Sunday 23 November 2014

A Respectable Woman (2014)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Colleen Hartnett, Michael Coleman, Travis Mills and Stacie Stocker
This film is Running Wild's second attempt at a Kate Chopin story as part of the 52 Films in 52 Weeks and it may be the best picture in the project thus far, in large part because it has time to breathe. With twenty minutes of running time for the fourteen hundred words Chopin wrote, it's explored with a lot more depth than The Kiss, which translated a thousand words into a mere four minutes on screen. It also allowed for the first great performance to manifest itself at last, following a number of notable ones like Bill Wetherill in An Encounter, Eric Almassy in The Liar and Holly Dell in You Touched Me, not to forget Shelly Boucher's supporting role in The Devil and Tom Walker. Here the entire picture is written on Colleen Hartnett's face and, thankfully, she proves more than able to carry it. It's an especially strong showing, given that for the second Chopin adaptation running, Michael Coleman is gifted with a peach of a wild card character; he's capable enough to have stolen the whole thing if Hartnett hadn't been on top of her game.

She's the title character, of course, though hardly the respectable woman that Chopin wrote about back in 1894 for Vogue. Mrs Baroda was a lady of society, who wouldn't dream of appearing with tousled hair or with so little make up, let alone dressing casually even when working from home. In fact, I'd suggest that she would see work as being beneath her station. In Chopin's original story, she's spending a restful spring at the plantation after a busy winter of entertaining guests when her husband, Gaston, surprises her with another one, a college friend named Gouvernail. He's no society gentleman, merely a journalist, so he doesn't move in Mrs Baroda's circles and they've never met. She immediately makes assumptions as to how common he must be and thus decides that she won't like him before he even arrives. Instead, she finds that she does like him but can't explain why, even to herself. Over time, she struggles with who he is and what he means to her carefully constructed world.
With the exception of the 120 years and 1,200 miles between the Louisiana story and the Arizona short film, this adaptation is relatively close. While the respectable woman of the title isn't truly respectable in the society sense meant by Chopin, she thinks she is. Clearly houseproud, she has no wish for her home to become a frat house, and to avoid such a horrendous fate, her mouth moves faster than her mind and her mind faster than her perception of reality. Certainly she looks down on Walt before he ever shows up to stay and she may well look down on her husband Tom too. Certainly Hartnett doesn't have the shared charisma with Travis Mills that she does with Michael Hanelin, who would normally play the husband in a film like this. Given that Hanelin was the Running Wild casting director for this project, I'm sure it was a conscious decision to cast Mills instead of himself and probably for that very reason. It adds an edge to the relationship which underpins how this respectable woman interacts with her husband's guest.

In both the story and the film, the implication is that the respectable woman isn't, that she's just putting on airs and graces to play a role and it merely takes the right guest to make her aware of it. Perhaps that realisation is slightly different, that in the film she merely finds it while in the story she also decides that she doesn't have to be restricted by her role, but that's open to interpretation. Certainly she's a lot more comfortable with herself in the story than the film, with cinematic choices here emphasising how distant she and Tom are: either a careful distance between them while they talk or back and forth editing, not to mention the deliberately weak moments of affection. Chopin's ladies are generally in control, even when their worlds are shaken up, but Mills chooses to have his respectable woman shaken at the outset and in various degrees of turmoil throughout, until the decision she makes at the end of the piece which we get but Tom completely fails to understand.

And in talking about the title character, who owns this film, I've mostly avoided talking about Walt, who serves the same purpose as Gouvernail but in a completely different way. In the story, Gouvernail is run down from overwork and wants nothing more than to rest at his friend's plantation to recoup his energy; his interactions with Mrs Baroda are driven by her not him. Here, Walt is a complete fish out of water but one who nonetheless finds a way to be comfortable, perhaps another reason that the lady of the house finds herself drawn to him even as she's horrified by him. He drives their interactions here, beginning as she finds him bathing in their pool. He doesn't drink the way he used to and he wants to eat outside; he doesn't want to be indoors and his first time inside is shot at a suitably odd angle to show how poorly he fits there. The final straw has him shoot darts from a blowgun at the cushions on the couch, an obviously Freudian act that is an immediate affront to a respectable woman but, later, something that resonates.
Michael Coleman is excellent here, the sort of different, exotic, interesting character that Seth Gandrud is so good at playing. Perhaps he'd have been cast if only he hadn't played a similar role as recently as You Touched Me three weeks earlier, but Coleman nails the part, even when he's leading scenes while facing away from the camera so that all we see is the little pony tail on the back of his head. He's as powerful a presence in the film as he becomes in the mind of his friend's wife, enough that when he leaves, the hall seems empty without his bags in it. The camerawork at that point is excellent, coming right after a scene of tender motion and switching to urgency as the lady of the house finds Walt gone and rushes down the hall to look at the empty rocking chair in the back yard and realises that he's gone from her world. If this film belongs yet again to the writer and the lead actor, the way the camera is used is worthy of note too. Travis Mills was the writer and the director of photography, but thankfully not the leading lady.

While A Respectable Woman was arguably the strongest 52 Films in 52 Weeks picture at this point, it has its technical problems. The editing occasionally felt a little sharp between scenes that warranted a softer transition between them. Most obviously the lighting is often wild, not so much on the actors themselves but on the backgrounds behind them. It's not consistent, sometimes too dim but often too bright, enough so that I wondered if there might be a cinematic reason for it but I came up dry. Certainly the odd angles used are deliberate, as are the lackluster moments between Tom and his wife. The webisode shot for this picture raises sound as a deliberate trigger for suspense à la Robert Bresson, but sound felt less obvious than lighting, sitting back and mostly doing its job rather than disturbing us with its prominence. If the lighting lessened it, the more relaxed running time and strong performances from Hartnett and Coleman enhanced it and it could easily land a film festival slot on its own merits.

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