Saturday, March 01, 2003

Prelude to a kiss: Virginia (Nicole Kidman) and Vanessa (Miranda Richardson) do the soulful sisterly stare thing in The Hours

And the Oscar for Best Picture goes to...The Hemlock Society for The Hours!!!

I didn't buy The Hours. It's a movie with one point, but I'll break it into two. One is that suicide is a noble option from the crushing pressure of existence. The other is that if you're a sensitive soul, you're probably gay, that a heterosexual union is therefore by its very nature repressive, and that any option for escape -- especially suicide -- is an act of courage. It operates from a gay weltanschaung that says heterosexuality is lethal, death is beautiful and suicide is heroic. The movie is well-acted, well-made, and tells a complex story in an intriguing way. But It's bullshit, and I shifted in my seat nervously, rejecting it almost all the way through.

The movie intertwines three stories. One is that of Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman with her nose out of joint; like the other two principals she is made to look as unflattering as possible), who commits suicide as the movie opens. In flashback the familiar story of the doyenne of Bloomsbury is replayed: she and her husband, Leonard, have left London for rural England, where they set up Hogarth Press. Virginia is suffering from a variety of mental problems, which apparently inspires her to write Mrs. Dalloway, a rather Joycean novel about one day in the life of the society woman Clarissa Dalloway. Although the movie sets this episode in 1921, it gives the impression that the novel is her own suicide note; actually the real Woolf would not kill herself for another 20 years. Anyway. From there we glide to another pair of stories, one in the 1950s, when a housewife, Laura Brown(Julianne Moore) is reading Mrs. Dalloway and one in 2001, when Meryl Streep is living out the Woolf story; her character's name is Clarissa, and her ex-husband Richard (Ed Harris), a poet who is dying of AIDS, calls her "Mrs. Dalloway."

What do the three have in common, besides a book? Virginia, as we all know, took her own life and according to the movie death was about the only thing she ever talked about with any passion. Certainly, Leonard does not evoke passion, although there is love and concern between them; the only person that apparently really trips Virginia's trigger is her sister Vanessa (Miranda Richardson). Laura, thirty years later in some dull American suburb -- from the looks of it, the same gilded Douglas Sirkian cage that traps Moore in Far From Heaven -- has a dull marriage that is all "Father Knows Best" on the surface. Her husband (John T. Reilly. who seems to be getting trapped in these nebbishy roles) loves her, her son Richie loves her but, as if we couldn't guess from her thin, plastic smile, she hates the domestic life she's been pretending to love. She doesn't fit into Eisenhower America, and when her pal Kitty (Toni Collette) comes over, we begin to understand why.

Kitty is the very picture of 1950s complacency; she looks like the cover of a Butterick pattern. Kitty is another prisoner of domesticity, although she doesn't know it. She wants to have a child and can't; instead, as she tells Laura, the doctors have found a growth on her uterus. Instead of a growing foetus, she gets a growing cancer; a cancer that is clearly indicative of her sense of failure. As she tells Laura, she had always grown up to believe that you're not really a woman unless you bear children. As Laura comforts her, the two women wind up sharing a lingering mouth-to-mouth kiss. Laura, who has devoted most her day to baking a cake for her husband's birthday, to being everything Kitty thinks a woman should be, now decides she wants to die. The life Kitty wants is the life that is killing her.

And then there's Clarissa, some fifty years later, who has been living for some years with a girlfriend; in the spirit of "if you can't beat `em, join `em," she has left her gay husband to find her own gay self. Like her literary doppelganger, and like Laura, she is hustling about preparing for a party for the dying Richard; she is doing all of Richard's living for him, and he can't stand it any longer; he wants to let go of a life that has become a pain, a long procession of hours.

Virginia, Laura, Richard -- the woman who wrote the book, the woman who read it, and (as it turns out) the son of the woman who read it; all gay and all romantically fixated on death, more or less with the movie's approval. Someone has to die, Virginia announces to Leonard, speaking of her novel and her life. Why, he asks. So that others will value life more, she replies -- at which point I began to grimace. Do the perpetually unhappy have any recourse to this state of affairs? Well, yes, as we learn later; Laura saves herself by abandoning her family, which will turn her son against her for life. But hey, she explains later, she chose life -- another grimace from me.

I suppose on reflection I can up the movie's overall score a tad by noting that it doesn't try to resolve the fact that life is about choices and choices, such as Richard's eventual suicide, sometimes involve the pain of others. What I find harder to forgive is that the movie seems to dole out equal nobility to choosing to live or choosing to die, which is not only simplistic but seems to me almost cruel. Virginia Woolf was mentally ill and feared another nervous breakdown. Whatever one may think of her art, she was not a sentimentalist. Does it honor her memory to turn her into some kind of latter-day Ophelia?

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