Monday, September 28, 2015

Reeling Backward: "Women in Love" (1969)

"Women in Love" must have seemed very daring and original in 1969. Five decades on it's horribly dated and self-important -- corny, even.

It's a bunch of stilted characters waxing philosophic about Art and Life and Love, without managing to gain a lasting insight into any. Based on the 1920 novel by D.H. Lawrence, it's very much a product of the 1960s, more concerned with breaking boundaries than finding anything meaningful on the other side.

The biggest problem with the movie is that it's called "Women in Love" and it's based on a famous novel about two daring sisters, but the film concentrates more on their male romantic interests than the women. The sisters become virtual supporting characters by the end, as it turns into an exploration of romantic love versus abiding affection between the same gender.

Nonetheless, Glenda Jackson won the Academy Award for Best Actress for the film. Though it was admittedly a rather weak year for female leading roles, with Jackson besting Jane Alexander from "The Great White Hope," Ali MacGraw in "Love Story," Sarah Miles from "Ryan's Daughter" and Carrie Snodgrass from "Diary of a Mad Housewife."

(Though a 1969 British release, it came to the States in '70 and thus competed in the Oscars given out in '71.)

"Women in Love" also got Oscar nods for director (Ken Russell), adapted screenplay (Larry Kramer) and cinematography (Billy Williams). The film essentially launched Russell's career, and he became known as sort of the British counterpart to Fellini, helming very artsy films that tended to have a lot of sex and nudity in them ("The Devils," "The Lair of the White Worm").

Speaking of which, "Women in Love" is undoubtedly most famous for its nude wrestling scene between stars Oliver Reed and Alan Bates. The two play old chums, sufficiently lubricated with liquor, who decide to have a spontaneous bout in front of a roaring fireplace, and muse that they don't want to ruin their finery.

The scene is pretty comical now -- the choreography, apparently worked out by the actors themselves, is entirely unconvincing as an example of Far East-style martial arts -- but the brazen view of flopping male genitalia raised interest and eyebrows at the time.

A female acquaintance of mine who saw the film in its heyday has told me she and her contemporaries considered it quite erotic, particularly when the men's competition wanders over the line between grappling and groping. This isn't exactly some costume period version of "Brokeback Mountain," but it's certainly implied by Russell and Kramer that the best friends share some sort of buried attraction for each other.

The story ends with Rupert Birkin (Bates) lamenting his long-lost friend Gerald Crich (Reed,) a wealthy coal mine owner who was overcome with jealousy when his lady love, Gudrun Grangwen (Jackson), declared that she has never truly loved him. While on a skiing trip abroad she gloms onto a gay German artist (Vladek Sheybal) who offers her a life of more than bourgeois confinement.

Afterward Rupert tells his now-wife, Ursula Brangwen, that while she satisfies him entirely as a romantic counterpart, he doesn't understand why he couldn't also share a loving relationship with another male, too. Ursula (Jennie Linden) insists that he simply can't have "two kinds of love," due to societal dictates. Rupert says he accepts this, but states it's still his prerogative to want something he can't have.

Ursula is a virtual non-entity, following in the wake of stronger personalities like Gudrun and Rupert. Reed is the most interesting of the bunch, a man of means who isn't entirely comfortable with his place in ordered society but doesn't have the imagination to create something else for himself.

Elanor Bron plays Hermione Roddice -- I wonder if this is where the little witch's name came from? -- a super-wealthy socialite who enjoys controlling others and has essentially claimed Rupert as her personal property. When he chafes at this role and finally breaks free, she's enormously put out. (And immediately disappears from the movie.)

From there, it's a whole lot of coupling and sniping, protestations of love and declarations of hate. It's one of those classic examples of characters telling you how they feel rather than showing it. Toward the end Gerald delivers this pretentious humdinger:

"Do you know what it is to suffer when you're with a woman? It tears you like a silk. And each bit and stroke burns hot. Of course I wouldn't have not had it. It was a complete experience. She's a wonderful woman, but I hate her somewhere. It's curious."

I respected but did not enjoy "Women in Love." It's one of those relics of another age that had its place in cinematic evolution, and now resides as something of a fossil, curious for inspection but no longer a living, breathing thing.

No comments:

Post a Comment