are certain films that set off a very pleasurable vibration in me as I watch
them. It’s some mood, some texture that surrounds and captivates me. I get sent
off into a hypnotic reverie – not far from the film but close to it, very fixed
on its details: not so much the plot details, but the faces, the colours, the
movements, the poetic words that the characters speak, the small shifts in
the film is good, if it sustains that mood and doesn’t throw me any sudden
clangers, I can stay in this state for the entire running time. Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (1993) affected me in this way enormously – I felt that I
had dreamt the film by the time I emerged from the screening. So did Emir
Kusturica’s magical Arizona Dream (1993). And Gillian Armstrong’s
utterly enchanting Little Women gets
to me this way, too.
almost everyone knows, Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel is an autobiographical
story about the formation of a writer, Jo. Mostly it is about her family, the
March family, and the relations of this group to the wider world of the 19th
century. One of the first things that strikes you about Armstrong’s film is how
completely lovable and engaging virtually everyone in it is, from a wide-eyed
Winona Ryder as Jo (giving her best performance to date) to Gabriel Byrne,
Susan Sarandon and Kirsten Dunst (the undead child from Interview with the Vampire). Dunst as Amy gets to say her best line
in Little Women twice: when Jo gets
her hair cut off and sells it for some sorely needed extra cash for the family,
this smallest sister exclaims: “You’ve lost your hair! Your one good feature”.
is an extraordinary warmth in the film. Warmth is a motif that comes up in its
very first seconds. Jo, in voice-over, reflects on the coldness of winter, the
vastness of interior, domestic spaces that could never be properly heated, and
on the warmth that existed, nonetheless, between the members of her family.
later, Marmee (Susan Sarandon) walks through the large, deserted house of a
recently deceased aunt. The way Armstrong shoots this location reminded me of
the cold mansions, their looming staircases and the dwarfed, insect-like human
figures, in Orson Welles’ masterpiece The
Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Marmee explains that the aunt’s somewhat
pinched and frazzled nature came from the fact that she had to put so much
effort in making this huge place livably warm.
the March family, however, love and affection provide this sustenance. The film
is full of lovely sequences showing the warmth of human touch. When Sarandon
first enters the film, first enters her own home, she is embraced by all her
daughters at once. “You have warm cheeks”, she says to one of them, pressing
her face to that soft skin once more.
in Wayne Wang’s generally underrated adaptation of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club (1993), this incessant spectacle of human intimacy seems itself
almost a dream, a longing for a warm world that we do not actually live in. In Little Women, just as in The Joy Luck Club, this intimacy mostly
happens within the circle of family relations and, inside that circle, between
love between men and women gives warmth too, but it definitely runs a second to
family love. The two kinds of love are often compared and contrasted by
Armstrong and her screenwriter Robin Swicord. When the older Amy (Samantha
Mathis) gets hitched to Laurie (Christian Bale) – the boy Jo once pined for –
she immediately goes to Jo for approval. Amy asserts that the bond between
sisters is closer than any other bond, and this is a theme that runs throughout.
As for Laurie, even he lets slip that his feelings of love, for one sister or
another, are really motivated by his desire to become one with this family.
comes as no surprise that this privileged male character is presented in an
angelic, quite feminine way. One of the film’s best scenes occurs when the
girls let Laurie join their private theatre group. Once in the door, he
instantly enters their world of cross-gender dress-ups, ethereal reverie, and
the hushed discussion of private, romantic secrets. Laurie’s stiff mate, John
(Eric Stoltz), on the other hand, is masculine through and through. “Over the
mysteries of female life”, he pronounces at one point, “there is drawn a veil
best left undisturbed”.
John, he never finds out what he’s been missing. And the only other male
character of any significance in the film, the father of the March family, is
absent for much of action, or else just invisible, off to one side, outside the
charmed circle of the little women and their mother.
has a made a film that is a shameless celebration of a certain idea of
femininity, of women among themselves sharing something that is specific to
them. This is an intimacy from which men are, by their natures and their
conditioning, largely excluded. I call it shameless because it seems to me that
femininity is not currently a fashionable subject in a certain strain of women’s
cinema that labels itself post-feminist. Thelma and Louise (1991) is about sisterhood
and the warm bond between women, but it’s keen to connect this energy to a
hitherto male screen world of action, guns, revenge, and death-wishes.
Little Women, on the other hand,
appears completely at ease with the idea that its subject is basically women’s
relation to home and family, women in a domestic space. Of course, there is a
lot more to this in the film than just housework, cooking, dress-making and
communal sing-alongs. These women think, talk, study, travel, go out into the
community. But the movie finally spends little time, comparatively, on their
more worldly, 20th century-pointing adventures. Basically it is about domestic
space, about the love and energy that can fill this space, and bind the members
of a family for life.
ability to film people in their interior, domestic worlds, to show the life and
emotion in a hundred little movements around a table or a bed – this is a
special gift that Armstrong possesses as a director. Her previous film, The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992), another movie about family ties, demonstrated this
gift abundantly. (1) In Chez Nous,
the homes had an occasional sterility, a fragility to them – the characters
were breaking up their relationships, passing through. But in Little Women, although there are
departures and deaths that effect the family, there is, more strongly, an
eternal return to the enduring warmth of home base.
distinctive way of filming and showing people has emotional rewards, too. It’s
easy to play the plot events of Little
Women as a full-on, tear-jerking soap opera, as Hollywood has done before
in previous adaptations of the book. Armstrong’s version gets the tears flowing
too, no doubt about that, but they’re the result of a very different emotional
is a very understated film. Armstrong reserves her close-ups for especially
strong moments. Her camera generally stands back, at a graceful distance from
the action. We are always observing the details of the rooms, how people move
among domestic objects and use them, as well as the overt content and dialogue
of a scene. The film never sets us up for a big dramatic moment, never lets us
know thirty seconds in advance with an ostentatious camera movement into a face
or a low stirring of music that something grave or momentous is about to be
to the convention of most mainstream American movies these days, Little Women does not explain key plot
points to us three times over, as if to hit the dummies in the back row over
the head with vital information. It is extremely economical, playing more on
the glances and touches exchanged between people than on plodding, explanatory
suggested above that Little Women is
a film that seems to be longing for a world which is not our contemporary, real
world. What we behold appears to be happening on some fantasy island, a “magic
circle club” (to use the title of a beloved Australian 1960s TV series for
children), which is imperishable and eternal. There are many movies which
present an idyllic world and then the loss of that world, where the characters
struggle to cope with grand historical change – from The Magnificent Ambersons and How
Green Was My Valley (1941) to The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1971) and Heaven's Gate (1980).
Little Women is not in that
grouping. It has a profound quality of nostalgia. I found myself recalling
certain special old classics, like Frank Capra’s It's a Wonderful Life (1946).
There’s so much here that’s uncannily similar to Capra’s film – the emphasis on
Christmas, a child’s accident on the ice, the family’s material sacrifices for
poorer folks, the way that friends and family make a hard life bearable. I
wonder whether Capra himself, fifty years ago, was at some level inspired by Alcott’s
book. If so, Capra’s tale of manhood and a family man’s responsibility has a
secret source in this story of women and their feminine intimacies.
other old Hollywood classic that Little
Women reminds me of is the Vincente Minnelli/Judy Garland musical, Meet Me in St Louis (1944), a portrait
of a family (mainly female, again) at the beginning of the 20th century.
Minnelli was another filmmaker obsessed with delicate fantasy worlds, creating
a sense of timelessness, a feeling of shared warmth, in the midst of harsh,
difficult social environments and material circumstances.
Meet Me in St Louis suspends time by
having a fairly uneventful, understated plot, a flow of small incidents rather
than grand, narrative upheavals. So does Little
Women, and that is one of the main things that gives it a dreamy quality of
reverie. Even Minnelli, in his time, felt it necessary to introduce into his
chocolate-box, movie-fantasy world certain moments of violence, discord, sudden
changes of mood, a feeling that a beautiful old world was on the verge of
passing away in a new, industrialised century.
that’s not the case in Little Women.
It sustains its spell right to the end. Even death – that most violent of
interruptions – is smoothed into its folds, marked by the unforgettable ritual
of rose petals being grasped in close-up, and then gently showered over the
objects left behind by the deceased; arranged in a bedroom as a quiet but
formidable defense against the erosions of time.
The best accounts of this film are Marg O’Shea’s review in Filmnews (October 1992), and Leonie Naughton’s essay, “The Last Days of Chez Nous: Love Stories
and Girls’ Blouses”, Artlink, Vol. 13
No. 1 (March-May 1993).
© Adrian Martin April 1995