Monday Movie: The French Lieutenant’s Woman, by David Bax
Every Monday, we’ll highlight a piece of writing from our vaults. This review of The French Lieutenant’s Woman originally ran as a home video review.
Karel Reisz’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman is much more than a way to listen to people repeatedly pronounce “lieutenant” in that fun, British way with the phantom F in it. It’s a postmodernist examination of romantic storytelling itself and how, despite its easily mockable exaggerations and clichés, it can speak to the deeper truths of our hearts and even allow us to heal the real life heartbreaks that it paints in broad, pretty strokes.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman is the name of the film you’re watching but it’s also the name of the film being made within in. Except for the opening scene, in which Meryl Streep, as American actress Anna, has the finishing touches of her make-up put on while standing on an outdoor movie set and then becomes her character, Sara, the two worlds never actually cross over. When we’re in the Victorian-era romance movie, we’re all the way in it. When we’re in the modern day, where the two actors playing the leads – Anna and Mike (Jeremy Irons) – are carrying on an affair, we’re not even on set. We’re in hotel rooms and at craft service tables and parties, etc. The on-camera romance, between Sara and Mike’s Charles, generally mirrors that of Anna and Mike but with soft, sweeping flourishes and embellishments.
Part of the simple joy of this is the way it cheekily deflates the reality of the “movie.” Characters who dislike each other appear to be chummy during their lunch breaks. And, most notably, Anna leaves one location for the next days before the rest of the cast because she’s finished her scenes but, back in the story, she still seems to be nearby. We know, of course, that movies aren’t shot chronologically but the cognitive dissonance remains.
Looking deeper, we also get some critiques of how movie tropes break down along gender lines. It starts lightly enough. When Anna and Mike rehearse a scene in which Sara’s dress gets caught in the brambles before she slips and falls in the mud, it’s almost like a parody of period romance films. As things go on, though, we start to see how, in both stories, Charles/Mike’s interest and desires take primacy over Sara/Anna’s. When a woman gives clear signs that she’s not interested in pursuing a relationship further – like, for instance, leaving – men both real and fictional see it as passion and not harassment to follow her and track her down.
Still, I don’t believe that is the film’s ultimate point. The French Lieutenant’s Woman seeks to illustrate how and why we return to these sorts of stories. They can be silly they are also a balm for our heartaches, maybe even more so because of their silliness. Anna and Mike joke about how often actual Victorian gentlemen visited prostitutes yet the cinematic ideal of the Victorian gentleman is therapeutic in its fantasy. It’s worth mentioning that, during the long stretches when Anna and Mike are absent and we’re fully submerged in the “movie,” it still works. Even apart from the parallel story, it’s a very engrossing film. Maybe that’s just because Reisz is a good filmmaker. Or maybe it’s because we are still willing victims to these cliches even after we’ve pointed them out. It’s probably a bit of both.