The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981)

Dir. Karel Reisz. Starring Jeremy Irons, Meryl Streep, Hilton McRae

Movies don’t usually come with morals (glory to God in the highest for that), but occasionally one comes across a film which contains within itself a parable. The French Lieutenant’s Woman is such a film, which uses the story of a pair of protagonists to create meaning unknown to those who can hear the parable itself. At the center of The French Lieutenant’s Woman is an incoherent attempt by two men (played by Jeremy Irons with sideburns and a mustache, and by Jeremy Irons without sideburns but with the mustache) to assign the romance of fiction to a romance of real life. The listeners to the parable are film types of the early 1980s; the subjects of it are the characters from a Victorian film they’re putting on. Charles Smithson at least has the excuse of being a Victorian gentleman who has the preening faults of his time and social class. A fallen woman bears a certain curiosity for men like him, both sexual and ethical in nature. In Passion, one song gives us the line “How quickly pity leads to love,” and Charles appears to have that tattooed on his lower back somewhere given his actions. Mike, based on the example being set by the man he himself is playing in a film, doesn’t have a leg to stand on when he makes poor decisions. When he shouts “Sarah!” out the window at the end of the movie, he undercuts his own emotions as thoroughly as a someone in his position can do; he admits their pretense.

At film’s end, one of them has, despite great privations and the quest of years, won the love of his lover. Charles has signed a paper which forfeits his right to be called “a gentleman,” and by reputation in Lyme, Sarah (Streep, with long hair) had long ago forfeited her right to be called a lady. They are a perfect match, and despite a fight that looks like it’s going to end badly, the two of them reconcile. Sarah, who has been a weapon of mass destruction for so long, has figured out how to be a real person, and far more innocuous to men like Charles, who are drawn to the whirlwind mania surrounding a beautiful intelligent woman. Mike never wins the love of his lover, not even when they are lovers; Anna (Streep, with fashionable hair) is invested in the physical comfort that Mike can provide. Anna and Mike spend most of their time together in bed; even when Anna’s doing research about prostitution for her film role and Mike is doing the math on it, they’re on the bed together. “Come to bed,” she tells him once as he stares out, post-coitally contemplative. Their first scene together takes place in the morning and they are, of course, in bed; the fact that it’s Anna‘s bed seems like it might be a problem later on, since he shouldn’t be the one answering the phone in her room. It’s hard to tell what kind of person Mike is when he’s vertical even in scenes he shares with Anna. That one where he does some sums about Victorian fornication is the only moment which shows that he has any sort of sense of humor.  He is jealous and persistent, surely, but most people don’t make those central tenets of their personal ideology. He’s married (to a shockingly young Penelope Wilton) with children, but those don’t seem affect him in any serious way. Given the way he conflates Sarah and Anna/Charles and himself, perhaps we might suggest that his profession gives him some sort of purpose, but even that would be optimistic and complimentary in the extreme. Mostly, it appears, Mike is a fool, and while not everyone seems to know it, both Anna and Mike’s wife, Sonia, understand it fully. They are the people who matter.

If there is a key difference between Charles and Mike’s foolishness, it’s that Mike has to figure it out for himself; his only clue is his performance, and we know that it’s informing the foolishness from the start. While Mike is trapped in his Ouroboros of Stupid, Charles is given avenues to break free from it. More than once, something in his life would give him leave to forsake Sarah and to live a pleasant life by gentry standards, without passion but also without loss or pain or shame. In the beginning of the film, he comes to see Ernestina (Lynsey Baxter) to ask her to marry him. (Ernestina, who is flouncy and prissy and narrow, knows it’s coming and plays the fiancee-to-be with aplomb; it is, of course, an actress playing an actress playing a young woman playing a particular kind of young woman, and when you put it that way maybe we pity Mike a little more.) They are engaged already when he first runs into the French lieutenant’s woman. Once he begins to get more involved with her, she tries to get him to buzz off. Charles makes friends with an older, more experienced, more eyebrowed likeminded scientist named Grogan (Leo McKern). Grogan, based on his study of similar cases to Sarah’s, lays out the game plan she thinks she’s working from concerning his protege: make a man pity her, wrap up him up in some kind of involvement (especially if he would not otherwise be involved with her), and once he’s good and gotten, ruin him. As it turns out, this is exactly what happens; she leaves without a trace once his engagement is publicly and shamefully broken. Sam (McRae), Charles’ valet, and his girlfriend Mary (Emily Morgan), Ernestina’s maid, catch Charles and Sarah in the middle of something. At first, Charles makes it clear to Sam that he’s not to tell anybody what he’s seen; Sam is bothered by his master’s indiscretion but agrees that he and Mary will keep the secret. The trouble begins when Charles’ behavior becomes erratic and forcible; Sam, a much better man than Charles, makes it clear that he is not going to work in the home of a philanderer,and ultimately quits. It is one of the most upright things that anyone in the film does; he has a moral backbone that other characters, mostly his “betters,” don’t possess for themselves. Even his lawyer is a little disappointed when Charles tells him to send money to a certain woman; he knows what that means, even though it’s not precisely what it means in this case.

It takes Charles, who has a series of moral anchors just in terms of the people around him, some time to throw off all of the bonds of societal niceties and decencies it takes to indulge in his lust for Sarah. But Mike doesn’t have all of that; the only thing in his cushy late 20th Century life that would give him pause is his wife. Sonia is pretty, but not striking or beautiful. (She has this in common with her fictional counterpart, Ernestina, who is cute as a button but looks like a child in comparison to Sarah.) She is neatly casual in appearance, where Anna is flashy in the extreme with her bright red hair and her affinity for eye-catching colors. In one scene, Sonia and Anna talk to one another briefly. I envy you, Anna says cryptically. Sonia seems to understand, to some extent, what she means, but of course she’s too polite to say it, and Anna seems to realize that it was a mistake to say very much to Sonia at all given what she and Mike have been up to.

Anna is a first for Streep on film; she’s a little callous. While her role in Kramer vs. Kramer was not awfully sympathetic – she’s taking that cute little boy away from Dustin Hoffman! the she-devil! – there was still very much a person in that movie, who acts more or less rationally throughout the film. I don’t think we’d seen Streep do the full metal mean before, and in some ways Anna is the least sympathetic person she’d play until we hit the first half hour of Miranda Priestly. She seems cold, distant from nearly everyone, and there’s never much of a reason given. It’s well done – Streep does aloof as well as anyone else – but it’s a role which especially now feels out of place. Sarah, the victim, is a much more Streep role, and one which is reflected in films like The Deer HunterA Cry in the Dark, and especially Sophie’s Choice. It doesn’t hurt either that the film gives Streep the chance to do an accent, which, funnily enough, is going to be her calling card fifty years from now. Irons, who managed to squeeze this in with Brideshead Revisited in the same year, is playing someone rather different from his own standard roles. Often, we see in Irons this tendency towards resignation: in Brideshead, in The Mission, in M. Butterfly. Resignation does not much become Irons in this film, who is utterly frantic as both Charles and Mike. For this reason, this movie is not my favorite for either performer, though I recognize how good they both are in it; with the aid of cinematographer Freddie Francis, they evoke a recurring, thorough sadness for the whole of the movie.

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