After a diverse and lengthy early career that encompassed experimental film, dance, theater and music, and following the success of her 1992 arthouse hit “Orlando,” Sally Potter settled into a semi-sustained period of more-or-less narrative filmmaking, directing six pictures from “Orlando” through her newly released “Ginger and Rosa.” But even as she began working from such conventional materials as 2000’s coming-of-age-in-soon-to-be-overtaken-by-Nazis-Paris offering “The Man Who Cried,” the restless experimental impulse that fueled her earliest 8mm efforts was never far from the surface.
Part of the sport in tracking Potter’s work over the last two decades has been in observing this push-pull between the director’s wildest impulses (the rather misguided decision, in 2004’s “Yes,” to have the characters speak entirely in verse, for example) and her attempts to hew to a more traditionally story-oriented mode of filmmaking. The truth is, the two impulses never made a very comfortable fit. Even as she fitfully embraced the dictates of cinematic storytelling, Potter often seemed more interested in the journey than the destination.
That’s not a bad way to go, except when your films require an ending. The clipped, elliptical conclusions to “Orlando” and “The Man Who Cried” seem abrupt, almost an afterthought. The ineffectiveness of this strategy is especially surprising in the former movie, as the whole film is basically a series of episodes. By turns sensuous, elegant, and hallucinatory, Potter’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s classic novel follows its titular hero(ine) on a 400-year journey across England, destined to eternal life, first as a man and then as a woman.
Through such memorable episodes as Orlando’s meeting with the fatuously misogynistic Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift, the film thoughtfully reflects on the question of gender difference across the ages. But while almost every sequence in “Orlando” is an impressive piece of filmmaking in its own right, aided by Swinton’s blank-face-punctuated-by-mischievous-grin embodiment of both male and female desire, the film never quite transcends this episodic quality. So when “Orlando” finally achieves her release from the cycles of eternal life, it registers less as the epiphanic moment it proclaims itself as being, and more as an almost perfunctory coda to what has never been less than an inventive, highly watchable film.
After “Orlando,” Potter was free to try out some personal projects and her next film, 1997’s “The Tango Lesson,” was a moderately successful meta-movie about a filmmaker named Sally Potter who takes up the eponymous dance while falling in love with her instructor. Following “The Man Who Cried,” a temporary retreat to more conventional forms and her most star-laden vehicle (it features Christina Ricci, Johnny Depp and Cate Blanchett), Potter than unveiled her most alienating bit of experimentation: In “Yes,” the film’s central interracial/cross-class romance is swallowed up in the perpetual iambic pentameter utterances of the characters.
All these films have plenty on their mind — from first world imperialism, to the existence of God, to what it means to be Jewish — but the trio reveals a backwards trajectory for the director, an increasing uncertainty about how to harness these ideas in the context of a more-or-less narrative film.No such problem adheres to her next project, 2009’s undervalued “Rage,” in which form and content finally establish a workable truce. Viewing the New York fashion world from the wings, via a series of monologues delivered against a blue(/green/red/black/yellow) screen and filmed via cell phone camera, “Rage” constructs a unique conceptual framework that at once embodies the theatricality of the world of haute couture, mirrors the unreality of that environment (with the individual speakers looking like weird cut-outs pasted against the monochrome backdrops), and builds a creeping sense of dread, as increasingly ominous happenings are heard off-screen but never seen.
Framed as a school project by a young student, the film unfolds over a week at a top Manhattan fashion house, as it debuts a new collection only to beset by accidental death, murder and increasingly violent anti-sweatshop protests. The student interviews models, executives, behind-the-scenes workers, PR flaks, and the police, and through these series of monologues a story emerges, full of intrigue, but mostly centering on the rottenness of the fashion world. While some of the satire is too obvious, Potter gets at some arresting ideas and builds a surprisingly tense narrative out of a seemingly overrestrictive set of formal constraints. As a total vision – in this case, of near apocalypse – it’s Potter’s strongest work since “Orlando” and, even as it documents a world unraveling, it stands as arguably her most coherent statement to date.
If “Rage” represents something like the peak of Potter’s experimental impulses, then “Ginger and Rosa” stands as her finest foray into a more conventional mode of narrative filmmaking. Even here, the plotting remains highly episodic. A coming-of-age tale far more successful than “The Man Who Cried,” “Ginger and Rosa” details the teenage life of the titular pair, friends born on the same day in 1945 in the shadow of the detonation of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. Growing up in London in 1962, Ginger (Elle Fanning) becomes obsessed with the question of nuclear disarmament while dealing with family life and eventually becoming estranged from Rosa (Alice Englert) after the latter has an affair with her free-spirit father.
Potter largely lays off her more experimental impulses, but she’s no less sly in using the cinematic means at her disposal to concoct a frightening vision of adolescence as one of terror, isolation and betrayal. Employing the frightful whites of Ginger’s house as a means to unmoor the characters from their settings (similar to the blue screen of “Rage”), Potter creates a mood of impending fatality. Herself isolated by her protective oval of red hair, Ginger is defined almost entirely by her desperate anti-nuclear feelings, which Potter shrewdly understands as a response to both her less-than-ideal family situation and the geopolitical moment into which she was born.
For once, the director isn’t afraid to bring her film to a dramatic conclusion, staging a lengthy penultimate scene in which all the characters converge and all the tensions come to a head. Similarly, the film’s philosophical concerns – what should one do with a life? – are neatly folded into a coming-of-age tale in which such nagging questions occur quite naturally. If “Ginger and Rosa” is the director’s most successful film, it’s because she’s finally found a way to reconcile her restless cinematic and intellectual energies within the restrictions of a narrative film — albeit a narrative that remains, like the movie itself, utterly, unmistakably Potterian.