Sunday, 10 June 2012

Bright Star's Beautiful Problem

Let me begin by saying that Bright Star, the 2009 Jane Campion film about John Keats' paramour Fanny Brawne, is beautiful.  Gorgeous! It is lush and full and just dripping with color and light and sound and evocative sets and awe-inspiring clothing. Butterflies flit, flower petals unfurl, curtains rustle, petticoats whisper, floorboards creak and groan.

But what is the lesson of Bright Star? A woman's life is over if the man she's in love with dies. The historical Fanny Brawne, 20 when Keats died, went on to marry and have children and live a fairly long life in apparent comfort and happiness after his premature death. The movie, however, ends with her getting the news, donning a black dress and wandering around Hampstead reciting Keats' poetry aloud to herself. She never took off the ring he'd given her, the ending narrative titles tell us, suggesting that she never got over losing him. There's nothing wrong with that, in and of itself; no one ever really recovers from the death of a loved one. But what the film is implying is that she wandered around in her black dress, reciting his poetry to herself for the rest of her life.  That that was it; his death was the final event of her life as well. Campion doesn't present this as a tragedy but as something provocative and inherently beautiful. Something, perhaps, that the audience should applaud as aesthetically correct as well as emotionally honest. Keats died in poverty and believing himself a failure; it is only appropriate that the woman who loved him and understood his true genius should be unable to live a normal life after he's gone. ...Right?

That's my main complaint with Bright Star, but there are others. Bechdel Test?  Failed. Fanny has no friends, only hangs out with her relatives, and only talks about Keats. She is, we're told over and over at the beginning of the film, a great flirt. But Abbie Cornish plays her as a mean, spiteful brat; there's no delight or merriment or, you know, sexually-charged teasing in the way she interacts with men. Then Fanny meets John and becomes enamored of him – and increasingly more self-absorbed and more self-serious, the harder she falls for him. This is, I take it, supposed to be the character's journey from girl to woman (which: barf). What it reads as, though, is her entire identity becoming bound up in her feelings for Keats. Yes, she's 18 when she meets him, and yes he's her first love, and yes that's a pretty fair approximation of how 18-year-olds act. But the problem is, again, this:  that's what the movie is about. She never grows up. The film itself stops, so that we aren't subjected to the misery of watching Fanny move on into her happy and comfortable adulthood. We never see Fanny become an adult and learn to take pleasure from life despite its disappointments and compromises and tragedies and losses. Her evolution comes crashing to a close at the nadir of her self-absorbed, self-serious bullshit and then treats that end like the of apotheosis of womanhood.  We should not only sympathise with but applaud Fanny for failing to grow up and get on with her life, the movie tells us, because her first love happened to be a tormented and misunderstood genius – and also the flapping curtains and rustling petticoats and creaking floorboards and look, how pretty! Another shot of beautiful people drifting through verdant forests! Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!

The film only ever really comes to life when Paul Schneider's Charles Brown takes the screen; he is the only actor to bring any real charisma to his role, and his relationships with Keats and Fanny demonstrate the only real emotional depth of the entire movie.  Schneider's Brown is not a great man or a great poet, but a good man and a loyal friend, and Schneider took a thankless role (the film's closest thing to a villain besides the tubercles baccilli, because he thinks Keats should be writing poetry instead of mooning about after some girl), and imbued it with real depth and pathos.  Although I do have to congratulate Kerry Fox, playing Fanny's long-suffering mother, for the one great scene where she's forced to sweep up hundreds of dead and dying butterflies, victims of one of Fanny's emotional crises. This is perhaps the only moment in the entire movie that deals honestly with Fanny's youth and thoughtlessness and carelessness, and how they affect the people around her. (Despite the fact that the butterflies – which we're shown Fanny and her sister collecting in the Hampstead fields –  are all indigenous to tropical rainforests, not northwest London.) For the most part, however, the film not only invites its audience to applaud all the stupid, selfish, self-absorbed crap in which teenagers in love drown themselves, but to lionize it as some sort of ultimate, pure, and truest-of-the-true expression of love.

Am I sorry I watched Bright Star? No. Will I ever watch it again? Probably not. It isn't that Bright Star is a terrible movie, or an unsuccessful movie – it's not; it does, I think, accomplish what it sets out to do. It's just that what it sets out to do is so irritating.


  1. Bonjour Archie ,
    Je suis française et m'exprimer par écrit en anglais est un peu difficile et risquerait d'être aussi un peu " ridicule" , aussi , j'espère que vous comprenez le français comme je comprends l'anglais lorsque je le lis !
    Votre analyse du film de Jane Campion me semble tellement juste !!!!
    Je n'arrivais pas jusqu'alors à exprimer ceci , mais c'est exactement ce qui m'a dérangée lorsque j'ai vu ce film .
    Je l'aimais et ne l'aimais pas , et cela en même temps !!!
    Cette parfaite esthétique du film est un bonheur de chaque instant , mais la désespérance permanente qui règne dans chaque plan est une torture !!
    Je vous remercie de m'avoir aidée à comprendre mieux ce que je ressentais pour ce film .
    Catherine Deslandes

  2. Thank you for commenting! I'm glad to know I'm not the only person who felt this way about the film, which I often see being praised to the skies on Tumblr. Ah, well.