LADY FILMS, Week #1 – “Bright Star”

4 May

Yes, I know that there has been a drought as far as the ol’ blog goes lately.  But I am super excited to get started on my Lady Films series, and also I promise that there will be tons of amazing content coming up.  So bear with us.  Really, all the other Chickz are being responsible by doing their work and packing to move and being adults.  I’m blogging instead because it seems like a much more fun activity and I can procrastinate while actually feeling like I’m doing something, when really everyone knows that talking about movies and ladies is just fun for me.

To start with, I thought I’d do a film I already regard as a lady film; a film that inspired me to start this series in the first place:  Jane Campion’s Bright Star.

Bright Star (Jane Campion, 2009)

Bright Star follows the brief romance between now-respected, then-unsuccessful poet John Keats, and Fanny Brawne.  I adore this film, and I still think Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw should have received acting nods at the Academy Awards that year (not even just nods, they should have won).  It was hands-down my favorite film of 2009.  I love the simplicity of it, the way it lingers on certain moments and objects.  Early in the film, Keats says something about how poetry is like diving into a lake.  You don’t dive into the lake just to do it and then get out. You dive in to enjoy the water.  That’s what the film does.  It is the antithesis of most modern films in that regard.  When the characters are happy, the film bursts with light.  When they are less joyous, the look of the film reflects that.  The pacing is slow, but one almost wants it to slow down so that John and Fanny can have more time together, because we know that Keats is doomed.

In many ways, this film is Fanny’s and not John’s.  I would easily call this a feminist tale.  Fanny pursues John, not the other way around, and vies with his poet friend Brown (played by Paul Schneider) to protect him.  She is keen to learn of poetry and connects with John because they are both artists.  While Brown is quick to demean Fanny’s designing dresses and sewing her own clothing as a trivial thing women do, it is clear that this is Fanny’s art.  She puts her emotions into her clothing and wears them, quite literally, on her sleeve, just as we see Keats putting his heart into his poetry.  John and Fanny’s relationship is equal and scarcely bogged down with questions of gender roles, and Fanny makes it clear from the start that she could make money from her sewing if she needed to.

While this is a period piece, it very much sets itself apart from many other “drawing room dramas.”  Gone is the emotional score and swelling music telling you how to feel at certain points.  Everything is understated.  The only other comparable period dramas I can think of are Ang Lee’s “Sense and Sensibility” and Joe Wright’s “Pride and Prejudice,” and I still think “Bright Star” is leaps and bounds ahead of those.

Does it pass the Bechdel Test?  Yes.  Not with flying colors, as I’d hoped it would, but I’d say it does.  There are at least four nicely fleshed out female characters in Fanny, her little sister Toots (yep, Toots), the maid Abigail, and Mrs. Brawne, and they certainly talk to one another, and about things other than men.  Most of the people in the film are concerned with Keats, though, and he’s a frequent topic of discussion, so that does throw a wrench into the calculations.  Ultimately, though, it’s clear that every woman in the film is intelligent and free-thinking.

Character and Content:  As previously stated, Fanny is very much a feminist character.  She never once falters in her devotion to John, never hesitates to take the reins in their relationship, and never bows to the pressures of a sexist society.  She is an independent character whose partnership with Keats is on equal footing.  She’s not looking for someone to support her; she’s looking for someone to share her life and happiness, someone who takes her and her interests seriously.  The film makes us aware of the struggles women faced in that time period without having Fanny conform to them, and in this way, it is very much a feminist narrative.

Creative Control:  Really, I’d expect nothing less than a supreme lady film from writer and director Jane Campion.  I will probably revisit her oeuvre again, at least once with The Piano.  She is one of the most well-regarded female filmmakers of all time, and one who has respect for female characters and stories.  She is also a very good director.  Have I mentioned how achingly beautiful this film is?  Also, knowing her track record (both with this film, and The Piano, which won Anna Paquin and Holly Hunter their Academy Awards), I’d say she’s very adept at drawing terrific performances out of her actors, especially the women.

Final Verdict:  I’d say yes, this is very much a lady film.  It was indeed one of the films that inspired me to start this series.  I watched it for a second time a few weeks ago and was reminded of how wonderful it is.  I consider it a supreme example of a lady film, with a woman having almost full creative control behind the scenes, and producing a film about a very admirable real-life woman.  Bright Star is also wonderful proof that a film can be a love story without falling upon sexist tropes to make its point.

Next week is Julie Taymor’s Frida, the Frida Kahlo biopic.  I was going to squish it in with this post – the two films have a lot of similarities, and they’re both on Netflix Instant (so watch them) – but that would make one massive post.

Also, if we’re going to continue to talk about women in film, I think you might need to watch this.  I suspect that almost every discussion of women in film brushes over the topic of “manic pixie dream girls” at one point or another, so we should all be well aware of the concept.

*NOTE:  All screencaps taken by me.  Use ’em if you want ’em.*

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4 Responses to “LADY FILMS, Week #1 – “Bright Star””

  1. thenerdynegress May 4, 2011 at 7:08 pm #

    Great post, Lora Baby! I really want to see this movie now.

    • leeraloo May 4, 2011 at 8:39 pm #

      Thank you! It is SO good, we should watch it some time. I have Netflix… or I might just buy it for myself, honestly.

  2. elysiasmith May 6, 2011 at 2:35 pm #

    YES.
    I really love this movie and I’d been noticing it appear on your tumblr. I was hoping you’d write about it.
    Gosh, Lora. This is a great idea.

    • leeraloo May 7, 2011 at 12:21 am #

      You’ve seen “Bright Star,” too? Awesome! We need to make everyone watch it and then we can talk about how amazing it is.

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