' ' Cinema Romantico: Little Women

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Little Women

Greta Gerwig emerged from Mumblecore, which, whatever you thought of the movement, was about auteurs leaving their actors plenty of space to improvise, to invent. No one did it better than Gerwig and she brought that singular talent to the mainstream. In her performances, yes, but now, with her adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women”, to a movie too. Her version never feels like a remote retelling of a familiar text but an immediate unveiling, a sensation Gerwig achieves by taking the two-part story and merging it into one, jumping back and forth in time, flashbacks to when the March girls are young and under the care of their mother Marmee (Laura Dern) and flash-forwards to when they have grown up. This creates a freewheeling forward momentum, even when looking back, that only further illuminates Gerwig’s second and most consequential revision – that is, transforming “Little Women” the movie into a telling of Jo March writing “Little Women” the book.

That’s why “Little Women” opens with Jo (Saoirse Ronan), living in New York in the movie’s present, trying to convince an editor, Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts), to publish her story. Letts leans back in his chair, imperiously, as he reads, not looking noticeably different – aside from the mutton chops – than how he imperiously leaned back in his chair as Henry Ford II, a man’s world spread across the centuries. He buys her story, but with the gruff note that “people want to be amused”, a truism cutting across the ages too, flouted as much by Jo as Gerwig. Indeed, if Jo was an Alcott stand-in then here Jo is a stand-in for Gerwig, which is perhaps why she chose Ronan in the first place, who also played a version of the director’s teenage Sacramento self in “Lady Bird.” Granted, Ronan’s performing style is not an exact Greta match (whose is?), less unbound physically and verbally than constrained by the surrounding environment and pushing back, a frequently burning fire in her eyes manifesting itself in bursts of verbal insistence. When she comforts her sick middle sister Beth (Eliza Scanlen) on the beach, the force of her words – “I will stop the tide” – seems to fill the empty space above, as if giving the clouds their heavy hue.

This image speaks to Gerwig’s visual style, which she has discussed, taking great American painters as inspiration in composing meticulous frames, though not as portraitures but huge canvases in which the subjects are frequently caught in motion. These are, after all, little women, and so Gerwig demonstrates their kinesis, in the plays they put on for family and friends and the words they speak, the latter recounted conversationally, lines running right on top of each other, sometimes even over each other, the speed of the edits mimicking the words.

The scenes of the March girls as children are all cast in vivid golden hues, a deliberate contrast to the more stark lighting of them as adults, evincing in tandem how childhood exists in a warm cocoon and how Jo is taking these memories of a young woman’s life, so devalued by bloated bellyachers like Dashwood, and lifting them up. That’s true even of Beth, shy and withdrawn and fated to die. She plays piano and their next-door neighbor, Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper), graciously encourages her to come over and play his, which in one scene she does as Mr. Laurence sits listening in the next room in an immaculate long shot allowing Beth’s melody to virtually fill the space.

The shot is typical of the movie’s men. That they fade into the background is no oversight but the point, duly noted by Cooper who gives a performance that’s something like a metaphorical tip of the cap, gracefully taking second billing in every scene. The casting of Bob Odenkirk, meanwhile, as father to the Marches seems designed wholly to subvert his typically eccentric personality, like even someone as comically indelible as him can’t quite keep up in the presence of these women. Only Laurie can. That’s Theodore “Laurie” Laurence ( Timothée Chalamet), Mr. Laurence’s nephew, Jo’s eventual suitor, and then little sister Amy’s (Florence Pugh) too. Chalamet evinces a loose-limbed amusement impeccably playing off Ronan’s determination, each of them maintaining an easy ability to parry, both verbally and physically. Their chemistry is not romantic, exactly, more two teenagers, whether dancing on the porch or roughhousing on the beach, overwhelmed by pheromones. But the movie’s emergent tension is less romantic than societal, the world’s idea of what a woman should be and how these women see themselves.

That causes Meg (Emma Watson), whose trajectory is more conventional, to wane, even if Gerwig treats her yearning for marriage and family with respect. Respect, on the other hand, is not always something Amy shows toward her siblings, Jo in particular, of whom her little sister is envious, manifesting itself in brattish behavior even as she metamorphoses into a worldly young woman living in Paris. Here Gerwig’s structure truly pays off, not only allowing us to see where our youthful selves both stay with us even as they melt away but how Pugh deftly alters her very air between time jumps, taking possession of herself as she goes, ultimately accepting and mastering the rules of the game.

Jo, on the other hand, continually seeks to upend those rules. So does Gerwig. The denouement, really, is is all about settling love’s loose ends, right down to a 19th Century version of running to the airport, feeling at odds with so many other progressive ideals bursting through. This, of course, was Alcott’s concession to constrictions of the era, which Gerwig, using her publishing framing device, calls out even as she faithfully conveys it, an ingenious metatextual twist that I don’t think would have the author rolling over in her grave but offering a clenched fist of from-the-great-beyond solidarity.

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