Let me tell you a fairy tale. Once upon a time there was a film producer who believed that movies didn’t have to appeal to the lowest common denominator or always chase the fastest buck. (I told you it was a fairy tale.) No doubt under the enchantment of some evil sorcerer, this producer was convinced of the radical notion that films could inspire rather than follow public tastes and, even in being a populace medium, held the potential for the broader exposure of culture and the arts. From such chimerical fancies was born The American Film Theater (AFT): a limited engagement subscription series of films adapted from great plays. Over the course of a year these films would screen for one or two days only, two performances each (a matinee and an evening show), after which the films would be withdrawn from release (“Forever!” as the ads intoned). And they lived happily ever after.
OK, OK. We all know I’m not literally speaking of a fairy tale—but I might as well be, given the inconceivability of such an artistically altruistic idea even being broached in today’s Hollywood. The producer was the late Ely Landau (producer of the acclaimed 1972 Martin Luther King, Jr. documentary- King: A Filmed Record…Montgomery to Memphis) and The AFT, his cinematic vision of a cultural Camelot, lasted but a brief two years (1973 – 1975) , but managed to produce a lasting film legacy of 14 marvelous plays with once-in-a-lifetime casts.
I was in high school in 1974 and remember so much wanting to buy a subscription to a season of AFT. But as the films were screened on Monday & Tuesday evenings, the whole “It’s a school night!” issue rendered the entire matter a closed book as far as my parents were concerned. I did, however, have the AFT poster on my bedroom wall and made myself fairly miserable staring at the diverse catalog of filmed plays offered (A Delicate Balance, The Iceman Cometh, Luther, Lost in the Stars), imagining all that I was missing.
The film I most wanted to see was the adaptation of Jean Genet’s The Maids; not because I knew anything about Genet, but because two of my all-time fave rave actresses: Glenda Jackson and Susannah York, were playing the leads. Well, it may have taken 29 years, but The Maids has finally been released on DVD, (in fact, the entire AFT collection - Click here for info: AFT on DVD ) and with it, my adolescent patience rewarded, at last.
|Glenda Jackson as Solange|
|Susannah York as Claire|
|Vivien Merchant as Madame|
Americans can be made to feel uneasy by a film in which all the rich people are white and the domestic help composed entirely of people of color. (Ostensibly, anyway. As much as we bristle at the awkward race/class subtext, we’d be incredulous of an alternative depiction. Indeed, the rather self-aware satirical conceit at the center of 1987s otherwise awful Maid to Order is an America family’s coveting of a white maid as the ultimate upper crust status symbol.) But the barely-understood-by-us class system hierarchy of European aristocracy (as in Downton Abbey, Gosford Park, or Upstairs, Downstairs) allows for the carefree enjoyment of the politically non-threatening interaction of white rich folks and white servants; class distinctions equalized by both parties speaking a considerably tonier English than our own.
|Although denied by the play's author, Jean Genet, The Maids is popularly believed to have been inspired by the notorious real-life crimes of Lea and Christine Papin; two maids who brutally murdered the wife and daughter of an employer in 1933 France.|
If ever there was an artist about whom the words “non-threatening” and “comforting” most definitely do not apply, it is the late, great, poet/novelist/playwright/activist, Jean Genet. His theatrically incendiary play, The Maids, written in 1946, is an acerbic, absurdist treatise on class struggle and identity that plays out like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Killing of Sister George crossed with Harold Pinter’s screen adaptation of The Servant.
In the ornately fussy, Louis XV – furnished apartments in the aristocratically ritzy Place Vendôme district of France, two live-in domestics work out their hostility toward their mistress and their frustration at their own servitude by routinely engaging in a kind of ritualized pantomime whenever she is away. Alternately taking on the roles of employer and servant, the maids— Solange (Jackson) and her sister, Claire (York) — literally lose themselves in this cathartic ceremony of (self?) contempt and emancipation that strives, always unsuccessfully, to culminate in the make-believe murder of Madame.
Madame/Claire: "You only EXIST through me!"
As the film begins, the exaggerated passions of the playacting maids are running at a particularly feverish high, as it appears that their fantasy plotting has begun to take root in the real world. Emboldened by the early morning arrest of Madame’s lover (the result of incriminating letters anonymously mailed to the police by Claire) and invigorated by this small sign of efficaciousness in lives of servile invisibility; the maids determine on this day to make actual, the much dreamed-about, never consummated, murder of Madame.
|Claire: "Now I will order the world about!"|
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
Though not overtly fond of Theater of the Absurd, I do have a penchant for the manner in which art can thrust to the forefront that which is rarely spoken of and scarcely acknowledged about the human condition. Like so many of my favorite films (Robert Altman’s 3 Women, Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan), The Maids is about masks, role-playing, and the elusive quality of identity. Throughout our lives each of us wear masks and play roles; often with such frequency and acuity that we have long forgotten the original face the mask had intended to conceal. Similarly, our relationships and daily social interactions conceal to us the subtle shifts of power that place us in ever-alternating positions of supplicant and master.
The Maids cleverly uses the banal protocols of domestic servitude (where the feelings of contempt/gratitude/anguish ambiguously comingle) to dramatize the interdependent way in which how we are perceived and treated by others define the very selfsame ways we see and regard ourselves.
|Solange: "When slaves love each other it's not love."|
Claire: "No, but it's just as serious."
When I look at such magnificently versatile, intelligent, and unique actresses as Glenda Jackson and Susannah York, I can never quite get the current vogue for the bimboification of women. The entertainment industry has always had its share of sexualized eye-candy, but they've always seemed to exist on the periphery. These days the porn-star aesthetic has moved front and center, and images of women with actual mobile expressions, meat on their bones, and character in their faces, feels to be bordering on the extinct. Do people actually find the plastic, blow-up doll image of females...so prevalent in today’s films, music videos, and TV shows... more interesting than real women? Does no one find intelligence to be sexy? Obviously finding out if someone is intelligent takes more time than the click of a mouse to the next porny female image, but isn't that the very reason why it's so valueless? I've said it before and I'll say it again; I miss Glenda Jackson.
Both Jackson and Susannah infuse their complex characters with considerable emotional depth, making palpable the pain behind the high-flown language. Jackson is dynamic, as always, but the late Susannah York, with her despairingly throaty voice and wounded eyes is even better than she was in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
|Vivien Merchant (Alfie, Fenzy) manages to capture the conflicting characteristics of dominance, condescension, and vulnerability in the theatrically self-dramatizing character of Madame|
THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
For all its perception, perhaps what’s most brilliant and surprising about The Maids is how terribly enjoyable it is. As a fan of bitchy repartee, I love the film’s near-poetic verbal battles of hurled invectives and raging hostilities. I also take great pleasure in how the film veers, with unexpected bite, into dark comedy. But what I most thoroughly enjoy and what brings me back to The Maids again and again is the finely honed emotional tension and dramatic suspense that propels the plot along its barely-tethered-to-reality course. There’s considerable anxiety built into the current of madness and potential violence that runs beneath the dilemma of The Maids.
THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
There are so many ways for The Maids to be interpreted, so many levels upon which it works; it’s like watching a new film every time you come back to it. An intelligent, eccentric film; I can’t imagine it being to everyone’s taste (the intentional theatricality of the language and performances can prove distancing, if not confounding), but it is one of those films that rewards each visit with even more information and overlooked details in the performances and dialog. I think it’s an absolutely brilliant, moving work made surprising accessible by the combined efforts of everyone involved in this film adaptation...chiefly the outstanding performances of Glenda Jackson and Susannah York.
|"The revenger is always born of the maids."|
THE AUTOGRAPH FILES:
|Signature of Susannah York received at a 2005 performance of her one-woman show, The Loves of Shakespeare's Women|
Copyright © Ken Anderson