There 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 their emotions.
If 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.
As 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”.
There 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.
Much 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.
In 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.
Like 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 the women.
Romantic 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.
It 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”.
Poor 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.
Armstrong 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.
The 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.
Armstrong’s 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 tenor.
This 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 revealed.
Contrary 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 dialogue.
I 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.
The 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.
But 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.
1. 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