Friday, May 18, 2018

Film Review: "Madonna of the Seven Moons"

The Gainsborough melodramas released in the 1940s were hugely popular with British audiences and mocked by critics. These films took place in dramatic period settings, with actresses in gorgeous, ornate costumes and hats, and sensational plots centered around women transgressing social boundaries, falling in love with rogues, thieves, highwaymen, and Heathcliff-like monsters, and even tasting the forbidden pleasures and pains of murder and robbery themselves in some cases. This focus on women's lives, with a particular emphasis on sexual autonomy or lack thereof, make these films fascinating for contemporary viewers.

Madonna of the Seven Moons, directed by Arthur Crabtree who had previously been a Gainsborough cinematographer, has been described by some as lurid, by others as stuffy, but I'd say both camps - the sensation-seekers who watch the pre-code pictures to get a glimpse of Marlene Dietrich's breasts and the oh-so-cool types who disdain any show of emotion that isn't strictly justified by the most gritty forms of trauma as overblown - are projecting their own understandings of what melodramas are on to a film that delves into what it means to be a woman through a character who is both Madonna and whore, but then again, neither.

In the opening scene, a pig-tailed Maddalena (Phyllis Calvert) in her convent school uniform is picking flowers in a field. A man approaches her and begins to undo his belt. A close-up shows her terrified face as she runs from him; the shot fades to black. In the next shot, she cowers in her room, in agony. This rape scene is all the more devastating for eclipsing the rape itself and instead centering the viewer's attention on Maddalena's anguish. Even by the end of the film, no one, not even the physician who attends her, ever finds out about this rape. It remains an unspoken secret with fateful consequences, but remarkably, given the film's religious values, Maddalena is framed as completely innocent, both before and after the fact. This sexual trauma profoundly affects her life, but it doesn't make her guilty - on the contrary, it absolves her later of a violent act that prevents the same trauma from occurring to another young girl.

However, this is not a movie about a woman surviving rape and becoming empowered. Instead, Maddalena, a good Catholic girl, agrees to marry the man her father has chosen for her, Giuseppe (John Stuart), and it turns out to be a good marriage in the conventional sense - not a passionate love affair, but a stable, caring relationship largely devoid of strong emotion. Her fervent religiosity as much as her extreme sensitivity mark her as a Madonna figure; she spends her life in good works. Her husband goes so far as to teasingly call her a saint. When her daughter Angela (Patricia Roc) returns from an English finishing school with an English diplomat boyfriend (Alan Haines, a puppyish and much less handsome David Niven look-alike) and some decidedly not convent-approved lingerie, Maddalena becomes increasingly agitated. After a chance encounter with a "dancer" (that is, a gigolo, played by Peter Glenville) with his eye on the pretty, pert, and still somewhat innocent Angela, Maddalena faints. When she wakes, there is a strange glimmer in her eye. She rises, draws a symbol of seven moons on the mirror with lipstick, and runs from the house with the contents of her jewelbox in her handkerchief. Maddalena's transformation is a literal one: she becomes Rosanna, a sultry, fiery, and sticky-fingered creature whose lover, Nino (Stewart Granger), is a thief with more than a little sex appeal. These two women in the same body are living two lives that collide and shatter, leaving hearts broken, bodies bleeding, and souls won back to God.

A pat psychological explanation is given for Maddalena's condition by family friend and doctor Ackroyd (Reginald Tate). He surmises that some trauma in childhood caused a rupture in Maddalena's psyche, splitting her personality. When anxiety and pain threaten to become too great, she takes refuge in the second personality, running from her sumptuous palazzo, devoted husband, and philanthropic works. However, no one in the film ever discovers what trauma wreaked such havoc. Only we, the viewers, know why Maddalena split into Madonna and whore.

At first glance, this dichotomy seems like one more tiresome iteration of the usual scenario, one where the whore must be destroyed and the Madonna martyred, but because the audience knows that it was a brutal rape that caused the psychological split, a different interpretation emerges. Sexual trauma forces Maddalena to repress her sensuality and so she becomes a near saint, but here's the trick: the film refuses to let Maddalena deny her sexuality. It's there within her, lurking whenever emotion overflows its boundaries. The whore personality, the underworld creature ready to knife her rival, permits Maddalena-reborn-Rosanna to engage in a smoldering romantic affair. She and Nino both during the course of the film devour pieces of fruit, letting the juice drip down their faces; while the demure Maddalena could never take such sensual pleasure in her food, the earthy Rosanna can. The character is torn between the body she can enjoy and the body that has been despoiled, a free expression of her desires and the utter repression of even the slightest reminder of physical feeling. The true villain in the film is not the murderous impulses of the human Id, nor Nino, the petty criminal, nor sex for the fun of it: the villain is rape and any man who attempts it. If Maddalena's ultimate salvation is found in God, it's in a conception of God as intensely forgiving and understanding.

Madonna of the Seven Moons is a melodrama in the true sense of the term: it is a story about fairly ordinary people swept up into tragedy by circumstances beyond their control. It is difficult to see how a film that delineates such an exacting polemic against rape, while still portraying consensual sex as happy, romantic, and fulfilling, could be called lurid, and even more bizarre to call it stuffy. The psychology may strike the modern viewer as fairly antiquated, especially since split personalities in particular have become such a cliche of both weepies and thrillers, but in this case, a fairly simplistic idea of psychic rupture allows Crabtree, screenwriter Roland Pertwee, and star Phyllis Calvert to excavate and complicate the Madonna-whore dichotomy in a world where sexual violence against women is a fact of life. They accomplish this without rejecting Catholicism for blasphemy or vice versa. Sexual innocence is redefined: Maddalena's loss of virginity makes her no less good, and not even her extra-marital affair, pursued by Rosanna, makes her less good. Instead, sexual evil is staunchly defined as abuse, as one person taking another by force. Madonna of the Seven Moons lets us have our melodramatic cake and eat it, progressive sexual politics and all, too.

Monday, May 14, 2018

She's No Beauty: The Continuing Trope of the Ugly Duckling

It still strikes us revelatory, provocative, perhaps even shocking, when heroines aren't beautiful. It's presumed that any woman who could hold a reader's, or a viewer's attention for more than five minutes must be beautiful or else some sort of novelty, who fascinates by virtue of bucking the convention. But even the 'unconventional' heroines tend to be beautiful, or at least quite attractive, by most real-world standards: they simply don't recognize it because women - yes, still today, and probably for generations to come - are indoctrinated into a belief in their own ugliness. Bridget Jones isn't actually ugly and fat: the pressure to be prettier and thinner translates into a vicious cycle. We're not supposed to believe that she looks to other people as she does to herself. And even the "American stick insect" who makes Bridget feel so very unattractive in comparison would, were she the heroine of her own novel and not the nemesis of the heroine, feel just as desperately ugly and fat. The recent Amy Schumer film, I Feel Pretty, is predicated on this very idea. Schumer's character has to suffer a concussion in order to appreciate her own good looks. A silly controversy (prior to the film's release!) resulted when people expressed outrage at the premise of the film. It wasn't clear whether these very angry people were upset at the intimation that a woman as attractive as Schumer could have low self-esteem or if they were upset because the premise acknowledged the reality that actual looks bear little correlation with how a woman sees herself, but in any case, the movie hit a sore spot. Constant complaints are lodged that heroines are too beautiful for a real woman to aspire to be her, but at the same time, the longing for beauty and for a recognition of being beautiful means that calling a heroine anything but beautiful invites a firestorm.

And when a heroine really isn't attractive by conventional standards? Then she's an ugly duckling, and her confidence makes her into a swan. Confidence replaces beauty and paradoxically renders the heroine beautiful precisely because she isn't beautiful. Her other qualities - her intelligence, perhaps, or her kindness, or her selflessness - shine through the exterior and beautify it. In other words, ugly heroines are never allowed to remain ugly. To remain at the center of a narrative, she has to be made beautiful in some fashion or another. Ugliness is still strictly associated with character; the heroine is both beautiful because she is a heroine and a heroine because she is beautiful. Expanding the definition of 'beautiful' does not shake the basic requirement that beauty is necessary for a woman to have a story worth telling.

The feminist iteration of this usually insists on a beautifying quality that is often considered the compensation for plainness or ugliness: cleverness. Jo March, Anne Shirley, Sybylla Melvyn - these feminist heroines are not described as beautiful, but find me the film adaptation with a Jo, an Anne, or a Sybylla who isn't beautiful. Their 'ugliness' might consist of visible freckles, mussy or frizzy hair, a plain dress, or an unflattering bonnet. Ugliness can be resolved with simple make-over because it isn't ugliness at all, just a lack of self-esteem. The trick that gets pulled off is that Jo, Anne, and Sybylla when viewed as role models let us have our cake and eat it too. They are clever, ambitious girls, girls who must fight to earn their livings, support their families, and win a chance at the life they want, all this, yes - but they're also beautiful. In our imaginations, we touch up their portraits; through the gorgeous faces and trim bodies of film stars, they shake off the last vestiges of plain looks. Thus the needle is threaded. As soon as the plain or ugly girl is visualized, she is transformed at once, from a witch to an enchantress. Inner beauty always gets translated into outer beauty.

One writer who came very close to refusing to beautify her ugly duckling was Mary Webb. In her novel, Precious Bane, the heroine Prue Sarn has a harelip, or a cleft palate as we would say today. Because of this, she is considered unmarriageable at best, a dangerous witch at worst. Prue mourns the possibilities that are closed off to her because of her disfigurement (and because of her poverty and class - these things weigh heavily as well), but she also accepts that those possibilities are not to be. Webb, however, does not let her heroine languish in misery, she does not leave her buried in a farm she can't inherit, while her brother can, she does not let every person without exception dismiss Prue as a hopeless case. She meets Kester Woodseaves, a weaver who also brings down the ire of his neighbors when he intervenes and prevents a bull baiting. These two characters are superior in both intelligence and feeling than their countrymen and they both recognize those qualities in the other. But Kester is beautiful and Prue is not. His inner qualities appear in his face; Prue's are hidden by hers.

The happy ending is delicious! Why shouldn't Prue, this extraordinary, fairy-like creation of Mary Webb's, not marry the man she loves, a man who sees those extraordinary qualities that are invisible to everyone else? She argues against it, insists that he choose a girl who matches him in physical beauty, even pleads with him to recognize her own ugliness and to instead "marry a girl like a lily." But Kester won't give up. He tells her, "I've chosen my bit of Paradise." He then kisses her "full upon the mouth." Mary Webb comes as close as any writer I've encountered has to letting her heroine be loved, really and deeply loved, preferred to a far lovelier girl, without insisting on some sort of quasi physicalized transformation. The ugly duckling is no swan at all, but an ugly duck who has nevertheless found a handsome drake. The especial magic of this ending lies in the fact that Kester's love doesn't transform her into a "bit of Paradise," but recognizes that she always was a "bit of Paradise." As long as we are too afraid to let a plain or ugly heroine remain so even on the occasion of the fulfilling of her dreams, we continue to enforce the beauty standards that many of us who consider ourselves feminists deplore. If every ugly duckling must grow up into a lovely swan, then beauty, whether inner or outer, remains a gendered requirement for recognition and happiness.

Friday, May 4, 2018

A Brief Sojourn in Gaston Bachelard's Wardrobe

One of the profound things that adults forget too easily is how magical hiding places are. In the chapter on "Drawers, Chests and Wardrobes" in The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard reminds us of how to access that magic through image. "Wardrobes with their shelves, desks with their drawers, and chests with their false bottoms are veritable organs of the secret psychological life. Indeed without these 'objects' and a few others in equally high favor, our intimate life would lack a model of intimacy." Hence the immense, extraordinary fascination with C.S. Lewis's magical wardrobe ("Does there exist a single dreamer of words who does not respond to the word wardrobe?..."), or the tiny house of Mary Norton's borrowers, snugly hidden under the floorboards, or Mad-Eye Moody's trunk, which with a slight turn of the key reveals entirely different insides each time one opens it. There are mysterious suitcases, like the bag in which Mary Poppins keeps a roomful of furniture or the one in which Merlin holds a library, or Hermione Granger's beaded bag, with everything, from books of magic to an expandable tent, needed to defeat an evil wizard. In L.M. Montgomery's work, a blue hope chest, full of the memories of a dead love, floats, tantilizingly, through more than one story and novel, and the four little women close up their happy girlhoods in four little trunks, lined up in a row in the attic. One couldn't play at Little Red Riding Hood without a basket, its contents (whether they exist or not) covered by a kerchief, and genies do not appear out of nowhere, but from a lamp.

The magic of enclosed spaces is easily forgotten, or worse, too determinedly psychologized. King Louis XVI is notorious for his naive fascination with locks and the sexual metaphor that, according to legend, finally convinced him to consummate his marriage with Marie Antoinette. But the real magic of such spaces, especially if they can be locked, lies in a combination of their potential - "what good things are being kept in reserve in the locked wardrobe?" - and their secretiveness - "every secret has its little casket."

Though Bachelard was no feminist, it is no great leap to connect these insights with Virginia Woolf's, in A Room of One's Own, that the woman writer needs a room of her own that she can lock behind her, a space that no one can enter unless she permits, where she can dream up her books. There is something, however, even more profound here, beyond the intense power of poetry or the pragmatic needs of the artist. In illuminating the dark little corner of the mind where this truth gets forgotten, Bachelard reminds us that at the heart of any creative endeavor there is a core of secrecy, secrecy that radiates possibility, but dies quickly if too totally revealed. A wardrobe with its door taken off loses its magic, a lamp scrubbed and laid out to dry in pieces on a rack holds no genie. Total revelation, complete revelation, demystifies, but we are sadly deceived if we believe, we rational citizens of the world, that demystification enriches our lives. The childish schoolyard rhyme was utterly wrong: Secrets, secrets, are only fun, if they aren't shared with anyone.