This “sensitive” film prefers its women dead – metaphorically or literally
What happens when a film about women tries to force us to the conclusion that the thinking woman, or the sensitive woman, or the creative woman’s only or best choice is death?
In the first scene of The Hours, the newly proboscis-ed Nicole Kidman, playing the British writer Virginia Woolf, fills the pockets of her coat with rocks and proceeds to walk into a river. Later in the film, Richard (Ed Harris), a gaunt, haggard, disease-ravaged poet defenestrates himself before the eyes of his best friend and former lover, the achingly frustrated Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep), who loves this man for reasons she can’t fully understand, and whose life is pathetically fueled tending to his decrepit existence. Another character in the film, the beautiful but languorous Laura Brown, (Julianne Moore), toys with suicide too, going to a hotel room in the middle of the day and fixating on a collection of sleeping pills. Laura does not take the pills, but as she sleeps at the hotel, her dream is that she drowns, engulfed by the same river that swallowed Woolf. Laura chooses to stay alive, but her alter ego in a novel written by her son Richard commits suicide, and in Mrs. Dalloway, the book that inspired The Hours, the poet dies too.
The preponderance of death in The Hours would on the surface make it seem like a postmodern Shakespearean tragedy. But while it is a moving, emotional and passionate film, it is grounded in a perverse moral order. It offers an exploration of a world bereft of any affirmation of life itself, a world where any possibility of happiness comes only with the rejection of the substantial ordinariness of life. The subversive message in The Hours is: Life is only worthwhile if it is fiercely exhilarating and intoxicating, and death is to be preferred over an existence that in any way fails to match this measure. In the world of the film, blessed ordinariness – love, affection, security, and routine – is death, while madness, that is, meanness or an exclusive and sadistic regard for one’s own interests, is life.
For that reason, it is difficult to think of The Hours as a women’s film, for the women in it find their escape from the ordinary through others’ pain. It is a film that calls on us to celebrate women who act on base instinct, ostentatiously abandoning the everydayness they are encumbered with, and searching for salvation only in choices that remove them from the simple things in life. This rejection of the so-called ordinary appears to fortify these women, giving them a feeling of entitlement to something different and better. The film conveniently sanitizes the hideous consequences of these choices, by exhorting us to admire women who achieve a self-awareness that is constructed from the wreckage of others’ emotions, and an obsequious servitude to their own impulses.
Much has been made of the structure of The Hours, which seamlessly intersects the lives of three different women living in three different times and places. (Virginia Woolf, a 1940s British writer; Laura Brown, a 1950s housewife from Anytown, USA; and book editor Clarissa Vaughan, a 1990s New York sophisticate.) The movie seems anxious to make the point that the differences between these women are superficial, that their inner turmoil transcends generations, just as their outer lives mirror each other’s. No character in The Hours does anything that is not repeated at least once by one other character. Every gesture – even small, seemingly insignificant ones like putting hair up in a pin, cracking eggs against a bowl, or waking to an alarm clock – has its counterpart in the other woman’s life. Each character lives a life that is somehow reflected in the lives of the characters that come before or after, and is further echoed in the lives of the fictional characters in the novels that the movie references (Mrs. Dalloway and the novel written by Richard Brown).
All women’s lives are alike; such is the obvious subtext of the film. The similitude of trivialities throughout the film only underscores the sameness of the weightier issues the women face – all are adrift with a general ennui, their days fraught with anxiety at not being understood, and their hours filled with unhappiness at the status quo. Performing the many simple tasks that fill up their lives (and the lives of the women who came before them) only serves to keep the true meaning of life and the promise of grand existence somehow out of reach.
“He (Richard) gave me that look … to say ‘You’re trivial, your life is so trivial’,” says Clarissa, sinking to the floor. “And when I’m not (with him), yes, things seem kind of silly.” For Laura Brown, life is an odious collection of household chores (baking cakes, chauffeuring children) that serve a man in whom she has no interest. Laura’s listlessness, her paucity of language (she speaks in short, clipped and sometimes unfinished sentences) gives a sense of a somnambulating woman, doped (in Woolf’s words) by the “suffocating anesthetic of the suburbs.” Her only satisfaction comes not from her loving child or doting husband, but from reading Mrs. Dalloway on the sly, which delivers the subconscious message that all is not well in the Brown household because Dan bought flowers for Laura, instead of Laura buying them herself, as Mrs. Dalloway decided to do. Virginia too finds the necessities of life, (such as eating, being coherent and not talking to herself) an annoyance, and Richmond, the pleasant suburb she lives in, a bucolic hell. “If it is a choice between Richmond and death, I choose death,” she tells Leonard.
In fact, all the characters in the film feel so strongly about the agony of ordinary existence, and find their lives so asphyxiating, that escape, in whatever form it takes, becomes their oxygen. The film presents these escapes, which include suicide (Virginia, Richard), abandoning children (Laura), and martyrdom (Clarissa), as primal acts coming from a place that leaves the characters with no other alternative. “What is it to regret when you have no choice?” asks Brown. Regret is scorned by those who operate on higher levels of consciousness as these women purportedly do. They act without remorse, and in so doing, they enter into the heady Elysium of grand existence. No more cracking eggs for them! No more pesky children or adoring husbands! No more of those irritating family responsibilities that rob women of valuable reading time! Life is now going to be experienced in full platonic richness that ordinary reality can never aspire to.
The film wholeheartedly rejects ordinariness, offering in its place heinous cruelty and death, masquerading as self-realization. It presents as tragic anything most people take for granted as being the bedrock of functional existence. Thus in the world of the film, conventional marriage to a man increases a woman’s sense of isolation and loneliness, and emotional bonding is only achieved through communing with other women – hence the Sapphic undertones of the movie and the tender lesbian kisses that all three women have. The film purports, dubiously, that these lesbian eruptions offer the women a far deeper connection than their husbands can, since marriage in The Hours is a prison presenting nothing to women who have aspirations beyond baking cakes and planning parties, and the only salvation comes from leaving it.
Therefore, Laura and Virginia walk gently away from their marriages blithely unaware of the wreckage their absence causes, and Clarissa chooses not to marry, and to mother a daughter who has no father. Laura, who asks for no absolution but achieves it anyway, is the “Mommie, Dearest” of this film. She neatly dispenses with her children but feels no culpability for her son’s suicide and preceding madness. In the lead-up to his suicide, Richard is filmed staring out the window in painful contemplation of the other time he had stared out the window as a child, his little face crumpled with hurt, his fists banging in futility at glass that won’t produce his mother. As Richard tumbles through the feral rampages bought about by his illness, his mother’s wedding photograph is a reminder of the serenity that could have been, a contrast in absentia of the ordinary life his mother left behind, and the consequences of the “better” existence she chose for herself. Laura’s abuse is not that she beat her children with coat hangers or starved them- –rather, she simply chose life without them, failing to understand that they could not live without her. Her quest to find herself only assured that her children would not be able to find themselves, and if anyone was pushing Richard out of that window, it was she.
Yet, because Laura opted out of a life of ordinariness, the film rather speciously portrays this delayed subliminal infanticide as an act of virtue. Laura is not a “monster” but a warm, lovely, and considerate woman. Her choice to leave her family removed the languor in her life, replacing it with a smoothly confident sense of self, and for this she is rewarded at the end of the film by hospitality from Clarissa and a hug from Clarissa’s daughter Julie (played by Claire Danes). These characters achieve an empathy with Laura, somehow understanding that life really is too hard for a woman whose husband and children love her too much, and the only suitable course of action is abandonment.
Similarly, Leonard’s love for Virginia – a simple, protective, almost paternal emotion – is no match for her ferocious desire to be swallowed up by life. She salivates over “the violent jolt of the capital,” and needs intense stimulation to fuel her existence. Although the film is bookended by her suicide, it is not a deranged Woolf who drowns herself, but a woman with a clear vision of the moral worth of the purpose she intends; in her words, “Someone has to die in order that the rest of us shall value life more.” Although Woolf’s mental illness is alluded to, the film’s attitude to it is ambivalent. The voices that we ought to perceive as a malignancy are shown in the film as forces that will improve her novel. When Leonard accuses the voices in her head of making her want to move to London, we reject him and endorse Virginia’s self-identification, “It is me, It is my voice. It is mine and mine alone.” Virginia needs life; that is what is missing from her neuron connectors, and neither Leonard nor Richmond can offer it to her.
This is why the film portrays Virginia’s suicide as an act of discrimination and judgment, not derangement. Like Laura’s abandonment, her death is the only possible response to a life that would otherwise be plagued with ordinariness. Hence the calmness of her suicide note, belying the tragedy of the act that accompanies it. “To look life in the face, and to know what it is, to love it for what it is. And then to put it away.” If life is not grand, then it cannot be lived. It must be “put away,” and suicide becomes a valid and seductive choice because it brings redemption and salvation.
But to present death as an act of life is spurious, and to present the perceived grand as more desirable than the real ordinary is just as false. The women in The Hours may think they are choosing something great, but all they are doing is showcasing the cowardly. And no matter how well you dress up death, it doesn’t take away its very nature. Had the film showed Woolf to be truly deranged, and not just artistically frustrated, then perhaps the suicide would be a more acceptable act. In the context of the film, her death seems like just one more act of a woman who gives too much thought to herself, and too little thought to anyone else.
There is little doubt that The Hours will achieve Academy recognition for its showcase of superior achievements in all aspects of film, but the high level of craftsmanship serves a deeply disturbing end. It is a film that valorizes the abnegation of moral responsibility, and the poise and precision of its craft draws us into a willing suspension of our instinctive sense of what is life-affirming and good. We lose our moral bearing as we concentrate on the self-absorption of these women –and in the solipsistic world of The Hours, that is all that matters.