Joan Plowright Is Mrs. Palfrey
In May-December Buddy Drama
By: Andrew Sarris
Dan Ireland’s Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, from a screenplay by Ruth Sacks, is based on the novel by the late English author Elizabeth Taylor (no, not the movie star with the profoundly purple eyes). Seventy-six-year-old Dame Joan Plowright has been cast here in the most dominant and demanding role that she has ever undertaken in a 54-year career on stage, screen and television. She makes her first entrance as the widowed Mrs. Palfrey in the same hat that Celia Johnson wore in her first scene in David Lean and Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter (1945).
This inside reference attests to Mr. Ireland’s admiration for a film classic that Mrs. Palfrey acknowledges, later in the proceedings, to be her favorite picture, dating back to the time early in her marriage when she and her husband both wept at the unhappy ending. Perhaps it’s a less-than- strange coincidence that an older Celia Johnson once played Mrs. Palfrey herself, in a 1973 BBC adaptation of the Taylor novel.
Shot in London at the Averard Hotel, which stands in for the fictional Claremont Retirement Hotel, the film seems at first to serve merely as an opportunity for the poised and dignified Mrs. Palfrey to turn her superior gaze on the pathetically lonely and abandoned retirees clustered around her in the dining room. The most forward of them, Mrs. Arbuthnot (Anna Massey), immediately approaches Mrs. Palfrey and asks her to join in the group’s social activities. Mrs. Palfrey instinctively demurs, letting slip that she is expecting a visit from her grandson. But when she gets around to calling her grandson, who has some vague job in the London Archives, their telephone connection is broken, and Mrs. Palfrey gives up any faint hope that he might actually visit her.
In essence, she has been abandoned by the younger members of the family. Meanwhile, the other denizens of the retirement home—somewhat put off by what they perceive as her standoffish attitude toward them—suddenly feel vindicated by the non-appearance of her grandson; they even take to making jocular references to the “mythical” grandson in her presence. But Mrs. Palfrey shrugs off the ridicule and continues on her purposively solitary way.
Then one day, on a sidewalk near the hotel, she trips over a discarded leash and suffers a bad fall. Hearing her cry, a young man from a basement apartment comes to her aid. He helps her inside, treats her wound and offers her a cup of tea, then introduces himself as Ludovic Meyer, an unpublished writer who plays guitar in public places to support himself. Mrs. Palfrey is so moved by his kindness and politeness that she invites him to the Claremont, suggesting that he dress up a bit for the occasion. In making the reservation for Ludovic, Mrs. Palfrey doesn’t speak up fast enough to quash the general impression that her “mythical” grandson is surfacing at last. Hence, Mrs. Palfrey is compelled to inform Ludovic that he must pretend to be Desmond, her grandson. Ludovic cheerfully agrees to the deception and easily overwhelms the guests at the Claremont with his devilish good looks and engaging manners.
Mrs. Palfrey is overjoyed by the success of the masquerade, and then involves herself in Ludovic’s literary struggles by agreeing to be interviewed in order to give him material for a kind of biographical novel. By bits and pieces, we learn that Mrs. Palfrey has led a far more interesting life and, at the very least, has traveled much more extensively than the rest of the people in the retirement hotel. By encouraging her to talk about the past, Ludovic awakens feelings in her that Mrs. Palfrey had thought were long since safely tucked away. Ludovic’s on-again, off-again girlfriend, Gwendolyn (Zoe Tapper)—of whom Mrs. Palfrey thoroughly approves—impishly suggests that she and Ludovic seem to be on the verge of establishing a Harold and Maude–style relationship. As it happens, this 1971 Hal Ashby film, of the May-December romance of sorts between a suicidal young man (Bud Cort) and a concentration-camp survivor (Ruth Gordon), happens to be another of Mr. Ireland’s personal favorites.
The cream of the jest is the unannounced and unexpected arrival of the real Desmond, an unappealingly cloddish type whom Mrs. Palfrey passes off as her accountant before ushering him out of the hotel with the lie that relatives aren’t allowed to visit. In the end, Mrs. Palfrey settles on a stranger as the replacement for her unfeeling grandson and successfully carries off the deception.
On balance, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont generates almost as much emotion out of the strange rapport between a woman in her twilight years and a sensitive young man who happens to cross her path as did the unconventionally ill-matched couple played by Vincent D’Onofrio and a then-undiscovered Renée Zellweger in The Whole Wide World (1996), Mr. Ireland’s feature-film debut. The director also humanizes the rest of the Claremont contingent, including Mrs. Palfrey’s gently rebuffed suitor, played by the late Robert Lang, to whom the film is dedicated.
Marriage Is Work
Frédéric Fonteyne’s Gilles’ Wife, from a screenplay by Philippe Blasband, Mr. Fonteyne and Marion Hänsel, is adapted from the novel La Femme de Gilles, by the Belgian author Madeleine Bourdouxhe. The film takes place in a small French mining town in the 1930’s. Elisa (Emmanuelle Devos) is a devoted wife and mother passionately in love with Gilles (Clovis Cornillac), her miner husband, though she receives no discernible sexual satisfaction from their frequent, almost routine couplings. Though the one-sidedness of this marital transaction (especially in a French film) would normally serve as a prelude to the wife cuckolding her husband, Elisa is made of more selfless stuff: She is not only fanatically faithful to her husband, but seems to derive a special satisfaction from fulfilling his sexual needs without even considering her own.
Elisa spends her days caring for their two young daughters, while awaiting the birth of a third. Her beautiful and carefree younger sister, Victorine (Laura Smet), drops by from time to time to play with the children and help around the house. Elisa is living a happy and untroubled life—until the day she begins to suspect that her husband is having an affair with her sister. Elisa is not only the central figure in this drama of marital betrayal; she is also so much the point-of-view character that we never see anything but what she sees, through Ms. Devos’ luminously agitated eyes. The viewing experience becomes something akin to watching a silent movie without the clarifying titles—and with a dash of claustrophobia thrown in, the result of our being confined with Elisa to her home and hearth. There are long silences impregnated with dark suspicions, because nothing seems capable of inducing her to speak out about her betrayal—not to Gilles, nor to Victorine, nor to any third person.
One of the most outrageous scenes occurs at a town dance in which Elisa, sitting with her children, first watches Gilles dancing very intimately with Victorine, then sees him protest when a strange man cuts in on him. Gilles reluctantly returns to the “family” table and, barely giving Elisa a glance, turns his chair to the dance floor so that he can watch Victorine and her new partner more closely. Elisa says nothing as Gilles becomes increasingly agitated and is finally so enraged by the man’s advances that he flings caution to the winds and storms out to confront him in what nearly becomes a widespread brawl. Even so, Elisa remains strangely silent, in a mute display of masochism that is guaranteed to make contemporary hard-core feminists grind their teeth in furious frustration.
We are reminded, however, how seldom contemporary movies deal with working-class people and their marriages, and here we’re dealing with people caught up in a worldwide economic depression, when few men—much less women—were overendowed with career options. Elisa, however, goes even further in self-abasement: After Gilles breaks down in grief over his suspicion that Victorine has taken a new lover, she offers to shadow her younger sister around town. As I type this up, I find it difficult to believe that I am describing anything but pure farce, especially when I add the incidental information that, in the meantime, Elisa has given birth to another child and must therefore carry the newborn in her arms as she surveils Victorine for her husband.
When Elisa confirms Gilles’ suspicions, he rushes out to beat up Victorine, which he does within an inch of her life before Elisa intervenes. She takes Victorine to their mother’s house, and her mother tells Elisa that she never wants Gilles to come there again. For her part, Elisa finally asks Victorine why she chose to sleep with Gilles; in her insolent way, Victorine responds by asking Elisa why she didn’t keep him on the leash at home. Elisa can’t answer that question—she doesn’t know.
The ending is somewhat of a surprise, but it does provide something of an answer to the mystery posed by Elisa’s inarticulateness throughout her whole ordeal. Her long, eloquent silences are the stuff more of cinema than drama; she is far from being a babied creature in a doll’s house, with the self-knowledge to trumpet her self-discovery to the whole world. She is more like an animal caught in a trap that she cannot understand, and from which she cannot escape.
Mr. Fonteyne, the director, speaks of Elisa in the thoughts of her original creator: “Madame Bourdouxhe, who questioned herself about having imagined such a character, spoke of a sort of heroism particular to women like Elisa, a heroism from which one would like to deliver them.”
Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Innocence, from a screenplay by Ms. Hadzihalilovic, is based on the novella Mine-Haha (“Corporeal Education of Young Girls”) by Frank Wedekind, the author of Pandora’s Box, from which G.W. Pabst’s trail-blazing and sensual 1929 Louise Brooks vehicle was adapted—cutting-edge, push-the-envelope projects all. It follows that Innocence has been released without a rating. The film is dedicated to the writer-director’s partner in art and life, Gaspar Noé, whose Irréversible (2002) contains one of the most scabrously prolonged rape scenes in non-porn-film history, fobbed off with the artistic alibi of a reverse-order narrative à la Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000).
I was shocked by the blatant exploitation of little girls for what would seem to amount to a pedophile’s panorama—if only there were the slightest intimation of reality involved in the proceedings. It seems to be a part of the filmmaker’s strategy to make the spectator ashamed of all the prepubescent female flesh exposed onscreen in the service of some indecipherable ritual.
Innocence begins abstractly enough, with swirls of water filling the whole screen and ominous buzzing noises on the soundtrack. These swirls gradually resolve into two identifiable streams of water gushing from two small waterfalls located in a patch of idyllic forest. The film ends as abstractly as it began, with screen-consuming swirls of water issuing from a city fountain. After a series of sharply edited establishing shots—all of pointedly uninhabited milieux—we end up in a room with a coffin, first attended by one girl and then by four or five more. I could never keep track of the exact number, because all of the girls are dressed identically in white blouses, extra-short white skirts, white socks, dark ankle boots and—as we learn frequently later on—white panties. We learn also that their color-coded system of hair ribbons indicates the length of time the girls have spent in this most peculiar of boarding schools. It has only two subjects in its curriculum: dance, which explains (and exploits) their sturdy legs, and biology, focused on the changes in creatures large and small as they mature, most notably the earthbound caterpillars that evolve—if that’s the right word these days—into soaring butterflies.
When an older girl named Bianca (Bérangèra Haubruge) opens the coffin, lo and behold: A little girl is lying inert inside, seemingly either dead or asleep. When the girl opens her eyes, she doesn’t seem aware that there is anything unusual in her mode of arrival. She calmly introduces herself as Iris. As it turns out, Iris (Zoé Auclair) is the only Asian girl in the school, and the tiniest. After a brief, tearful request to return home, she passively allows herself to be undressed by the other girls and then dressed in the school “uniform.” The girls soon repair to the nearby pond, where they take off their clothes and frolic in the shallow water. After one accepts the fact that all of the girls entered the school at one time or another in a coffin, one is prepared to accept any incongruity or improbability that ensues. There are only two teachers on the faculty, both of them women: Mademoiselle Eva (Marion Cotillard) and Mademoiselle Edith (Hélène de Fougerolles), one for biology and the other for dance—and don’t ask me which one is which, or which of them propounds the school’s philosophy, “Obedience is the only path to happiness,” a motto that could have served Hitler, Stalin or Mao just as well.
Still, no overt force is ever applied to the girls to make them conform. Instead, they seem to be bound by their own fears and uncertainties, plus the rumors of institutional retribution that they themselves believe implicitly, and that are circulated to every fresh arrival. Two of the girls do try to escape, one apparently successfully, the other one drowning and then being cremated in what seems like a pagan ceremony.
When Iris develops a crush on Bianca and tries to follow her around wherever she goes, we are entitled to regard this budding relationship as a narrative strand, to be followed with a consistent camera viewpoint. But the director quickly loses interest in these characters, instead following first one girl and then the other in what amounts to a series of topical digressions.
I can’t recommend this film to my readers, because I don’t happen to trust its motives. But I felt that I had to acknowledge its existence, even though it confirms (in my mind, at least) the inevitable limitations of a cinematic enterprise that disdains narrative coherence—not in the name of allegory or mythology or even ideology, but (according to the filmmaker herself) in the name of an unbridled artistic subjectivity that requires “immersion” rather than “interpretation” on the part of the spectator. I’m sorry, but Innocence made me feel far more manipulated than immersed.
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