New books — From the October 2016 issue

New Books

Download Pdf
Read Online
( 4 of 4 )

Cruel, vacant masculinity has its place in SUITE FOR BARBARA LODEN (Dorothy, $16), a little gem by Nathalie Léger, translated by Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon. Assigned to write the entry about Wanda (1970), Barbara Loden’s art-house movie, for a film encyclopedia, Léger let herself get lost. The result gracefully melds criticism, fiction, and autobiography, and is a powerful example of how summary, channeled through the most personal of perspectives, can be a form of art:

They drive around in silence, he is clutching the steering wheel, tense and irritable, like a husband and father who’s been ruined and is considering the idea of collective immolation at the next service station; she sits the way my mother used to sit next to my father, upright, short, alert, holding her breath, just waiting to be murdered.

In the character of Wanda — a lethargic housewife from Pennsylvania coal country who gives her ex-husband custody of the kids and, by a sheer accident of timing, is taken up by a desperate lowlife she calls Mr. Dennis — Léger sees a refraction of Loden, the film’s writer, director, and listless, fragile star. Loden had been a lonely teen model who danced at the Copacabana, and became the second wife of Elia Kazan; Wanda was the first and only film she directed before dying of cancer at forty-eight. “As she lay dying all she said was, Shit, Shit, Shit, then she spat out some tiny stones — it’s the liver, the nurse said — and died.”

“Black Sand, Blue Water,” by Marian Crostic. Courtesy the artist

“Black Sand, Blue Water,” by Marian Crostic. Courtesy the artist

Although feminists hated the passivity of Wanda — imagine the agony of Jeanne Dielman but without the knife — Loden wasn’t trying to make a statement. The film is pure atmosphere. It provides no answer to the mystery of what went wrong in Wanda’s life, why she became a drifter. Something has wounded her, but maybe it was just the times. “The typical 1970s woman,” Léger writes memorably,

is a woman who’s wondering what she’s actually going to be able to do with the freedom that everyone keeps telling her about; a woman who wonders what new lie she’ll have to make up now, how she’s going to pretend to be cool, so that all these men will finally leave her the hell alone.

Wanda loses everything, but she can’t get free. The last scene shows her in a bar, blankly pressed up against loud merrymakers. Léger paraphrases Louis-Ferdinand Céline: “When you’ve reached the very end of all things, and sorrow itself no longer offers an answer, then you must return to the company of others, no matter who they are.” Everyone washes up on some shore.

Previous Page Next Page
4 of 4

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $23.99/year.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf
Share

More from Christine Smallwood:

New books From the December 2017 issue

New Books

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2019

The Black Axe

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Wood Chipper

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Common Ground

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Love and Acid

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

Close

You’ve read your free article from Harper’s Magazine this month.

*Click “Unsubscribe” in the Weekly Review to stop receiving emails from Harper’s Magazine.