July 12, 2009

The Doll's House (1973)

The Doll's House isn't one of the greatest films that was ever made. It came out in 1973 at the same time as another film, made from the same play, and was released on television rather than in cinemas and it vanished pretty quickly after that. The makers included illustrious members of the aristocracy of the cinema- Joseph Losey, Trevor Howard and Jane Fonda- but the film has fallen into obscurity. Its fall into obscurity is pretty just- the film does not succeed really and as a failure I think its a worthy one. The Doll's House is a play by Ibsen about the constrictions of nineteenth century marriage- the way that it constrained women and meant that their lives were ornamental to their husband's lives rather than instrumental to their own good. It is one of the most famous plays of the century and that enduced Losey and company to an over respectful treatment- the play is set in 19th Century Norway, the swish of long skirts and the rustling of monocles dropping into pockets is the visual accompaniment to Ibsen's dialogue. There isn't anything neccessarily wrong in attempting authenticity in your treatment but you have to give the script life and vibrancy- the respectful treatment of the text translates in this case into a kind of lifeless stagy acting. The acting isn't wrong and every line is pronounced rightly but the overall effect is that the actors are trying to act rather than acting themselves.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Jane Fonda's performance. Ms Fonda here has to act as a silly girl growing into a mature young woman who demands her own liberty to define her own life. That transition has to be made subtly- in this case it is not. Suddenly in five minutes Ms Fonda's character makes that transition. Losey decided that Ibsen's dialogue needed improving so he added scenes of exposition to the beggining of the play. In those scenes Ms Fonda does nothing so heartily as she irritates- she gives a performance of being a giddy girl without constraint. The missing element is any depth or colour- Ms Fonda's transitions in this film are between moods but she does not convey a character. The film in a sense like Fonda makes too much of an effort- the most irritating effect to my mind was ponderous music draped over the first ten minutes telling me what to think of the scenes, telling me how to react. Music can serve films well- Scorsese's Mean Streets made a couple of years after this shows you how it should be used- but in this film it was not used well. Furthermore those scenes of exposition deprive the rest of the plot of its mystery and leave the main point of the story as the political feminist point but the feminist point emerges slowly and for too much of the film, this viewer knew what was going to happen and could not be interested because he could not be surprised.

The film's point is a good one. Fonda's character Nora married a man named Torvald and secretly through borrowing money got him to go to Italy, a move which, in the context of the film, we have to accept saved his life. Later on, Torvald treats her as though she were an ornament- his little bird, his little this, that and the other. He patronises her and refuses to acknowledge her existance. His code of honour seems to have little place for female personhood within it but more to exist within a patriachal universe in which only men and their moral selves exist. He ultimately gets a comeuppance for this particular example of sexism. The point is well made and perfectly illustrated and the last ten minutes in which the point is made are the most impressive ten minutes of the entire movie- but that does not excuse all that has come before.

Having a good ten minutes though does not make a good film- obscurity in this case was thoroughly deserved.


James Higham said...

but the film has fallen into obscurity

As I tend to do.