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by Andrew Schenker
March 16, 2013 10:35 AM
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Critic's Notebook: Why 'Ginger and Rosa' Is Sally Potter's Best Film

"Ginger and Rosa."

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. 

READ MORE: "Ginger and Rosa" on Criticwire

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.

Tilda Swinton in "Orlando."

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.