As moviegoers get ready for Meryl Streep’s return to the big screen in Jonathan Demme’s Ricki and the Flash, the Criterion Collection releases a digitally restored DVD of Karel Reisz’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981), Streep’s first starring film role. Streep appeared in the film after she established herself as a great actress with The Deer Hunter (1978) and Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), but before she cemented her legacy as one of the greatest with Sophie’s Choice (1982), Silkwood (1983), and Out of Africa (1985). Streep’s Academy Award nominated performance is typically powerful, but even she can’t save the film from its postmodern pretensions.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981) is based on John Fowles’ “unfilmable” novel about a Victorian love affair between the social outcast Sarah Woodruff and the gentleman Charles Smithson. The novel has been described by literary theorist Linda Hutcheon as a work of “historiographic metafiction” because Fowles combines metafiction with historical fiction. (‘Historiographic Metafiction: Parody and the Intertextuality of History“) Fowles calls attention to the conventions of Victorian literature as he tells his tale, and his novel was considered unfilmable by literary critics because it contains a self-aware omniscient narrator and multiple endings.
The only way to make Fowles’ postmodern prose filmable was for screenwriter Harold Pinter to stray significantly from the source. In Pinter’s adaptation, actors Anna (Streep) and Mike (Jeremy Irons) play Sarah and Charles in a film production of The French Lieutenant’s Woman. As Reisz cuts back and forth between the two parallel stories, we observe two forbidden love affairs. The first, between Sarah and Charles, will be familiar to fans of Fowles’ novel, and the second, between Anna and Mike, is meant to replace the omniscient narrator in Fowles’ novel and contribute to the overall postmodernity. Streep and Irons are real actors who play fictional actors in a film adaptation of a novel, and the film adaptation in which Anna and Mike appear is the same film adaptation that we watch unfold on screen. It’s all so very meta.
It’s also pointless. Unlike Day for Night (1973), which is a love letter to the filmmaking process, and The Player (1992), which is a satire of the filmmaking process, The French Lieutenant’s Woman doesn’t have anything interesting to add about the filmmaking process. The characters represent ideas instead of people, and the film-within-a-film device is only incorporated to create a fourth wall between the audience and the film — to remind us that the movie we’re watching isn’t real.
Metafiction may have been revelatory in 1981, but after decades of overuse, it’s become redundant. The film has not aged well, and this has to do with the failure of postmodernism and poststructuralism to contribute anything useful to popular culture. Academics in the late 20th century welcomed artists who alienated their audiences with fiction that called attention to its artifice, but most audience members wanted more immersive fare. The French Lieutenant’s Woman is emotionally cold and distant. This explains why escapist entertainment such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, On Golden Pond, and Superman II were the highest grossing films of 1981.
Like any postmodern work, The French Lieutenant’s Woman wants to punish the audience. Just when we’re about to get lost in the brooding Victorian story with Sarah and Charles, Reisz brings us back to the boring present day with Anna and Mike, and just as we start to gain interest in Anna and Mike’s story, we’re sent back to the past with Sarah and Charles. The film is frustrating to watch, and because that’s the point, it’s even more frustrating to know that this is precisely what the filmmakers want us to feel.
Despite these criticisms, the production values in the Victorian period deserve praise. The costumes by Tom Rand, the production design by Assheton Gorton, the art direction by Allan Cameron, Norman Dorme, and Terry Pritchard, the set decoration by Ann Mollo, the cinematography by Freddie Francis, and the score by Carl Davis contribute to the period’s beautiful milieu. This is in contrast to the mundane modern day setting. The modern day story with Anna and Mike distracts from the Victorian story with Sarah and Charles, and if the filmmakers focused entirely on Sarah and Charles’ story, the film would’ve been more engaging. Alas, such changes would compromise the postmodernity of Fowles’ novel, and God forbid anyone did that.
The DVD comes with a number of bonus features that complement the film. In “Emotional Uncertainties”, a 30-minute behind-the-scenes documentary, Streep, Irons, and editor John Bloom describe their memories of the shoot. I was surprised to learn that Streep and Irons played their characters in both storylines as if they were appearing in two different films, and didn’t try to comprehend the connection between the two storylines.
In two other interviews, Carl Davis discusses his score for the film, and film scholar Ian Christie offers an intriguing analysis of the film’s importance. Criterion also includes a 1981 episode of London Weekend Television’s The South Bank Show, in which Fowles, Pinter, and Reisz talk about the film. Finally, film scholar Lucy Bolton contributes an essay in the DVD’s booklet. These bonus features are useful for viewers who don’t like the film but want to understand why Criterion considers it to be cinematically important.
If we judge The French Lieutenant’s Woman by whether or not it achieves what it aims to do, then it’s a success, but if we judge it by whether or not it entertains and engages with the audience in exciting ways, then it’s a failure. Fans of Fowles’ novel will admire Reisz and Pinter’s adaptation. Everyone else will be reminded that the worst decision artists ever made was to accept postmodernism as a legitimate movement.