Filled with echoes of Bill and Monica, The Governess takes the law and politics out of sex.
Alan A. Stone
The Governess is a film conceived and brought to life by women. The writer/director is Sandra Goldbacher, the celebrity star is Minnie Driver, and most of the other names that scroll down the screen are women's. The storyline includes an affair between a young Jewess and her middle-aged Christian employer--shades of Monica and Bill. But this is a coming-of-age story seen entirely from the young woman's point of view and almost self-consciously exploring women's issues. Though its text is the patriarchal world that appropriates a woman's self and deprives her of love and work, there is no ax-grinding or venom. This is a psychological inquiry that wants to understand, not to censure or impeach; it takes the law and politics out of sex.
The screenplay began as an attempt by Goldbacher to understand her own background: her father is an Italian Jew and her mother is a Scot from the Isle of Skye in the Hebrides. Goldbacher took an exotic leap back into British history circa 1840 and tried to create the diary of a young Sephardic woman, Rosina DaSilva, growing up in the insular Jewish community of London. When her father dies in debt she refuses to yield to a loveless marriage. To work and support her family she hides her Jewish identity and passes herself off as Mary Blackchurch, governess. An advertisement secures her a position with the Cavendish family on the Island of Skye. Rosina's premise, which proves true, is that these Scottish aristocrats, knee-jerk anti-Semites like almost everyone else in Christendom, would never take a Jewish woman into the bosom of their family. Goldbacher's imaginative draft of the impostor's diary became the screenplay, which intrigued Minnie Driver enough to commit to the film, Goldbacher's first.
Driver has made her career acting in independent films that hit the jackpot at the box office. She was the overweight Benny in Circle of Friends and the sexy Harvard pre-med in Good Will Hunting, for which she got an Oscar nomination. She is neither a conventional beauty nor the demure governess type, but with her unlikely mix of vulnerability and worldliness, she is box office. (Though Driver did not win the Oscar, MTV chose her and Matt Damon for their Best On-Screen Kiss award: she gave as good as she got.) Playing Goldbacher's governess may be a stretch for Driver--her character's development is the movie--but the director seems to have tailored the part to her talents.
Rosina is like a "back from the future" governess--with a lot of that Harvard pre-med student still in her, yet dropped as if by a time machine into the world of Jane Eyre. Goldbacher replicates many basic elements of Charlotte Brontë's romance: the aloof older man, his crazy wife, the fateful attraction between the employer and his virginal employee, the inevitable romantic outcome. The bright young woman's emotional-erotic submission to her intellectually superior father figure is a staple of nineteenth-century literature. Jane Austen does it in Emma, George Eliot in Middlemarch, Brontë in Jane Eyre. But the Freudian plot of the virginal young woman succumbing to her father fixation is not limited to great literature. It is endemic to Harlequin romances--sometimes thought to be the female equivalent of pornography. With its gothic twists (mother goes up in flames and heroine gets her father), the artful Jane Eyre version is the ultimate Freudian wish fulfillment: the sublimated sadomasochistic elements cause enough pain to pacify the super-ego while the id still gets what it wants.
Of course Brontë and her predecessors imagined all these Electra/Oedipal variations long before Freud reduced them to their unconscious meaning. But Goldbacher and Driver come after Bronte, after Freud, after late-twentieth-century feminism, and at the height of the Clinton/Lewinsky affair, when the Starr report gave a new spin to our national scandal by detailing Monica's assertive advances. The parallels between the intern in the Oval Office and the governess in the Cavendish household set off bells too loud for an audience to ignore. But our scandal is unfair to their movie. We are obsessed with sexual politics and the perversity of power: the professor hitting on his student, the psychiatrist on his patient, the employer on his employee, and of course the President on his intern. Even when the relationship is legalized, disdainful images of the "trophy wife" reflect our culture's judgment that there is something sick about the older man and younger woman. We are so obsessed with the perversity of power that we do not want to entertain the Freudian possibility that the trophy wife goes after what she wants and it is not just money, power, and status. Freud got a lot wrong about women and his answers were reductive, but Emma, Middlemarch, and Jane Eyre suggest that he was on to something in what he stubbornly calls the woman's "Oedipus Complex." Like these great novels written by women, The Governess unequivocally gives the Freudian answer to "What does an intelligent young woman want?" She wants her father as her lover and her mentor.
The passionate Rosina goes more than half-way to get her man. An uptight Scottish aristocrat-scientist with a dysfunctional wife (played brilliantly by Tom Wilkinson, the out-of-work supervisor in The Full Monty), Cavendish has thrown himself into his research. He is in a race to develop camera film that will produce lasting images, à la Daguerre of the Daguerreotype, and desperately retreats into his laboratory at all hours. There Rosina brazenly follows him.
The entire Cavendish family is somewhat crackpot. The strange wife (Harriet Walter) has pretensions of worldly sophistication and compulsively lies about invented trips to London. The son (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) is a male hysteric who has been sent down from Oxford for frequenting whores and opium dens, and the unpleasant daughter (Florence Hoath) greets her governess by putting dead creatures in her bed. The mother and her children, their hair parted in the middle and a crazed look on their faces, seem a medical textbook illustration of inbred insanity.
In Annie Hall, Woody Allen played this Jewish take on the crazy repressed gentile family for laughs. Goldbacher does it to justify Rosina's exploits--she seduces the father (whom she loves like a daughter), submits to the infatuated son (whom she pities like a mother), and waves the evidence in the wife's face when she leaves. The trick here is to get the audience to remain sympathetic to Rosina/Mary, who one-ups Freud and Brontë by taking on the son as well as the father: the film pulls it off. Thrown onto the scales along with the family's weirdness and knee-jerk anti-Semitism is Charles Cavendish's studied refusal to acknowledge that Rosina/Mary is responsible for their critical breakthrough in the laboratory. His unwillingness to take her seriously and give her credit as his collaborator galvanizes her to steal his camera lenses and head back to London for a career as one of the world's first portrait photographers.
Minnie Driver is in turn so vulnerable and so winning that throughout her sexual adventure one never has the impulse to condemn her. Nor does The Governess send you out of the theater hating Charles Cavendish for sexually exploiting this passionate young woman. It may not be true that to understand is to forgive, but psychological understanding does make it a lot harder to despise and condemn.
Goldbacher and Driver build a relentlessly Freudian understanding into the character of the governess. Her story begins in a London synagogue where the DaSilva family is worshipping. Rosina is a forward young woman who chats during prayer services, is less than shocked when a street prostitute flashes a naked breast, and wonders with her sister what semen tastes like. Rosina has an aunt (a predecessor of Sarah Bernhardt?) who has gone on the stage, but for the most part well-brought-up Jewish maidens, like their Christian counterparts, are limited by the patriarchal world to the fate afforded by marriage.
The psychology of Rosina's character is quickly established. This too-tall, too-cheeky, too-intelligent young woman is obviously the apple of her father's eye. He has seen to it that she is well-educated. She shares his humor and love of life, and, like many bright and assertive women who are stuck on their fathers, she identifies with him, and puts off suitors who are not up to his standard. Suddenly her beloved father is killed in the streets where apparently he had another secret non-Jewish life. He leaves his family with unexpected debts-and no dowry for Rosina. Her mother can think of no better solution than to marry Rosina off to an old and ugly but secure fishmonger. The high-spirited young Jewess, like all her Christian sisters, is to be cheated out of a life. Rather than accept this fate Rosina becomes Mary Blackchurch and embarks on her great adventure in Scotland.
The idea of the film is that underneath her brash and bold exterior there is a homesick little girl still grieving for her lost father. Mary/Rosina's growing attachment to the dour Charles Cavendish and his research is punctuated by flashbacks to intimate times with her fun-loving father. The Freudian father-substitution overtones of her love affair are made unmistakable. But the director and Minnie Driver have added a liberated-woman dimension to the governess.
Unlike the patient and passive heroines Jane Austen made famous, Rosina is portrayed as an active participant in her seduction. "Passive" is the most troubling word in Freud's lexicon on femininity. Even Freud's chosen disciple on female psychology, Helene Deutsch, struggled with the term and concluded that sexually mature women were actively passive. However you parse it, the active-passive distinction goes to the core of sexual politics and Minnie Driver's governess is an activist. When her employer's hand lingers on her bare foot she lifts her dress to reveal her ankle. And they progress up her leg to her loins with her leading the way by further revealments--not what the statutory language of sexual harassment calls "unwelcome" advances.
When movies were dominated by male directors, audiences saw sex predominately from a male perspective. The ultimate reductionist interpretation was that filmmakers were voyeurs, feasting on the naked bodies of women with their cameras. Often the director and his leading lady had a Svengali-Trilby relationship off the screen as well as on, and their films explored the mysterious sexuality of the woman from the man's point of view (Von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullman, Frederico Fellini and Guilietta Masina, Zhang Yimou and Gong Li). The advent of women directors offered the prospect of seeing sex on the screen from a different perspective. But most of the celebrated women filmmakers of the 1970s gave sex a familiar Freudian sadomasochistic spin. Lisa Wertmuller, the first woman director to be nominated for an Oscar, made films like Swept Away in which a woman's passion is ignited by brutality. The brilliant Marguerite Duras made sex and masochism synonymous. Agnieska Holland struck the same chord in 1985 for her Oscar-nominated Bitter Harvest, and it still rings in Jane Campion's 1993 Piano.
A feminine perspective on sexuality in films has now emerged, however, and The Governess illustrates it. There are the obvious reversals; we are shown beautiful naked men instead of naked women. The woman is in control and takes the initiative. But even more interesting is the "naturalism." Instead of sex as the great mystery freighted by taboos it becomes a natural, guiltless act. Love may still be a mystery but sex is not. Sex without guilt does not require sadomasochism to appease the super-ego. Following the active-passive reversal of the film, Rosina is more voyeur than exhibitionist and while her lover Cavendish is asleep she completely undresses him and secretly photographs his naked body. This memento becomes the evidence for her revenge on the Cavendish family. First however she will have sex with the son.
The Governess repays sustained consideration. Goldbacher not only presents these reversals and differences, she and Driver are both superb psychologists who know what their audience will be thinking. Cavendish's son discovers that Mary Blackchurch is a Jewess and threatens to expose her unless she has sex with him. The governess of course refuses the male power play and is equally unimpressed by his hysterical declarations of love. Then the son comes to her room at night expecting, we think, to force himself on her. Rosina has become disenchanted with the father but is in no mood to be forced into a masochistic surrender. Contrary to our expectations, she becomes the active partner, commanding the young man to take off his clothes so she can look at him. When he submits to her control she takes pity and embraces him. The next morning he is the one who is mad for love while she is packing up to leave. Then, proudly reassuming her Jewish identity, she intrudes on the family dinner to present the dotty wife with the photograph of her naked husband--perhaps the first such photograph ever taken, according to the storyline.
There is no "happy ever after" ending for the governess. Charles Cavendish later turns up in her photography studio and when he pointedly says he is putting himself in her hands she rejects him. Empowerment and self-respect are more important than a man's love, career more vital than marriage in this ending of the story. It is increasingly the conclusion reached in women's films and in their lives.
Because Goldbacher makes us understand the governess and Cavendish in all their vulnerable humanity, we leave the theater sympathizing with her and feeling sorry for him. One has to imagine a special prosecutor doing the legal-political version of this narrative to understand how the real world becomes an obscene imitation of art.