On ‘The Hours’

The Hours (2002) by Stephen Daldry

Another class, another movie review. Actually it is the same class the second time around, and another movie review because I blogged the first one, so that I could not use it again (the one about The Women, 2008). Here goes (minus mistakes, hopefully):

The Hours was the working title Virginia Woolf gave the novel that was going to be published as Mrs Dalloway in 1925. In 1998 a novel of this same title was published; the author was Michael Cunningham, and the plot concerned itself with three women: the writer Virginia Woolf, a fictional reader, Mrs. Brown, and an equally fictional character of the same first name and character as Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa Vaughn. This novel was made into a movie in 2002, and – just like the novel before it – won awards and critics’ appreciation.
I had read both novels before I even heard that there was going to be a movie featuring Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman. And, even though I am naturally suspicious of novels being made into film – if The Scarlet Letter (1995) taught me anything, it’s that it’s not necessarily a good idea to make adaptations – I was looking forward to it just because Meryl Streep was going to be in it.


I think the importance of being Meryl Streep cannot be underestimated. Casting her for a movie, producers and directors are aware that it might not be what people call a blockbuster, it might not even be a good movie, but you have cast somebody who knows her craft – and let’s face it, that is so often not the case that it sometimes hurts the eyes, yes, I am talking about you, Mr. Orlando Bloom. In a world (the movies) where things can go so terribly wrong as to cast Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennett (another bad idea for an adaptation that came later), Meryl Streep is a constant pleasure to watch – even if she stars in a bad movie (not that I remember a really bad movie starring Meryl Streep). She is already a movie icon – and she’s not even dead. So, hearing she was going to play Clarissa Vaughn in the The Hours-adaptation got me hooked from the start.
And I was not disappointed, and am still not. Watching the movie again after several years, I was again sucked into the lives of the three women who are portrayed, I was again fascinated by the incredible performances Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, and Julianne Moore gave.
But let’s run down a little bit of the plot, so we know what happens. The movie starts with Virginia Woolf’s suicide in 1941 (I do not remember if the novel starts there as well, though I think it does). Everything that comes after pretty much explains why it had to come to this tragic end of so talented and tortured a writer. But we also meet her when she was just beginning to write her famous novel, and how her daily life poses a burden she does not easily handle.


The audience is introduced to Laura Brown, who is unhappily married with a second child on the way. In 1949, she is reading Mrs. Dalloway as a way out of her own life and finds a kindred spirit in the character. Laura is the heroine that does not die (as Clarissa Dalloway in Virginia Woolf’s novel).
We meet Clarissa Vaughn, who lives in New York during the 1990s, and she is organizing a party (like Mrs. Dalloway) for her friend, and ex-lover, Richard, who is dying of AIDS (he is the poet that has to die so that the heroine can live).
The similarities with “Mrs. Dalloway” are obvious. The movie describes a day in the life of Virginia, Laura, and Clarissa – as Virginia Woolf’s novel described a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway. Their stories are begun with the same sentence the famous novel does: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself,” Virginia writing it, Laura reading it, Clarissa saying it. For somebody who is a declared fan of Virginia Woolf and especially of Mrs. Dalloway (as I am) it is like revisiting the novel without actually reading it (or even watching the excellent 1997 film adaptation). There are moments to rediscover and maybe even to reevaluate.
The details that Michael Cunningham conveyed in his own novel are taken up by director Stephen Daldry and are translated beautifully onto the screen. It is a pleasure to watch the movie. It is visually challenging (as times and places change often), the actresses (and actors) show a raw vulnerability that makes the stories believable and hard to watch at the same time. Nicole Kidman (who was awarded the Academy Award for her performance as Virginia Woolf) is portrayed without her beauty and charms, she is awkward and intense, and shows an ability few people would have granted her.
Julianne Moore shows a truly stunning performance as Laura Brown, the woman who leaves her children and husband to start a life of her own. Of all the truly great performances, hers moved me the most. And it wasn’t even her only outstanding performance of the year as she was nominated as both Best Actress in a Supporting Role (for The Hours) and Best Actress in a Leading Role (for Far From Heaven) – and surprisingly enough went home empty handed.


Since the performances were all fantastic and the movie was overall pleasing to eye, ear (it has a wonderful instrumental soundtrack as well, not that I hear a lot of the music that is being played in the background), and intellect, one might assume that everybody was happy and that there’s nothing to critique. Well, one could have gone home happy and not find anything amiss, had one (that is me) not read Michael Cunningham’s book. And really, maybe it is just my overcritical self that finds fault with one aspect of Stephen Daldry’s directing. In Mrs. Dalloway, Sally kisses Clarissa. The Hours (the novel) takes up this kiss in each of the three segments: Virginia kisses her sister Vanessa at the tea table behind the back of the maid, secretly, sweetly; Laura kisses her friend Kitty in her kitchen, longingly, passionately; Clarissa kisses her partner Sally in passing at the foot of the stairs of her townhouse in New York, habitually, passionless, pointlessly. Daldry takes these kisses up, and unfortunately twists them into something it should not have been. While he is true to the place and circumstances of the kiss between Laura and Kitty, he gives it an innocence the book was not aiming at. While Laura in the book seemed to have her passion awakened by that one kiss with a woman, Laura’s concern with Kitty in the film seems almost too consoling (Kitty is about to go to the hospital and it is indicated that she might have cancer). Virginia almost violently places a desperate kiss on her sister (the indication is clear, as without that kiss the audience might not have known that Virginia was involved with women throughout her life and possibly also with her sister in younger years), giving the scene a sensationalist element. But the most misleading kissing scene is the one between Sally and Clarissa, as the one in the book indicates the ending of their relationship. The film turns it around into an inevitable happy ending as we see Clarissa and Sally sitting on their bed. Clarissa finally turns toward Sally and her efforts to save their relationship and places a good and wet one on her. It is a little disconcerting to see the characters and situations of the novel turned into Hollywood standards. The need for a happy ending, a resolution in at least one of the stories, the rehabilitation of a female character who has been unhappy without even knowing why, these are narratives you will find more likely in a movie than in a book where situations are allowed to remain unsolved.

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Book vs. Film – The Wives of Bath vs. Lost and Delirious

The Wives of Bath (1993) by Susan Swan

Lost and Delirious (2001) by Léa Pool

I love films but, incidentally, literature has always been my more cherished first love. If there is a way to combine these two passions of mine, I am always already hooked to the idea. I am not sure when I first saw Lost and Delirious. Have I read about it somewhere and ordered the dvd hoping it was good? Have I accidently come across it on tv? Was it something somebody told me to watch? I don’t remember but I certainly do remember that the first time I watched it I read that it was based on the book The Wives of Bath – and yes, I am one of those weird people that read the credits, opening and closing. And I am saying “based on” here because the film says it is “based on” not “inspired by,” which would probably have been the better description. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.

(that is the German dvd-cover, by the way, I like it)

I love the movie. Yes, I know it is not so easy to work through like a good lesbian comedy, but I still think it is worth our while. It tells the story of a shakespearean love, passionate love, a love lost becomes delirious. Strangely enought the narrator of the story is not one of the two lovers. It is Mouse Bedford (Mischa Barton), who has been shipped off to boarding school by her evil step-mother and rooms with Paulie (Piper Parabo) and Tori (Jessica Paré). Paulie and Tori are in love (they are not lesbians, they just love each other).

When some younger students, among them Tori’s little sister, surprise Tori and Paulie in bed with each other, Tori tells her sister that Paulie slipped into bed with her without her knowing and that Paulie has a crush on her but that she herself is totally into guys. She breaks up with Paulie and Paulie snaps. In the end we have another dead lesbian and the dignity of outrageous rightousness on our side, a bitter sweet ending that once again confirms that life is not fair.

(there is actually a different book by the same title out there, so make sure you get a copy of the book by Susan Swan)

The book is another matter. Mouse Bradford (yes, the movie makers changed the last names of the three main characters, although the German dvd-cover actually says Mary Bradford, not Bedford – probably just to say that we also know the book and not just the movie, we are snobbish that way) is shipped off to boarding school by her step-mother, but she is not evil, nor is her father quite the touchy kind that he is in the movie. And it is mostly her relationship to her father – or lack thereof – we are told of (the movie puts more emphasize on the mother-daughter relationship of both Mouse and Paulie). Morley is a doctor who works too much and Mouse worries about him but not enough as it turns out that Morley later dies of a heart attack.

Although Paulie and Tori do have a relationship, Paulie disguizes herself as Paulie’s brother Lewis to be with her beloved and it is not quite clear if Tori knows that Paulie and Lewis are the same person (I would argue that she knew but that it really did not matter to her much). The case of Paulie is more complicated as Paulie sees herself as a boy – and the fact that Lewis is working on the school’s premises as a caretaker proves that she is very good at passing. Tori’s brother Rick raises suspicion that Lewis might not be a boy and in order to prove that he is, Paulie kills the caretaker Sergeant to get his genitals. She is declared insane in court.

Although the names of the characters are quite consistent, the book and the film tell two completely different stories. The characters themselves are very different. Mary “Mouse,” for example, has a hump in the book, while Mary “Mouse” in the film is merely a little younger and very shy. The imagery is also completely different. While movie maker Léa Pool works with images of Shakespearean gallantry and nativism, which finally reasolves in Paulie’s rebirth as animal/bird, the book’s central image is the mighty “King Kong” and Tori substitutes for the white woman. Susan Swan paints the picture of a transgendered FTM, and in Mouse’s flashbacks to the trial she defies Freudian theory of penis envy and declares that one does not have to have a penis to make a woman happy, that only man think one has to have one. Swan does not merely draw a picture of a lesbian love that cannot survive heteronormative conventions but a picture of plurality within “lesbian” experience – or maybe “queer” would be the better word here.

The times the stories play out in are also completely different. The book takes place around the event of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, while the film seems to be located cosily in the 1990s. The disparity is great. But both book and movie are worth reading and re-reading, watching and re-watching.

Back to TV: Glee

It has been some time since  I first wrote about Glee and I may not be as undevidedly positive about it anymore. But I still like it a lot and I especially liked it today (living in Germany has its drawbacks especially when it comes to TV, let me tell you). I like how tv can emotionally drain you and Tuesday’s episode of “Glee” did just that: it drained me. Or more acurately this face

broke my heart.

Y’know, I never liked Santana much. Sure, she is hot, and her story line with Brittany was always a lesbian highlight, still… Santana, too bitchy, too typically bi-curious. And then she came out as “don’t put a label on me” and it just got to me.

Two weeks ago I had a blog entry about “Glee” planned. It was entirely Rachel’s fault, seeing her in flannel made me think about her sexuality and on how gay she really is. So I thought about how gay the show was and how gay every single one of the characters was and I actually made a gay-meter (no, I do not have any other hobbies, I fill my time with thinking about how gay tv show characters are… not really, only when I cannot sleep). And guess what, Santana actually scored lower than Rachel while Brittany was just topped by Kurt (I did not include Blaine since he’s not at McKinley). Well, I guess I was wrong about Santana…

Several times after having watched the episode this morning I have thought back on that heartbroken face and it actually made me incredibly sad. I never thought Santana could do that to me but I guess it is a credit to Naya Rivera’s acting skills and in moments like this I appreciate acting and the significance it has within culture – and that culture as thus has value in my life.

Glee is a great show. Maybe I am going to come back to it and write about it’s sociological value as comment on today’s (American) society but today I just want to say that it made me feel – as trivial as that may sound – and I am grateful to be able to hold on and cherish this (I get so sappy sometimes but I am sure you know what I am talking about).

Natalie Portman IS the Black Swan

Black Swan (2010) by Darren Aronofsky

When I watched V for Vendetta late last year I was quite amazed at how good Natalie Portman was in it. Not because she was good but how good. I was never a fan of hers but I always regarded her as a talented actress. Well, V for Vendetta convinced me that there was more than talent but Black Swan

Every now and then (but probably not that often) you watch a performance by an actress that just blows you away. Even an hour after leaving the theater you feel drugged and dazed and confused. Such a performance I saw in Black Swan by Natalie Portman. It was amazing, it was catching, it was sad and heart-wrenching, stunning, and, yes, sexy.

I’m still over-whelmed to tell the truth. From the first moment Natalie Portman appeared on screen she was like a force I could not look away from. And it was not just her. The female cast seemed to take their cues from her and showed amazing performances. Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder, they were all brilliant. But Natalie Portman was breathtaking.

You might wonder if I did not think Vincent Cassel was good as well but honestly I did not even see him. Maybe that is because I think women are the better actors per se, or maybe I just ignore men per se, I don’t know but this movie was made by the women in it not by Vincent Cassel.

And I also don’t want to talk about the story because I would have to unearth some of the raw clichés that inhabit the movie and the fact that it bows to heteronormative standards in the end. And I don’t want to do that. It would make me cherish the movie less and nothing should lessen the joy, the enjoyment, the amusement, the horror I felt watching this movie. It was truly a pleasure.

And if you ask me what it’s about I’d say: A woman who admires another woman, wants to be like her, wants to be her, wants to be with her. Not necessarily in that order and you are never sure which woman is which and what the others have to do with it… it’s complicated and gripping and frightening.

It is almost comical how glad I am these days to see Winona Ryder again. I could almost imagine watching The Dilemma. Almost.

Well, the Oscars are coming up and, of course, there was no way around Natalie Portman and her performance and I hope everyone in the Academy will vote for her. I bow to Ms. Portman.