Sunday, July 17, 2011

Bleak House

Film: Wanda
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player

The reason to spend time reviewing films on the Internet or anywhere else is because opinions differ. If everyone thought the same thing all the time, there’d be no reason to discuss anything. A film like Barbara Loden’s Wanda is, by its nature, going to create this sort of differing opinion. Many will love it; others will not. Some will see a sort of feminist vision while others see the opposite.

For me, being told that Wanda is an example of feminist film causes me to start thinking that I don’t really have a grip on what feminism really is. Wanda (played by director Barbara Loden) is one of the most passive film characters I’ve ever come across. What happens in Wanda’s world simply happens. Wanda appears not only to not have any control over anything, but she doesn’t want to do anything to get control over anything. I mean anything. As we continue through the film, her hair, her clothing, the food she eats, all of her actions get decided for her. She never really protests anything—she simply goes with whatever happens to her.

There’s no better example of this than the opening minutes. Wanda is late for her own divorce proceedings, doesn’t protest anything her husband says, and easily gives up the custody of her children without a single word against what is said about her. She wanders away and winds up in a bar around closing time, not realizing that the bar is in the process of being robbed. Having nothing better to do and nowhere better to go, she winds up leaving with the thief, Mr. Dennis (Michael Higgins).

True to form, Dennis is a complete bastard. He’s demanding, rude, and abusive, treating Wanda as something to have sex with, servant, and target for verbal and physical abuse. After the bar robbery, Dennis steals a car, then plans a much bigger heist of a bank. It’s actually a pretty interesting idea for a bank robbery. Rather than go in with guns blazing, he instead holds the bank manager’s family hostage with a bomb and heads in to rob the vault.

These moments, which come close to the end of the film, are by far the most interesting part of the film for me. Up to this point, the film is plodding and dull, in no small part because Wanda herself is plodding and dull. In addition to being completely malleable and ready to do anything somebody tells her to do, Wanda is incredibly stupid. All she’s missing is a huge wad of gum to gnaw on and smack her lips over, and she’d be the complete cliché package.

That more than anything is my biggest issue with this film. I find it very difficult to care much about someone who is this willfully stupid. It isn’t that Wanda is dumb or uneducated or even actually really stupid. She’s passively stupid—she’s stupid not by nature but because she doesn’t want to think. She’s made herself into this passive, stupid person who doesn’t care what happens to her or what happens around her. Dennis slaps her across the face, and she takes it in stride. Dennis calls her “Stupid” and she doesn’t react. In fact, it’s not until the very end of this film that she breaks out of this and actually starts to care about herself and what happens to her. Perhaps this (actually, certainly this) is where the real feminist message kicks in—Wanda has been so long turned into something passive that it takes a shocking event to turn her into a person again. Or at least that’s my read on the story. And even this doesn’t take, because it doesn’t last.

So while the last 20 or 25 minutes of the film actually seem to have something to say, the first 75 minutes or so really just say the same thing over and over again. This is coupled with the fact that the film itself has a sort of grindhouse feel to it, and you have something extremely unpleasant to watch. By “grindhouse feel,” I mean that the film quality has that sort of unfinished, grainy look of a film made on the cheap. The sound suffers from the same thing—a great deal of the dialogue sounds like it was recorded inside a tomato can.

In the end, Wanda is little more than a curiosity, a film with a particular point of view made by a woman in a time when female directors were as rare as dodo birds. For me, though, this isn’t enough to save it from being anything more than just another tally mark on the list, another film down and one less to go until I’m finished.

To sum this up in a single word: Meh.

Why to watch Wanda: A unique vision from a director who probably should have done more.
Why not to watch: Because it really isn’t very good.


  1. I liked this a lot. It was on TCM a few days ago and I put off watching it because it looked like a kind of a drag. But when I finally got into, I found it to be deserving of its reputation.

    It made me think a little bit of a John Waters movie, only with normal regular bad people instead of extravagant bizarre freaky bad people. Or what if John Waters's favorite movie was Gun Crazy instead of The Bad Seed. Or what if John Waters had grown up in Scranton instead of Baltimore.

    I read on Wikipedia that Isabelle Huppert loves this movie and was instrumental in getting it released in France in 2004.

    1. The idea that Isabelle Huppert is a fan of this film explains a great deal of Isabelle Huppert to me.

  2. We are on exactly the same page here.
    I truly did not enjoy this one and even the message of Wanda seems to fizzle. May it is: If you do not take control of your own life, somebody else will, and you are not going to like it.
    Maybe that is feminist. I would say it is a basic fact of life, for both men and women.
    That woman, Wanda, was just so incredibly stupid passive... man...

    1. Yeah, it was a hard watch in a lot of respects.