IMDB says "Unrated." The beginning of the VHS made up its own rating system and called it "VM: Very Mature". That's pretty accurate. We're not talking NC-17 here, but the last third of the movie is pretty risque. And to think that I was considering teaching The Awakening to my AP Language and Composition class...
DIRECTOR: Mary Lambert
Okay, I know myself. I know how this review is going to go. I'm going to want to stay entirely focused on the film, but I watched the movie after reading the book it is based on, Kate Chopin's The Awakening. I really didn't like the book and I hate trashing anything that is considered a classic. But I really didn't like the book. The only points I get for trashing the book is that the movie is ridiculously close in content to that of the novel, so when I'm complaining, just pretend that I'm only complaining about the film.
I really wanted to like this story. I don't know what it is about the fact that I can't get behind a lot of feminist literature. I keep saying that I'm woke and then I read / watch stuff like this and I lose my mind. This is not a political statement or anything, but this is one of those stories where everyone is terrible, but the story tries to convince me that the protagonist is a good person. I don't hate her, by any means (I'm apologizing to a fictional character written by a dead author. Why can't I grow a backbone.) There is feminist literature / film out there that I really love, but few of them are real classics. It makes me seem like this huge jerk and that I'm closeminded, but I can't stop having standards for my characters. If it makes you feel better, I got into a debate with my college professor about this character which led her to imply that me finding value in my parenting was a social construct and that I was free to abandon my family. (Actually true story. Higher education is actually getting pretty creepy.) I wonder what it is about a protagonist that is unsympathetic that gets to me. I have no problem when a story acknowledges that the protagonist is unsympathetic. Heck, I even like it. I don't think that I like it when the character is unsympathetic, but is lauded as a hero. I will say, Edna's story is partially pitiable. She is a character illustrating the chauvinism of the Victorian Era. The very nature of her wanting to "awaken" from this social disease is actually a cool concept. Yo ho, I encourage it. (I'm really trying to sell that I like the movement to a certain degree, but its art is lacking!) But there is a line where the movie just goes and craps on humanity. For those who have never read The Awakening (Don't worry, I'm an English teacher who just discovered it), the story follows Edna who did not marry for love. During her time at Grand Isle (Hey, that's the name of the movie!), she meets Robert and falls madly in love. During her flirtations with Robert (who sucks, btw), she starts noticing flaws in her marriage and begins rebelling. (I'm good so far, with the exception that she's flirting with a guy despite the fact that she's married.) She is encouraged by a mysterious spinster (kind of) to pursue her talent for art. She leaves her children, takes up a lover (not Robert), and draws naked (in the movie because apparently Kelly McGillis was down for it.) SPOILER: She probably commits suicide by swimming out naked as a form of defiance to the world that shackled her.
There's a line in both the book and the movie where she claims that she would give her life for her children but not her self. Part of that I can get behind. The idea that you need to maintain your sense of identity is important, but she holds on to her sense of self so hard that she abandons them. If the story is about that she can't simply live with the identity of "mother", hooray! Good for you! But it is not that. The movie does this thing about making the story about happiness and fulfillment being the ultimate goal. That feels very cheap. (I'm now just saying all the things that may have gotten me in trouble in class.) Happiness has value, but it is also an ephemeral value. I think that even the storytellers are aware of that. Edna really finds happiness in the way that she wants to. While she swims out and commits suicide under her own prerogative, she does so because she is left constantly disappointed by the world around her. (She did it! She showed everyone! Waitaminute...) The idea of happiness at the expense of others is really hard for me to justify. She looks at the women around her who have children as foolish and there is a judgmental element to this decision. I do find it funny that we use the term "woke" to describe this realization because Chopin used "awakening", an almost one-to-one synonym. But I don't know whether this was a choice by someone or just thought it was on point. (Look at me, using hip slang.) Is this entire a review of being "woke"? Hardly. Edna needs to stand up for herself and become her own individual. Rah rah, shish boom bah and all that! But I never really can get behind bringing joy and independence for yourself at the expense of others.
Talking exclusively about the film, the movie is super dated. This is Kelly McGillis in her hayday. Okay, a little after her hayday. Listen, her hayday was 1986 and not even all of 1986. It was when Top Gun came out. She's in Witness and The Accused, but 1991 is the tail end of America McGillising. I don't think I have a problem with her in this role. I read a bunch of IMDB reviews during the movie. (I know, I am a bad person for being in reach of his cell phone during a film, but I was really annoyed at this movie at one point.) People attack McGillis's performance in this film and I'm not quite sure that's fair. While her performance is by no means Oscar worthy, she holds the role as well as can be expected. Part of what makes this movie a little "meh" is the lower production value that it presents. It was made by Turner pictures, but I get the vibe that this never had a theatrical release. It's probably due to the "VM" rating as opposed to the "R" rating. But the movie kind of feels chincy. Adrian Pasdar, the guy from Heroes, Iron Man (animated) and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. plays Robert and that seems about where the budget is. There are two big casting choices, but I get the vibe that they were suckered into it. In terms of someone dropping the ball, the only place I can point is the cinematography. The mise-en-scene is pretty solid for the most part. Costumes and time period deem decent. McGillis looks a little '90s, but that's true for any era's costume dramas. The only time that the costumes weren't very good was when Edna paints naked (because the scene was totally unnecessary and I feel like they just knew that McGillis would get nude for the scene.) I want to talk about how the movie wanted to be more sexual than it was. That nude scene of her working on her art was so exploitative that I wondered if the filmmakers wanted to toe that line between art and eroticism. Were they planning on selling this to late night Cinemax, but also avoid selling their souls? The sexual stuff is reserved for the final act, but it does get very graphic and non-realistic for those parts. This all ties into the idea that this movie is pretty cheap for the most part. It simultaneously defines itself as an adaptation of an important (despite the fact that I don't like it) work of fiction while trying to appeal to a viewership that wants to be aroused (the best way I can put that without needing to take a shower to get clean). It's profound and cheap at the same time and, under different circumstances, would have achieved a profoundly different tone.
The movie is not a failure of the novel. Weirdly enough, it's super accurate to its source material. The problem is that The Awakening is a story told from Edna's perspective. It is a very slow burn that does not depend on plot. It is a study of her character and focuses on the details of every moment. The story moves quickly when the chapters are short, but those longer chapters really allow the novel to breathe. While the events of the story and the film are one-to-one for the most part, the very nature of filming this movie involves losing something. Could there be a great film adaptation of The Awakening? Possibly, but with that comes the same problem that Watchmen had. By trying to stay so faithful to the source material, something is lost. The only way to fix that is to give something else to think about and absorb. Instead, Grand Isle provides only an absence for what could have been. Without much of a director's vision, the story relies on what it can and can't film. The closest attempt to rectify this in Grand Isle is the use of the flashes to white and the constant image of the girl running in the fields. It's a cool decision, but it is also a band aid over a bigger problem. Every time there's a weaker moment, this film focuses on this vision which almost serves to be a highlighter for mistakes. It comes across as a little bit gimmicky and that's a bummer.
I hate the fact that I don't like this book. In undergrad, I was so skeptical of great literature and I didn't give it the respect it deserved. When I graduated, I started studying these works again with a more open mind and realized that I was the idiot. The Awakening and, by proxy, Grand Isle just make me mad. I'm sure that there are people who really love this book and could defend it with their dying breath. Much of it seems to sacrifice good actions for other good actions and perhaps that is my stupid ideology getting in the way. I just don't like the central premise and wish that there was another way to explore many of the same themes without tossing the baby out with the bathwater.
Pun kind of intended.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.