How could one ever face Hiroshima head-on without causing all conventional narrative to dissolve? That’s the question running through Alain Resnais’ 1959 Hiroshima mon amour, as I wrote a few weeks ago, and it reoccurs in a different form while watching Sally Potter’s new film Ginger & Rosa. The film starts with images of the mushroom cloud and the accompanying destruction, then switches to Britain, to two young women giving birth, each to a girl, who grow up as best friends, in mostly dingy circumstances. In 1962, deep in the folds of the Cold War and of nuclear escalation, it’s plausible to think the world might be on the edge of wiping itself out, spawning a fruitful time for radicalism and activism.
Ginger & Rosa
But on the other hand, the destiny of young women has too often been largely a matter of biology. An early scene patly sets out the two paths – as the two girls sit in the bathtub, shrinking their jeans, Rosa reads Girl magazine; Ginger cites Simone de Beauvoir. It’s not particularly surprising, really, where this leads Rosa, but then, why would it be? One of the film’s cleverest strokes though is in how it intertwines the two trajectories, to draw on how grandly expressed ideologies of freedom and resistance have always lent themselves – in the hands of the men who’ve primarily owned those narratives – to justify self-aggrandizing, callous treatment of women, who are then saddled with the aftermath.
The Globe and Mail’s Rick Groen found much to like about the film, calling it “beautifully observed,” but judging it “a bit lumpy when the plot heats up…the melodrama doesn’t quite dissolve into the porridge.” I’m not sure his imagery there is ideally stirred either, but I know what he means – the film’s closing stretch contains a relative flurry of scandals and traumas, not ultimately anywhere near resolved. But it seems to me that’s largely the point – that from Ginger’s point of view, her existence presents itself as an irreconcilable mess of missteps and prisons (both literal and figurative), of love and hate, all of it plainly trivial against the shadow of the bomb, and yet too immediate and present not to be felt and lived, whatever the cost. In the end, she’s hung on to her idealism, and seems to glimpse a unity of vision that may become central to her adult worldview. But she’s still just a kid, so who knows when or when the ingredients and perceptions ever become fully blended.
A pint and a half
Ginger & Rosa doesn’t really convey a textured sense of time and place in the way of, say, a Terence Davies film: Potter is more interested in the intimacy of interactions and experiences, and the film’s first half conveys the thrill of discovering and exploring the new, even if their pinched surroundings don’t allow that much of it. At several points, the girls hitch a ride, sometimes late at night; we never clearly see the drivers, and it’s hard not to super-impose modern anxieties about the situation and to anticipate some kind of danger. But at least for the film’s now, the practice just embodies the possibility of movement and connection; likewise, you might impulsively snog a stranger at the back of the bus shelter, but that’s just another kind of social glue. And in a way, the overly defined place of women constitutes a kind of clarity. I liked the moment when another activist buys Ginger a drink, and without asking what she wants, orders a “pint and a half.” In Britain of the time, there’s no need to specify a pint of what, or to question the relative capacities of male and female (even if you’re supposedly a man who devotes yourself to questioning the norm).
I don’t think it’s accidental either that a large chunk of the principal cast is American, divided between those playing transplanted Yanks (Oliver Platt and Annette Bening) and those assuming English accents (Elle Fanning as Ginger and Christina Hendricks as her mother). No matter how well they pull it off (and by common consent, Fanning manages considerably better than Hendricks) there’s no way this can serve as an aid to realism; on the contrary, it can only make us reflect on the film as a representation, and on the complexities of evoking history, culture, and indeed Britishness. In the latter regard, these casting choices might lend an air of the exotic, but only by conveying a sense of authentic Britishness (whatever that might mean, of course) being pushed into the margins, which again resonates against the broader backdrop, whereby the whole country (virtually overnight, it must have seemed) went from Empire to mere potential collateral damage (early on in the film, the radio recites estimates of possible casualties in the event of war, as if the estimate wasn’t basically, of course, everyone).
Changing what is there
Looked at this way, Ginger & Rosa’s relative conventionality, compared against Potter’s earlier films, isn’t perhaps the “major surprise” Groen identifies it as being, because, indeed, it’s only relative. Potter is in her mid-sixties now, but this is only her seventh full-length narrative work. Her most famous is the gender-bending time-traveling Orlando; many of the others are underappreciated. I placed The Man who Cried on my top ten list for the year (admittedly a little generously): an epic of sorts, with international settings and a big name cast, it seemed designed to be susceptible to analysis in the same way that film theorists mull over Bette Davis’ 1940’s films, and it came pretty close. In Yes, the dialogue is spoken completely in iambic pentameter; some found it banal, but it radiated visual and thematic immersion. However, her last film Rage was barely noticed, and it had never occurred to me to go searching for it.
In some ways, Ginger & Rosa links back though to Potter’s first full-length film The Gold Diggers, which might still be her most striking – a seminal “feminist” film in which she allures the senses as movies always have, while withholding their traditional clarity and closure, and so implicitly rejecting the dominant male ideology that drives those qualities. “Even as I look and see,” says a woman at the end of that film, “I am changing what is there,” and Ginger could almost say much the same at the end of the new movie; although incapable of affecting either the immediate or the overriding human mess, she’s starting to feel her way to a radicalized identity beyond rhetoric and clichés. Statistically, for a young woman at that time, the odds may be against her making it, but as Potter herself can testify, it’s not hopeless.