This week the Gene Siskel Film Center is showing two superior debut features by women directors that are set in the 19th century. Marine Francen’s French film The Sower plays through Thursday, and Ash Mayfair’s Vietnamese drama The Third Wife opens for a weeklong run on Friday. Both are highly assured works that interrogate the sexual mores of two centuries ago in subtle, provocative fashion. I prefer The Sower—its visual aesthetic (seemingly inspired by Millet’s paintings) is richer and its montage more surprising—but The Third Wife is nothing to sneeze at. That film tackles the difficult subject of a 14-year-old girl sold into marriage in a manner that’s not at all sensationalistic or moralizing, but rather calm and inquisitive. Mayfair recognizes that life was simply different in the late 19th century, and while it didn’t afford much agency to girls like the film’s heroine, it still allowed for moments of solace and camaraderie. The most interesting aspect of The Third Wife concerns the friendship that blossoms between the title character and one of her husband’s other wives—viewers expecting a thoroughly depressing experience will be surprised by the warmth Mayfair finds in this relationship.
There’s no shortage of films set in the 19th century. The cinema, after all, is a 19th-century invention, and the customs of that time seem to haunt movies even today. (Most narrative films draw on a 19th-century model of storytelling, which is why it’s still shocking to see a film that draws on the formal experiments of early 20th-century literature and drama.) The Sower and The Third Wife demonstrate that filmmakers are still questioning the sexual mores of that period, maybe because the gains of the 20th century’s sexual revolutions still don’t feel decisively won. In any case, a number of major films consider specifically the position of women in 19th-century society. Below are five capsule reviews from the Reader archives that address this rich subgenre.
Camille The Dumas story of a tubercular courtesan is a classic only in its unrelenting morbidity, but George Cukor makes it work, accenting the oozing romantic fatalism with marvelously fresh open-air sequences and lively playing (1936). Garbo, away for once from the stultifying Clarence Brown, gives her most vivid, intimate performance; she’s no longer part of the elegant MGM decor but a human being with a life of her own. Cukor gives her the close-ups she deserves: immaculately lit and framed, but loose enough to give her some breathing room, to let her exercise an independent will. With Robert Taylor, Lionel Barrymore, and Henry Daniell; photographed by William Daniels. —Dave Kehr
Under Capricorn Easily one of Alfred Hitchcock’s half-dozen greatest films, Under Capricorn has been senselessly neglected for years just because it isn’t a thriller. Set in colonial Australia, at a time when many of the citizens were convicts working off their sentences, the film follows an Irish noblewoman (Ingrid Bergman) and her lower-class husband (Joseph Cotten) through a hellish milieu of guilt and repression. Never has Hitchcock’s obsession with death and sexuality seemed so Lawrentian (the comparison, if anything, sometimes seems unfavorable to D.H.). Shot in astonishingly elaborate long takes, this is the kind of film that finds the most brilliant poetry in the slightest movement of the camera—a paradigm of cinematic expression (1949). —Dave Kehr
Charulata Also known as The Lonely Wife, this relatively early (1964) film by Satyajit Ray (The World of Apu), based on a Tagore novel of Victorian India, may be the first of his features in which he really discovers mise-en-scène, and it’s an exhilarating encounter. It’s typically rich in the nuances of grief and in extraordinarily allusive dialogue, though not very much happens in terms of plot (a sensitive woman is neglected by her newspaper-publisher husband and drawn to his younger cousin). But at every moment, the gorgeous cinematography and expressive camera movements and dissolves have plenty of stories of their own to tell. You shouldn’t miss this. —Dave Kehr
The Story of Adele H The critics loved to honor the late François Truffaut for his glowingly humanistic films, yet as time goes by it becomes more and more clear that his dark, obsessive works (The Soft Skin, The Green Room, The Man Who Loved Women) are by far the most personal and most enduring. This 1975 effort revealed a falsely promising Isabelle Adjani as the daughter of Victor Hugo, devoted to the point of demented self-destructiveness to a feckless British lieutenant. Though, like Truffaut’s other black films, it suffers from a monotony of tone, its intensity is impressive and remains uncompromised by the prettifying aesthetic touches Truffaut adds here and there in an apparent attempt to distance himself from the overcharged material. The further Truffaut steps back, the more implicated he seems to be. With Bruce Robinson and Sylvia Marriott. —Dave Kehr
The Piano Sweetie and An Angel at My Table have taught us to expect startling as well as beautiful things from Jane Campion, and this assured and provocative third feature (1993) offers yet another lush parable—albeit a bit more calculated and commercially minded—about the perils and paradoxes of female self-expression. Set during the 19th century, this original story by Campion—which evokes at times some of the romantic intensity of Emily Brontë—focuses on a Scottish widow (Holly Hunter) who hasn’t spoken since her childhood, presumably by choice, and whose main form of self-expression is her piano playing. She arrives with her nine-year-old daughter in the New Zealand wilds to enter into an arranged marriage, which gets off to an unhappy start when her husband-to-be (Sam Neill) refuses to transport her piano. A local white man living with the Maori natives (Harvey Keitel) buys the piano from him and, fascinated by and attracted to the mute woman, agrees to “sell” it back to her a key at a time in exchange for lessons, with ultimately traumatic consequences. —Jonathan Rosenbaum v