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Certain Women

Recently I went to see Certain Women, the new film by American director Kelly Reichardt, which tells three separate but very loosely connected stories about women living in the US state of Montana. It is the kind of film which divides opinion. In the group I went with, most people found it slow, boring or pointless, and I noticed a few audience members left the cinema before the end of the film. So I feel the need to write about it and explain why I liked this film so much.

The stories in Certain Women are told slowly but so realistically that I became absorbed in the women’s lives. The film shows people going about everyday life in the same way that the French director Eric Rohmer’s films do, revealing how it feels to live that particular life in those circumstances and environment. While Rohmer’s films are usually about groups of middle-class characters and the relationships between them, Certain Women focuses on both middle and working-class characters, the experiences of solitude, loneliness and self-sufficiency, and the difficulties in connecting with other people. It’s not true to say that nothing happens; quite a lot happens but it’s presented in a low-key, realist style and partly happens internally, within the characters’ emotions. The film gives you time and space to immerse yourself in the characters and the beautiful, remote, sometimes desolate setting, a place of vast mountains, small towns, diners and empty highways.

The first story follows a lawyer, Laura, played by Laura Dern, who is representing William (Jared Harris), a middle-aged man who wants to bring a court case against his previous employer. It emerges that there was some sort of incident at work and William suffered injuries and ongoing health problems and no longer works. It becomes clear that he is spending a lot of time at the lawyer’s office, turning up uninvited, and carries a lot of anger towards his former employer. It turns out that it is impossible for him to bring the court case because he has already agreed to take the small compensation initially offered to him by his employer. Laura has been attempting to explain this to him for months, but it takes a male lawyer to tell him before he can accept the truth. Laura’s relationship with William is complicated, as she sympathises with his situation and endeavours to be kind to him but also feels uncomfortable with his erratic behaviour and threats of destruction. At one point he insists on getting in the car to drive home with her and then says he wants to shoot his employers with a machine-gun. In this unnerving situation Laura tries hard to maintain boundaries and a professional distance. Somehow Kelly Reichardt manages to capture on film the way in which a woman can feel unsafe in very mundane, undramatic circumstances. I don’t know how the film achieves this; maybe it’s through the cinematography, which I remember in those scenes as being cramped and oppressive, or the excellent, emotionally convincing acting by Laura Dern and Jared Harris.

The story progresses when William takes a security guard hostage at his former employer and Laura is called in to help speak to him and persuade him to give himself up to the police. I found this section absorbing because it was so realistic, capturing the way it might feel to be caught up in this situation and all the small decisions Laura needs to make to achieve her aim, while obviously feeling fear and anxiety. William makes a bargain with Laura but she fails to keep her side of it. The scene ends with a shot of Laura, with an expression perhaps of doubt over whether she had made the right decision or of pain that she had betrayed William, even though she did what she needed to do as a lawyer and to prevent a crime taking place.

The second story follows Gina (Michelle Williams), who is married with a daughter. In contrast to Laura, she is less solitary and more involved in family life. She seems harassed and impatient with her husband and moody teenage daughter. I found Gina’s character the least appealing of all the women portrayed, as she seemed quite hard and even slightly ruthless, and I found her story rather disconcerting. We find out that Gina and her husband Ryan (James LeGros) are building a new house. They decide to stop at the home of Albert (Rene Auberjonois), an elderly man they know, to persuade him to give them some sandstone that is on his property. Those few words summarise the plot of this section of the film. For me, the film focuses on the sense of unease surrounding this decision, as Albert is confused and it is unclear if he understands what they are suggesting. They initially offer him money but in the end he is not paid. Although he did agree to give them the stones, it is debatable whether they should have tried harder to pay him. The scenes between the characters also felt awkward as it is clear that Albert is very lonely and vulnerable but Gina and Ryan are only really visiting him to try and obtain the sandstone. Both Ryan and Gina do have some doubts about whether to proceed, but the last time we see Gina she is looking at the stones contentedly, maybe envisaging the house they will build. Maybe, as Gina suggests, they will make something wonderful from the stones to make up for the way they came into their possession.

The final section is probably the most emotionally powerful of all three. Kristen Stewart plays a young lawyer, Beth, who is teaching an evening class on school law to a group of bored teachers in a small town called Belfry. The grumpiness and apparent reluctance of the teachers to be there results in some amusing moments. Jamie (Lily Gladstone), a young woman who works on a ranch nearby, also attends the class and the film depicts the relationship developing between the two. Beth tells Jamie that she is driving four hours each way from the city of Livingston to teach the class, in need of extra money and experience as she is just starting out in her career, and she is obviously exhausted. Jamie lives an isolated life on the ranch. It is clear she loves horses and other animals and the work suits her very well, but her life seems very lonely and lacking in human connection. The film evokes strongly, both through the way the scenes are cut and filmed and through Lily Gladstone’s wonderful acting, how the law class is the highlight of Jamie’s week and the focus for all her hopes. She tells Beth she wasn’t enrolled but just walked into class when she saw other people go in, this detail showing her desire for human contact and company. This story mostly takes place at night, and the dark, quiet settings, from the ranch to the diner to the schoolroom in the evening, conjure up a mood of mystery and isolation. We can see how Jamie is falling in love with Beth, while Beth is friendly but concerned with her own problems and mainly sees Jamie as someone to unload to. She sees her time in Belfry as transitory and peripheral to her real life.

When it is announced that Beth will not be teaching the class any longer, Jamie on impulse drives the four hours to Livingston to find Beth. Her early morning wanderings round Livingston reveal the contrast between rural and city life. She looks curiously through softly-lit windows at people talking in late-night cafes or bars, as if seeing a life she didn’t know existed. Meanwhile, a shop window displays cowboy hats and check shirts, the ranch lifestyle being sold to wealthier city dwellers. The film perfectly captures the sense of dislocation experienced in the small hours of the morning. Eventually Jamie finds Beth and in a sad scene understands that Beth is not interested in a relationship with her. It is all the more poignant because Jamie doesn’t express her disappointment to anyone; all she can do is get in the car and drive away again. The film leaves the viewer to draw their own conclusions. Although I very much empathised with Jamie and felt she was a very likeable character, I could understand Beth’s reaction, as she perhaps found it disturbing to realise the feelings Jamie had built up for her without her knowledge. I felt there was a link to the first story, with Laura and William, in that a greater connection between the characters was prevented by the need for self-protection.

When I watched the film, I felt it was like reading short stories and it reminded me a little of the writing of Alice Munro. I discovered afterwards that it is based on short stories by an American writer called Maile Meloy. The sense of short stories remains in the interiority and introspective nature of the film, the feeling that it is exploring the significance of these events to the characters, giving glimpses of their histories and emotional lives. The three sections are very loosely related to one another (for example, one character appears in both the first two) but there are no real connections between the stories. Maybe the real connection is the mood or atmosphere of the film, which weaves a spell around all the characters. It depicts self-contained episodes in these characters’ lives but the film ends by returning to each of them in turn, without a clear resolution, with a sense that there is more to be imagined and known about these four women.

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Although there have apparently already been hundreds of film and TV adaptations of Jane Eyre, I hadn’t seen any of them so I was really looking forward to this new film and didn’t have the jaded attitude seen in many of the reviews! I am interested in the novel, which I first read as a child. It is the story of a young orphan girl, who is brought up by her bullying and neglectful aunt and cousins, and then sent away to a strict boarding school, where she suffers equally cruel treatment from the teachers. When she grows up and finally escapes the harshness of school, she needs to earn her own living and so becomes the governess at Thornfield, an isolated mansion with a mysterious owner, Edward Rochester.

The first time I read Jane Eyre, I was so scared by the appearance of Mr Rochester’s mad wife, who is described as a sort of inhuman witch-like creature roaming the corridors of Thornfield at night, that I had to stop reading it halfway through. After a day or two, when I had recovered from the shock (seriously, the book is very gothic and spooky so I don’t blame my younger self for having nightmares about it), my curiosity made me open the book again and I finished it. Although I always preferred Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre was still very strange, atmospheric and exciting, although I was probably too young to understand it properly. The next time I can remember reading it was at university when I was studying Jean Rhys’ novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, a really interesting book which looks at the Jane Eyre story from another angle or two, imagining both the history of the ‘mad wife’ from the West Indies and Mr Rochester’s own story of his earlier life and how he came to marry Bertha.

This film doesn’t really explore the colonial aspect of the book like Wide Sargasso Sea did, but mainly concentrates on the relationship between Jane and Mr Rochester, and does this in quite a moving way. The focus is the two characters, and how they are drawn to eachother and begin to form their relationship. First of all, we see how Jane manages to survive her sad childhood. Her rebellious tendencies and her will to fight back seem to have been crushed out of her by the time she is an adult, but she is left with qualities of determination and stoicism even while she outwardly acquieses to what happens to her. I think the book brings out Jane’s subversive side to a greater extent than the film, but the film does show her to have a strong sense of self-possession and honesty.

While at school, she befriends another girl, Helen, who is the only person to show her any affection. Helen is very religious and, in contrast to the younger Jane, experiences her suffering passively and believes in forgiving the people who mistreat her, rather than feeling anger towards them as Jane does. Although the teachers at school use their religion as a means to persecute the pupils, accusing them of being sinners and punishing them harshly, Helen’s religion does not lead her to such hypocritical behaviour but gives her suffering a meaning and is more idealistic and visionary, as shown when she tells Jane that the air is full of spirits watching over her. I think religion is shown in an ambiguous way (in the film, at least). Jane has an intense friendship with Helen, who has a great impact on her childhood, but Jane herself has a different, more individualistic and rebellious attitude to life. Later on, she is also unable to accept the watered-down love of St John and become a missionary’s wife, but instead follows her own desires and is rewarded for it.

Jane does not use her unhappy life as a way of making people pity her. When Mr Rochester first meets her, he teasingly asks her for her ‘tale of woe’, as all governesses must have one, but Jane just gives the simple facts of her upbringing and schooling. Her pride surprises Mr Rochester and makes him respect her more. Jane’s reaction to him at the first meeting is interesting; she is a mixture of frightened, defiant, and attracted, but she is not daunted by his sarcasm and worldliness. Rochester’s dissolute past is more mysterious than Jane’s and we don’t really know much about what’s happened to him. I think that the power the two characters hold over each other is what makes the story so absorbing. Even though there are romantic, gothic elements to the book, Jane is definitely not a victim who is seduced by the typical Byronic hero, but makes her own choice to come back to him.

Jane Eyre is about a very passionate, restless character, whom other people consider to have no emotions and no significance. She is someone without any advantages in life, and therefore her feelings go unnoticed. The book describes the inner life of a character who is full of emotion but is seen by others as fading into the background and as beyond hope of romance or passion (Charlotte Bronte’s novel Villette also does this, even more vividly, but with less of the wish fulfilment aspects of Jane Eyre). The speech Jane gives to Rochester just before he asks her to marry him is a perfect expression of this…

“I tell you I must go!” I retorted, roused to something like passion.  “Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you?  Do you think I am an automaton?—a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup?  Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless?  You think wrong!—I have as much soul as you,—and full as much heart!  And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you.  I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh;—it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal,—as we are!”

The main reason I liked the film adaptation was the two leads, who are both quite compelling to watch, brought a lot of feeling and sympathy to their acting, and created a sense of chemistry between Jane and Rochester. It also has a beautiful gothic atmosphere, with bleak scenes of the rainy, windswept moors and the grey, gloomy Thornfield. It was definitely a good way to spend a bored Wednesday afternoon when I was in need of escape!

 

I was first introduced to Haruki Murakami when I was about 19 and a friend recommended Norwegian Wood to me. Since then, over the years, I’ve avidly read my way through nearly all Murakami’s books that have been translated into English, and am looking forward to reading his latest novel, 1Q84, which is apparently coming out in this country later this year.

By now, the plot of Norwegian Wood was a little hazy in my mind but as soon as I started watching the film, it came back to me, even stray lines of dialogue or little details you’d think would have been completely forgotten. The film is about a university student, Toru Watanabe, who falls in love with a girl, Naoko. He has known her since childhood and they are bound together by a tragic event in both their pasts. Naoko has been so traumatised by this event that she is suffering from severe depression and goes to stay in a strange, dream-like mental hospital, isolated deep in the countryside. The effects of grief on Toru are very different; he copes well with life on the surface but retreats into himself and his books, maintaining a distance between himself and university life, which seems to mean nothing to him. The story is set in 1967, and there are student protests and unrest all around Toru, but the film shows him walking among the rioters, untouched by their emotion and absorbed in the circumstances of his own life. He is befriended by a more sophisticated fellow student, Nagasawa, who has had sex with many women, and begins to take Toru with him on nights out to find girls to sleep with. In this way, Toru can still have sex, even though all his feelings are attached to Naoko, who he can’t sleep with; she is too fragile and vulnerable and sex is painful for her. Toru’s life is divided between Nagasawa’s world of casual sex and his visits to Naoko in the institution.

But then everything changes when a girl called Midori sits down at his table in the cafeteria one day. Midori is a complete contrast to Naoko; she’s outgoing, talkative, confident, witty, flirtatious. She has no problem talking about sex and telling Toru her sexual fantasies about him. Most of all, she has a strong desire for life. While Naoko is trapped in a world of mourning and self-destructiveness, from which she can’t seem to break free, no matter how much she tries, Midori never allows her problems to destroy her overwhelming wish to move forward in life and be loved. I think the film shows the way in which people react differently to loss. Midori admits that, although her mother has died and her father has moved away, she does not feel grief or abandonment. Toru asks her if that means she wasn’t loved enough by her parents and Midori replies, ‘I was always hungry for love. Just once, I wanted to know what it was like to get my fill of it – to be fed so much love I couldn’t take any more.’ When her father dies, she is sad, but then after she’s finished crying, she asks Toru if he will take her to a porn film. Her reaction to death is an ever stronger desire for life (which in the film seems mostly to mean sex) whereas Naoko seems to want to follow the dead into the grave.

Midori is a great character and one thing the film lacks is the time the book takes to develop the relationship between her and Toru. The book is full of very entertaining conversations between the two of them. When the film does occasionally use some of the book’s dialogue, it introduces some humour to the tragic story. Like Midori’s description of her ideal of perfect love:

‘Like, say I tell you I want to eat strawberry shortbread. And you stop everything you’re doing and run out and buy it for me. And you come back out of breath and get down on your knees and hold this strawberry shortbread out to me.  And I say I don’t want it any more and throw it out of the window. That’s what I’m looking for.’

‘I’m not sure that has anything to do with love,’ I said with some amazement.

The book enables the reader to care more about these characters and to see why they are drawn together. It is also difficult to translate the narrative voice of Toru to the screen. In the book, he’s funny, thoughtful, deadpan, calm. In the film, he is sympathetic but doesn’t come across so much as a strong character, missing the witty observations he makes in the book. The film strips the story down to its sad essentials, but the book gives the reader so much more. However, I did like the film. It is visually very beautiful and I would like to see it again for that reason alone. There is a lot of silence in the film, leaving space to think and to look. When there is a musical score, it occasionally seems intrusive, as if it’s deliberately drawing attention to itself, as the discordant violins well up during a dramatic or emotional scene. I wondered whether this was a reference to older traditions of film, as it seemed quite melodramatic, but I don’t know enough about cinema to be sure… Some scenes definitely seemed archaic and mythical to me, taking place against a vast landscape of snowy fields or a bleak scene of cliffs above a violent sea.

Suicide was always present in this film, inexplicable and mysterious but also symbolic. It seemed as if the characters who committed suicide were unable to cope with life, and in particular with change. The story is set at a time of social change and sexual liberation. Some of the characters are affected so deeply by loss or infidelity that they can never really recover. I did feel sympathetic to these more absolutist and inflexible characters. I wondered if this was somehow connected to the time in which the story was set, as the 1960s seemed (from my very vague knowledge…) to focus only on youth and the future, on breaking away from outdated ways. I think that another side of social revolutions can be throwing away what doesn’t fit in to the new world, and not wasting much sympathy on those who don’t belong, who were born too early or remain tied to the old traditions. It made me think about how forgetting can be an act of callousness but also of self-preservation and renewal. The characters who survive realise they ‘have to go on living’ (a phrase repeated a couple of times during the film) and don’t allow themselves to be consumed by what’s happened in the past. I felt as if the story shows that suicide is often linked to a moment of transition in life, for example if a person is not strong enough to make the leap from adolescence to adulthood. Those who survive the transition are changed and move on to the next stage in their lives. Part of what’s needed to do this is to forget the dead they’ve left behind, or at least not allow them to dominate the present.

There were some things that bothered me about the story, in particular the ending, that I can’t remember feeling at all disturbed by when I was 19. I’ll try to talk about these plot developments in vague terms, but it might be difficult not to drop a few obvious hints as to what happens… The two main female characters, Naoko and Midori, seemed to represent different feminine ideals, one old-fashioned and passive, one modern and self-determining, one linked to death and the other to life, one looking back into the past and the other forward into the changed world of the 1960s. They also seemed to symbolise two different paths Toru’s life could take. What happens at the end of the film therefore seems necessary in relation to the plot and Toru’s destiny, but also cruel. It seems as Naoko’s fate was simply a way for Toru to continue with his life and break out of the unhealthy stasis he’d been trapped in, and I found it difficult to forget Naoko amid the hopefulness of the ending. I suppose that’s the problem when characters are symbolic as well as easy to relate to and sympathise with; you have to detach yourself a little from their fate. In fact, the very ending of the book is more ambiguous. However, I did like the very last lines of the film, which seemed to capture perfectly its mingled atmosphere of melancholy and optimism.