Women Filmmakers Explore Love’s Mysteries
By Jan Lisa Huttner
(First posted in 2005)
|DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN
|SHALL WE DANCE?
|ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS
The thrill of romantic love isn’t only for teenagers even though Hollywood movies often make it look that way. Just in time for Valentine’s Day, here are four love stories for adults.
DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN begins when a guy places multiple ads in the Personals section of a New York newspaper addressed to his missing girlfriend. New Jersey housewife Roberta Glass (Rosanna Arquette), worried that her husband is cheating on her, is eager to discover how the mysterious “Susan” attracts such devotion, so she joins the search. Susan has no idea she’s being followed, nevertheless, like a sexy White Rabbit, she becomes Roberta’s guide on a magical voyage of self-discovery.
Twenty years ago, few people knew the name of the blonde bombshell from Michigan. Madonna Louise Ciccone was just another performance artist wannabe until indie director Susan Seidelman cast her as Susan in this ground-breaking 1985 comedy. Susan, the kooky Manhattan chick, is an urban archetype, and Madonna plays her to perfection. In the course of seeking Susan, Roberta meets her true soul-mate Dez (Aidan Quinn), changes her life, and saves the day. But that’s nothing compared to the real life transformation: by playing Susan, Ms. Ciccone became the world-famous “Madonna.”
An endearing little movie named SHALL WE DANCE? was released in Japan in 1996. Hearing that an English-language remake was imminent, movie critics feared the worst. But surprise, here’s one case in which Hollywood took something good and actually made it better.
|In both languages, SHALL WE DANCE? is the story of a prosperous, successful man in the throes of a mid-life crisis. In the American version, available on DVD on February 1st, this man is played by Richard Gere. One day he sees Jennifer Lopez staring out of a window, and he becomes infatuated with her. Lopez plays a ballroom dance instructor, and Gere signs right up for lessons. Of course, they look wonderful when they’re dancing together, so we all know where this story is headed, right? But wait: Gere’s wife is played by Susan Sarandon.The Japanese screenplay had almost no interest in the hero’s wife, but the new screenplay, written by Audrey Wells, creates a luminous character for Sarandon. She’s a woman with girl friends, a challenging job, and romantic options of her own. In the end, rather than succumb to the temptations all around them, this is the rare film in which a mature couple’s troubles actually bring them closer together, makingSHALL WE DANCE? a film to savor and enjoy.
But sometimes love isn’t enough. William Makepeace Thackery set his classic novel VANITY FAIR in the first half of the 19th Century, a world in which women had very limited options. Director Mira Nair takes many liberties with the original in her new adaptation of this literary classic, but she does it for the best of motives. Part of her point is clearly to show that despite all our new opportunities, the end of love is always painful.
In Nair’s version, Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon) and Rawdon Crawley (James Purefoy) really do love each other. But they are two rogues with limited financial resources living solely on their wits, and at a certain point, their luck runs out. As Rawdon’s gambling debts grow so do Becky’s nightmares, until she finds a savior who, of course, exacts a very high price.
VANITY FAIR is a sumptuous period melodrama, filled with lush costumes, music, and sets. But after breaking your heart, Nair ends her version with a wink. Like Scarlett O’Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND, Becky Sharp is indomitable.
Photo Credit: Frank Connor/Focus Features
ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS has a slow build. Director/Screenwriter Lone Scherfig takes her time introducing a large cast of characters and moving them into position. But when the dominos all fall in the delightfully quirky, upbeat finale, you’ll be glad you’re there to watch.
Scherfig’s characters are ordinary people living in a small Danish town. A bakery clerk, a hairdresser, a waitress, a hotel manager, a bartender, they’re all good-hearted people beset by typical problems. But being Danish, they’re also reserved and somewhat shy. One by one, they begin to congregate in an Italian language class at the local community center, and slowly but surely the sensuous vowels take hold. By the time they take their big class trip to sun-filled Venice, the gloom is gone.
Whether married or single, widowed or divorced, most women still agree that “love makes the world go ‘round.” Love may not always last, but when you’re in love, there’s nothing like it!
© Jan Lisa Huttner (1/1/05) – Special for The Woman’s Newspapers. Reposted with permission.