Saturday 20 September 2014

You Touched Me (2014)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Holly Dell, Jessica Bryce, Seth Gandrud and Donald H Steward
Even though You Touched Me screened in the very first set at the 52 Films in 52 Weeks festival, closing up the opening night selection, it stayed with me in much more detail than most of what followed, and I was keen to find out why. I wanted to know what D H Lawrence was saying in his short story and what Travis Mills excised to make it fit into a short film. I especially wanted to discover what the character of Hadrian meant, as Seth Gandrud had little to do in the film but somehow owned it regardless. What I found was that this is one of the more interesting adaptations of the whole series. While Mills retained Lawrence's title and the scene that warrants it, along with character names and a little of the dialogue, he rewrote almost everything else entirely. He didn't do so merely because of time and place, as Lawrence's English story, framed as always in the classes, wouldn't be easy to translate directly to modern day Arizona. He changed every dynamic of the story too and replaced the mildly creepy tone with a more uplifting one.

Not one of Lawrence's characters is remotely likeable. He introduces us first to the Pottery House, an ugly affair which used to be a commercial property but is now residential, then to Matilda and Emmie Rockley, two old maids whose attributes remind of their house. Emmie's coming up to thirty, while Matilda has just passed it, but their attitudes are of much older women, dismissive spinsters waiting for their father to die and leave them everything. Into their life comes Hadrian, as he had done once before. With four girls and no boys, Mr Rockley chose to adopt one from a charity institution, bringing him up as his own. Each of the girls insisted he call them 'cousin', as if it would serve to distance them from his lower class background. They're all framed in class. Emmie and Matilda are unmarried because they feel they deserve better than the town has to offer, while Hadrian moved to Canada so as to be able to escape his class limitations and move up the chain. Mr Rockley sits above it all and plays with the lives of his children.

This depressing tale saw first publication in 1920, soon after Lawrence had begun his voluntary exile from England, what he called his 'savage pilgrimage'. He saw his own country through bitter eyes, as it meant to him poverty, harrassment and accusations. He'd already been investigated on allegations of obscenity, charges that would consistently plague him throughout his career. It's no stretch to read this story as the opposite of a love letter to his country. Thankfully Mills jettisons most of it, replacing creepy manipulation with a more conventional love triangle. He kills off the father immediately, highlighting at the very outset that he's been dead for a couple of days. He keeps Mattie and Emily the same age physically but renders them younger mentally, less isolated and more endearing. Hadrian shows up because of correspondence with his father, so his arrival is a surprise to the girls. Each of the relationships between them are framed in much more positive ways than the bitterness and machinations of Lawrence's characters.
Mills does keep enough substance to avoid this becoming a cheesy romance and wisely frames his story around Mattie rather than Hadrian. Her dialogue is very telling. When the family lawyer tells the girls that Hadrian is here, her immediate response is, 'He isn't blood'; yet when Emily mentions his powerful arms, her first thought is, 'But he's your brother.' Holly Dell is a strong lead, effectively playing two characters who are fighting for control. She's mostly brusque to the point of rudeness, instinctively pushing people away from her, but inside aches to love and be loved; she struggles to let that side of her out. She isn't the old maid of Lawrence's story but, unless she changes, she'll get there. On the other hand, Emily is a soft and giving free spirit, played effortlessly by Jessica Bryce. When the girls are told that Hadrian is in the stable, Emily rushes there to be framed superbly in the doorway, blurry and in soft light because the camera's focus is on him. It's an odd choice but an appropriate one, because it speaks to her emotions.

The two girls are alike in many ways, not least their attraction to Hadrian, but they're polar opposites in others. Emily's heart is on her sleeve, but Mattie's is hidden away deep inside. In many ways, this is why this story works, but it's assisted in no small way by Seth Gandrud as Hadrian. He's a strong man; he left years ago, did whatever, hitch-hiked back from Maine. We get the impression that he could do anything he wants to do, but here he does nothing, just stands there like the cover of a romance novel, while the girls fall apart in front of him, waiting for them to find themselves. He spends his most important scene asleep; it's a parallel to the one in Lawrence's story but switched up entirely to render the title obsolete. Most of his dialogue is, 'I don't mind', his 'As you wish.' Westley in The Princess Bride, was also an active man choosing to be passive for his own reasons. Gandrud is almost messianic in his inherent peace and ability to be in two places at once, but I couldn't find a religious subtext and I looked. This isn't Joyce.

The connections between the original story and Mills's adaptation to contemporary Arizona are one of the more interesting aspects of most of the 52 Films in 52 Weeks. He often had to cut out material, especially from the longer stories and to mixed success. Some of the better films, like The Kiss and Araby, retell the originals in a different way, not just removing material but adding new elements too, whether in the style or the script. Here, Mills rewrote the whole thing, creating a completely new story out of a few elements from the original. Had Lawrence's story been more worthy or Mills's less strong, this could have backfired spectacularly. Fortunately, Lawrence's story leaves a notably bad taste in the mouth and Mills's punches notably above its weight. There's little on the surface, just another love triangle, but there's more going on underneath and it's constructed very well indeed, compact but unrushed: the script, the lighting, the choice of focus. Perhaps Bryce's early scenes should have had a few more takes, but that's about it.

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