In November of 1980, Heaven’s Gate opened in theaters to pans from critics and apathy from audiences, effectively ending a roughly decade span in American filmmaking where directors were given final cut by producers, with no questions asked. At least that’s the basic narrative put forth by producer Steven Bach in his book Final Cut about the film’s status as financial “fiasco.” While that film’s immense budgetary losses undoubtedly made studio heads question an “art first” approach, a success like The French Lieutenant’s Woman provides an intriguing counterpoint to the hyperbolic pessimism that permeates many discussions of the New Hollywood Cinema, as it’s known.
Though some may protest that the film, directed by Karel Reisz and scripted by Harold Pinter, isn’t an American production, its stateside distribution in 1981 by a newly revamped United Artists reveals the studio offering a commercial smash in art-house clothing, mere months after Bach’s purported auteur apocalypse. More than tripling its budget in grosses, The French Lieutenant’s Woman would be less remarkable in this regard were it a straightforward costume drama; instead, Pinter devised an adaptation of John Fowles’s proto-postmodern novel that set the proceedings in the present, with Anna (Meryl Streep) and Mike (Jeremy Irons) as actors in a film adaptation of the novel, portraying the roles of ill-fated lovers, Sarah and Charles, in mid-19th-century England while entangled in a love affair of their own.
In some respects, The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a more daring prospect than Heaven’s Gate. The Michael Cimino film, in all of its unconventional pacing and character types, still remains within its own revisionist landscape, following the trails of other westerns from the period like McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Reisz revels in the film’s meta-cinematic aims immediately in an opening shot of “Anna” being tended to by a makeup artist. Suddenly, as “the film’s” soundboard claps, an elaborate tracking shot commences, and the title sequence is underway. Pinter’s screenplay immediately blends realities together, with Reisz’s unblinking direction turning its nose up to a conception of daring filmmaking as marketable product. By explicitly recalling Godard’s claims that “a tracking shot is a moral issue,” the opening of The French Lieutenant’s Woman announces its interest in New Wave questions of cinematic authenticity. In a sense, it ups the ante of François Truffaut’s Day for Night by deleting much of the material that would make this a more digestible film “about” filmmaking.
That’s because, despite Anna and Mike’s perpetual reading of the script, discussing facts about the time period, and rehearsing scenes in private together, there’s no sense of the production they’re engaged in. It’s a curious strategy on Pinter’s part, and if The French Lieutenant’s Woman has a weakness, it’s a failure of nerve to conceptualize the filmmaking process to the fullest extent. Reisz omits the presence of a filmmaker, whether a proxy for himself or any creative, controlling artist whatsoever, though this absence does allow for more detailed focus on the couple in question.
In more sluggish moments, with prolonged sequences that play out as if inside the very film Pinter and Reisz refuse to conceive, The French Lieutenant’s Woman balks at its formulated premise of undermining narrative continuity by retaining a belief that such a mode of filmmaking can produce meaningful engagement in the first place. That’s what’s so striking about Fowles’s novel: It pastiches the conventions and clichés from novels of the Victorian period into an estimable work of historiographic metafiction. Nevertheless, by paralleling the love affairs of the same actors in two separate time periods, Reisz instills the film with a constant attention to what’s beyond the frame, so that when Sarah and Charles are on screen, it’s impossible not to think of Anna and Mike, as their on-set fling begins to dissipate once both actors must return to their previous lives.
What’s most challenging, finally, about The French Lieutenant’s Woman is how shrewdly it maneuvers Irons’s characters into various states of unrest, albeit for wholly different reasons. As Charles, he’s an ambitious scientist and an estimable gentleman, though he treats Ernestina (Lynsey Baxter), his fiancé, with little regard once he begins pursuing Sarah. As Mike, his sacrifice is wholly ignoble: He’s giving up his family for a fling that, even during intimate moments of pillow talk, he appears distant from. If sacrifice has changed over the course of a century, the filmmakers suggest, then so must storytelling, as to reflect fleeting moments of time that necessitate being filled with shallow immediacy, which is surely bred from an existential crisis of postindustrial alienation. To that point: Just as Charles’s scientist stares at the promise of commerce with a befuddled, uncertain gaze, so do Reisz and Pinter wonder aloud how storytelling can go any direction but inward.
The Criterion Collection has an acumen for transferring deep-focus long shots like no other home-video distributor. Luckily for viewers, The French Lieutenant’s Woman is chock-full of them, and this 2K digital restoration doesn’t disappoint, especially in scenes from the 19th-century setting, with Freddie Francis’s utterly luminous cinematography on borderline pornographic display. Greens have never looked this naked and open, while blues are nearly as lovely, especially in the famous close-up of Streep which, as one of the extras informs, was actually shot on a sound stage and not the actual "Cobb," as it’s known in the film, where waves made it too dangerous to film. There are, however, noticeable frames and stretches that aren’t as shorn of defect, as close-ups sometimes suffer from a blurring and softness that Francis’s camerawork surely didn’t intend. Although fleeting, these instances remain on screen long enough to become a minor distraction. The monaural soundtrack acutely handles booming waves and Carl Davis’s memorable score in equal measure, though the limitations of the mix makes one yearn for an enhanced, surround track as well. Thankfully, there are no pops, cracks, or noise issues to report.
If short of comprehensive, this diverse array of supplements adequately contextualizes and examines the film’s intricacies both as a film and production. Namely, an interview with scholar Ian Christie tackles the challenge of adapting the novel, but more immediately examines the film’s unusual structure and the pleasures and insights derived from Harold Pinter’s challenging paralleled narratives. Christie doesn’t oversell the film’s importance; he questions why interest has dwindled in recent years, but stops short of hailing it a forgotten masterpiece, simply stating that he looks forward to rekindled scholarship on the film. In a fantastic featurette, Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep speak in 2015 about the film’s place in their careers and the continued fondness each of them holds for it. Likewise, editor John Bloom and Davis get some screen time; in the finest moment, Bloom brags about the film featuring "the best cut of my career," and it’s difficult to argue with his assessment, given that it’s a match-on-action that spans over 100 years. Also included is an episode of The South Bank Show from 1981, with Karel Reisz, Fowles, and Pinter each discussing their pre-production involvement and subsequent efforts on the film, which proves to be an indispensible half hour of candid info. There’s also the film’s theatrical trailer, which recalls a time when trailers were tantalizing teases rather than assaultive, desperate pleas for your money. Finally, an excellent essay by Lucy Bolton, printed on stock paper which doubles as a mini-poster, provides a sustained close reading of the film, primarily focusing on what she calls "the desirability of the enigmatic woman in patriarchy."
Criterion’s new 2K Blu-ray adeptly demonstrates why The French Lieutenant’s Woman is ready for its (redux) close-up.