Critical dialogue: Lumière

by Mary Robinson and Phyllis Shearer

from Jump Cut, no. 18, August 1978, p. 33
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1978, 2005

Lumière, another look

by Mary Robinson

Phyllis Shearer's review of LUMIÈRE ("Lots of Glitter, But..." in JUMP CUT 16) was a discussion of what the film should have been rather than an analysis of what it was. Shearer wanted a film that would demystify the star image by portraying the actress as one of many workers involved in the painful competitive process of filmmaking. Shearer's viewpoint derives from a critical perspective that denies validity to the film's subjective, personal portrayal of a successful actress. The critical orientation toward a politicization of art conflicts with the film's emphasis on the lives and friendship of four actresses and results in a review that finds nothing of value: filmically, politically, or of feminist interest.

While LUMIÈRE has its flaws, it is not devoid of significance, especially concerning women. A change in analytic perspective to one that acknowledges the importance of friendship and feelings would be more productive of critical discussion. LUMIÈRE shows aspects of women's lives that usually aren't shown: the satisfaction that comes from commitment and work, the invaluable support and caring of friends, the balance of work and friendship instead of the usual immersion and identification with one's job.

Shearer seems annoyed that Sarah is successful, continually referring to her as privileged, implying that success is in bad taste and to be happy about it is in even poorer taste. Admittedly Sarah is not a dashing feminist or Marxist. She is an older, successful actress, happy with her work and friends, a rare film image of a woman. Most portrayals of older actresses and dancers show them at the crisis point when their careers are almost over. In this year's THE TURNING POINT Anne Bancroft as Emma expresses little pleasure in her years of dancing. She sees the alternatives of teacher or coach as demeaning, proof that her creative life is over. In dramatic contrast, Sarah is proud of her success and has enthusiasm for the future.

Significantly, her being older is an asset for this future and as such Moreau as Sarah is a model of a woman comfortable with her age. She shows all of her face, in front and in profile. The shots of her body reveal signs of aging she chose not to hide. In a fascinating sequence, Sarah/Moreau shows how her face with almost imperceptible movement can express an incredible range of emotional nuances. The lines of age are there but so are the substance, character and depth. It's important for women, especially older women like myself, to see her dignity and pleasure in herself.

This pleasure is the basis of Sarah's sensuality. Unfortunately Shearer finds her sensuality fraudulent because it is not used for anything or directed at anyone. This conception of a woman's sensuality reinforces a social myth and filmic tradition that woman's sensuality exists to give pleasure to another person or to be used as a tool. Jean Harlow's use of her sensuality for upward mobility in DINNER AT 8 is not, as Shearer suggests, an appropriate use of sensuality, but instead an example of woman as deceitful or manipulative. To stop the use of women as sex objects, it must be made clear that a woman's sensuality is first of all her own pleasure, its appreciation independent of another's validation.

Shearer questions how the women can be friends and wonders why their competitiveness isn't shown. Tension and conflict among actresses have been the subject of many films. In the recently published anthology Women and the Cinema, Karyn Kay and Gerald Peary discuss Dorothy's Arzner's DANCE, GIRL, DANCE (1940) as an example of a long line of "coming of age in the theatre" films in which actresses and dancers literally battle each other on their way to stardom. Jeanne Moreau has commented on these films appropriately and succinctly by stating that enough destructiveness among women has been depicted in films: that it is time to show the positive aspects of women friends.

More than anything else LUMIÈRE imparts a substantial, tangible feeling for friendship. Several films this year promised women's friendships: THE TURNING POINT, JULIA, ONE SINGS THE OTHER DOESN'T. But all are distanced relationships in which the women do not see each other for many years and communicate minimally. In LUMIÈRE the day-to-day support and caring are shown. It is not a complex film, but it contains positive, noncompetitive examples of women's friendships.


by Phyllis Shearer

Robinson seems to disagree with me concerning LUMIÈRE's feminist perspective rather than my conclusions about the film's effectiveness. Even though she alludes to LUMIÈRE's filmic and political values, it is the feminist aspect which interests Robinson most. If the film encouraged her as a feminist, I am glad. But from my perspective, the film's "feminism" is similar to the "black pride" a black activist might sense while watching Good Times on television.

Robinson indicates that I was annoyed with Sarah's (Jeanne Moreau's) success, "implying that success is in bad taste and to be happy about it is in even poorer taste." This is incorrect. What annoyed me was the film's failure to present a constructive personal life style, either in Sarah's past or present or what we can estimate to be her future. As a woman of Sarah's age, I believe that such a film could (even with Moreau's brand of fluff and opulence) have explored more possibilities beyond these limited alternatives of either a "happy" existence or an inevitable "crisis point" (that lends itself so well to a soap opera interpretation of life).

I am also not at all sure that Sarah's sensuality was something she used first for her own pleasure. Moreau, it seems to me, indicates sensuality through the many beds in LUMIÈRE. Robinson says I thought Jean Harlow's portrayal of sensuality was more appropriate in DIMMER AT EIGHT than Moreau's in LUMIÈRE. I suggested no such thing. Harlow used her bed as part of an ulterior motive - she enacts in it the role of child-seductress to manipulate a man, not to get sensual satisfaction. Moreau's bed promises sensuality. But because of the visual style of the film and the superficial character development, the bed ends up just functioning as part of her couture. Indeed Robinson and I are not that far apart in disliking woman's sensuality being tied in this film to a relationship with a man.

Finally, it seems important to realize that in feminist film criticism the viewer and the reviewer do not have to agree. Indeed a viewer can benefit from a contrary opinion if its argument is cohesive and intelligent enough to expand that viewer's perception of the film. Although I was arguing against the film from a feminist perspective, that does not mean that, in this case, I wanted to put down a portrayal of women over forty who are successful. Rather I thought that the portrayal of the opulence of the character's lifestyle was excessive. I look forward to seeing films that evidence women's "tangible feeling for friendship," or where women function in a "positive noncompetitive" way in their careers. This is what Robinson found in LUMIÈRE. I don't believe that the real thing was there - but I'll keep looking.