Sherrybaby is just one of three films made by women being shown at the National Media Museum this week (the other two are both costume films/romances, Lady Chatterley and Copying Beethoven). The obvious question to ask of any film written and directed by a woman is whether the story, characterisation or treatment is in some way distinctive because of the gender of its principal creator. In the case of Laurie Collyer’s film, the aesthetics are fairly conventional, but a case could be made for a story which focuses on a mother-daughter relationship and has at its centre a woman whose relationships with men have so far generally been either abusive or based upon some form of exchange value rather than genuine feeling.
My own view is that it is usually more interesting to look at the relationship between the writer/director and her lead actors. In this case, it isn’t unreasonable to suggest that Maggie Gyllenhaal must have had great faith in the script and felt comfortable working with Laurie Collyer. At the beginning of the film, Sherry Swanson has just been released from prison after serving time for thefts undertaken to feed a drug habit. The film resembles more familiar European social realist narratives in its detailed depiction of probation and hostel life. In the first half of the film, Sherry has a series of encounters in which she has sex with three different men, partly to get something from them and partly to feed her own desire. The scenes need to be graphic and they are. Just as with Jane Campion and Meg Ryan in In the Cut, Collyer and Gyllenhaal serve up sex that is both more ‘real’ and matter of fact and in a sense more ‘adult’ than in most conventional Hollywood treatments.
My only ‘problem’ with this film, which may be my own problem, is that Maggie Gyllenhaal is just too good an actor and too big a star for the film overall. This is not a criticism of her acting. Rather, for this male viewer, she is just too alive, too ‘magnetic’ as well as too beautiful and always dominates the frame in what is otherwise a small-scale and restrained film.
The film clearly got a great deal of publicity in the US, even if it didn’t play everywhere. The IMDB bulletin boards are crammed with comments, mainly on the sex scenes or on the aspects of dysfunctional family life on display. It is noticeable that few if any comments make any reference to the director. But quite a few do comment on Gyllenhaal – many in a way which makes me despair about audiences (though, of course, they are in turn criticised by others). Some comments also complain about a lack of ‘closure’ for the story. I think this does reveal that the narrative drive (a woman who seeks to win back her daughter’s affection and to escape from her past) in the film is not something that a mass US audience recognises. Yet I would say that there is a rather conventional ending to the film (which might, as some commentators suggest, be rather abrupt in depicting a change in behaviour).
Interviews with Laurie Collyer on indieWire reveal that she went to film school only after spending several years working in various welfare/care services. This experience is the basis for the story and it’s good to see an American film dealing with such issues. However, it says something about film distribution perhaps in that the film may not have achieved the limited profile it has managed without Maggie Gyllenhaal’s presence. In the UK, Ken Loach is able to make a film with similar characters, but using less well-known names.
I agree that the sex is more ‘real’ in these films, and I would argue that this is still a gender issue – with a collaboration between a female star and female director. I’m aware of the tricky territory of generalising on sexuality and sexual responses. Significantly for me, though, I feel that women directors foreground visually the experience of touch. (An issue that is often referred to when writers are trying to argue that a ‘female gaze’ i.e. a feminine way of looking and responding to a text, can exist. Creation of the experience of touch is supposed to be a very female thing?)
This is something of this present within these films, and within ‘Lady Chatterley’. However, the representations are quite different in the modern films compared to Ferran’s literary adaptation, which ultimately seemed very dated and subservient to the text it was adapted from.
Even though all three texts seemed to delineate the potential for isolation and uncertainty when with a stranger/new partner, the modern films come out of our own cultural experience. Literary adaptations seem to ‘sugar the pill’ too easily with beautiful visuals.
I would also say I have seen films by men that have captured the emotion effectively – I’d even include ‘Venus’ in that category, despite the lack of ‘real’ sex.
Do all these decisions come back to the industrial constraints you mentioned? The kinds of audiences who are the market for these films are not the most lucrative. Does Laurie Collyer gets her film made because she has Maggie Gyllenhaal on board, who wants a vehicle to display her acting chops properly? (Like all Hollywood players, dipping into the indie sector for a rebrand). Ferran’s film can attract funding because of its literary standing – the kind of traditionalism that the French industry was attacked for by ‘Cahiers du Cinema’, thereby launching auteur theory.
Even Ken Loach, depressingly, only gets his films made using European money. But then, thereafter, he ‘seems’ able to avoid those artistic compromises made to ensure distribution?