Wednesday, December 21, 2005
One might be forgiven for thinking this merely another rote period piece about Victorian oppression of women and female sensuality, as it takes that track initially and for much of the film. But The French Lieutenant's Woman is more slippery, more troublesome, and more problematic than expected. I can't make comparisons with Fowles' novel for the simple reason I have yet to read it, but I enjoyed the film a great deal.
Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep play dual roles: in 19th century England they are Charles and Sarah, he a progressive Darwinian, she a notorious woman of undeserved ill-fame. In 20th century England they are Mike and Anna, two actors portraying the original characters in a movie version of their story, and though both performers are married, they have an intense affair on and off the set.
I first suspected something strange and unexpected when Anna, at Mike's house, talks to Mike's wife, who stands symbolically for the un-liberated, Victorian housewife, busy with her kids, house, and garden while her husband fucks actresses. Anna, flush with the knowledge that Mike wants to leave his wife and marry her, says "I envy you," instantly casting doubt on the thematic pretentions of much of the film. There are consequences to liberation and equality. Not every member of an oppressed group is worthy of pity, nor is every member of an oppressive class worthy of contempt--what his bid to "save" Sarah costs Charles is unthinkable, and her reaction is quite surprising. Anna and Sarah's actions are peculiar and very interesting. Does freedom require moral character? Were Victorian cautions about female caprice apt? Are comfort and security worth a loss of freedom?
No. Equality means women are free to be jackasses too, and men can find themselves used as sexual tools as well. Mike's wife can keep house if she chooses, and Anna can fuck multiple men without commiting. And movies are fun. Jeremy Irons hasn't aged a day in 25 years.