By way of contrast, artful directors take the risk of being misunderstood and misinterpreted as they eschew easy answers in favor of a little emotional honesty. Invested in examining more than explaining, while at the same time respectful of an audience’s ability to extract from a story whatever ideas or themes they wish to divine on their own; this particular genus of film is not often a popular taste favorite, but it's the kind of movie that bears the stamp of creative fearlessness (recklessness?).
I can’t vouch for movie audiences around the world, but we Americans have earned a reputation for preferring our films to tell us how we should think and feel about a topic. Otherwise we seem to get easily confused. Take, for example, when Bryan Forbes’ feminist horror film The Stepford Wives (1975) was thought by many to be sexist chiefly because the women don’t “win” in the end, and the chauvinistic behavior exhibited by the men wasn't as obviously satiric as some would have liked. Similarly, Samuel Fuller’s powerful anti-racism film White Dog (1982) was practically yanked from theaters because many mistook this dramatic parable about the teaching of hatred (a dog is trained by white supremacists to attack black people), for actually being racist itself.
I’m no fan of morally dubious movies that glorify selfish instincts or try to normalize evil (we have reality TV and our current Presidential election to do that); but I do admire films that aren’t afraid of ambiguity, are open to interpretation, and resist the impulse to explain the complex.
|Sandy Dennis as Jill Banford|
|Anne Heywood as Ellen Marsh|
|Keir Dullea as Paul Renfield|
Jill and Ellen are two college friends living a life of isolated independence on a remote farm in Canada (Lawrence’s story took place in WW I England, the film updates to ‘60s Ontario). Jill (Dennis) is the domestic type, forever fretting over her stove and household accounts (“You and your mixing bowl and your muffin tray have conquered the elements”), while Ellen (Heywood) stomps about in work boots handing the entirety of the farm’s manual labor.
One blonde, one dark, this kind of easy, heavy-handed symbolism is something of a motif in The Fox, one I don't particularly mind since the cues are taken from Lawrence’s heavily-Freudian short novel. Both are younger than portrayed in the novel, and the film presents the pair’s adoption of traditionally feminine/masculine roles as arising as much out of practicality as personality: Jill’s verbose excitability, physical weakness, and pragmatic temperament contrasting with Jill’s athleticism, protectiveness, and taciturn malleability (her standard response to all questions is “It makes no difference to me”).
In spite of their sharing a bed (never even touching or kissing goodnight until a distraught conciliation scene near the end) and evince the relaxed affection of a long-married couple, like the book, the film leaves ambiguous the degree of Jill and Ellen’s intimacy. Although the notion of a platonic “Boston Marriage” was easier to accept in 1920 England than in the sexually liberated ‘60s.
The initial effect of the screenplay’s refusal to define the particulars of Jill & Ellen’s relationship (or the women’s sexuality) is that the audience is placed in the unwanted but self-reflexive position of identifying with the townspeople and Paul. We're forced to ask ourselves, is our desire to KNOW what these women are to one another just part of a need to define them, explain them, and assign roles to their behavior…indeed, to subject the characters to the confining, socially-imposed definitions they seek independence from?
Secondarily, once Paul makes the shift from welcome guest to predatory intruder, the motives for his actions become less obvious when we don’t really know exactly what it is he has insinuated himself into into the middle of. Depending on the scene, Paul comes across convincingly as either harmless or sinister.
The Fox, a three-character drama, set, pointedly, in the chilly dead of winter, is something of a war movie. It’s vast battlefield encompassing everything from sexuality, gender politics, masculinity, femininity, love, violence, passion, and independence. The weapons of choice: nature (human and animal), instinct (masculine and feminine), self-preservation, domination, possession.
The catalyst for it all, the fox (the male); an animal functioning out of a natural, violent instinct to dominate, or an animal of cunning?
|Ellen "What is there here for me, Jill?"|
Jill: "Yourself. Something I could never take from you."
|"And when he holds me, I feel I'm seeping into his flesh...and there's no more me."|
|Shot in a manner to best emphasize his vulpine features,|
Dullea gives an appropriately sly performance
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
|Paul wields his phallic ax|
If it is Paul's wish to have Ellen lose herself within him, then it's imperative that he
remove the one person who reminds Ellen she has a self worth preserving
You see it in the "mansplaining" phenomenon (which is nothing new). You see it in the way men like Donald Trump can only relate to women by trying to exert power over them; either through sexual objectification or, when feeling threatened, trying to belittle or destroy them in some way. I see it in gyms I've worked in, where men feel the need to exert a subtle superiority over women by being "helpful" and offering unsolicited workout tips.
You see it in the paradox of male fantasy fetishizing of girl-on-girl sex existing side by side with a real-world hatred and fear of lesbians and bisexuals.
|The Fox explores how merely the idea of women existing without need for a man|
can ignite a primal fear in the male
|Lost or Found?|
When Ellen appears in her pink feminine finery, making like a contented, domesticated female,
has she reclaimed a suppressed part of her nature or surrendered herself to what Paul wants her to be?
These things are neither admirable nor desirable, and not even indicative of most people's relationships; but here, some 90 years after D.H. Lawrence put pen to paper, the contradictory and cruel power plays between men and women seem to have changed little.
For me, The Fox is an allegory about a particular kind of male/female dynamic, with the suggestion that what is instinctual and primitive is not necessarily natural.