Co-author: Cristina Álvarez López
Woman in a Landscape
Oh you, who must leave everything that you cannot control
It begins with your family, but soon it comes around to your soul.
– Leonard Cohen, “Sisters of Mercy” (1967)
Barbara Loden’s Wanda has spent far too many years in semi-obscurity; it has frequently found itself written out of cinema histories, even (amazingly) the histories of feminist and radical political filmmaking. Despite several DVD releases – Isabelle Huppert lent her prestige to its distribution in France in 2004 – the most recent and best restoration, by Ross Lipman for the UCLA Film and Television Archive in 2011, has taken 8 years to reach the DVD/Blu-Ray platform of Criterion, and assorted special screenings around the world, including the Cinema Reborn event in Australia.
To hijack the words of Herman G. Weinberg: like many of the best films made by women, Wanda has, for much of its existence, sat forlornly in the “sad twilight of a cult reputation”, more whispered about than actually seen and publicly discussed. Loden herself died from cancer in 1980, leaving behind several tantalising unmade projects. But, finally, the situation is changing for Wanda.
Wanda incontestably ranks among the cinema’s greatest works. Positif magazine recently listed Loden among those special directors who made only one feature film, but indelibly marked cinema history with it: The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955), Espoir: Sierra de Teruel (André Malraux & Boris Peskine, 1939), The Honeymoon Killers (Leonard Kastle, 1970), The Forbidden Christ (Curzio Malaparte, 1951) and, most recently, Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still (2018). Although sometimes aligned with the work of John Cassavetes and his many flaky imitators, Wanda functions as the inverse of films like A Woman Under the Influence (1974): where Cassavetes’ style is explosive and hysterical, Loden explores a sullen, implosive energy.
The imploding star at the centre of this movie is the character of Wanda, played by Loden herself: a “floater” (as Loden described her), for all intents and purposes homeless, passive, utterly dependent on the often treacherous favours of random men, and undone by her need to be validated by them. The film poignantly conveys Wanda’s helplessness, her lack of initiative. As a character, she in no way conforms to the type of ‘positive heroines’ that were called for during the 1970s (and again today in the Bechdel Test era). Loden’s film is both bleaker and more astonishing than those easy options.
Loden described Wanda as being about a woman unable to adapt to her environment. There is never any home or family or community anywhere for her, never any sign of belonging. She fits in nowhere, never understanding the rules of any place or situation: “Life is a mystery to her”. Thanks to Loden’s extraordinary performance (she was a beloved and deeply influential teacher of acting, as made clear by David Krasner’s popular textbook, An Actor’s Craft), Wanda is a presence laid bare on the screen through a superb conjunction of body, behaviour and space; she becomes, for all time, an axiom of cinema.
Loden’s performance as Wanda radiates a suppressed intensity through minimal means: her gaze; the forward slump of her body; the turning of her head; her blank, affectless voice; and, above all, the physical prop of her hair, which is constantly arranged into different shapes, and just as constantly gets in Wanda’s way – one more part of her world that she cannot control.
Wanda is frequently shown on the move, traversing large distances by bus or car. Yet even when she is actually going somewhere, the film renders her voyaging as an irresolute drift, without clear destination or purpose. She is an estranged body in motion, wandering through city streets; she is glimpsed crossing vast industrial landscapes and barren coal mining fields. Loden often frames her own performance at very threshold of places and spaces, off-centre, waiting at a doorway or in a corner, almost disappearing off the edge; sometimes, even the camera appears to deliberately forget that she’s there, somewhere.
Dismissed by some (most egregiously by P. Kael) as “an extremely drab and limited piece of realism”, Wanda reveals itself to us today as a brilliantly directed, highly controlled and expressive work. In mise en scène terms, Loden shapes a very precise portrait of a woman who does not have any space of her own, and cannot make any space her own, either. Wanda often hides in plain sight: surrounded by others, denied any privacy or intimacy. And yet, at the same time, she is usually overlooked, avoided, unacknowledged. Wanda is an invisible woman.
She is also an unusual and ambiguous heroine. Instinctively rejecting dominant values of family and society, Wanda does so without any real consciousness. She is not presented as an anarchist or revolutionary; her rejection of the world entails no possible alternative to it. Loden was working against the positivist Zeitgeist of her time and culture – and her gesture of reaction or rejection is still salutary today, in the “Me Too” context. Wanda, as an exemplary figure, scuttles the clear-cut categories of woman-as-victim and woman-as-survivor.
In its time, Wanda escaped any tidy genre classification – which did not help its commercial chances one little bit. It is not a ‘criminal couple on the run’ movie like Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) – which Loden regarded as phony and “idealised – full of beautiful things, beautiful colours, beautiful people”. But nor does Wanda play by any of the standard ‘indie’ templates of our time: it isn’t a quirky romance, a story of personal redemption or family reconciliation. We had to wait for certain later films by Chantal Akerman or Kelly Reichardt in order to get back to the profound, disturbing depths that Loden plumbed in her precious, unique gift to us.
Indeed, as Bérénice Reynaud summed it up: “Wanda explores the opaque, ambiguous territory of unspoken repression that has so often defined the condition of women”. Not to mention the condition of Wanda itself as an unseen and forgotten object. It’s time to fully reclaim and redeem this masterpiece.
Note: A 2016 audiovisual essay on Wanda by Cristina Álvarez López & Adrian Martin can be viewed here; a longer text essay by us,
placing Loden in a tradition of female actor-filmmakers, can be read here, on the website of the Spain-based, multilingual journal Cinema Comparat/ive Cinema.
© Cristina Álvarez López & Adrian Martin, March-April 2016 / January 2019