Mona Lisa Smile (2003)

It’s a glamorous time period in the way it looks, but underneath the surface, I think people weren’t as perfect as they tried to pretend they were.
— Julia Stiles, “What Women Wanted, 1953”

It’s important to make art that’s really honest, and that’s not afraid to be provocative and transgressive if you have to be.
— Maggie Gyllenhaal, “Art Forum”

“Katherine Watson didn’t come to Wellesley to fit in. She came to Wellesley because she wanted to make a difference.” So begins the saga of an idealistic art history teacher who arrives from Oakland to New England in the fall of 1953. Narrated by her student, Betty (Kirsten Dunst), Katherine’s first steps on campus are an occasion for hope and disruption. The sun is shining, the grass is green, and the girls are eager to look smart. Even before they walk into the first session of Art History 100, they’ve memorized the textbook and spit it back out in a series of titles and dates. The camera cuts between the projector light and slides, the well-prepared girls and Katherine’s horrified face.

This moment sets up Katherine’s essential dilemma in Mike Newell’s Mona Lisa Smile. Berkley-educated, she’s a “forward thinker,” a “bohemian” who believes that education opens doors. Wellesley, by contrast, is institutionally and philosophically invested in stamping out novelty. Following her encounter with the Wicked Sister students, Katherine is called in to the “authorities,” a room full of stodgy stiffs who dampen spirits in movies like this. That is, movies wherein the plucky protagonist resists the rules and endeavors to rescue her students from their sure-to-be turgid fates. As the bright-eyed and immediately smitten Giselle Levy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) puts it, “I think she’s fabulous.”

On her second day in class, Katherine comes prepared, with art that challenges her charges, art that is not in the textbook, such as Chaim Soutine’s Carcass of Beef. She asks, “Is it art?” and encourages them to reconsider their resistance: “Just look at it again. Look beyond the paint. Let us try to open our minds to a new idea.” That the movie can’t quite get beyond its own surface is no small irony: Katherine will make a difference, the girls’ thinking will be pushed “forward,” and the plot will remain trite and contained.

Most plainly embodying the urge to containment is Betty, who believes her mother’s decree that she must marry and keep a well-appointed house to be happy. Other students in need of reeducation include familiar types: like Betty, Joanie (Julia Stiles) has a self-centered fiancé (Topher Grace), but she also wants to go to law school (her options expand when, on first try and at Katherine’s urging, she’s granted early admission to Yale). “Plain girl” (and sensual cellist) Connie (Ginnifer Goodwyn) is desperate just to have a boyfriend. And freethinking, cigarette-smoking Giselle is sleeping with her charismatic Italian teacher, Bill (Dominic West), who in turn sets his sights on Katherine. This even though Giselle warns him that Katherine is “too good” for him, indeed, that she is herself too good for him. She most definitely is.

Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal’s predictable script situates Katherine between prissy, pathetic roommate-etiquette teacher-and I Love Lucy fan Nancy (Marcia Gay Harden), and lesbian roommate-school nurse Amanda (Juliet Stevenson), forthwith fired for distributing condoms to students. Both women have lost much-missed partners — Nancy a man to WWII and Amanda her 30-year “companion” to some unknown cause — and so each becomes, in her way, an object lesson in what Katherine doesn’t want to be.

Formula attends Columbia’s DVD, as featurette after featurette spouts a party line (not to mention the music video for Elton John’s “The Heart of Every Girl,” in which there is, he sings, “a woman waking up”). In these talking head documentaries, truisms abound: the ’50s was “transitional period” and art changes minds. As to the latter, “Art Forum” has the performers speaking on “art” as a general concept: “I like to draw,” says Kirsten Dunst, “It helps you relax”; Julia Stiles observes, “It’s a desire to express yourself and communicate ideas. And also, art kind of gives you permission to think about the ideas that you have”; and Marcia Gay Harden, who won an Oscar for playing Lee Krasner, reduces the concept to its minimal aspects: “When an artist holds a mirror up to nature, it’s more than just a reflective process, it’s an interpretive process.”

Roberts introduces “College Then and Now” by noting, “A period movie is an interesting, fun thing to do.” As the documentary intercuts black and white footage of women in classrooms or playing tennis, Stiles adds that the period was, “for women, just before they sort of broke out of what was expected of them, which was to become housewives, even if they were going to a school like Wellesley.” In “What Women Wanted, 1953,” a male narrator says, “It was the Eisenhower Era, a grey flannel decade shaped by the fallout of WWII… It wouldn’t be long before what women wanted was their freedom.” Roberts extends the point: “As a culture, we really became ruled by television and advertising, and what appliances we had and what automobile we had.”

Katherine has her hands full, even aside from looking for romance (though this happens too, as this is, after all, a Julia Roberts movie — as you are resoundingly reminded when she awakes from her first tryst, her hair fully tousled in trademark Julia style). When school newspaper editorialist Betty labels Katherine “subversive,” well, the battle between backward and forward thinking is on. Petty Betty will bring down her nemesis and Katherine will impress upon her students the value and rewards of independent thinking. In this context, it’s understandable why co-producer Julia Roberts says, “I don’t think we made a chick flick. We just made a movie” (Reuters 17 December 2003). That is, the movie is about autonomy, community, and rebellious acting out, solid American Way stuff.

It’s clear why Roberts doesn’t want Mona Lisa Smile to be called a chick flick, as the genre is perennially a ghetto (even if it is occasionally lucrative). Still, the film follows a chick flick formula (especially if you consider Dead Poets Society a chick flick in boys’ drag). That is, Katherine makes determined tracks from ostensibly certain failure to admirable winning over of the native population’s hearts and minds. She exposes them to Jackson Pollack, then gets them thinking about art and commercialism by bringing a paint-by-numbers Van Gogh kit to class (as an example of what “society” is doing to art; just how she negotiates among the blurry lines between commercial product, high art, and the very stuffiness she means to startle out of her girls is unspecified).

One evening, seemingly out of the blue, Katherine is invited to attend a drinking party hosted by the girls’ “secret society” (named, tellingly, the Adam’s Ribs), where she confesses her own romantic backstory, and so wins over even more converts for her daring: she’s rejected marriage on purpose, rather than being a lesbian or being cast off by a man. Surrounded by girls whose boys tend to deceive, tyrannize, or die, Katherine offers what seems a viable alternative route — teaching in a school where she gets a hard time for being smart, proud, and astute.

In other words, Betty and her sniffy ilk hold more cards (among them, Tori Amos cast as a singer at her wedding, a seeming nod to the film’s presumed college girl audience). Just so, they threaten Katherine’s job, should she persist in pushing her newfangled philosophies. She is equally judged by her classmates, the dazzling, generous Giselle is most visibly beguiled by Miss Julia; she’s the most convincing audience stand-in (though the group of students seems something like a boy band, meaning that you might choose any of them as a way in, save for odious girl Betty). This is the film’s most overt innovation, positing the Jewish girl among the WASPs as its most appealing and consistently endearing character.

It is Roberts’ movie though, and Katherine takes up the vast majority of the spotlight, a notion conveniently literalized in the classroom when she stands before the projected beam of the slide projector. In her last, bravura performance in this capacity, she shows a series of circa-’50s advertisements, featuring women making meat loaf, cleaning house, and wearing girdles that set them “free.” “What does that mean?” she asks, her forehead vein bulging with frustration. For one thing, it means, cookie cutter roles are maddening, then and now. Can we please move on?