“I don’t have anything. I never did have anything. Never will have anything.”
Wanda is beautiful. It’s the strange, reflective film that seems lost in cinema’s history. It feels like a classic: the way it’s shot, the mood it creates, its feminist triumph, but Wanda is shrouded in mysterious obscurity. Its director, writer, and leading actress Barbara Loden died of cancer before she could make another film, and there’s a lack of breadcrumbs leading back to the movie. It has reasonable acclaim among viewers but is almost never discussed in 2017, though it demands as much discussion as any other great film. Maybe I’m still lost in the facade of this movie and of Loden’s life (particularly after reading Nathalie Léger’s A Suite for Barbara Loden on the subject), but I think there’s undeniable merit to not only the mystery but the movie itself: a tale of loneliness.
Wanda follows its titular heroine, a lower-class woman in her 30s in the anthracite region of Pennsylvania, through a sequence of tragedies that only highlight her obscurity to the world and her harrowing passivity. She hands custody of her children to her ex-husband, citing her inability to provide as a mother. She’s used as a sexual object and then promptly forgotten by the men in her life. She then finds strange comfort in being the accomplice and victim of abuse to a petty criminal whom she calls Mr. Dennis (Michael Higgins).
There’s a lot of French New Wave to Wanda, so much that I often mistake the movie for a French-language film in my mind. The pacing and editing is very Godard, not surprising considering Loden was an outspoken fan of Breathless. There’s also a subtlety to how the film conveys its themes in a way Godard would (and perhaps does) admire. Loden gives herself no triumphant speeches, no sudden bursts of clarity. The story is ripe with despondency and aimlessness from the opening shot, and it only continues to dominate each frame in a deliberate pace. The editing is also experimental: how events jump forward abruptly while still giving time to sit and marinate on more personal moments in between. As Loden supposedly said, “it is easy to be avant-garde but it is really difficult to tell a simple story well” (Léger). Yet she does both in the French tradition.
It’s only fitting, given her triumph on the screen, that Loden’s auteurship be examined. Loden’s mystery, her charming but saddening passivity, translates magically from life to screen. The screenplay, not entirely clear in its intents, lays a framework that suggests only Loden had the vision to direct and star in the film. Not only her performance but the way she’s framed, how we’re able to identify with her world – it’s masterful direction. Wanda is as much evidence for auteur theory as any other film, and Loden is one of the most underappreciated auteurs of the 20th century for this single film which translates a sole vision confidently, proving that fewer cooks in the kitchen is often the way to go, particularly for a piece such as this one.
Wanda also plays on subversion, picking apart the masculine landscape of conventional cinema. Mr. Dennis is the film’s cruel hyper-masculine figure, but he seems weighed down by insecurity, reaching desperately for control. Even when he abuses Wanda, we identify with her as the more powerful figure. Dennis is a criminal, but a bad one, constantly making mistakes and proving himself out of his element while Wanda watches curiously, hoping passively that something good can come out of this. We also see Wanda not as a feminine or masculine figure, but as a dynamic blend. She rejects motherhood out of practicality for the lives of her children and herself, a progressive display even today. But she also strives for femininity in other ways, such as desiring to curl her hair or wear nice dresses, and she is shut down by Mr. Dennis for attempting to do so. Wanda seems to assert that women are often forced into passivity, into a zombie-like state as Loden describes it, no matter what changes they strive to make.
If ever a film demanded a Criterion release, it would be Wanda. History has glanced over the film, just as it glanced over Loden, and it deserves to be seen. I was entranced and inspired by this movie, and hopefully in due time, many others will have the same experience.
Films Left to Watch: 864