Awesome ’80s in April: The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981)

the french lieutenants woman movie poster

The opening scene of The French Lieutenant’s Woman has Meryl Streep dressed in period garb standing on the street of an old village near a great bay. The shot is from far away so the details are difficult to see. A makeup woman touches up Meryl’s face and someone snaps a clapperboard.

Thinking this was supposed to be a period movie I turned to my wife and asked if I had maybe accidentally pressed play on a behind-the-scenes featurette. She hit the menu key on the remote control, but no, I had played the correct thing. This was the movie.

Streep is playing Anna, an actress who is starring in a movie called The French Lieutenant’s Woman. In that film, she plays Sara Woodruff a fallen woman in Victorian times who had an affair with a French Lieutenant and was left by him without marrying her. Anna is having an on-set affair with Mike (Jeremy Irons) who plays Charles Smithson in the movie-within-a-movie. In that movie, he falls in love with Anna.

If that wasn’t confusing enough the movie (I mean the one I watched not the movie-within-a-movie) presents both of these stories – Mike and Anna two actors making The French Lieutenant’s Woman – and Sara and Charles existing within The French Lieutenant’s Woman’s story – as real. Or at least they are filmed realistically. When we are watching the events of the story-within-the-story we don’t catch glimpses of cameramen, the actors never flub a line, etc.

But the film does play with the two timelines. At one point Anna and Mike are rehearsing a scene for their movie. They are dressed in street clothes and are inside a modern house. They go over the scene a couple of times and then suddenly we are transformed into the older storyline – Sara and Charles live out the scene we just watched Mike and Anna rehearse. This type of thing happens several times where one event is doubled in the other timeline.

Based on a book by John Fowles the movie completely makes up the Anna and Mike story. Apparently (for I haven’t read it) the book offers multiple endings and includes a narrator who often intervenes with a personality of his own. The modern story is then the film’s attempt at making that bit of metafiction work cinematically.

It worked for me. Though it took me a little bit to figure out exactly what was happening, once I got into the groove I found it to be a fascinating way to make a film. I enjoyed both stories and the way the enveloped each other.

Both are love stories with the two characters falling for each other though in both cases their love is socially unacceptable (Charles is engaged to another woman and Sara is disgraced/both Anna and Mike are married to other people). The differences in social norms for their time periods make their stories go in different directions and conclude in ways you might not expect.

Streep and Irons are wonderful as you would expect. I could watch Meryl Streep’s face all day long and never grow tired. After watching the film I immediately took the book off my shelf and put it in my “to read” stack.

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