Time Lapse

The French Lieutenant's Woman Directed by Kerel Reisz At the Sack Charles

TIME MARCHES ON--and, in Harold Pinter's world, sometimes retreats. Pinter, after the fashion of most absurdist playwrights, delights in distorting and playing with time. And John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman is a novel of time--a modern narrator looking through a modern window at a Victorian story.

So when director Kerel Reisz decided to go ahead with the filming of French Lieutenant's Woman, he looked to Pinter for a translation. The challenge for the scriptwriter came in maintaining the mood and contrasts of the Fowles book without clumsily injecting a modern narrator. The choice of Pinter was well-made, for he transforms the book-within-a-book into a film-within-a-film with a minimum of messiness. His screenplay respects the intent of the original novel, whose 20th-century structure of author's conceits and devices framed a haunting story of 19th-century romance and passion. By telling the Victorian story, then weaving a parallel story around the romance of the actors making the film. Pinter achieves something of the same sense. The 20th century doesn't just give perspective to the Victorian, but is commented on itself--an important, if implicit, dimension of Fowles's novel.

For all the sardonic wit of the book's modern narrator, the novel envied the hidden passions underlying the Jane Austen world of garden parties and social proprieties. The contrast of Pinter's parallel stories preserves that envy, for the 19th-century drama features powerfully driven characters whose passions are strong enough to shred apart their lives. The story of the 20th century, on the other hand, concerns the off-hand affair between the two leads, Anna and Mike, during the shooting of the film--a cheap and superficial encounter. The present world is too comfortable, the emotions somehow counterfeit.

Director Reisz and cinematographer Freddie Francis work together to create the two very different settings. Filmed in the seaside town of Lyme Regis, Dorset, the 19th-century backgrounds are impossibly green fields, lush forests, and dark, crashing waves. The music supports the imagery, strings welling up in the background to suit this vivid and strikingly visual interpretation of every Victorian novel ever written. The blacks are black and the whites white in this world of sin and expiation where the characters care deeply about the conventions they transgress. Today's world, in contrast, appears in crisp, colorless light, everything modern and vaguely jet-setty. Porsches cruise the cobbled streets and the casual clothes come from Christian Dior's rack. Lines are tossed off. It's a real world where nothing seems real at all.

Pinter lays suitably simple stagings across this background--frameworks for passion and its absence that play off one another. Most attention falls on the Victorian drama, in which Christopher Irons plays an aristocratic dabbler at science, Charles Smithson, whose plans for marriage are torn apart by his vision of the haunting face of Meryl Streep at the end of a long sea wall, wind and waves crashing about her. Smithson spends the rest of the film trying to understand the reason for her remarkable, extraordinary look.


THE WOMAN, Sarah Woodruff, is called "the French lieutenant's woman" (and sometimes "the French lieutenant's whore") because she is said to have dallied with a visiting French officer--a scandalous reputation she encourages. Charles and Sarah fall into a curious kind of love. Their story is not merely a romance, but Romantic in the grand style. Pinter's second story shows Irons and Streep playing Mike and Anna, the two 20th-century leads having a back-stage affair.

The ties between the two stories work on several levels to hold the movie together. Horse-drawn carriages follow the same cobbled roads taken by Jaguars a scene earlier, a shot of supermodern trains of 1981 comes moments after a smoke-filled train station of 1867, Anna leaves for London just as Sarah flees Lyme Regis in mystery. In each story a successful man throws aside his calm, well-ordered life with its calm, well-ordered love (wife and kids in one, finance in the other) in order to reach out for the mystery and excitement of an uncatchable woman. The lust and pettiness of Irons' 20th century highlight the deeper passions of the 19th-century character Irons plays. The structure of the film tries to focus on the passions within Irons as he plays two very different moths hovering around much the same flame.

But the flame is too bright to ignore. Streep's not-quite-pretty face, which should have been just the object of Smithson's passion, becomes instead the most memorable thing in the film. Streep, almost by accident, takes over the stage whenever she enters. Irons is good--his aristocratic gentility and his moments of anger both stand out clearly--but he can't compare to Streep's magic. Streep, as the Scarlet Woman of Lyme Regis, has to convey an obscure, flighty vulnerability, always looking away from the camera and Smithson. And always she has at her disposal that piercing stare--a private look that lets the inner fires shine through the private mists. She builds an impenetrable wall around herself, riddle within mystery inside enigma, and then pierces it with that glance.

Streep's performance as the present-day Anna is adequate in its bitchiness, but as the Victorian Sarah the actress comes into her own. Where Anna is predictably modern, Sarah has a hint of madness. The transformation between the two is captured in one of the film's best moments. Mike and Anna are wearing everyday clothes in their hotel room, rehearsing a scene in which Smithson comes upon Sarah with her skirt caught in a bush. They talk it through once--and then Streep does it, standing up and walking toward Irons. The costume doesn't matter: her eyes tell you that you are now watching Sarah. And just as you see the transformation in Streep from Anna to Sarah, director Reisz cuts from present to past, and the scene becomes the forest of Lyme Regis. Wonderful.

Streep's only rival in the film is its own structure. The Fowles-Pinter-Reisz creation is open film-making, with no secrets from the audience. You know the pattern from the first scene, when the actress crosses the set and becomes the character. The only problem with Pinter's structure is that you're never quite sure whether its form follows its function, or vice-versa. At times the two stories seem to have been contrived just to play off one another. The juxtaposition adds richness, though, if perhaps too few insights aside from biting reminders of our 20th-century roots.

While in many ways Streep is perfect for her character, she seems less than ideal for the film. The French Lieutenant's Woman becomes a contest between Streep's soulfulness and Pinter's stylistics. The contrast is fascinating, but the two sides pull against one another--an intrinsic flaw that limits the movie's reach and ultimately holds it back from greatness.

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