film criticism by maryann johanson | celebrating 25 years: 1997–2022
The patriarchal bullshit of the world drives women crazy. This is as true today as it was in 1892, when feminist author Charlotte Perkins Gilman published her best-known work, short story “The Yellow Wallpaper.” It is the tale, told in the form of diary entries, of a woman descending into apparent psychotic madness after her doctor-husband prescribes a socially isolating, intellectually stultifying “rest cure” during a bout of what we would recognize today as postpartum depression. (Gilman based the story on her own experiences after giving birth.)
An incisive film adaptation of this groundbreaking story — one that captures the quiet horror of how the world has in the past and still today fails to acknowledge that women have inner lives that need nurturing — would be very welcome. This is not that movie. This is a stiflingly literal mounting of Gilman’s words that lacks any appreciation of both the wider cultural context in which those words were written and the narrow literary conceit of the story’s unreliable narrator.
New mother Jane (Alexandra Loreth) and her husband, John (Joe Mullins), are traveling, as the film opens, by horse-drawn coach to the remote country house they’ve rented for the summer, for her rest cure. There’s a moment here — notably, perhaps, before Jane will narrate the words that open Gilman’s story — that is truly shocking, that dramatizes her psychological turmoil, that illustrates how her needs are not only not prioritized but not even seen… and it’s the only moment in the entire film that can be said to be truly interpretative of Gilman’s work.
From there, director Kevin Pontuti — who cowrote the script with Loreth, both making their feature debuts — offers a depiction of Jane’s worsening mental condition that is flat and stilted, that provides no visceral insight into what Jane is thinking or feeling; there is emptiness where there should be empathy. When she says “there’s something wrong with this room,” the bedroom John insists they take as their own, Pontuti gives us nothing to help us experience it through her eyes. The ugly yellow paper on the walls is just ugly wallpaper, and Loreth’s vacant staring at it merely vacant stares. Later, Jane’s insistence that there is a mystery woman behind the wallpaper fails to rise to any level of metaphorical stand-in for herself, never mind any overtly delusional one. There’s barely text here, much less subtext. Worse, there’s no atmosphere to Jane’s flavorless moroseness, and if the discordant score is perhaps meant to remedy that, it does not.
Gilman’s story is full of ironic, subtextual stings that undercut, in harrowing ways, its protagonist’s talk of her husband’s attentions — or lack thereof, really — to her plight. None of that has been translated to the screen here, and John comes across as authentically solicitous of Jane’s condition; even her voiceover thoughts such as “He thinks it’s nonsense” — her work as a writer, that is — “and likely the cause of my problems” are rendered as, perhaps, more delusion on her part, or, more generously, mere misunderstanding.
Gilman’s story is quite brief; you can read it online. But you don’t need to have read it to see that something essential is missing in this mounting of it. If Pontuti and Loreth want to focus this exclusively on Jane’s psychosis, all but ignoring the extreme, infantilizing misogyny that is behind it, then cinematic lethargy is exactly the opposite of what was needed. Sadly, the ambition of The Yellow Wallpaper is beyond its artistry.
more films like this:
• Shirley [Prime US | Prime UK | Hulu US | Netflix UK | Apple TV] • Fanny Lye Deliver’d [Prime US | Prime UK | Apple TV]“and it’s the only moment in the entire film that can be said to be truly interpretative of Gilman’s work.”
What is it? I understand you don’t want to put a spoiler in the review. But maybe you could put it here in the comments – maybe so that you have to highlight it to see it, if you like that better?
I think this is the first American feature-length film of this story, so at least there’s that. Charlotte Gilman was American you know.
I know that Gilman was American, and that this film is by Americans, but I don’t see how that makes any difference.
As for the interpretive moment I mentioned, it’s this:
there were at least two other film adaptations of The Yellow Wallpaper, and i know i saw at least one of them, perhaps back in the 80s. On PBS perhaps… but i don’t think either were “american” adaptations.
Given that so much of the story takes place in the head of the main character, maybe a cinematic adaptation was doomed to fail. Movies can do a lot of things, but there’s only so much they can do when it comes to immersion. Literature can play on all senses, but movies are limited to sight and sound. Though maybe I’m totally wrong, and there’s a way this story could have been made to work.