AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN
KAREL REISZ - IN INTERVIEW
by Harlan Kennedy
"The past is a foreign country..."said voice-off Michael Redgrave in his rueful tremolo at the beginning of The Go-Between, and the line – plucked by screenwriter Harold Pinter from L.P. Hartley's novel – popped into instant currency, like a proverb that had been always with us. It hit dead-center the languid-elegiac romanticism, the sense of a magic, unreachable Past, that has gone with costume-drama versions of classic literature in recent decades, and with all those Seventies movies (from Picnic at Hanging Rock to Bound for Glory) in which temps perdu unfolded in a golden-misty haze, as if the past were a Brunnhilde's rock surrounded by cloud and fire where none but the brave or foolhardy should venture.
The French Lieutenant's Woman storms Brunnhilde's rock like a galloping army of modern-day Siegfrieds. It tells us that Past and Present are not separate mountain-peaks, let alone separate countries, but closely interlocked terrains. If there was ever a true meeting of minds, it's that between John Fowles, the English author who penned the 1968 bestseller that dismantled Victorian romanticism even as it exploited it, and Karel Reisz, the Czech-born British director whose clear-eyed and eclectic films are fascinated by the immediacy and connectability of Experience regardless of the barriers of time and culture.
Reisz has his own romanticism, which is to believe in the crazed glory of
those men or women who defy the
spurious Relative and Particular – the pressures of their own age or society, the strictures of moral or artistic or sexual convention – to live the truthful Absolute. Reisz's heroes
or heroines (and he nearly always spins
his films round the centrifugal point
of one individual) arc gut existentialists – whether it's Albert Finney kicking against the puritan-provincial pricks of North-country British life in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, David Warner as madcap Morgan in demurely Swinging
In The French Lieutenant's
Woman – whose heroine is yet another timeless loner stuck down in a despotically particular time – he's brought off just about the best film of his career. Fowles'
book, written as a pastiche
Victorian novel, is really a perfect
Reisz story: a 400-page tug of wills between the
particular and the eternal, the
perishable and the enduring, set in 1860's
Fowles makes fascinatingly unclear to us at first whether our mystery heroine ever really had this affair of the heart, let alone consummated it. What matters is that she wears its memory like a close-hugged cloak of shame – half-tragic, half-defiant – in primly puritanical England, and that she pulls into her charmed magnetic circle of sin the story's other major character, an idle-rich young man with a penchant for palaentology, who throws over his English-rose fiancée to pursue this Woman of Sad Shame through the long streets and years of Victorian England.
Fowles spins his 1860's yarn with a deliberate 1960's hindsight. He sprinkles the pages with
references to Marx and
Reisz and screenwriter Harold Pinter (once again spring-cleaning for the screen a literary period romance) have found a startlingly lucid and ingenious answer to Fowles' analytic seesawings between Now and Then: intercutting the Victorian plot with a modern story. A clapperboard pokes out in front of the camera in the very first scene, set on the jetty of Lyme Regis, and we soon discover that star Meryl Streep plays both Sarah, the French Lieutenant's Woman, and Anna, the American actress playing her in a modern film of the novel. Costar Jeremy Irons plays both Charles, the enamored palaeontologist, and Mike, the film's lead actor. Stepping out of period, these two are entwined in an off-camera love-affair which runs through Reisz's movie in little breakaway sequences, as a subtle, symbiotic, never-quite-parallel correlative to the "fictional" one.
The resulting movie, which might have been a mere costume-classics embalming of Fowles' period story – Masterpiece Theater goes fossil-hunting – becomes instead a fugal tour de force setting off vivid vibrations between today and yesterday. Meryl Streep gives us Victorian Sarah as a human tableau vivant: a russet-haired, pre-Raphaelite lady whose words and feelings are squeezed out through a pale mask of distrait quietude, in a kind of exteriorized interior monologue. It's a performance, at once living and marmoreal, that's little short of stunning. (And no American actress since Anne Bancroft in The Pumpkin Eater has better mastered an English accent.) As Anna, the movie's star, she's flightier, brisker, more modern and animate, but she's perceivably the same character under the cloak, merely displaced by time and space and manners.
In both stories, furthermore, she's facing the same dilemmas of love and choice. As Sarah she has the French Lieutenant in her consoling-admonishing romantic background; as Anna she has a French lover, David. But as both Sarah and Anna, she's also bearing a torch for woman's individuality – for woman's ability and need to set the contours of her own life, not have them dictated by society at large or men in particular. (Or, in Victorian times, by the ever-present threat of a slide into prostitution.) At different points in both stories the heroine up and leaves the hero to create a space of her own – temporary or permanent – in which to change and grow, to nourish her sense of self.
movie sounds in summary like Kramer
vs. Kramer meets Middlemarch, that's
partly what it is. But the wonder
of the film is that it's never a mere
facile juggling of trendy modern themes and halcyon period settings. The
brief eruption of the clapperboard in
the first scene is like a pea placed under
the movie's mattress. However soft and yielding the Victorian images seem (painted as much as lensed
Francis, with grape-dark velvety
textures and softened bursts of light),
there's never complete repose, always a tiny questioning itch of modernism.
Conversely in the modern sequences, Anna
is not an immaculately-conceived
feminist striding stridently into
the Eighties but a woman whose sexual and
spiritual evolution has been seen
and presaged by us, like striations
in a rock, in the story of her "ancestor." It's no coincidence that the pastime of the story's hero is fossil-hunting, or that
the story's setting is Lyme Regis, a geologist's haven of stratified cliff and fossilized riches on
I met Reisz at his
What were the problems in tackling a novel with as many different strands of literary reference and self-analysis as The French Lieutenant's Woman? What movie structure did you find to translate these things to the screen?
We tried to make a film that works as a narrative – one with a rattling good yarn at its center – but at the same time we wanted to subject the audience's perception of that yarn to doubt. We're challenging them by saying, "Look, we're making a fiction here – are you coming with us or not? And what do you think about it?" We're colluding with them. When we took on a structure of that kind, then the ambiguities arising from it became the meaning. Sometimes we cut abruptly, at others not. But through the careful spacing and pacing of these intercuts, I hope that by the end of the film the two stories are sliding through smoothly and that the audience doesn't really separate the two sequences.
How did you decide to run a period and a modern story in parallel?
In the book John Fowles has his two continuities: the Victorian plot, and his own comments on the nature of Victorian fiction, on the differences between Victorian values and our own. He talks about the connection between fiction and reality, poetry and reality, and so on. He has also placed his strong yarn at the center of it, but he keeps going away from it and talking about Marx and Hardy and Henry Moore, subjecting his story to the skepticism of hindsight. When asked why he did this – and it's always an awful question to be asked! – one of the things he said was that he never wanted to write a period book as such. He wanted to write a modern hook using the period as a metaphor.
The thing that tempted me about The French Lieutenant's Woman in the first place was the story – it really has a beautiful line – and, of course, the character of Sarah. John Fowles told me that before he began writing the novel, the thing he started with, the fist notion he had was of a woman walking away and looking back at him. That's very germane; it's at the center of how to perceive the character of Sarah.
When Harold Pinter and I began our conversations about the script, we saw very early that we couldn't do it without having some kind of modern component. Equally, we couldn't have the author talking to the audience which is the way it's done in the novel. So we came to the conclusion that creating an artifact and sharing the idea of that artifact with the audience was basic to the telling of this story. So we tried to find a filmed, not an equivalent – you can't find an equivalent – but a filmed notion that would give us this double view. And slowly, by trial and error, we arrived at this particular sort of Pirandello-ish device: when you have any sequence which leads into the next you have all the residue of feelings that remain and you bring these with you into the new sequence. In our film, the feelings from the Victorian story carry over into the modern, the modern into the Victorian.
Now it's true that people are going to be a little bit thrown at the beginning of the film just as they were in the book. I remember feeling very irritated the first time I read the book when suddenly Henry Moore is mentioned. But once you accept the device, it becomes part of the charm of the book and part of its quality.
You introduce your film with the modern device of a clapperboard introducing a period scene.
Yes. The clapperboard idea which opens the film actually came very late in the filming process. We had decided that if we started with a Victorian story which then suddenly cut to a modern one, the audience would be very confused. If, on the other hand, we just have some little question mark hovering at the beginning of the Victorian story, then the transitions would later become more acceptable. The use of the clapperboard is the only place in the film where we use an illusion-and-reality contrast. The intercutting device isn't about film and life or illusion and reality. It's simply a way of showing two parallel love stories.
Five of your seven feature films, up to and including The French Lieutenant's Woman, have been based on plays or novels. How much do the pre-existing contours of the work – and a feeling of responsibility to the author – set a limit on your imagination? Or do you feel you can be as free as with an original story?
That's the hardy perennial: Do you have to be faithful to the novel? My answer is no. You don't have to be faithful to anything, you have to make a variation on the themes of the novel which, a., is a film, not a filmed novel, and b., is a film in which you can put your feelings and your associations. By making the movie, you don't change the novel; it continues to exist! The whole business of being faithful is a nonsensical aim. A novel is capable of taking you inside a person; it gives you their speculations their feelings, their historic associations and so on. That's something that movies can only hint at. But the moment you've accepted that fact, then the whole notion of being faithful becomes Meaningless because in cinema you have to substitute something filmic – Surprise, surprise! – for the things you can't do. You can't just leave yourself with the things that are left, the fag-end of what the medium can absorb. And the moment you realize that, you're out of the business of translating and you're into the business of making it mean what you want it to mean.
If you think about the really good screen adaptations – The Grapes of Wrath for example – you'll discover that it's wildly different from the novel. Not only wildly different in events, but in the way it distributes its sympathies. And Good Luck, say I. The new fellow has got to have his freedom.
Visually, the Victorian sequences have a very different feel from the modern – richer, more composed. Were you and Freddie Francis looking for a deliberate contrast between the two periods?
Yes. In the Victorian scenes we very consciously went for an academic kind of lighting, the sort of high definition that you see in Victorian paintings. We used front light and side light – a preImpressionist kind of light – to paint the object. We had our own shorthand motto for this: "Constable, not Monet." So the film uses unfashionable front-light most of the time. But the modern portion is lit more softly with reflected light and the edges of the images are less sharp.
Did you storyboard your film?
No. I try very hard when I'm filming to make the set-ups and the moves arise organically out of the actors' movements. So I start with rehearsals, both before the film and on the day of shooting. Then, when I've got the actors moving naturally, I work out the camera moves with the operator and the cameraman. So the basic strokes come out of the text and the actors' feelings and intuitions. There's nothing as useful as a good actor's itch to move!
Meryl Streep is a brave and
surprising choice for the part of Sarah -an American actress plunked down in
Well, Meryl is a classically trained actress, and an artist of great imagination. She's played on the stage, she's played in films, she's played in Shakespeare. What more could you want? For me, the crucial first moment in deciding to do the film occurred with the notion of marrying the part and Meryl. I felt it needed an actress with the sort of imagination to work beyond naturalism, to work in a more operatic way. And I feel that, in terms of the modern-old pattern that we have in the film, it's a great advantage that she's American. It strengthens that sense of sharing with the audience that we're making a fiction. The other thing about it – and this is why John Fowles was so pleased about her – is that Sarah is an outsider in her society, and, Meryl being the only non-English actress in the movie, that's somehow a plus.
And Jeremy Irons, as Charles?
I'd come across Jeremy in a television play that Harold Pinter did: an adaptation of an Irish novel called Langrishe Go Down, in which Jeremy played a very unsympathetic German artist – a really predatory, ugly character. But I thought he did it wonderfully and so I tested him. You know, the story from Charles's point of view is, let's say, the Sentimental Education of an English Gentleman. Sarah leads him to his own feelings in a sense, for at the beginning of the story he is cold and over-secure and condescending. He works on privilege rather than on feeling. But I don't think he's a bad man; he's simply a product of his time. Now, to find actors who can embody that sort of gentlemanly principle in the 1980's is quite difficult. These are values that are not very much prized these days. And quite right that they aren't! Actors today want to play their roles rougher. But it's important in this case that the audience believe that Charles is a gentleman.
The turning-point of the film, one feels, is the "confession" Sarah makes to Charles when they meet on the Undercliff, the Garden-of-Eden wilderness on the coast by Lyme Regis. She gives a detailed, sensuous account of her affair with the French Lieutenant, and after she has spoken a shift has taken place between them. Neither character is quite the same again.
The feel of that speech is substantially different in the film from the novel. Partly, it's a story she is making up for herself while looking back at us over her shoulder – at us and Charles – to see what effect it's having. For she is definitely trying to seduce Charles with the story; the fact that it is later proved not to be true is irrelevant. She talks of a moment, a time in her life when she freely responded to her feelings. She talks of her experiences being exciting, proper, and she gives voice to a lot of things that Charles has felt but wouldn't feel free to express. So one thing that happens in that scene is that he's confronted with an open avowal of love and sex – something very un-Victorian that is outside his normal role. And, of course, it changes him.
The Victorian dialogue is convincingly in period throughout the movie, and yet it's also fluent and expressive, never stilted. Did you and Pinter work on that together, as well as the overall structure?
All the dialogue is Harold's – and of course, John Fowles' since we borrowed from the novel. Harold and I would sit in this room and talk about the scenes and the shape and at a certain point he'd go away and do a draft. I think there were six or seven full drafts of the screenplay. We'd read it, act it out, see which scenes, which dialogue passages worked and which didn't.
Did you change the words once you were into the shooting?
Harold has the reputation of being very, very difficult about changing lines during the filming. His attitude is simply,
"I'm available. If you want to change
the lines, talk to me about it. Do it
with me." To me, that seems more than reasonable. So the answer to your question is yes, but not indiscriminately. Actors, particularly in
In your early films – your first three features, for instance, and the two films for the British Free Cinema movement which was very strong on vérité realism – you made a name for favoring location shooting and scarcely ever stepping inside a studio. What was the mixture in The French Lieutenant's Woman?
The exteriors were location, the interiors were all built at
But when you're dealing with a Victorian subject, what you can find very much influences what you shoot. For instance, in the novel, Mr. Freeman – that's the father of Charles's fiancée – runs a big department store in
The music in the film is very eclectic – everything from high-romantic to quasidissonant and a fair number of "quotes" as well: some direct, as in the Mozart piano sonata at the end, others hinted, like the cello-growl accompanying Sarah's seagazing, that's a close echo of the Act Three prelude to Tristan.
It was John Bloom, our editor, who chose the Mozart for the cutting copy. We came to love it and ultimately to feel that it was essential. We also had bits of Schoenberg on the cutting copy; the notion being that it's romantic nineteenth-century music on the point of turning modern romantic music just going dissonant, astringent, and sour. When Carl Davis came on to the film to compose the score, the Schoenberg was dropped. But the flavor was in our ears; it was the starting point for the manner of the music. And we did something that I've never done before. Carl had a cassette recorder standing on his piano – and while looking up at the screen, as in the silent movie days, he played where the images of the film took him and out of that came ideas and themes. The composition of the score was done using these tapes as references. I found it a thrilling experience to see the score being born.
For me, the great thing about a film is to allow everyone to make their contribution and to keep the process fluid. The process of adaptation is a free process and the process of rehearsal is a free process and the process of shooting is a free process. The thing keeps changing. And if the people working on the film have a little bit of regard for each other, it shouldn't be competitive or authoritarian. It should be – all good film-making should be – organic.
Saturday Night and Sunday
Baptizing Albert Finney into stardom, Reisz's
first feature had a chalky humor and sketched a soddenly sullen and sardonic picture of working-class
Like its fellow films in the British Kitchen Sink movement, SN & SM is faithful to the point of servility to its literary source (Alan Sillitoe's novel). But already Reisz is flexing here his uncanny empathy-powers as a director of actors. Finney is a brooding, sourvoweled Hamlet of the factory-floor; Rachel Roberts is his sad-sack biddy of a mistress, taking the gin-and-hot-bath course to an abortive abortion. And already the outsider-hero, kicking against all socially-dictated notions of virtue and propriety, is emerging as a key Reisz protagonist.
Night Must Fall (1964). Thud. It fell. Reisz brought Finney to the screen again in this updated account of Emlyn Williams' fustian stage thriller about a psychopathic murderer. What interested Reisz was clearly the figure of the scapegoat loner again, rejecting social grace in favor of some dim, dumb, unflinching form of self-fulfillment. But the creaky contrivings of Williams' head-in-a-hatbox shocker overpower all subtler resonances.
Morgan (1966). Enter Vanessa Redgrave. To her, David Warner. Two of British acting's brightest neophytes flitted into movie view for the first time in this simian-surreal comedy – again from a pre-existing "literary" source, David Mercer's TV play – about a young man with a sweet-and-saintly penchant for social disruption. Warner is Morgan, the "Suitable Case for Treatment," and Redgrave is his ex-wife, whose remarrying plans are constantly sabotaged by her lunatic ex-spouse.
With Warner and Redgrave it was a case
of one glamour-kissed anorexic meeting
another: tall, flaxen-haired, and
wind-waved, they lanked loftily across the screen like characters from an unsqueezed CinemaScope film. This loopy disproportion beautifully spread out to the rest of the film, and Reisz's realist precision as a director was the perfect foil to an ever-dottier plot. The best of Reisz's Sixties films is a reminder that the loner-hero need not always be a sardonic sourpuss or an embattled apostate. Warner's Morgan is a Holy Innocent: Prince Mishkin at the
dawn of Swinging
Isadora (1968). Vanessa Redgrave swanned into an American accent and an attempt at Terpsichore in this biopic of dancer Isadora Duncan. A few years after Ken Russell had used the same subject to make the best of his BBC mini-features, Reisz came a bit unstuck with this awesome lady, who on this film's evidence seems to have been part Eurythmic genius, part foot-stomping giant nymph toga'd in the living-room curtains. Reisz follows Isadora's zigzagging life of talent, tantrum and self-publicizing eccentricity with intelligent seriousness, like the head-down sleuth-for-truth he is, and becomes progressively, circuitously lost. Even with the time-chopping gesture of a framing section (Isadora old and raddled and hunted by Death in a red Bugatti) from which the main film is a flashback, the treatment is too penny-plain and linear, the ellipses too tentative, the emotions too on-cue and formulary.
Redgrave is a trouper; one admires the
toujours-game attempts to dance herself into a
The Gambler (1974). The Godfather meets Dostoevsky's Theory of the Will in James Toback's script of a university teacher (James Caan) with a yen for gambling who becomes in debt to the Mafia who in turn make him an offer he can't refuse. Except that he can and does.
The fascination of gambling is pure existentialism – an acte gratuit with no moral referents, no social or spiritual endorsement beyond the destiny-deciding thrill of a moment – and it seems the best form of self-expression Reisz has yet found for one of his loner-heroes. It's an activity in which the certainties of mathematics meet the uncertainties of chance in head-on collision. For Dostoevsky gambling was as romantic and destructive as love or murder; for Reisz and Toback it defines the paradox-tragedy of a man who sets out determinedly owing no debt to ethical conventions or social pressure, and ends by being leaned on in the heaviest way by the heaviest mob available. Will he crumble, or will he continue serene on his now-probably-fatal crazy loner's way? Caan's ability to be both mean and nervous, dithering and deadly, finds a perfect role.
Who'll Stop The Rain? (1978).
Robert Stone's novel The
Dog Soldiers came out in 1974,
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE SEPT-OCT 1981 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.