Do not read if you haven’t seen it, or really loved it.
4”11 and female, Little Women should have been right up my alley – I like fancy dresses, I fancy Timothee Chalamet.
That said, I have spent my life avoiding reading books like Little Women. I like Lord of the Rings, and old flicks like Charade – these have great, feisty women in them, but are about other things. If a film screams from the poster about its strong female cast, the alarm bells start ringing in my brain – I’m often rebuked for this, probably rightly. But in my mind-logic, a film should boast about its fantastic, talented, extraordinary cast – whatever, disregarding gender. Especially if it’s called ‘Little Women’, it goes without saying that the cast is predominantly female (although I would love to see the drag version). As soon as the headline is ‘look, look, a cast of mostly un-dangly genitals!’, it seems patronizing and I switch off.
So, I was planning to avoid Little Women until I read articles about the exquisite costume design, and saw how even Rotten Tomatoes was all over it, with an unheard-of 95% rating – I felt bad for my cynicism. The New Yorker called it a “thrillingly bold” reconfiguration of the novel, the Guardian screamed “One-hundred-and-fifty-year-old literature never felt so alive!”, and accordingly I expected a few beautifully choreographed catfights, maybe some swashbuckling with hairpins, and a few well-timed staring-into-each-others-eyes moments – like the Adventures of Adele Blanc-Set, but with lots of sisters.
“I’ve been angry every day of my life”, admits Marmee, consoling the insatiable Jo at a latter point in the story – her smile infuriating. I’ve been angry every day since seeing Little Women, trying to reconcile myself with my distaste that no one else seems to share, except one Guardian journalist who said it was like being set up with the perfect partner and resenting it – all just too good to be true, and therefore revolting.
In deconstructing this rage, I’ll start with the good parts.
The costumes were as beautiful as purported – Jaqueline Durran is brilliant and delicate in her choices, and combined with the gorgeous cinematography of Yorick Le Saux, the film is visually soft and rich, sweeping back and forth in time with the plot like a gallery of Impressionist paintings, eclectic but linked. Oh, the painting smock that Amy wears whilst bitterly cleaning her brushes and declaring herself mediocre in a studio of dusty blue… The scene is playful, full of pretense and mock pretense as Laurie jokingly asks to be the subject of her final work. “I think we have some power over who we love…”, she tells Laurie in a thud of a statement – fittingly enough, as Laurie fancies each of the sisters “differently”.
In an interview with Vogue, discussing dressing Laurie, Durran says “we were all about knowing the rules, and breaking them selectively”. This is the impression given by his undone ties and general attitude. The scene when he and Jo meet is a lovely one – they dance outside of the dance, her in her scorched red oxide dress, he in his loose cravat and very simple coat. Making all the wrong moves, being deliberately stupid and enjoying it, the two gently take the mickey out of the stiffness of the Waltz indoors, visible through the windows that look out onto the porch. There’s a nice irony in that it’s Meg who hurts her foot, by making all the right steps, whilst the rebels emerge unscathed.
Actually, maybe my rage is misplaced – remembering these bits, I love the film. Forget everything I’ve said. Review over.
No… wait – these parts were skillfully done, fun to watch, but ‘thrillingly bold’? To me, the good parts were ‘pleasantly cheesy’, ‘excitingly cheesy’, even – the less good parts, moldy Camembert. The ailing Beth, asking Jo for stories on the beach… whilst moving for some, made me clutch my seat, repressing both fight and flight.
But if Little Women admitted and embraced what it is – not thrilling or bold, but gooey (moving on from the cheese metaphors into the patisserie realm, a Fondant Fancy of a film) – then I don’t think I would have this fury. If, like Crazy Rich Asians, it embraced its soap-opera silliness and delighted in its petty parts with momentary but not overarching sincerity, it would be honest and better. Keeping true to the book, it is a story of small family dramas, exaggerated for entertainment, and the attempt to seem otherwise is what I think bothered me. Perhaps that is more the fault of critics than the film itself.
“There is conflict!”, insisted my flatmate, who’s read the book but not yet seen the film, responding to my waspy descriptions, “it’s not all fucking roses!”. And she is right – Amy and Jo are often at odds; there is bitchiness. There is bittersweetness, in their different claims to Laurie. But still, Amy is saved in the scene when she falls through the ice. It’s not that I wanted her to freeze to death, just that I’d have liked Jo to take longer finding the stick to save her with… More, “I’ll rescue you if you promise…” On the other hand, when Jo burns off a lock of Meg’s hair whilst trying to curl it, sisterly differences are well-reflected and funny.
A friend of mine went to see the film in Paris, and sent me a picture from the cinema – of the special kissing seats that are available there, empty; it was a good photo, a good image – she was there alone. I called her afterward to ask how it was – “What are the best bits?”
“Oh”, she said, “I loved the ending….”
I loved the ending too. After writhing around and pulling my jumper over my face during the numerous saccharine Christmas scenes – “Children”, mews Marmee, “won’t you give up your breakfast for our poor neighbors?” The girls dutifully do, and a stream of charitable scenes follows. It’s a parade of witless virtue – twee, correct, punctuated by Emma Watson’s tiny sighs. Thrillingly bold? I described this to the same flatmate, a sister in everything but genes, who scoffed;
“You just hate things that are nice.”
“A nice film…”, was my cinema companion’s concluding remark, “we were just distracted” – this after looking remorseful for being shushed at every appearance of Friedrich Bhaer, the unexpected love interest for Jo whose name isn’t mentioned and so prompted whispers of “WHO IS HE? WHY IS HE HERE?” We had not read the book; it was our own fault. The way that the plot moves in and out of memory, cross-stitching timelines, whilst visually beautiful, was confusing – though it did work to convey the overlapping characters, and the way that memories work; non-linear, sometimes sad, sometimes pastorally idyllic.
I burst from the cinema with a burning desire to watch Silence of the Lambs, or Terminator. That, I think, is how Little Women should be screened – following or preceding something gory, amoral or containing a lot of explosions. After juxtaposing it to Apocalypse Now, I can remember it as a good film, a sweet film. Stand alone, it’s like sitting on a swing with a poodle in an enchanted forest, sharing candyfloss with the elves, and makes you want to scorch your dresses, a la Jo. Then again, maybe that’s what Greta Gerwig was going for…