Bright Lights Film Journal

What’s “Natural” about “Naturalist” Cinema? On Andrea Arnold’s <em>Wuthering Heights</em> (2012)

“Director Arnold heightens the once-“natural” processes of life events such as birth and death by setting them outside, historically as if for the last time, before Western medicine and Victorian domesticity.”

The cinematographic excesses of British director Andrea Arnold’s 2012 adaptation of Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel (Arnold’s third feature, following Red Road and Fish Tank) are referred to by critics as gritty “naturalism” (Xan Brooks) and atmospheric “ultra-realism” (Michael Atkinson). To call Arnold’s film “realist” without further examination or qualification of the term is a troubling appellation, as it encourages an exclusively aesthetic perspective on the film’s historical and political content (an interrational relationship at the dawn of Industrialism). To say a visual or cinematic artwork is “naturalist” is, in contemporary criticism, to suggest a kind of hyperreality (e.g., photorealism). In the history of literary criticism, however, “naturalism” has traditionally denoted a classist perspective (and a bleak one, at that) into perceived reality.1 Defined in literary studies as the work of “appropriation, legitimization, the need to end representation, and the desire to represent,” “naturalist” typically refers to fiction that exaggerates the techniques of realism, sacrificing prose style and depth of characterization for an exhaustive description of the external, observable world.2 Rather than following a mimetic (or anti-mimetic) perspective of the relationship between nature and representation, naturalism, as a school, is characterized not by a disappearance of the frame or stylization of reality, but rather by a deterministic plot of decline or degeneration, where characters are crushed by the forces of a universe they can neither understand nor control, coupled with attention drawn to heroic (by modern standards) characters, and a focus on low culture, or the aspects of human experience conceived to be base or instinctual. Naturalist novels typically feature characters from the working class (in U.S. naturalism specifically), or, in Wuthering Heights, the agricultural class, set in an urban or industrial setting, rather than the exotic locales or aristocratic homes favored by adventure and romance fiction.

The real motive behind “natural” or “abstract” representations of nature, as Joseph Frank argues, is based on the degree of terror man feels in relation to his environment: native persons, for Frank, would hardly take pleasure in representing the world as they perceived it (formless chaos). The modernist drive to abstraction and the reduction of the pictorial field to linear-geometric forms can be seen, therefore, as an attempt to re-present a sense of order in the face of unharnessable forces. The return of the terms “realist” and “naturalist” does not extend to the contemporary literary arts: to call a film realist, in contemporary film criticism, is a reflection of its cinematographic effects and not its narrative, interpretation, or directorial intent, and, I argue, defines the history of film criticism: an approach to content vis-à-vis the “moving image” (form).

Emily Brontë refers to Heathcliff as “a dark-skinned gypsy in aspect” in the novel, set in the 1770s when the Africans of the British-run slave trade were being sent exclusively to British, Spanish, French, and Portuguese colonies in the Americas. Heathcliff’s very presence in the manor houses of Brontë’s novel represents a “violent invasion of the First World by the Third,” according to Atkinson. Whether Arnold’s subversive 19th-century costume drama “naturalizes” the interracial love story between Cathy and Heathcliff is a difficult question to put to a filmmaker, as “naturalism” describes the film’s form, or aesthetic (any film, for that matter, could ostensibly face charges of aestheticizing violence, as the human passions are presented visually through a film’s successive scenes).

While “beauty” can arguably be communicated and agreed upon universally, to an extent (as can “taste,” although subject to class and subjective responses) across mediums, suffering is untranslatable, because interior. Likewise, the motives for violence motivated by racism or xenophobia can be seen as “untranslatable” in visually dominant mediums (film, visual art, dance) and thus resistant to critical exegesis, as it is only in a text that an opposition can be created between signified and signifier, written trace and spoken origin, and a doubled subjectivity between “authorial” intent and interpretation.

Thinking of the word “natural” in a film critique as representative of life encourages a reader to understand the word “naturalism” to mean either true-to-life, or, alternately, as an attempt to “naturalize” an event or occurrence for political or aesthetic purposes. For example, “natural” labor conditions in an agrarian society were during the 1840s undergoing irreversible changes as a result of the Industrial Revolution: in 1847, the Ten Hours’ factory act was passed, which limited the working day in factories to ten hours for women and young people of both sexes aged 13-18. Heathcliff was adopted (and named) by Mr. Earnshaw during Earnshaw’s trip to Liverpool; his uncertain status as “adopted son” treated as a bonded laborer establishes the uneven and ultimately explosive relations of power, pleasure, and violence between him and Cathy, as 18th-century subjects created by an author of the Industrial Age, whose sexual vulnerability to the other is undercut by their larger sociopolitical vulnerabilities (gender, race). As what William Blake described as the “black satanic mills” of the Industrial Revolution overtook the landscape and labor force, the “naturalizing” script of heteronormativity (albeit racially subversive, in the novel Wuthering Heights, for Brontë’s time) would also, in the 20th century, be deconstructed as a hegemonic institution of its own.

“I hope you don’t take pleasure in this,” Mr. Earnshaw says to Heathcliff after Earnshaw punishes his son Hindley for his unchristian behavior toward Heathcliff. Before and after Earnshaw’s death, the power relationship between Heathcliff and Cathy takes place through Cathy serving as witness to Heathcliff’s subjugation (“Are you hurt?” she asks repeatedly) and her tending to his wounds. The possession of language (and by extension, literacy) is the other main source of difference between Heathcliff and Cathy: Cathy speaks (and sings) fluently, but Heathcliff’s language is mostly nonverbal and gestural. Heathcliff’s distance from logos is not an impediment to their shared understanding until Cathy entertains a marriage offer from Edgar Linton: when Heathcliff confronts her, she says “You never have anything to say,” comparing his company to that of a baby, to which Heathcliff retorts that “it never bothered her before.”

We learn about the formation of Heathcliff’s character from his actions, then, rather than his speech: often barricaded as punishment by Earnshaw, the viewer watches Heathcliff gazing out at Cathy, mute, from within his shadowy imprisonment. “Heathcliff’s interiority, conveyed visually (and intensified by his silence), thus renders his consciousness, feelings, and the motives for the violence he perpetrates on animals conjectural: we see him stab a goat, bludgeon a rabbit, and hang a dog by its neck on a fence-post. In one scene, the blood dripping from a game bird’s eye is mirrored in Heathcliff’s human tears, but beyond that connection between human suffering and Heathcliff’s will to inflict pain, Heathcliff’s violent bent is subsumed, in the film’s depiction of it, by his passion for Cathy, and not shown as a sign of aberrance or sadism.

What Cathy most desires to know when Heathcliff returns to the Earnshaw farm, having matured albeit with pain of separation from Cathy (“My life since I last heard your voice has been bitter”) is how he could part with the wild, wind-swept moors of mid-19th-century England, prior to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution—and, by metonymic extension, with her: “How could you have left this? How could you have left me?” she accuses, after pleasantries in the parlor of her home (she has since wed Linton). Forced to choose in the film’s denoument between passion and bourgeois stability, Cathy turns vitriolic. Refusing to flee with Heathcliff, she instead lashes out at her husband, telling Edgar his “veins are filled with ice” and inciting a duel between Heathcliff and Edgar.

Childbirth, love-making, and burial take place in a pastoral setting in the novel and the film: the film’s cyclical progression between these events occurring in the fields dissolves the boundary between inside and outside, nature and culture, as well as stilled and successive filmic time. Director Arnold heightens the once-“natural” processes of life events such as birth and death by setting them outside, historically as if for the last time, before Western medicine and Victorian domesticity. Time, like nature, unfolds naturally in a cinematic pastoral restaging, though for the purposes of a film, time compression is necessary (e.g., Arnold collapses the years of Heathcliff’s between subjugated youth and his return to Cathy as a monied gentleman).

In the first half of the film, the body parts of Heathcliff and Cathy visually represent their divisive class standings: the close-ups of Heathcliff’s whipped and scarred back juxtaposed with the scene of Cathy’s corseting; the clenched fist of violent blows juxtaposed with clenched fists holding chicken feed; and the theme, throughout, of cleanliness as delivered through religious baptism, which Heathcliff virulently resists in order to groom himself. The latter half of the film also “marks” the other’s body as a possession (eroticized early on when Cathy and Heathcliff engage in a mud fight), from slapping, to Cathy’s boot, to the final “seal” (financial) of ownership. The transactional seal of red wax denotes Heathcliff’s purchase of the Earnshaw property, a Pyrrhic victory for Heathcliff, predicated on a domino of deaths (Mr. Earnshaw, Cathy, Linton).

The HEA (Happily Ever After) and HFN (Happy for Now) conventions of cinematic closure on today’s romantic drama and romantic comedy are still prevalent in Hollywood today, in marked contrast to the doomed tragedy of Wuthering Heights. The contemporary penchant for tidy closure may be “realist,” as women’s ability to marry for love, or to choose between marriage and bonded labor, as well as women’s freedom to marry outside of their racial, ethnic, and religious background, increases. Arranged marriages, childhood brides, and sexual slavery continue in the developing world, however, and Hollywood’s easy wrap on the contractual, day-to-day reality of the complex institution of marriage, the division of labor, and the politics of child-rearing in all cultures renders illusory the “Happily Ever After” ending. It may be “natural” to fall in love, after all, but after that, a marriage commitment is not a natural but a lived commitment whose “success” is absolutely indexical to the effort, desire, and resources contributed by both persons.

If contemporary cinema is to undergo a critical deconstruction, it must begin with a reconsideration of critical filmic vocabulary. “Naturalist” is an anti-idealist philosophic category (referring to the writings of John Dewey, Ernest Nagel, Sidney Hook, and others who sought to ally philosophy with science rather than metaphysics, though traces of materialist philosophy date back to Aristotle and the Stoics) as well as an aesthetic category, whose history, in art, dates back earlier than literature, to the early Renaissance in painting (e.g., the Florentine School).

Since the 19th century, however, the term “naturalist” has described an aesthetic that did not indicate a mimetic representation of the world (“things as they are”) aesthetically, but an awareness that the intervention of the artist’s interpretation or point of view made even the most mimetic or indexical art (photography) impossible, for to take a photo of an object is to frame it, intentionally. Naturalist literature was anti-transcendent and determinist (Freudian, Darwinian, Marxist) on the level of theme (man cannot escape his conditioning by heredity, environment, and psychical drives) — in other words, not form.

Today, “naturalist” and “realist” are often applied without context in film criticism with regard to the film’s political or historical content (its “message” or content rather than its visual or formal construction). This aporetic judgment is akin to the evaluation of a film adaptation’s success or failure by its adherence or deviation from the “original” text, falsely assuming continuity or transferability between the mediums of fiction and film. The most significant break from the book to Andrea Arnold’s adaptation is the excising of the book’s closing chapters (the aftermath of Cathy’s death, after the deed to Wuthering Heights is signed over to Heathcliff). Yet, asking that a film be “faithful” to a novel is, in effect, to ask whether medium-specificity still holds in postmodernity: like conflating a persona with an author, or a character with an actor, asking a source text to be transliterated through filmic adaptations places us in the premodern order of mimetic representation, and is the last “undeconstructed” realism — that of spectatorship, not the art — of all.

  1. Naturalism in the literary arts was founded by French author Émile Zola (1840–1902), whose best-selling novels include L’assommoir (1877), Nana (1880), Germinal (1885), and La bête humaine (1890). Highly controversial in the period between realism (1830–1860) and the emergence of early forms of modernism at the end of the century, the widespread translation of Zola’s work gave him a global influence that led to the emergence of naturalist schools of art around the world, which led to Soviet countries development of “socialist realism,” not to be confused with social realism or socio-realist schools of art in Western European nations and the U.S., concerned not with Stalinist propaganda but conveying a message of social or political protest edged with satire. []
  2. Walter Benn Michaels, The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism: American Literature at the Turn of the Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), p. 26. []