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.)
Throughout the course of their therapy tandem, Antonia and Jane indulge in hilarious nightmare scenarios, of which we get a glimpse. At the movie theater, Antonia believes she's watching a French-speaking, black-and-white wartime movie entitled, La guerre de Jeanne Hartmann, in which Jane is betrayed by two Nazi impostors played by Antonia and Howard. In another dream sequence, Jane, bedecked with a long cigarette holder, dressed in Twenties-era, drawing-room garb, lip-syncs from a recording of Gertrude Lawrence and Noel Coward in Private Lives. Many of these short-order observations hit the mark; at least when they don't, the film's fleet-footed momentum isn't held back.
The unnamed therapist is the deus ex machina operating as instigator and adjudicator in their lives - and students of psychology will probably be appalled by her counsel. This shrink is presented as a Mandarin dowager, an authoritative, elusive harridan who's perennially perched, immobile, on a salmon-colored throne. Some of the exchanges between therapist and patient are downright unprofessional, others seemingly sensible, such as when Antonia complains about Howard's estrangement: "I want to kill him," she says. "That's entirely normal," answers the therapist. "At the same time, I'm glad to be rid of him," adds Antonia. "That's entirely healthy," counters the therapist. This impartial observer is quick to "be proud" of Antonia or Jane as they ponder "existential facts." The head-doctor trade gets a black eye in Antonia and Jane.
Imelda Staunton and Saskia Reeves play their respective parts with much sincerity and little flair - I hope this is intentional, for it gives their little story a great deal of warmth and naturalness. A pleasant surprise in this film is that Jane's frumpiness isn't drawn grotesquely, and Antonia's beauty isn't grandiose; they're eminently reachable. And Beeban Kidron, as director, never loses sight of one basic truth: no matter how great the internal growth of a person through time, the basic personality remains the same. At the close, we see Antonia fret over what she'll wear to the confrontation with Jane - one minute she puts something on, the next she takes it off. Clothes are key after all.
It's a figurine of a story, lasting only 77 minutes and produced at a pittance when compared to our budget-breaking, Hollywood white elephants. After this pleasing debut from Kidron, a woman sitting in the director's chair, you might ask: Where are our great distaff directors? The answer is there are no current candidates, despite a crowd that includes Amy Heckerling, Martha Coolidge, Susan Seidelman, Kathryn Bigelow, Lee Grant, and lately, Barbra Streisand and Nora Ephron, none of whose films have successfully addressed the sexual-political agenda nor shown, at least to this viewer, much artistic promise. What they have done, and somewhat cynically, is to prove that women can make lousy mainstream pictures. Just like men.
ANTONIA AND JANE
Directed by Beeban Kidron; written by Marcy Kahan; with Imelda Staunton, Saskia Reeves, Bill Nighy, Richard Hope, Brenda Bruce, and Alfred Marks.