BEL AMI, a world where WOMEN DON’T MATTER

March 12, 2013 § Leave a comment

220px-Bel_ami_posterBEL AMI is a recently produced movie about a time in European history when women could use their wiles as behind-the-scenes influencers but men steered the vessels.

Hey, isn’t that basically ANY time in recent history?

Even the casting in this  movie version of Guy de Maupassant’s book follows suit.  Top notch actresses take secondary roles playing women who are secretly influential, and an inferior actor gets the part of the  leading man benefiting directly from their influence.  Fiction and reality coincide.

And he got paid the big bucks, apparently.  Hope the ladies did, too.

I happened upon the film while channel surfing on TV.  The log line interested me:  “A chronicle of a young man’s rise to power in Paris via his manipulation of the city’s most influential and wealthy women.”

Paris and influential women.  That brought to mind my own research subject, the artist Susan Watkins, who earned acceptance by the Academie in Paris, was heading towards greater fame,

fr. Chrysler Museum files, Susan Watkins 1875-1913

fr. Chrysler Museum files, Susan Watkins 1875-1913

and died young, having accepted a longtime suitor’s proposal of marriage, which, due to societal injunctions, required she put down her beloved brush.  Huge question mark for me, that.  What causes a woman to stop pursuing the thing she’s fought for the right to do all her life?  Love?  Hm… Maybe.

So, BEL AMI.  If it’s about Paris and influential women, thought I, then it wouldn’t be a waste of my time to watch.  Guy de Maupassant (1850- 1893) wrote short stories set in exactly Susan’s time period.  Great and easy research, just watching.  Besides, I could always change the channel.

I stuck with BEL AMI for two reasons; no, three.  One, the utterly DELECTABLE period costuming and sets which captivate from the opening scene onward.  Who can argue with late nineteenth century Paris for scenery?

And reason two? Kristin Scott Thomas’ name flashed past in the early credits before I channel surfed away.  Really admire her.  And reason three?

UMA THURMAN!!!Pulp-Fiction-uma-thurman-5876994-1280-800

I will watch any thing Uma is in.  She fascinates me.  I have read she’s actively seeking scripts for “older” women, willing, apparently, to age gracefully in her roles.  Thank goodness.

Pattinson, the lead, spends MUCH on-screen time looking like his vampire self.  Since I have not read de Maupassant’s book, I do not know if the over-showing of Pattinson being vampiric- in this instance manipulative, through sexuality, of the lead women- is the director’s choice or the script’s, written, incidentally, by a woman, Rachel Bennett.

Pattinson’s a hot commodity right now.  He’s recently encroached upon my enjoyment of serious literature.  photo-30I was shocked, upon opening a package from Amazon, to discover that my choice was “Bella and Edward’s favorite,” too.  Yipee.

Depending on why you watch movies, in BEL AMI, there’s a lot of gratuitous showing of Pattinson in tux and tails and also in nothing but his birthday suit, so run out and rent the movie if you like that.  Apparently, the box office buyers do.

Was BEL AMI the movie good?  I liked it for its attention to period detail.  What a fertile, growth filled time it portrays, just before the century turned and the United States became a world power, usurping that role from the French.  And a time when women from all socio-economic backgrounds had one thing in common.  They were truly second class citizens, even in forward thinking lands.

UMA THURMAN has one of the most devastatingly direct speeches I’ve ever heard in film, delivered under duress to the impossibly vampiric and, at this point in the movie, angry, Pattinson, after the funeral of a man Pattinson suspects was her lover.

In it, she expresses exactly how a woman, fully herself and yet completely lacking control of her own personal and political freedoms, feels about someone she has deeply loved.

In it, Uma’s character, Madeleine, lays Pattinson’s character, Georges, low.  For his insensitivity to human nature and his tromping upon her female heart.

Ultimately, because of the setting, and probably the book itself, and the huge fact that the movie is about Georges, what she says becomes an aside.  An extremely well delivered aside from a woman who should have been the story’s star, leaving Pattinson to brood and glower somewhere in the grand ballroom among the other extras.  And ultimately, her character, Madeleine, gives up and gives in to her own place in society.  As did, I fear, my Susan.

Thurman’s portrayal of Madeleine is brilliant.  The women are all well played in this flick.  And the men, as a group, are good, too.  Colm Meaney, for instance, plays a dastardly Monsieur Rousset, the lead publisher at the newspaper which “starts a war,” they claim.

Ultimately, though, the story’s just about debauchery and a guy besting his betters.  I suspect this was enough theme for de Maupassant’s initial audiences.  It’s somehow unsatisfying to me, though.  No women win anything in this story, not even sexually.  But if that’s the way de Maupassant’s day would have had it, then I’m the better for having been treated to a production showing it with such delicious pageantry.  And I can get over Pattinson.  He’s not that bad.

But I do feel it very important to shout out, loudly, that THE WOMEN CARRIED THE SHOW!  Had it been more ABOUT the women, with that cast of ladies, the movie might have been a real winner.

AVOID BEAUTIFUL, PLEASANT AND GOOD? but what of Women’s stories?

March 5, 2013 § Leave a comment

I found this on advicetowriters.com:

It’s very hard to write about that which is always beautiful and pleasant and good. You don’t get anywhere with it. There’s no friction in it. There’s no trouble. You have to have trouble. Somebody’s got to get in trouble, or no one wants to read it.  (PAUL BOWLES)

fr. the Chrysler Museum of Art collection, Susan Watkins (1875-1913)

fr. the Chrysler Museum of Art collection, Susan Watkins (1875-1913)

Well, I have sat at the feet of many women who just tell about life, leading with the beautiful, the pleasant, the good, and sorta staying on point.  It was not their stories so much as the ways and the reasons they told them to me.  Multisensory, “listening to grandma”, passing on wisdom stuff.  What she wore.  Why she loved grandpa.

I have wondered if exactly Bowles’ point, however, that there’s no friction without the opposite of beautiful, pleasant and good, is what drives the male orientation in films.

The article goes on to discuss externalization of internal conflicts- translation, “show don’t tell”, which is so very pertinent for staged and filmed stories.  For example, an “I love you” that beams from an actor’s eyes won’t work unless there’s a quick Mr. DeMille close-up interrupting the moment.  A close-up can’t possibly be pulled off on stage unless there’s the ubiquitous rock concert video feed screen above it.  On live stage, Romeo has to get down on his knees.  And apparently dodge apples, or worse, in Shakespeare’s day, thrown from the fickle crowd if he doesn’t bow convincingly.

Okay, no wonder the script and screenwriters lean towards highs and lows and nothing beautiful.  I guess audiences through the ages have been tough.

But, look how the first thing I thought, in yammering on about story action, was not only a play from a period in history when even the female monarch wished she were a man, but also “Romeo”, not Juliet.

Romeo fights, climbs vines, declares his love with great swashbuckling.  Juliet stabs herself with a dagger, true, but, short of pulling out my dog-eared Shakes and rereading, I don’t immediately recall any other majorly overt acts of Juliet’s.  I just know, probably from her words and her interaction with Romeo, that “she loves.” And from the scenes with her nursemaid where we hear how she feels and learn why she shouldn’t feel that.

A script about nothing more than a woman and her nursemaid hanging out in the dressing room, doing hair and adjusting clothes, talking about a guy wouldn’t work.  Without flashbacks to violence, flash forwards to the oops, maybe a pregnancy.  Maybe a stalker at the window, an orb that holds earth’s secrets suddenly exploding in the closet.

But, back to hanging out with grandmothers, doing nothing, just listening to not very exciting tales.  There WAS excitement.  There WAS learning.  And a center point of the moment, before which came me not knowing and after which I understood her better.

So, what IS good FEMALE STORYTELLING?

I suspect there’s a passive, internal, contained and eternally nourished kind of storytelling that women are not encouraged, in today’s media (plural of medium), to practice.  Something that doesn’t play well in the glare of public criticism, for audiences accustomed to “through lines” and beginning-middle-end and action.  I suspect real feminine storytelling is something that women themselves avoid in order to succeed. ??

The image I’ve used for this post is a close up of a painting done in 1908 by an American woman, Susan Watkins, who could have been well known but died before her story was fully formed.  Died before the 1913 Armory show in NYC that slammed American art onto the international scene.  Before she could have matured into a woman willing to tell her stories, in paint, in a more revealing way.  Loosen up.  Externalize.

The most she reveals here, in this strikingly intimate painting of an interior in her Parisian salon, is her skill with the brush, sanctioned and applauded by the French Academie, and her beautiful, pleasant and good artist’s eye regarding domestic silent moments.

I have researched her extensively, and at first desperately hoped to find friction; to prove that she had met innovators and begun to break out into “the Modern.”  Been Mary Cassat and Gertrude Stein, for heaven’s sake.  BEEN SOMETHING STORY WORTHY.  I found nothing with enough friction to drive me into a Hollywood Blockbuster kinda tale.  She died.

And yet, she does have a story.  What is it?

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