Thursday, July 27, 2023

Parsing Passion in “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”

As an English major working on my doctorate in contemporary fiction, I was not impressed by the work of British novelist John Fowles. My profs and classmates struggled to convince me of the literary daring of Fowles’ 1969 novel, The French Lieutenant’s Woman¸ seeing it as boldly venturing into post-modernism by taking a Victorian-style narrative and then figuratively wringing its neck.  The novel’s passionately romantic story line is constantly interrupted by an intrusive narrator, who then provides not one but two very different (though equally plausible) endings. The question: how would a motion picture handle this tricky balance between past and present, between Victorian stylistics and the more skeptical approach of the 20th century?

 Until now, I had stayed clear of the film, even though it was well received, earning 5 Academy Awards nominations as well as some Golden Globe and BAFTA awards. Predictably, a lot of the attention went to leading lady Meryl Streep. By 1981, when The French Lieutenant’s Woman was released in theatres, Streep had already won an Supporting Actress Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer. And she would be named Best Actress in the following year, for Sophie’s Choice. Even though the production of The French Lieutenant’s Woman was otherwise British all the way, Streep’s ear for accents coupled with her unrivaled dramatic powers made her a strong choice for a character who essentially throws away her life to satisfy her passions, that being a far cry from the moral codes of Victorian England. Her motivations throughout the film remain mysterious, in contrast to the young scientist (Jeremy Irons) willing to throw everything away for love of her.

 And how did director Karel Reisz and his team handle Fowles’ literary gamesmanship? Reisz, whose short but intense British filmography includes Sixties gems Morgan and Isadora, worked closely on this project with one of England’s most formidable playwrights, Harold Pinter. This future Nobel laureate—whose own stage work is known for its stripped-down dialogue and ambiguous sense of menace—also wrote a long string of screenplays, many but not all of them adapting his own plays. Pinter chose to adapt Fowles’ novel by adding to its story an element that is specifically post-modern. To be clear, he adds to the original plotting a second key relationship that took me totally by surprise.

 I didn’t realize this when I sat down to watch the film. I just knew that there was Streep, in the black cloak and hood of the enigmatic Sarah, brooding high above the swirling seas of Lyme Regis. And suddenly there was a 20th century crew member checking Streep’s makeup, and letting the actress examine it for herself in a very contemporary-looking mirror. Films don’t usually commence with a reminder that they are full of fakery, so I waited impatiently to see how this modern touch paid off. And suddenly, a few scenes later, Jeremy Irons’ character rolled over in bed and picked up what looked to be the receiver of a 1980s telephone. Say what? 

As I was soon to discover, this screen version of Fowles’ novel contains two parallel stories, that of a Victorian man and woman drawn together by mysterious emotional forces and that of an actor and actress on location, playing these roles for the camera while negotiating their own tangled love affair. Since the two performers are not themselves Victorian, they have fewer social boundaries to negotiate. So they can easily succumb to sexual temptation (something that often prevails on a movie set). But this hardly stops them from butting up against complications that challenge  their 20th century “post-modern” affair.


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