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.) In all likelihood under the enchantment of some evil sorcerer, this producer was possessed of the radical notion that films could inspire tastes rather than follow trends, and that motion pictures, in spite of 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screen for one or two days only, two performances each (a matinee and an evening show), after which the films would be withdrawn from release (“Forever!”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 in question 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.
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I was in high school in 1974 and remember wanting to buy a subscription to a season of AFT very badly. But as the films were screened on Monday & Tuesday evenings exclusively, 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|
|Does it interfere with our appreciation of beautiful surroundings, meticulously maintained, |
to consider the lives of those who are paid to keep them that way?
Americans may find a film about white employers and black domestics uncomfortable, but few really expect anything else. Indeed, domestic workers of color are such an accepted cultural conceit that an entire film (1987's Maid to Order) was built around the satiric premise of a white family coveting the status symbol that comes from having a white maid (Ally Sheedy). Since the vast majority of major motion pictures produced in America are for and from the perspective of the white gaze; Stateside domestics (being people of color) are rarely given much emotional dimension. Their role is either to reassure and comfort audiences by being the grateful recipients of white largess, or be the non-complaining supporters of the status quo, happy in their lot.
Because we reserve humanity for white characters, the oppressed class system hierarchy of European aristocracy in things like Downton Abbey, Gosford Park, or Upstairs, Downstairs, are the only environments in which we allow ourselves to listen to the voices of the oppressed from a humanist, non-political perspective. As a country, it seems we find it easier to identify and empathize with the subjugated masses when they're white.
|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) and is an acerbic, absurdist treatise on identity and class struggle that plays out like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Killing of Sister George crossed with Harold Pinter’s The Servant.
In the ornately fussy, Louis XV furnished apartments in the aristocratically ritzy Place Vendôme district of France, two embittered live-in domestics work out their hostility toward their mistress (and their own self-frustration for enduring such servitude) by routinely engaging in a 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, death of their beloved/detested 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 flexible quality of identity. We each wear masks and play various roles throughout our lives. Often with such regularity and acuity that it can become difficult to remember just what it was the original mask was meant to conceal. Meanwhile the shifting power plays in our day-to-day lives and relationships only serve to reinforce the ever-alternating positions of supplicant and master we find ourselves in. The Maids cleverly uses the banal protocols of domestic servitude (where the feelings of contempt/gratitude/anguish ambiguously co-mingle) to dramatize the interdependent manner in which the way we are perceived by others can come to 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."
The '70s was the era of the male "buddy picture," yet, paradoxically, it was also a time (albeit, short-lived) when interesting actors like Glenda Jackson and Susannah York could land major roles in fascinating projects like this. Certainly a film with an all-female cast (Madame's lover is briefly, wordlessly seen) is notable in any era, but because the '70s boasted such a remarkable breed of versatile, intelligent, and unique actresses (Faye Dunaway, Jane Fonda, Genevieve Bujold, Shelley Duvall), I'm especially thrilled that two of my favorites were paired in a feature.
Playing sisters of different temperament (and I gather, intelligence) both Jackson and Susannah infuse their complex characters with considerable emotional depth, making palpable the pain behind the often 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 suspense and dramatic tension which propels the plot along its barely-tethered-to-reality course. There’s a considerable amount of anxiety mined from the current of madness and potential for violence that runs beneath the central conflict 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 which rewards each visit with even more information and overlooked details. Both in performance and theme. 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