Friday, August 14, 2015

Resplendent Isolation: An Angel At My Table

Janet Frame, poet and novelist, was born in New Zealand in 1924 and died in the year 2000.  Her life is somewhat unremarkable, apart from her literary abilities and her insider view on madness.  In the early 1980s she wrote a trilogy of autobiographies, and these Jane Campion made into a just shy of three hour film on her life, including her childhood, her time in an institution, and her growing fame as she lived in Europe, ending with her return to New Zealand.

Frankly, this brief overview doesn't sound too enthralling.  I mean, how many of us have even heard of Janet Frame?  I had never read or heard of a single one of her books coming to this film.  This isn't a film of deep drama, or of celebrity secrets, with no cameos.  It is as opposite to Hollywood as one can get.  And for that very reason, it is a fantastic film to watch.

Never have I seen such a biopic that is so homely, so everyday, full of everyday trivialities that make a life full. Janet isn't a beauty, and she is never portrayed as such, but she is so real and so she draws us in by her unique perspective on life and her determined reservation, despite all of her family and friends' efforts.  She lives in isolation, which makes her enjoyment of small pleasures almost explode upon the screen, and we can fully appreciate a box of chocolates or playing a record of powerful music in a way that we couldn't without her perspective.

Also, never have I seen a biopic that is so completely female.  This isn't about feminine power or feminism.  It is about being a woman, in a world only sparsely populated by men.  Women talk about and to women, with men taking a back seat, with a couple exceptions.  For a brief time, her first period takes center stage, but it quickly becomes commonplace, forgotten.  Just as it would be for any woman.  We see her mature as a woman before our eyes, not in a gorgeous artistic sense (like Green Papaya), but in a common sense that any woman would recognize.

And yet we are dealing with an uncommon woman.  Anxiety-ridden, nervous, socially awkward, and later diagnosed with schizophrenia and scheduled for a lobotomy, here is a woman who feels normal among family, but can never fit in anywhere else. This film isn't about a woman, but a woman battling with mental illness, and so is segregated and shunted aside, though no fault of her own.  At the same time, she is gloried and exalted for the writer she is becoming.  This yo-yo of shame and praise is dizzying and we see her resplendent, in her own unique way.

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