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The French Lieutenant's Woman

The French Lieutenant's Woman(1981)


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After several false starts by some of the era's most respected directors, the film version of John Fowles's novel The French Lieutenant's Woman finally got off the ground in 1978 when Karel Reisz agreed to take on the responsibility. As far back as 1969, Fowles had asked Reisz, a member of Britain's Angry Young Man generation of filmmakers, to direct the film, but he declined. A succession of big name contenders followed, including Fred Zinnemann who owned the rights to a script by Dennis Potter, Mike Nichols, Lindsay Anderson, Franklin Schaffner, Michael Cacoyannis, and Richard Lester. However, all seemed daunted by the novel's self-reflexive properties, and many did not make it to preproduction before dropping out.

When Reisz finally agreed to direct the film at Fowles's second request, he recognized the difficulties of turning such a complex novel into a Hollywood movie. The plot of the book is a Victorian-style romance that relates the tragedy of Sarah Woodruff, an enigmatic young woman ostracized by her village because of her affair with a French officer who has abandoned her. Biologist Charles Smithson falls under Sarah's melancholy spell and breaks his engagement to a woman from a prominent family in order to pursue their scandalous relationship. While the story takes place in the 19th century, Fowles adopts a 20th-century perspective in the narration, interrupting the story with observations, descriptions, and allusions from a modern point of view. The 19th- century plot and setting entertain the readers, while the contemporary perspective prevents them from total emersion into the narrative or complete identification with the characters. This distancing device is not only the strength of the novel but its defining characteristic. Attempting to duplicate cinematically the novel's most talked-about characteristic became an enormous challenge for Reisz.

Reisz and Fowles found the perfect screenwriter to help tackle this problem -- Harold Pinter -- primarily because of the playwright's mastery of narrative structure, layered meaning, and nuanced dialogue. Pinter's screenplays for Joseph Losey's The Servant (1963), Jack Clayton's The Pumpkin Eater (1964), and the reworking of his own play The Caretaker (1964) showcased his ability to write dialogue with subtext in which characters converse about their ordinary lives in ways that reveal something deeper. The inner nature of his characters, which motivates their lives and impacts their relationships, lies just beneath the surface of everyday routines and commonplace conversations. Fowles had always admired Pinter's work and wanted him as the principal screenwriter from the beginning of the project.

Ultimately, Pinter gave the film version of The French Lieutenant's Woman its most talked-about feature -- a double story in which one thread follows the 19th-century romance of Sarah Woodruff and Charles Smithson while the other tracks the modern-day affair of Mike and Anna, two actors playing Charles and Sarah in a film production of the novel. Jeremy Irons stars as Mike and Charles, while Meryl Streep garnered a third Academy Award nomination as Sarah/Anna. The idea to embed the modern story of two actors playing the roles of Charles and Sarah into the Victorian melodrama was Reisz's contribution to the screenplay, but Pinter conceived the characters of Mike and Anna, structured their story into the principal action, and gave their romance purpose and meaning. Just as the intrusion of a 20th century perspective interferes with the readers' total immersion into the 19th century romance in the novel, the dual romance in the film -- one set in the past and the other the present -- becomes a distancing device that prevents viewers from completely identifying with Sarah and Charles and sympathizing with their plight. It undermines the ability of Hollywood cinema to spin illusion, reminding viewers that they are watching a piece of fiction on film and prompting them to think about the events and characters instead of embracing them as romantic fantasy.

In addition, the juxtaposition of specific scenes of Charles and Sarah with Mike and Anna offer critical commentary on manners and sexual mores. The present comments on the past, while the past illuminates the present. Mike and Anna's first scene together finds them in bed asleep. They are suddenly awakened by Anna's call to the set by a crew member, who obviously knows that the two are romantically involved despite being married to others. Anna casually remarks, "They'll think I'm a whore," and Mike jokes, "You are." Later, when Sarah confides to Charles about the scandal that ruined her reputation as a governess and condemned her to servant status, she dramatically wails, "I am the French lieutenant's whore" in contrast to the lightness of the earlier conversation. In another scene, Anna researches the plight of single women in the Victorian era when a reputation, job, or marriage turned sour often meant hitting the streets as a prostitute. The impact of the dialogue she speaks as Sarah now becomes more personal for her.

The juxtaposition of past and present also comments on the nature of the two couples' relationships. Mike and Anna's modern sexually fueled romance points up the repressed manners and sexual hypocrisy of the Victorian age, while Charles and Sarah's attempts to suppress their feelings eventually erupt in a physical passion that reveals the lack of intensity in Mike and Anna's relationship. Pinter's nuanced dialogue takes on layered meaning in the contrast of characters and events from the past and present. At a tense lunch hosted by Mike and his wife, Anna's partner David asks the actor which ending will be used for the film. Fowles's original novel had famously featured two endings, one happy and one tragic. Frustrated over his relationship with Anna, who is pulling back from their affair, and jealous of David, Mike seems not to know whether the film ends happily or tragically. On the surface, the dialogue is about the outcome of Charles and Sarah's relationship, but the subtext is about the love triangle between Mike, David, and Anna. Just as Mike doesn't know the ending of the movie, he also doesn't know whether the outcome with Anna will end happily for him.

Comparisons of Pinter's screenplay to Fowles's original novel dominated the press coverage of The French Lieutenant's Woman, with some reviewers complimenting the inclusion of the modern story while others criticized it. The spotlight on Pinter's screenplay drew reviewers' attention away from the contributions of the cast and other members of the creative team, though many garnered awards. Pinter may have written the interlacing scenes between the Victorian and contemporary eras, but it was director Karel Reisz and editor John Bloom who cut them together. The scenes are edited into a deliberate though not obvious structure. The film opens with Anna getting into her makeup as Sarah, then 25 scenes pass before we see another one set in the contemporary era. After that point, the modern scenes come more rapidly. During one sequence, the cutting back and forth between the 19th and 20th centuries is so rapid that each era is reduced to a single shot that lasts only a few seconds. The sequence cuts back and forth between Charles suffering the consequences of his scandalous relationship with Sarah and Anna in London with her partner David. The fast cutting accentuates the turmoil that Charles experiences in his scene but it creates the turmoil in Anna's, foreshadowing her decision to break off the relationship with Mike. Though Reisz's films are not known for showy editing, his understanding of the aesthetics of montage was revealed in his 1953 book The Technique of Editing.

Freddie Francis, Britain's premiere cinematographer who worked with the best directors on both sides of the Atlantic, gave each era a different look. The 19th century story is set in the old Victorian town of Lyme Regis, which has a harbor and a breakwater called the Cobb that juts out into the sea. Lyme Regis on the south coast of England boasts picturesque cliffs and dense forests. Francis used long shots in deep focus to capture the stormy atmosphere of the harbor and accentuate the virgin beauty of the forests, with figures often standing alone against the elements. The film's most famous shot is the haunting image of Sarah Woodruff on the edge of the Cobb as the wind and waves swirl around her. The cinematography of 19th century Lyme Regis contrasts with the modern scenes, which tend to feature tight shots of the characters in bland surroundings.

Despite five Academy Award nominations, The French Lieutenant's Woman suffered from lukewarm reviews, with most critics unable to adequately interpret the purpose of the modern characters in a Victorian story. But, over 25 years later, the film's self-reflexive narrative, fine craftsmanship, and stellar acting showcase Pinter, Reisz, Francis, Streep, and Irons at the top of their game.

Producer: Leon Clore
Director: Karel Reisz
Screenplay: Harold Pinter based on the novel by John Fowles
Cinematography: Freddie Francis
Editor: John Bloom
Art Director: Assheton Gorton
Costume Designer: Tom Rand
Music Composer: Carl Davis
Cast: Sarah Woodruff/Anna (Meryl Streep), Charles/Mike (Jeremy Irons), Sam (Hilton McRae), Mary (Emily Morgan), Mrs. Tranter (Charlotte Mitchell), Ernestina (Lynsey Baxter), Dr. Grogan (Leo McKern), Mrs. Poulteney (Patience Collier).
C-123m. Letterboxed.

by Susan Doll

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