My renewed ruminations on gender issues started last week while I was watching the 1974 “Swept Away” (also known by its superior title, “Swept Away… by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August”). From the cheesecake cover art and contrived premise I was sort of expecting something along the lines of a sexier, less-heinous “Six Days and Seven Nights” (1998). For the first third of the film that was more or less what “Swept Away” attempted to deliver: A scruffy communist sailor and a snobby capitalist pleasure-cruiser pass a few weeks hating each other before they are stranded in a small boat and eventually shipwrecked on a deserted island. “I get where this is going,” I sez to myself. “They will fall in love.”
And they do. Except that the sailor starves, humiliates, beats and rapes the woman to get her into submission. She certainly complies rather quickly to his cruelty, becoming his obsessive love slave at the expense of her original personality and former freedom.
My initial reaction was the simple and obvious one. I dismissed the movie as an exploitive art-house attempt to legitimize male sex-power fantasies.
But what really bothered me was that the film was directed by a woman: Lina Wertmuller. Why would she create such a film? Clearly, I needed to dig a little deeper. Here is a list of thoughts that struck me:
1) My understanding and opinion of the film is affected by the gender of the director, though in general (as in conversation) I would try to deny that. If a man had made the film, I would not have bothered to re-evaluate it. That fact, in itself, shows that I’m still very much susceptible to oversimplifying things and jumping to conclusions. I should have given the film more contemplation regardless of the gender of the creators.
2) The film had a clear political metaphor that did not escape me during the initial viewing, but which also did not interest me particularly. The communist/capitalist, rich/poor, oppressor/slave, male/female dichotomies are all tied together rather explicitly. Yet I can’t help thinking that a film such as “Swept Away” has to be viewed at least 50% for its literal story and any symbolic value represented therein can not fully justify or excuse the rest.
3) It is certainly possible to view the film as a critique, a work that exposes the power structures and misogyny that it initially appears to reinforce. I’m always a little skeptical of these types of 180 degree analyses (though there are many valid examples), where the viewer has to arrive at the opposite conclusion of what the film actually depicts. “Swept Away” certainly doesn’t help the audience undergo this u-turn. The first half of the film tries (successfully) to make the woman quite intolerable, presumably preparing us to accept her later punishment as just. The plot reaches certain extremes, but we are not led to believe that anything is really meant to be satiric, surreal or self-aware. The tone of the conclusion is that their rescue, return to civilization and ultimate separation violates their deep love and “natural” male-dominant relationship.
4) A re-evaluation of the film did not make me enjoy the movie much more. It did make me appreciate how complicated the issues involved were and reminded me not to be so reactive, but I found it impossible to shake the basic thrust of my original reading of the film. Many elements of the film were quite well done. For instance, I enjoyed the scenic island locale, the verbal interplay, the lead performances and the conflicting emotions. The film is hardly an artistic failure, but it left a bad taste in my mouth.