When I began sorting out my thoughts on Christopher N. Rowley’s directorial debut Bonneville, it became clear that I would soon face an internal conflict of the greatest magnitude, a paradox so turbulent that it would shake my very core: how could I, a man who proclaims to be the premiere campaigner for actresses over 40 (and their relevancy in pop culture), criticize an honest attempt by not one, but three of the best such women? How could I reinterpret and disassemble how modern ticket-buying audiences perceive this “women’s film”? How dare I be disappointed in the final result?
Indeed, as someone who prides himself on being the champion of actresses, how could I possibly criticize this film that was at least making an attempt at a) employing actresses who, in general, don’t get a chance to work as much on the big screen as they used to; and b) capturing precisely the kind of non-caricatured middle-aged woman that is disturbingly absent from the big screen altogether?
From Reverence to Rape
The Treatment of Women in the Movies
(University Of Chicago Press)
As feminist film critic Molly Haskell said in her book From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, “ the problem becomes even stickier in film criticism with a feminist point of view, where the delights of the specialist often collide with the despairs of the ideologue. The critic and the feminist in me join hands to protect their respectability against a romantic, a slobbery, atavistic soul ready to sabotage all their deliberations with a few convulsive sobs”
Ms. Haskell said that she considered herself a film critic first, and a feminist second. “I feel an obligation to the wholeness and complexity of film history. It means that art will always take precedence over sociology, the unique over the general.” I like to keep her words in mind, especially in the tough times where the feminist in me says “Don’t criticize”, but the film enthusiast cries “Foul!”
I first saw, and vacillated over, this film when it had its American premiere at film scholar Dr. Annette Insdorf’s Reel Pieces lecture series back in January, and I was happy to not have to properly review the film because I was so let down by it. Thankfully, there was a live chat with actress-activist-icon Jessica Lange there to buoy my imagination and give me something much more interesting to write about. Listening to her talk for an hour plus was infinitely more interesting than watching the brisk 90-minute film, and her talk helped me dodge the bullet of having to write a negative review, the prospect of which completely mortified me, given that Lange is one of my idols.
As a huge fan of Lange for years, watching her toil chiefly in supporting roles in fringe films, I was understandably excited to see her in a lead role, on the big screen, once again. I have, historically, sought out the films of Lange whenever possible. The problem here was that even though her performance in Bonneville was nicely pieced together, the film, which was slightly written and hastily assembled at best, conspired to undo all of her hard work, at every turn.
This is something I have had to really force myself to consider when evaluating the contemporary films of actresses like Lange or peer Diane Keaton. It is hard to watch the iconic Keaton become adept at essentially branding herself in a way that makes her indispensable to the present-day film industry by making crowd-pleasing movies that almost exclusively waste her brilliance and pretty much dumb her down for a larger audience, distilling her very essence into a product that can be sold and re-sold. This is something that is probably necessary for women of this age bracket to do to keep their careers (and visibility) alive in a climate that would just as soon see them go away forever, but I did not want to see this happen to Lange. I didn’t even think it was possible.
Bonneville was a rare, special case where I decided that I could not let my blind, irrational love for Lange cloud my judgment, nor could I let my devotion to all things Kathy Bates get in the way of me finding the reason why Bonneville just didn’t succeed. When I finally discovered the answer to this riddle, I was relieved to come to the realization that the film’s failure overall was not the fault of Lange, Bates, or their ethereal co-star Joan Allen. It wasn’t primarily the fault of the writer/director, either, though (even though some of the scripted dialogue and cock-eyed scenarios the women are forced into are wincingly bad). So who is to blame for casting some of the greatest actresses of our time in this little failure of a road movie?