The French Lieutenant’s Woman: Parallel Lives, Parallel Loves

Made in 1981 from a screenplay by Harold Pinter, The French Lieutenant’s Woman from director Karel Reisz remains to this day a  groundbreaking and bold post-modern film that resides upon the cutting edge. Ostensibly it is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by John Fowles novel but, as I shall endeavour to argue, this is a film that stands alone in its own right by virtue of building upon what Fowles created on the page and using a distinctive and specifically cinematic character.

Fowles’ novel, published in 1969, was a multi-layered, self-referential tome. It presents to its readers a Victorian melodrama, set in the English coastal town of Lyme Regis in the mid-nineteenth century, concerning a disgraced woman by the name of Sarah Woodruff. The nature of her disgrace, it transpires, is an affair with a French ship’s officer named Varguennes who has subsequently abandoned her and returned to marry in his native France. Now branded the eponymous title (though several characters opt for the more blunt term of ‘the French Lieutenant’s whore’), she becomes a dangerous obsession for Charles Smithson, a Victorian gentleman and Darwinist engaged to Ernestina Freeman. What’s interesting about Fowles’ novel is that the author places himself very much within the text; his voice routinely picking apart the staples of Victorian melodrama as he intrudes upon the narrative to point out the differences between the restrictive social mores of the past and the freer ones of the present for his contemporary, modern-day readers. To that end, the novel possesses not one, not two, but three endings. The first, in which Charles foregoes his attraction to the tainted Sarah and marries Ernestina is taken as the traditional happy ending common in Victorian literature. The second sees Charles consummate his love for (the surprisingly virginal) Sarah, leading to disgrace and ruin. Shunned by Victorian society and losing Sarah when his servant neglects to deliver his marriage proposal, Charles wanders the earth before encountering Sarah, now living freely in bohemian London with the child of their illicit affair. Finally, the third ending sees Fowles appear in person, winding the clock back on the events of the second conclusion to illustrate key differences; the reunion is not a happy one, the parentage of the child is ambiguous and Sarah has no intention of rekindling their love, leaving Charles to wonder if he had been manipulated all along.

Garnering much acclaim upon its publication, interest in the film rights for The French Lieutenant’s Woman was somewhat inevitable. However, the complex and meta-fictional quality of the novel proved a stumbling block and, throughout the 1970s it was long considered unfilmable as various attempts to translate it for the screen – with talents such as Robert Bolt, Sidney Lumet and Miloš Forman, Dennis Potter, Robert Redford, Richard Chamberlain, Charlotte Rampling and Helen Mirren all attached at one point or another – came to nothing.

In 1979, Karel Reisz, Harold Pinter and producer Leon Clore approached the material. It was Reisz, the Czech-born, British-based director of films such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment and The Gambler, who hit upon the idea that the meta aspects that existed on the page would have to be approached differently on screen, arguing that literature and cinema are two very different beasts. Whilst the trick in Fowles’ novel was the presence of the author’s voice, Reisz felt sure that the only natural course for his film to take was by incorporating into the tale the act of filmmaking itself. Intrigued by such a challenge, Pinter set about producing one of the most intelligent and bold screenplays in modern cinematic history. The bulk of Fowles’ Victorian narrative runs parallel with a modern-day story of their own devising,  with the common thread that unites them both being two romantic affairs. The first plotline remains the period drama as outlined in the novel, the second involves film actors Mike and Anna, who are playing the roles of Charles and Sarah in a modern filming of the story. In both segments, Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep play the lead roles.

As with Fowles’ novel, the film of The French Lieutenant’s Woman also reveals the moral divide between past and present by depicting the rigid Victorian English society alongside the more relaxed, laissez-faire experiences of a working film crew in early ’80s England. As such, this is not a standard adaptation of a novel, rather it is a film that stands alone in its own right. It is a film which builds upon what Fowles created in literature by using a distinctive and specifically cinematic character. This notion of a story within a story – or a film within a film; as audiences, we are aware that the bulk of what we are watching ‘in period’ is effectively modern-day performers acting – carries on the traditions of post-modern filmmaking that proved fruitful, specifically in European cinema from the 1960s onwards. More recently this conceit was just as effectively and knowingly used by Michael Winterbottom in his 2006 film A Cock and Bull Story, which concerned itself with the triumphs and travails of adapting a similarly unfilmable, meta-fictional novel, Laurence Sterne’s 18th century classic Tristram Shandy, for the cinema.

In employing such a style, Reisz’s film is one that by virtue stands apart from the de rigueur nature of the typical period drama. But it also goes one further by positing a more realistic exploration of mid-nineteenth-century life than the cosy Victoriana traditions of Sunday night BBC drama or the subsequent headily nostalgic success of Merchant Ivory would have it. The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a film designed to reach a much wider audience and demographic than one that a standard period drama would normally play to. It was made with young, intelligent audiences of the early ’80s in mind and it received significant press and publicity to capture their attention as a result. Indeed, with its late-twentieth-century depiction of the mores morality and hypocrisy of Victorian society, many have sought comparisons with David Lynch’s The Elephant Man from the previous year, which was filmed by Freddie Francis, who is on cinematography duties here too.

Let’s talk about Meryl Streep, shall we? The French Lieutenant’s Woman saw Streep nominated for an Academy Award, and victorious at both a BAFTA and the Golden Globes, but it’s important to remember that this was arguably one of the productions that put her star in the ascent, for the Meryl Streep of 1981 was not the huge movie star she went on to become. That said, she is, as we see in her performance here, 100% a movie star, and this troubles some. I have to say that I am not a huge fan of Streep’s dressing up box style of acting. It’s very showy, deeply affected and pure Oscar bait. It was lampooned brilliantly in the 1988 Comic Strip Presents film The Strike, which sees Jennifer Saunders playing Meryl Streep playing Arthur Scargill’s wife, Anne (because yes, this is another film-within-a-film) upstaging her co-stars by repeatedly fondling and peeling oranges, a joke which stems from Streep playing with an orange in this very film. And yet, despite the fact that she is caught acting throughout The French Lieutenant’s Woman and is often little more than this inventive hand choreography and distracting mannerisms, it’s a performance that absolutely works here because firstly, we are, after all, watching a performance from Anna, a Hollywood actress in the Victorian scenes. And secondly, because the character of Sarah Woodruff is one whom we can never be sure is being honest or disingenuous. Sarah Woodruff is a woman before her time; constantly butting against stifling societal convention, we’re never entirely clear how much of her reputation is an affectation of her own creating (how can she be the titular slur when later, in her sexual encounter with Charles, she is shown to be a virgin?) and this is enigma is explored in Charles’ consultation with Leo McKern’s Doctor Grogan who argues that her melancholia stems from birth rather than from any encounter that has set her upon such a ruinous path.

Shot like a Pre-Raphaelite woman made flesh (that beautiful scene in which Charles first lays eyes on her, hooded and standing precariously on the edge of the windswept and rain-lashed Lyme Regis stone pier, known as the Cobb) in the film, with Streep’s hollow, pale features playing to these haunted strengths, it seems too that Sarah the character is acutely aware of her own tragic myth; something which she builds upon, busily sketching the most darkly evocative self-portraits and seemingly encouraging the criticisms and condemnation of the townfolk. This understanding, this embrace of self-identity, is a uniquely modern characteristic and is shown in sharp contrast to the more superficial experience and life of Charles’ fiancée Ernestina played by Lynsey Baxter, a beautiful and quirky actress who was rather prolific in the ’80s and ’90s but who appears to have retrained as a remedial masseuse and transpersonal counsellor in recent years. Ernestina is the very image of a Victorian woman, wholly of her time and encouraged not to have ambitions or expectations beyond her reach. The fripperies of her leisure, including the then-current trend of archery, say all we need to know about Ernestina. It’s easy to see how, when encountering someone so unique and peculiar as Sarah, Charles falls so hard.

Her co-star Jeremy Irons is, of course, far less showy than Streep, but no less interesting either. He offers a fascinating diversity in the dual roles; the actor Mike is wholly modern and therefore somewhat callow in comparison to Charles, the more ramrod straight Victorian gentleman we originally meet before Sarah’s allure sees his character fall from grace, but Mike is just as unfortunate in his pursuit of love as Charles appears. Despite being married (his wife is played by Penelope Wilton), Mike falls head over heels for his American co-star Anna during filming. Or does he? In reality, Mike grows blind to where the film’s parallel stories begin and end as his affection for Anna becomes dangerously entwined with the irresistible pull of Sarah Woodruff as evinced in the climactic scene in which he calls out Sarah rather than Anna. His experience echoes the manipulation that Fowles posited in the novel’s third ending, as Anna (who herself is married, somewhat on-the-nose, to a Frenchman) is shown to be engaging in the affair as if it were little more than a holiday romance; a kind of ‘what goes on tour, stays on tour’ attitude for an American actress in England. She possesses all the independence and passion that Sarah has yet feels constricted and judged by. Mike is a theatrical gentleman dazzled by this star of Hollywood and this ultimately makes the casting of Streep, an unmistakable movie actor, and Irons, an actor with a background upon the stage, crucial. The stakes, of course, are far less high in the adultery of the modern-day, making it rather trivial in comparison to the Victorian story and ultimately evoking thought. The real trick of The French Lieutenant’s Woman is that audiences are as emotionally involved in both stories, despite the constant reminder that the most important strand is effectively a facade.

The film boasts a fine supporting cast including the aforementioned McKern and Wilton, but also Hilton McRae, Peter Vaughan, David Warner, Liz Smith, Colin Jeavons, Patience Collier, Alun Armstrong and Richard Griffiths. Look out too for an uncredited appearance by Ken Russell favourite Georgina Hale, dancing at the film’s wrap party. The film is also beautifully edited by John Bloom, who forges a link between both stories that is genuinely profound – I particularly enjoyed the sequence where, Mike and Anna are rehearsing the encounter in the forest between Charles and Sarah and, when Anna performs Sarah’s stumble, Bloom places the cut here so that she is then helped up as Anna by Charles in the woods. It goes without saying too that it is beautifully shot by Freddie Francis, who pitches the gloom of the nineteenth century with a dazzling brightness of the modern-day, suggesting the more out-in-the-open, anything goes triviality of contemporary life in comparison to the mystery and enigma of Victorian shadows. Ultimately, The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a film I admire for being so incredibly clever, as opposed to being one I wholeheartedly love, but make no mistake – this is a great film, a fine example of 1980s cinema, and one that needs rediscovering. Hopefully, this Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection will present this opportunity.  It’s a lovingly assembled package, containing a video essay from Ian Christie, interviews with stars Streep, Irons and editor Bloom, and a 1981 edition of The South Bank Show in which host Melvyn Bragg chats to key players Karel Reisz, Harold Pinter and John Fowles.

Click image to buy from BFI store

The French Lieutenant’s Woman is out on Criterion Collection Blu-ray (UK)

Mark Cunliffe

Mark's first experience at the cinema was watching the 1982 Cannon and Ball vehicle The Boys In Blue. Despite this ignoble start, he has nurtured a love of film and television ever since. He is a critical essayist for Arrow Films and his work appears in the DVD/Blu-ray releases of Stormy Monday, Day of the Jackal, Jake Speed, Children of Men and the Alec Guinness movie The Prisoner. He has also appeared on the Talking Pictures podcast and is currently contributing to a book about 1980s TV, film and pop culture.

Let us know what you think ...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top
%d bloggers like this: