Color, 1981, 123m.
Directed by Karel Reisz
Starring Meryl Streep, Jeremy Irons, Lynsey Baxter, Hilton McRae, Emily Morgan, Charlotte Mitchell, Peter Vaughan, Leo McKern
Criterion (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC), MGM (DVD, worldwide), Koba (Blu-ray & DVD) (France RB/R2 HD/PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
An unlikely public success as both a book and a screen adaptation, The French Lieutenant's Woman began life in 1969 as a novel by John Fowles, using his dense knowledge of Victorian literature to create a postmodern look at the era through a complex relationship between an abandoned woman and her engaged suitor. Fowles's tricky use of narrative voice and innovative literary devices had challenged filmmakers before, with William Wyler's The Collector telescoping its dual narrators into a chilling tale of claustrophobic terror and Fowles himself stumbling with his own adaptation of The Magus into an ill-fated film by Guy Green. However, this particular novel was widely deemed unfilmable for over a decade as it passed through several backers and potential directors, with challenges ranging from its extensive footnotes and modern narrator to its use of three endings. Director Karel Reisz, who had scored critical hits with his last two films (The Gambler and Who'll Stop the Rain), came up with a novel idea of tackling the problem: by framing the story within the novel as a film being made by two actors whose own experience of bringing this same book to life provides a modern perspective on the unfolding events. The concept was seized upon by screenwriter Harold Pinter, who was no stranger to tackling challenging literary source material thanks to The Last Tycoon a few years earlier.
One afternoon while out strolling with his fiancee, Ernestina, biologist Charles Smithson (Irons) is transfixed by a lonely figure in a hooded cloak standing out at the edge of the turbulent ocean: Sarah (Streep), a former governess who has been deemed a melancholiac and a "French lieutenant's whore" after an unseemly relationship eighteen months ago. Charles later follows her to the woods where she spends solitary afternoons and offers a friendly ear, which turns into a series of encounters in which she reveals the full circumstances of her past and the fragile nature of her position in local society. An inappropriate misstep in the town of Lyme Regis can result in disaster, with the elderly in particular holding harsh, unflinching attitudes about the animalistic nature of life in the streets. Gradually Charles tries to unravel whether Sarah is really in love with the idea of being tormented or whether there's a deeper issue at work, and the influence of Sarah turns out to have long-standing consequences on his own personal life. Interspersed with this story is its creation as a film by actors Anna and Mike (Streep and Irons as well), who are having an affair and offering a different angle on the characters as revelations about them dovetail with the tumultuous story of Sarah and Charles.
Seen today, The French Lieutenant's Woman feels like a strikingly contemporary film with a sophisticated grasp of the creative process and narrative voice that compares favorably to later experiments like Adaptation, which also starred Streep. Still very young and at the start of her career here, Streep had just scored an Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer and had to undertake two challenging roles, proving up to the task and then some. Her body language is especially compelling here as he plays Sarah with a nervous physicality, swinging around trees and bedposts and seeming to collapse in on herself while wearing that signature robe (the central image of the film's marketing campaign). Theater and TV actor Irons was also still green at the time, though he would take off the same year in TV's Brideshead Revisited; this would also mark the middle of a sort of unofficial Pinter trilogy for him in between a BBC version of Langrishe Go Down and 1983's superb Betrayal, which is maddeningly difficult to see now. The cast is rounded out with an impressive cast of veteran character actors including Peter Vaughan, the colorful Leo McKern, Richard Griffiths, and even a cameo for David Warner in the film's bitterest scene. On top of that you get beautiful cinematography by the great Freddie Francis and a full-blooded symphonic score by Carl Davis (Frankenstein Unbound, The Rainbow), both of which help create a haunting atmosphere that lingers long after the closing credits.
The most controversial aspect of the production, the film-within-a-film trick, was a fairly new concept in American filmmaking at the time and had only been given a rigorous workout one year earlier in Richard Rush's The Stunt Man, with Andrzej Zulawski adopting a similar method as this three years later with La Femme Publique. However, none of those quite take the same approach as the one seen here, with the two narratives fusing together at the end as a sort of cinematic answer to the puzzle of the novel's ending(s). More interestingly, the Victorian story and the modern one never really intrude on one another (unless you count the clapboard in the opening shot), creating some ambiguity about whether we are in fact watching the exact film being made. The bulk of the modern story is limited to the two actors, who essentially offer a running commentary on the film before that concept quite existed, and only gradually do crew members and other actors intrude on the action for a climactic garden party. The cumulative effect is fascinating, creating a sort of mirror effect that enhances the main drama of the story rather than distancing the viewer from it. As an adaptation it also remains one of the more audacious gambles in movie history; in the wrong hands, the whole thing could have exploded disastrously. Interestingly, the changes from the novel are generally sound ones but the choice to omit a crucial undelivered letter creates an entirely different level of ambiguity for Sarah's character than what existed on the printed page. The decision to drop this (admittedly overused) bit of Victorian plot manipulation is a tantalizing one that gives the happier of the two resolutions an eerie, mysterious quality in retrospect.
Released by United Artists in 1981 with a fairly ridiculous R rating (probably given solely for Irons's off-color joke about prostitution statistics and the general theme of adultery), The French Lieutenant's Woman has been readily available on home video ever since with its visual adapting fairly well to the small screen. Though it received significant media coverage at the time (including numerous magazine covers and critical studies), not to mention a handful of BAFTAs and Golden Globes, it has become strangely overlooked in recent years, much like Fowles's novels in general. That state of affairs will hopefully be redressed by the Criterion edition on both Blu-ray and DVD, following international DVD editions from MGM and one prior Blu-ray release in France (initially an exclusive to FNAC chain stores). The new 2K-scan transfer seen here is an improvement over the older HD master used for that French version and broadcasts on MGM HD; the film grain is tighter and more detailed, dark scenes more depth, and on the whole it's hard to imagine how it could look much better. Equally impressive is the LPCM mono audio (with optional English subtitles), which sounds more robust than the DVD by a long shot with able support for Davis's score.
The extras are all very worthwhile but presented in a peculiar order, so you may want to hop around as your mood takes you. First is a 20-minute overview by Ian Christie with a discussion of how the daunting project finally went before the cameras and how Reisz and Pinter went about tackling the dual narrative aspects of the script. Then you get to hear from the three main authorial voices courtesy of a 1981 episode of The South Bank Show (51 mins.) with Fowles, Reisz, and Pinter all interviewed at length. The Fowles material is the rarest and most rewarding as the famously reclusive late author goes into great detail about how he was inspired to write the original novel (citing an image from the French novel Ourika as a pivotal creative spark) and where the book fits in with his own complicated views on the Victorian era. Up next is a new half-hour featurette containing new interviews with Streep, Irons, and editor John Bloom, who share their own memories of the production from perspectives very different from those heard elsewhere on the disc. Streep is engaging as always talking about her choice to adopt an English accent of indeterminate class for the character of Sarah and her awe at the forest locations chosen near Exeter, while Irons shares his own thoughts on being a relatively new actor at the time chosen instead of a big star (which seemed more natural for the source material) and Bloom praises both of the performers for offering him a wealth of goodies from which to choose when assembling the final cut. Then Davis (now the most famous name for composing new scores for silent films) appears for a 21-minute chat about his working relationship with Reisz and the enduring appeal of what remains his most famous work composed directly for the screen. In addition to the theatrical trailer (which makes the film seem much more overheated and melodramatic than it really is), the package also includes a fold-out insert with an essay about the film's impact and gender commentary by Lucy Bolton.