I wrote this for Letterboxd and am posting it here in the hope I will continue to write again.
I’ve seen this twice now. Let me begin with where I stand on the main issues:
• I love Gerwig’s direction and most of the choices behind the camera – though, does Alexandre Desplat’s score lead us a little too often? Yes.
• Don’t hate me BUT I am, it seems, one of the few human beings unconvinced by Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet, but they’re both great here and, as awful – racist, sexist - as the Oscar (and Bafta) nominations are, I believe she totally deserves her nomination. She is FANTASTIC.
• Is it feminist enough? This is a debate on the left with which you may be unfamiliar. It’s partly, but far from completely, a book v film argument. I don’t like the book and cannot remember all the details so I try to judge the film versions on their own merits. I like that we get more of older Amy, I like the ending. I like the time-altered structure that may on occasion be a little awkward – the repetition on Beth’s death scene? – but more often gives us interesting and thoughtful juxtapositions…
• …and so it seems to me that we still, urgently, need narratives about sisterhood, community, play, kindness and compassion that intertwine with stories about equality and justice, self-definition and self expression, the need for art and artists and much more.
• It is, like the other great adaptations, a big, warm hug of a film that gives us a serious tale wrapped up in nostalgia, beautiful landscapes, warm and comforting interiors, familiar and relatable characters…
• …thus Gerwig begins her film with that title card: “I had lots of troubles; so I write jolly tales.” Despite her structure and the playful ending …
• …this is still a very familiar kind of film. It runs on a very fine border between earned sentiment and universal sentimentality. It runs on a fine distinction between hope and optimism. It runs on familiar structures – and yes, to take one example, Beth’s death feels like a very familiar device that allows us to feel the pain of loss but with a very quick closure and without the real-life consequences of such a loss. It is sad but cathartic rather than challenging or difficult. I do, of course (!) cry at Beth, the piano and Mr Laurence - AND try to read it in terms of loss and love - BUT Little Women glosses over, in a very romantic way, class conflict.
And that’s where my problem lies. First let me be clear that I’m not picking on this film. I’d happily have Little Women win Best Picture over most of those other snooze fests/really stupid films/tired late works. I’ll watch it again with great pleasure. It’s just that at the beginning of the new decade somehow my questions and thoughts won’t be swallowed down any more.
My problem is with fantasy and nostalgia. My problem is with happy endings. My problem is with carrying on as normal. My problem is with rushing things and glossing over pain and distress. And even though I know I’m entering a dangerous maze-like path - the idea that we should be prescriptive in any way when it comes to art has always been abhorrent to me - I’m wondering if there are films we need far more.
Time is running out. I still feel like a mad person for saying it but the evidence in 2019 was OVERWHELMING. Think of it as Year 1 of the new normal and that things are only going to get worse. I’m not suggesting that people won’t find ways of fighting back or that there won’t be resistance – we will be forced to fight back and sometimes they will succeed. I am suggesting that we’re already locked into enough warming that we are facing challenges – political, social, practical – that we haven’t got answers for – and that billions will suffer or die as a result. And much sooner than most people can imagine. Happy endings are running out. Normal lives – or what white people in the developed world thought of as normal – are coming to an end. And as usual it will be poor and working class people of colour around the world who will suffer the most to begin with and always.
This HAS to have consequences for art doesn’t it? The art that we need to imagine differently. The art we need to reflect (?) the perilousness of our circumstances. The art that will provide a sense of ‘Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will’ [and maybe Little Women gives you that?] The art that will help us chart a path between giving up or stupid optimism, or between waiting for others to lead the way or forging a path ourselves.
And my sense is that we have to start challenging every little degree of fantasy and sentimentality in our treasured narratives that pretend to make sense of the world or give us hope for the future. My whole experience of art - actually it's my whole experience of life and making decisions - is being framed in a new way: part of my brain is now, always, screaming “But, we’re running out of time” "Wake up!" “Half of the world is in the grip of vile nationalist governments with fascism just around the corner”
I wish I didn’t hear that scream but I know I need to listen to it