Duration: 114 minutes
Country: USA, 2002
Director: Stephen Daldry
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore,
Meryl Streep, Stephen Dillane,
My wife seems very surprised and perhaps even insulted whenever I mention that today's society appears to internalize so deeply the feminist creed about women's identity problems in a male-dominated environment that nobody seems to care about (or even believe in the existence of) men's own identity problems. We have reached a point where it is not difficult to find articles and books about the difficulties women have to go through in order to manager both a career and a family. However, as if nothing had changed between the 1950s and today, as if men had not been progressively taking more and more responsibilities at home, nobody seems to care about our own problems to manage both work and the family. It is as if we have replaced one form of dogma with another, instead of accepting reality for what it is, a multidimensional prism with far too many colors, approaches and idiosyncracies to fit a single set of theories. All this came up to my mind right after watching The Hours, for it is yet another good movie that portraits the intimate problems that affect many gifted women in a society that prefers to pigeonhole the individuals in clearly separated groups with functions to perform. My problem is not so much that movies like The Hours exist at all, but rather that none exists to depict men's similar problems, for we are human beings too, and we also feel that some of our dreams failed miserably in a society that forces us to deal with more pressing and trivial matters. It is this form of universal appeal that I miss, this aiming straight for the human heart (and not the feelings of this or that other sex) that I think is lacking. Could it be that there is no market? Could it be that men truly are only interested in action movies, military heroes and spectacular explosions? Well, it could, but I have the feeling that the movie industry is just doing things the way they know, walking the same old, familiar and profitable roads, instead of venturing to the scary wilderness of a new world where perhaps (just perhaps) men also have feelings, and depressions, and highs and lows, hopes, doubts and memories to cherish.
Said that, The Hours is a fine movie. It is based on Michael Cunningham's The Hours, itself a a very sui generis interpretation of Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf (read review here. Back in 1951, a pregnant housewife, Laura Brown, is preparing a birthday party for her loving husband but cannot put Woolf's book away. Her story is intertwined with that of Clarissa Vaughn, a modern woman preparing a party for her friend, a writer who is dying of AIDS, and sketches of Virginia Woolf's own life with her husband while she was writing the book around 1923. The first two stories come together in a surprising end, but Woolf's book (and therefore its main spirit) is what unites them. While Clarissa Vaughn is a clear alter ego of Woolf's Clarissa Dalloway, Laura Brown is more of the overall spirit of the book: a brilliant, sensible woman who might be able to enjoy a successful career in our days, is pretty much condemned to be just a housewife in the 1950s. To all those who spread a nostalgic view of life in 1950s America, Laura's life is like a wake-up call, for back then the only choice a woman like her had was to rebel against society and become stigmatized or simply submit herself to the social mores and live an uneventful life serving her husband. That's precisely Laura's struggle (not to talk about her lesbian attraction towards a friend who feels just as unhappy because she cannot have a child), which compels her to do something drastic, something that helps her escape from her anodyne life. But this is also, I think, one of the movie's weaknesses. Laura briefly considers suicide, and then gives up. What does she end up doing? If she cannot live her boring life as a 1950s housewife and is not able to commit suicide either, what else can she do? Laura chooses to leave her family behind (including her son) and disappear. The only problem I have with this choice is that her suffering does not appear to amount to that much. In other words, does a boring life justify leaving your child behind just like that, without any explanation, without even trying to change anything, without first attempting to at least communicate your pain to your partner? There is something surreal about this decision. Something that makes it unbelievable. I know I can be accused of not being sensitive towards women's problems and feelings, but it just strikes me as a bourgeois storm in a teacup. The way I see it, it is just a flaw in the story.
But how does Clarissa Vaughan fare? After all, she is a contemporary woman, one who is not pigeonholed into a the role of a housewife. Even more, being surrounded as she is by a more permissive society, she can afford living a lesbian relationship in the open. And yet, she is not much happier either. She has also managed to lead an uneventful life, wholly centered and dependent on her beloved friend, for whom she is organizing a party. Just like Mrs. Dalloway, her life seems to be quite empty and her obsession with the party comes across as very trivial. Could it be that men are not to blame for all of women's problems, after all? This is precisely what I was pointing out at the very beginning. Ever since the 1960s there has been some interest in re-interpreting most existential problems as a direct consequence of racial, sexual or social issues, but it may be time to take another approach and realize that, in the end, we face these problems as individuals. After all, that is the root of existentialism itself, and if there is something to learn from Sartre, Camus and company is precisely that. All characters in this movie appear to lead well ordered and fulfilling lifes, at least publicly, but to them they look nothing but trivial. And who did not feel that way at least once in his or her life, regardless of social class, education, nationality, religion or gender? Let us be honest. Existential angst is not the patrimony of women, but of any human being who is old enough to realize that the future does not belong to him anymore and that the end is approaching fast.
Director Stephen Daldry manages to set a very lyrical, melancholic mood to the whole movie that ends up sinking into our own souls as we watch. It is definitely not a happy movie, but rather a work full of despair, almost depressing, and yet very poetic. The way he links the three stories is just impressive, letting us flow from one to the other thread without any effort. As for the actresses involved in the movie (Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore and Meryl Strep), they do an excellent work too, offering a very restrained, mesurate interpretation, instead of overdoing the emotionally charged characters. Altogether, The Hours is a great movie, but do not expect anything close to mainstream Hollywood in spite of the big names, for this is more of an intimate movie, based more in feelings, emotions and moods than in plots.