But I’m wont to call The French Lieutenant’s Woman a movie more about yearning than one about palpable romantic passion. While it is, undoubtedly, a deeply romantic film, it is more concerned with the wanting of someone but never being able to “have” them. It is about missed opportunities. Paths never to be crossed. Forbidden rendezvouses. Nervous kisses, passing glimpses in rooms full of people. In this movie, romance is a parasitic, draining pursuit. Here, all the aches and pains will not be worth it in the long run.
That The French Lieutenant’s Woman is such a success in its depiction of longing speaks both to the aptitude of its makers and its stars. Based upon the 1969 postmodern classic of the same name by John Fowles, it was long considered unadaptable as a result of its complex prose and its toying with the conventions of fiction. Though the director John Frankenheimer was a massive fan of Fowles’ work, he still famously declared, “There is no way you can film the book. You can tell the same story in a movie, of course, but not in the same way. And how Fowles tells his story is what makes the book so good.”
While unfamiliar with the novel upon which The French Lieutenant’s Woman is based, I could see where there could be issues in terms of page-to-screen translation: The structure of the storyline is unusual (daring, even) and certainly not easy to effectively showcase in the scope of a film.
So one could argue that Harold Pinter, the playwright who adapted the novel for the screen, has done the impossible: he’s transformed difficult material into a fluid, haunting entry in the romance genre.
The movie depicts two love affairs. One spotlighted is the sinful, secret romance between actors Anna (Meryl Streep) and Mike (Jeremy Irons). The other is the hushed relationship between Victorian-era paleontologist Charles (also Irons) and the town whore, Sarah (also Streep).
Supposedly, Anna and Mike’s relationship is the one we’re supposed to believe is nonfictional: they’re playing Charles and Sarah in their latest movie, and what we see happen between the latter two individuals is supposedly simply the finished product of a film shoot.
This structure is relatively labyrinthine, and difficult to describe. And it differs from the novel, which only contained the Charles and Sarah story. Yet Pinter executes these intricacies smoothly, jumping back and forth between the two relationships as if they were both happening in real time, never to obviously address whether we’re witnessing events on a film set or in real life. The closest we ever get to a direct comment regarding this artifice happens just as the film’s opening, which sees Anna, in full costume, walking beside a cliff as movie cameras follow her. After this, the movie ceases in its tendency to obviously declare whether it is completely a work of metafiction.
Because The French Lieutenant’s Woman is not as obsessed with its own structuring as so many other works of metafiction à la 1991’s Dead Again and 2002’s Adaptation, we’re fortunately safe from the self-admiring distractions Pinter could so easily exploit. The point that he, in a departure from Fowles, is trying to make is that Anna and Mike’s relationship’s being almost exactly like the characters they’re playing is something of a grand, cinematic irony. And this makes for an interesting subversion of territory we’d usually associate with the Bronte sisters or someone else with a penchant for glamorously tragic relationships. Turns out doomed romance is not always confined to the oppressive Victorian period.
The feature is all very broad stroked, almost Baroque in both its disposition and its color. Yet the most vivid aspect of The French Lieutenant’s Woman is Meryl Streep, who gives one of her most canon-worthy performances. Though the actress had only proved herself as more than a one-hit wonder just two years earlier with the one-two punch of Woody Allen’s Manhattan and (more famously) Robert Benton’s Kramer vs. Kramer, the performance given in The French Lieutenant’s Woman contains such sensitivity and nuance that it’s something of a surprise that she was a relative newcomer upon production.
Here, she's is reminiscent of greats like Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh. The performance provided is lushly emotional, but our reverence doesn’t end with our admiration of her capacity to embody per se. It also has to do with how she moves, and how she conveys herself, in front of the camera. The camera loves her in this movie: her piercing aqua eyes, Mona Lisa smile, and pronounced cheekbones are visual throwbacks to the movie stars of the yesteryear.
Perhaps I’d be partial to calling The French Lieutenant’s Woman old-fashioned if not for the modern storyline featuring Anna and Mike, which provides for the knowing tinge that saves it from period languor. But even without this characteristic would the movie ring with an emotional trueness missing from so many romantic films. Sure we’re frustrated by how difficult it is to tell what any of these characters really want, but that’s also part of the draw: this is a movie about longing; about a desire that burns; about knowing that you’ll never be able to have the kind of love you’re dreaming of. It is supposed to be frustrating because sometimes love can be frustrating. Yet here, the yearning feels good. A-
2 Hrs., 7 Mins.
The French Lieutenant's Woman
arel Reisz’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981) is so sensorily opulent that it’s tempting to call it “intensely romantic” in the ways David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945) or Clint Eastwood’s The Bridges of Madison County (1995) were. The sexual tension’s plentiful; the romantic gestures are sweeping. Clothing begs to be ripped off. It is a movie wherein reservations cannot be attended to forever; it is a movie wherein the performances are coated in a type of understatement so careful that what the characters don’t do is sometimes louder than what they are doing.