Friday, February 13, 2009

Valentine Special: One Woman Walking

When men walk in movies, they are searching, exploring, striving. Think of the rather martial strides of Jason Bourne and the latest James Bond. Or of Ralph Fiennes’ determined staggering in The English Patient. Or perhaps best of all in recent cinema, James McAvoy’s five-minute walk through the destruction of Dunkirk, led, for almost all of that five minutes, by Joe Wright’s single tracking shot in Atonement.

But when women walk in movies, they are most often doing one of two things: showing off clothes, as in various montages in The Devil Wears Prada, or walking down the aisle, for which there are too many examples to list here. Every now and then, walking women are simply being passionate. Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility gives us a scene of Kate Winslet as the soulful young woman striding through nature, alone and wild. But for this scene, in which Marianne wanders a hillside in a storm, Lee is drawing on an old literary convention that connects the unpredictability of nature with the force of vague and unnamed emotions. Winslet’s Marianne does not desire anything or anyone in particular (she is seconds away from meeting Willoughby, when desire will commence on schedule). She is simply Being Emotional.

Very rarely, and quite strikingly, a woman walking in a movie appears purely as an emblem of female desire—specific, targeted desire for someone. The clearest example I have seen of this is a scene from Peter Weir’s 1982 film The Year of Living Dangerously. It’s a tracking shot of Sigourney Weaver’s Jill Bryant walking slowly, eyes cast down. The camera leads her, in medium-angle, through a Jakarta market until she reaches the door of Guy Hamilton’s office. She knocks on the door, steps back, and, when Hamilton emerges from the room, pulls him back against the opposite wall and begins a slow, passionate kiss. (Hamilton is played by Mel Gibson in his heart-stoppingly blue-eyed and handsome days—as good a reason as any for a passionate kiss.) The scene cross-fades to Weaver in a post-coital bed, and takes us quickly back to the 1960s Indonesian political crisis that forms the subject matter for the film.

The kiss takes nearly a minute. But Weaver’s walk accounts for fully half of the scene’s duration, and for all of its passion. Why? Because, unlike the women of the clothing montages we’re used to seeing, Jill is oblivious to an observer as she makes her way through the crowd. It’s not about what her body looks like, not about her clothes. It’s not really even about the man we come to realize she’s walking towards. It’s about her sexual desire.

Weir overlays this scene with a Vangelis-written melody that serves as the leitmotif in this opera-filled film. (Linda Hunt’s character, the photographer Billy Kwan, listens to Kiri Te Kanawa, among other things.) We hear it a bit earlier in the film, in A Scene of Kissing Dangerously, as Jill and Guy drive away from an embassy party, through a roadblock, presumably to bed. When the music starts up again, as Weaver looks up from her work, and the camera cuts to the tracking shot in the market, we know what to expect.

I admit that The Year of Living Dangerously forms the basis for my theory because I have seen the film so many times. Fascinated by it and by Weir’s direction, and intrigued by the films coming out of Australia in the 80s, I made a point of returning to it once a year for more than a decade after first seeing it in the theater. It became a kind of It’s a Wonderful Life for me, minus the ill-timed holiday grimness.

But surely there are other examples of the Walking Woman. In the near-final scene of Wright’s Bronte-ized Pride and Prejudice, Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfayden lope towards each other across a dawn field, clearly with one object in mind. Still, the scene is a different animal. Cross-cuts to Macfayden’s Darcy give Elizabeth Bennet’s desire a specific target, and dilute the woman-centered nature of the emotions on display. No, Weir’s scene stands alone.

Or does it?

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