Female Trouble

The label that has come to be known in the moviegoing lexicon as "the woman's film" continues to strike an empty, intellectually fraudulent note, for the often-taken assumption is that its filmic sensibility has been honed by - and is directed exclusively toward - one audience: women. Thus, the argument runs, any film displaying a keen sensitivity toward women's issues can hardly be the work of the ungentle sex, and should by definition exclude the male audience. This is sheer nonsense. Gloria Steinem was recently quoted (in Time magazine) as saying that some feminist books "should be for women only," later retreating to a feminism-is-humanitarianism pose. Her misguided first statement contradicts the later one, though: How can anyone accept a premise such as this, stating that feminist literature - or artworks or movies or whatever - remains the province of a closed society of in-the-know females, and still call the women's movement all-inclusive or gender-crossing? (Inverted, have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too machismo is more like it.)

The vaunted exclusivity aside, there needn't be an uneasy relationship between socially motivated action - call it feminist, or what you will - and the larger, all-embracing loftiness inherent in the artistic purpose. Both aim to state the truth. In the process, they look to inform and - in those rare cases where a perception of truth and personal vision commingle - ultimately to inspire. Just as a majority of women in this country these days apparently balk at the feminist tag (63 percent to 29 percent, according to Time's poll), there are men in the United States - I'm one - who wouldn't mind one bit being considered a feminist.

But in the arts in general and movies in specific, the artist's concerns often overcome the activist's. For example, in the Seventies, Lina Wertmuller's best-known leftist polemics, Swept Away and Seven Beauties, seemed to make one identify more with its flawed men (both played by Giancarlo Giannini) than any virtuous women. On the other hand, was there ever a finer director for actresses looking to express their fullest range of emotions than Ingmar Bergman, whose early-Sixties trilogy, Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence, depicted mental breakdown, rejection by a man, and religious alienation best through its women? To state that women artists are the sole custodians of women's concerns is to be more fascist than feminist.

In this light, the new English film Antonia and Jane, directed, written, and acted by women, is a comparatively happy experience and an exception. It's not a great film (nor is it even an exceedingly good one), but much of its success lies in the quicksilver unpredictability of the storytelling and its utter lack of pretense. Directed by Beeban Kidron and written by Mercy Kahan, Antonia and Jane traces the friendship between two opposites. Plain, short, frizzily dark-haired, working-class, and Jewish Jane Hartman (played by Imelda Staunton) speaks to her therapist (Brenda Bruce) about the things in her life that don't work - chief among which is her relationship with pretty, tall, straight-blond, upper-class, Christian Antonia McGill (Saskia Reeves). Despite a shared nitch in their self-esteem threshold, Antonia and Jane's temperamental differences and priorities are depicted early in the film when, in flashback, they argue in a boutique as Jane tries on some ill-fitting clothes. Antonia scolds her, saying, "Clothes are important; clothes are key." Jane responds by ranting passionately about the things that are key - world hunger, poverty, nuclear disarmament, etc. - and storms off.

Their worlds are brought uncomfortably together when, during one of their regular double massage sessions at a health club, Antonia confesses to Jane that she's having an affair with her boyfriend, Howard (Bill Nighy), and that they intend to be married - the worst insult Jane could possibly have imagined from either of them. Jane recounts this event to her quietly incredulous therapist, also that she attended their wedding without complaint, and further that she has remained friendly, if distant, with Antonia, limiting contact to once-a-year reunions at a restaurant. Predictably, the therapist asks why, but gets no immediate answer.

At this point, the story's point of view shifts to Antonia who, we learn, is seeing the same therapist. Apart from her quarrels with Jane over the years, Antonia progresses to cite her own difficulties, which include a dysfunctional son, and later, an adulterous husband. Alas, Antonia and Jane ends sentimentally, with the two friends preparing to face off with each other for the last time at one of their get-togethers.

Marcy Kahan's script captures nicely the cloying friendliness of Jane's English-Jewish world. Her bovinely petulant mother, all the characters at the Golda Meir Retirement Home where Jane occasionally helps out, plus her crazy uncle, Vladimir - the only Jewish supporter of wartime English fascist Oswald Moseley - are drawn affectionately and without too much Golders Green emoting. Indeed, Kahan captures England's silly university mentality about as well as the Monty Python crew did: A school headmaster's cats are named Ego, Id, and Superego. Kahan also conveys the world of British sex-kinkiness brilliantly: Antonia succumbs to a pass by a stranger at a movie theater, and agrees to sleep with him, invoking the anonymous Marlon Brando-Maria Schneider relationship in Last Tango in Paris. After the first round of coitus, he asks her if she wants to play games - next shot, she's tied up, blindfolded, lying face-down on the bed, being smacked when she misses a Shakespeare quote from King John. Immediately following, during Antonia's turn to play dominatrix, her partner has to guess what flavor fruit preserve she's rubbing on his back - or ouch. (This one-night tryst later becomes a source of embarrassment - ah, that great British aphrodisiac - for both of them.)

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