had been living in exile, the town drunk in Devon, England. She was, until the late '50s when a fan tracked her down, presumed dead. And then Sargasso ended up being her masterpiece -- a feminist, post-colonial prequel to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre that completely shatters your notions about the characters in that older book. So badass.

Wide Sargasso Sea tells the story of Rochester's first wife, Antoinette Cosway -- the mad Creole woman in the attic whom, in Brontë's book, Rochester was tricked into marrying and who prevents him and Jane Eyre from being together. Rhys was angered by the classic novel's clichéd treatment of the exotic foreign woman as insane, dangerous and evil, so she wrote a devastating account of how colonialism, racism and exploitation (of one's sex, economic position and family history) could drive a bright yet innocent young woman to madness. Like Rhys, and like Voyage's Anna, Antoinette is an outsider: a white Creole, the daughter of a former slaveowner (now dead) and a woman driven insane by the death of her baby son, an heiress living in poverty and later isolation, an independent woman who has no control over her own destiny, and, finally, young bride of an Englishman who seems impossibly foreign and remote and who marries her for her money. She is exploited by almost everyone around her: by those (the natives, as well as Mr. Rochester) who want her money, and by those who want her for sex. No wonder she went crazy!

A couple of the other women in my book group were frustrated with how helpless Antoinette was. Yet, while Antoinette is largely a victim of the society Wide Sargasso Sea is that Antoinette is not just an innocent, one-dimensional victim: While she is largely powerless, she's also cynical, agnostic, astute and highly sexual -- and these attributes aren't what in the end condemn her to a life locked in an attic in England. And she's actually a lot like Jane in Jane Eyre. Both have troubled childhoods, have a detached, cynical view of humanity and are intelligent and artistic. Both are also -- despite Jane's somewhat puritanical morality -- aware of their sexuality: Remember that Jane, though she at first leaves Rochester when she finds out he is married, she rejects the boring minister who later tries to woo her because she isn't in love with him and returns to Rochester, consumed by her longing for him.


After discussing Wide Sargasso Sea over pumpkin waffles and mimosas, I went to see Julia Leigh's Sleeping Beauty, about a perpetually broke college student (Lucy, played by Emily Browning) who takes a job as a Sleeping Beauty, a prostitute whose clients pay to do anything to her while she is in a drug-induced slumber. The movie seemed like something a young Jean Rhys would have created if she lived today and made films.

First, Lucy is a contemporary version of the modern Rhys woman: an outsider driven by her poor socio-economic standing, her ambition and her sex. She's also partly a victim of all three of these things. She uses her sexuality in order to get money to allow her to realize her ambitions and rise above her class: Here, her immediate ambition is to finish school (we have no idea what she plans to do after or even what she's studying). Yet -- like Voyage's Anna and Sargasso's Antoinette -- she can only handle so much exploitation and degradation before she breaks.

Yet there is the sense that Lucy is more adept at navigating the ruthless, cold modern world. Her clients, after all, are also victims -- of their sexual urges and desires (there's the guy who can't get it up but pays to talk vile to her exquisite corpse and lick her face), their age, their immense wealth, their loneliness -- and she exploits their needs and shame as much as they exploit her body. There's something sad about these transactions, something tragic and human, which makes them even more unsettling and complex than if they were just paying to have sex.

Then there's the tone: straightforward, cool and detached, like Rhys. (Take the scene where Lucy's future employers prod and examine her fair flesh to make sure she passes muster or the scene where Lucy's madame and her john discuss life and death at the foot of the Sleeping Beauty's bed, composed to look like a painting.) It's refusal to make moral judgements on any of its characters has lead critics to call it frustrating, opaque and empty. Well, it is frustrating and opaque, but that's what gives it its richness.

But despite its clinical treatment of the body, Lucy doesn't just see sex as a means to an end (i.e. money). As cooly as she treats her body ("My body is not a temple," she sneers when her employer says she will not be penetrated during work), there is a sense that she does derive something out of her sexual encounters. She does, after all, get intimate with a few other guys, presumably without asking for cash. And she does, after several jobs as a Sleeping Beauty, become obsessed with finding out what happens to her while she's under the ether. There is something about sex and about human desire that fascinates her, though she can't quite place or understand it.

Also, like Sargasso, Sleeping Beauty is a subversive retelling of a beloved classic, one that exposes its predecessors retrograde, anti-feminist message and shatters the idea that love can conquer even the most insurmountable obstacles (a curse in Sleeping Beauty, an inconvenient marriage in Jane Eyre). And it implicates us too. I think that presenting Lucy as somewhat of a blank canvas (her motivations are vague, her background and character growth scant), Leigh invites the audience -- like her johns -- to project their own ideas, prejudices and desires onto her, which forces us to question how we fill in these gaps and our own ideas about sex and sexuality.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Wong Kar Wai and 3-D Movies

The other day, I was riding the subway home from work, when I suddenly thought about In the Mood for Love, Wong Kar Wai's gorgeous 2000 film about forbidden love in 1960s Hong Kong. I don't know what made me think of it, but all of a sudden I felt that I was in a crowded, narrow street, the smell of body sweat and hot noodles assaulting my nostrils, and I marveled at how WKW could make someone who had never stepped foot in Hong Kong experience it so viscerally.

WKW's films -- we'll pretend My Blueberry Nights doesn't exist -- are not just movies; they are experiences. I remember watching Days of Being Wild and feeling the humidity and heat in those lush outdoor shots in the Philippines. I remember feeling the grime in some dark, obscure stairway (or was it hallway) in Fallen Angels. His films can be overwhelming -- an assault of the senses, and on the emotions too -- but I wouldn't have them any other way.

Nowadays, filmmakers rely on 3-D to make audiences believe they are experiencing something. But we don't need things flying at us to make us engaged. I can watch In the Mood for Love and touch the silk of Maggie Cheung's dresses, I can smell the dimly lit hotel room where the two romantic leads meet to write their comic book and end up falling in love, I can taste the noodles they eat -- all without special effects (though Christopher Doyle's rich cinematography is kind of its own special effect it's so amazing).


On a related note, I went back and read my original review of WKW's 2046 (his sequel to In the Mood for Love), and wow, I can't remember feeling so passionately about a movie in such a long time. (The one recent thing I've seen that comes close is the first 1.5 seasons of Twin Peaks.) Either I am thoroughly jaded or WKW really is magical.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Celebrities at the Movies

Today Dante and I went to see some Godard rarities--a potpourri of trailers, interviews and shorts directed by or featuring the great French director--at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center. We spotted, unsurprisingly, The New Yorker's Richard Brody, whose excellent book on Godard's life and work I reviewed for Forbes in the audience. His companion: Jason Schwartzman! Before and after the screening, Schwartzman was gabbing enthusiastically, gesticulating madly. I wonder what these two were talking about.

It's funny how we've seen more celebrities at the movies than anywhere else in New York City, which is weird because you think of celebrities going to premiers and fancy events and not just randomly hitting up the cinema for a weekend activity--it seems far too egalitarian an activity for them. It also, in terms of seeing actors and directors, feels a bit like breaking down the fourth wall. These are people you are accustomed to seeing on the screen, in another dimension, I guess, yet here they are on the other side of the screen sitting with you, partaking in the same experience. Trippy, man.

Our first summer in New York, we ran into Ethan Hawke getting popcorn at IFC (he was chatting with the employees and seemed to be a regular). We saw Gabriel Byrne at a screening of Claire's Knee at BAM. We spotted Sofia Coppola near the front of a packed theater for The September Issue at the Sunshine. And we sat in the same row as fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi for Michael Powell's The Red Shoes at Film Forum. Each sighting seemed perfect for each celebrity too: Of course Ethan Hawke would hang out at indie favorite IFC; an intellectual French film seems the perfect fit for Byrne, so thoughtful and brooding and intense and handsome in all his movies; Coppola, possibly the best-dressed women in the movie biz and a long-time muse of designer Marc Jacobs, would naturally have an interest in a documentary about Vogue (she looked so chic too, in a striped boatneck tee and slacks); and the theatrical, stylish, sumptuously colored The Red Shoes could provide Mizrahi with some great inspiration for his equally glamorous, vivid fashion collections.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Some New-ish Movies I've Seen

Fantastic Mr. Fox: Worthy of Dahl

Where the Wild Things Are: Angsty!

Up in the Air: Totally overrated

A Town Called Panic: Fabulously absurdist

Young Victoria: Pleasantly surprised

Bright Star: Stark and beautiful

Monday, December 21, 2009

David Lynch's Favorite Sandwiches

Photo by Justin Hoff

So, I met David Lynch when he was in New York for a speaking engagement with the Hudson Society. And we talked a bit. And then he listed his top five favorite sandwiches for me. And then I ended up writing about it on And, well, the rest is history.

(Btw, that's me on sitting on the far left, with another reporter next to me, David Lynch and David's friend, who is conspicuously checking his Blackberry.)

Saturday, November 7, 2009


Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard in "An Education"

This afternoon, Dante and I went to see An Education, which I rather liked. But afterward, as we were walking back to the subway he mentioned that he thought the acting and the screenwriting were good but the directing was too stodgy.

He thought that the stiffness was okay for the parts when the 16-year-old protagonist, Jenny, is at home in her middle-class suburb of London, but that when she gets whisked into a world of concerts and champagne and art auctions by a suave older man (played by Peter Sarsgaard), the filmmaking should have gotten freer. (New York magazine's film critic, David Edelstein, said something similar: "Lone Scherfig’s direction is glum. We’re so clued in to what’s really going on that we never share Jenny’s authentic excitement at being introduced to art, music, and exotic locales.")

I agree that the direction is rather conventional, but it didn't in any way detract from my enjoyment of the film. Of course, though I never had an affair with an older man and grew up in a much different time and place, I was quite similar--in interests and aspirations--to Jenny when I was a teenager (I even played a string instrument and shared her love of existentialists; I am still obsessed with French culture), so perhaps Jenny's thrill at being a part of this life of style and sophistication was just naturally more palpable to me than to Edelstein or my boyfriend. As far as the direction goes, I think it serviced the narrative just fine, which is strange since I generally like more formalism in my movies. But I guess sometimes having a story is enough.

*Interestingly, I actually reviewed Lone Scherfig's last movie Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself for my college paper here. Warning: I wrote this as an undergrad; I think that's all you need to know.

Sunday, September 27, 2009


Everyone loves questionnaires! Dante Ciampaglia called my attention to this cinematic equivalent of the famous Proust questionnaire by film critic Didier Peron, which was translated into English by New Yorker writer Richard Brody.

I bite:

The first image?
All those brightly colored umbrellas dancing in the rain from Umbrellas of Cherbourg

The film (or the scene) that traumatized your childhood?
Maleficent from Disney's Sleeping Beauty. She featured prominently in my nightmares for years.

The movie your parents prevented you from seeing?
What didn't they prevent me from seeing? I was particularly crushed when my mom wouldn't let me see the Romeo + Juliet adaptation with Leonardo DiCaprio when I was an adolescent. Moms are, like, so totally cruel.

Your fetish scene:
Lena Olin in a bowler hat.

You’re directing a remake. Which one?
Not really a remake, but I would like to see someone do a really interesting adaptation of Edie Sedgewick's life--something more impressionistic and trippy than the completely mundane Factory Girl (my review here).

What makes you laugh?
The absurd.

Your life becomes a bio-pic. Who plays the role of you? And who directs?
Charlotte Gainsbourg, Sofia Coppola

A film that makes you say “Never again!”
Holocaust movies, war movies, movies about the oppressed/marginalized/etc.

The character who most sets you dreaming.
A pair, actually: Jesse and Celine from Before Sunrise

The absolute filmmaker, in your eyes?
Jean-Luc Godard, of course.

The actor or actress you’d like to have been.
Anna Karina

The last film you saw? With whom? How was it?
Family Life. With Dante. It was interesting, but a bit inscrutable and distant.

If you were to adapt a book?
The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (with my boyfriend), and Lolita (I know it's been done twice, but I want to do it again).

The craziest thing you’ve seen on the Internet?
A piano-playing cat. OK, not the craziest, but isn't it cute?

If someone called you a cinephile, how would you react?

DVD or more-or-less-legal downloading?
DVD, but really, nothing beats the cinema.

The masterpiece that everyone talks to you about but that you’ve never managed to see.
Citizen Kane. Yes. Really.

The last image?
Have to agree with Richard Brody here: Jean Paul Belmondo closing his eyelids with his hand.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Austen at the Disco

Kate Beckinstale and Chloe Sevigny primping at the Club

The Criterion Collection has released Whit Stillman beautiful and witty 1998 film The Last Days of Disco on DVD. I saw the film for the first time a few weeks ago at a screening at Lincoln Center, following which was a disco dance party, though I was really the only one moving my hips in a room mostly full of film nerds.

Stillman is a wonderful observer and chronicler of society who is unsparing yet sympathetic to, even protective of, his characters. Film Comment's Gavin Smith, in a conversation with the director after a screening of the film at Lincoln Center, compared him to Jane Austen, and I think that is rather astute. In a wonderful recent interview with the Village Voice, Stillman referenced Austen but also F. Scott Fitzgerald, J.D. Salinger and Evelyn Waugh, though Stillman is far kinder than the often acerbic and bitter Waugh.

There is a bit of a This Side of Paradise whiff to Last Days of Disco -- these kids, spoiled and bright, with their Ivy League pedigrees looking for love and trying to find themselves as they are thrust into young adulthood. The passion and earnestness in the film is also in keeping with Fitzgerald's first novel, but it is mixed with -- and even buried under -- a laconic irony and disarming awkwardness (much like many of Austen's funniest scenes). Alice (played by Chloe Sevigny) is the prototypical Austen heroine: independent (but not too rebellious), bookish and serious, yet romantic.

But Alice, in a way, has a much harder time than Pride and Prejudice's Elizabeth Bennet navigating through her society's social mores. For Elizabeth, elaborate, ridiculous rules are in place that she -- and her suitors -- must abide: the result is awkward, inconvenient, yet pretty safe. Alice, however, is a young woman in a time in which social mores are being completely uprooted and changed, yet there is still some secret, mysterious code in place that she must figure out. It seems so easy (in her view) to everyone but herself. And she watches them with a mixture of envy and (perhaps because of her jealousy) contempt. There is a constant turmoil between who she wants to be -- someone who is confident and who can easily ensnare men (like her domineering roommate, Charlotte) -- and who she really is. It is something all the characters, to an extent, struggle with, except perhaps Charlotte (played by a young Kate Beckinstale), who seems slightly delusional and egomaniacal anyway. It also spurs one of the film's most memorable monologues, in which the womanizing Des (played by Chris Eigeman) muses on the famous Shakespeare phrase "To thine own self be true": "But what if 'thine own self' is not so good?"

The witty repartee -- a wonderful mixture of the high and low-brow -- reminded me of some of my favorite post-graduate-malaise/Gen X films of the '90s, such as Before Sunrise and Kicking and Screaming, albeit about yuppies at the disco rather than slackers hanging around the coffee shop. I wonder if this had something to do with the film's initial lukewarm reception -- that Stillman elevated the much maligned and caricatured disco era and its spoiled, rich and materialistic enthusiasts to, well, something of beauty and profundity.

Two things I wanted to point out from the interview, which I found really illuminating. The first is how Whitman describes his writing process:
The best way I find is to have the characters start to operate and speak and then let them run and conflict and end up one way or another. And I really don't know how things will turn out, generally, in the stories. It's the reverse of what Robert McKee used to say in his course, which is, he used to say you don't want to create story through dialogue ... and the only way I know how to create the characters is to try some scenes with dialogue where they do stuff and say stuff, and then you start getting a sense of the character and what they might do and how they might think, and if you get to the point where they seem to be operating autonomously then it feels much better and much more authentic and worth exploring ...

And it's a slow process, because there're a lot of cul-de-sacs that have to be gotten out of. I think in dialogue, what I find really helpful is trying to sort of tell the truth about things, have the characters tell the truth from their point of view and then, sometimes you make a statement in dialogue and then you realize, "You know, that's not quite true, there are these exceptions, there's this other aspect ..." and then send another character to say that, or they can themselves reconsider what they said. Sometimes by being a little bit tormented by something you wrote that really probably isn't true, you can use that anxiety to come to a solution that helps you in dialogue, helps you in character. And often there's a joke in there, often you can come up with some response that'll be a punchline and you can see them get out of it, get on to something else.

So elegantly put. I love the idea of creating a story through dialogue. That makes sense to me. (There is a third option, I think, though, which is creating a story through a mood or timbre.)

The second is about realism:

I'm explicitly coming to feel that realism is a problem in cinema. It is the criterion for many people's judgment of films, and there's a lot of static about anything that doesn't seem verite to people, or externally verite. And I think ... it's led people a lot of wrong roads, they dismiss some things that are good, and over-value some things that are rather empty because of the infatuation with "the real." That "real" we really get every day, every day we open our eyes. And it is true that the unreal can be artificial in a very bad way, and therefore it makes us appreciate those film that seem real in what they're showing. I've just seen a series of highly-praised very realistic films and ... there's just a feeling of emptiness, of hollowness, there's no humor in them, there's no joy, there's no romance ... I don't think it's true to life because I think we bring those emotions and aesthetic exultation to life as we observe it instead of just having this critically-negative camera covering things...

My boyfriend and I were discussing this quote over our cereals this morning, and we both thought of the current craze for "mumblecore," films about inarticulate 20-somethings trying to figure stuff out. But mostly this quote makes me think, again, of one of my all-time favorite films Before Sunrise (and its companion Before Sunset). That film had a profound impact on me as an adolescent because in it I realized all my dreams and hopes and ideals. It is, perhaps, the most beautiful idealization of romance ever put on screen, yet it still feels true. You can argue that no early 20-somethings are as articulate and profound as Ethan Hawke's and Julie Delphy's characters in Before Sunrise, but that didn't matter, because what they said embodied the frustrations and dreams of young idealistic teens and 20-somethings watching that movie everywhere. They shared our frustrations and struggles, they shares our beliefs and passions, they just expressed them more beautifully than we ever could (and were themselves, of course, impossibly beautiful). In a way, though, that is one of the greatest things about cinema, that it can express ideas and life with more wit and insight and beauty and clarity than we have the luxury or time to.