Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Bette Noir

Went to see 'Now Voyager' yesterday. Wouldn't particularly have chosen to have gone, and the showing turned out to have been arranged by a uniquely unenthusiastic academic who addressed us as though we were in his Post-Feminist class (which was probably true of most of the audience) and we should be watching for historical interest only. He especially apologised for the last 40 minutes of the film which, he said, dragged awfully. And whoever heard of a good Bette Davis film, anyway? It wasn't looking promising.

But. The academic was wrong. It happens, I'm sure. The film turned out to be a painful examination of lonelieness, frumpiness and the bad effects having of an overbearing mother. Sure there were incongruities: Bette Davis's 'fat' get-up for the frumpy scenes was, if infinitely preferable to Monica's fat suit in 'Friends' (one of the bad taste horrors of the modern age), less than convincing and entirely lacking in the fat that the script kept referring to. So the transition to social butterfly was a bit awkward, but what are you going to do? It's 1942. Hollywood ain't about to put a real frump on the screen.

Look past this, and you find a daringly downbeat story arc, smuggled to the screen by a star: downtrodden, henpecked daughter leads a life of quiet desperation. Eventually escapes her mother's clutches by having a nervous breakdown and getting a rest cure (incorporating a cruise and the kind of social 'coming out' you get in Jane Austen - it's probably an anachronism by 1942, isn't it?). Falls in doomed love with a married man who reciprocates but feels the obligation of his... uh, 'ill' wife and kids. His madwoman in the attic. This is where the film gets good, building on Charlotte's earlier agony, heaping an unhealthy and all-consuming adoration on her shoulders. The film's finest moment comes when she holds Paul's daughter in her arms and wishes she was her child with him. Such a monumentally unhealthy thing to think, but irresistible. This kind of depth of feeling, which drenches the 40 minutes the academic found so tedious, is the point of the film, and I guess you've got to roll with it to get that. Everyone I was with did, though.

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