Girls Gone Mild

(Another fine movie review from Banana Lane. And I think it's a wonderful title.)

Leonardo da Vinci's stock is up, up, up this year. Last year, the only reason he came up in most conversations was to make jokes about Leonardo di Caprio. But now an unassuming New Englander named Dan Brown has constructed a murder mystery around the Louvre's collection of the master's work, and The Da Vinci Code has been on the New York Times Hardcover Best-Seller List for 39 weeks as of this writing. What's more, Mike Newell's movie Mona Lisa Smile opened this weekend, allowing those who wished to tell Peter Jackson to shove his rings to do so. How appropriate that the most popular Western painting in history is being democratized.

The screenplay for Mona Lisa Smile by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal takes us back to Wellesley College in 1953, although the classroom scenes were actually filmed in 309 Havemeyer Hall at Columbia, and I know cause I spent many a drowsy morning there listening to Geiger counters. We arrive on the same train as Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts), a rookie Art History professor with Picasso in her slide case and history on her side. There is a lovely image of her first meeting with her superiors at the university, when they all sit around a table so shiny that it reflects every sitter's torso like a camera obscura. At these meetings begins Miss Watson's battle with Wellesley's universal conservatism. The faculty disapproves of her state-sponsored education and her embrace of the modernist school. Her housemate, Nancy (Marcia Gay Harden), requires from her both abstinence and communal dining. Most challenging of all, her students vigorously resist her Socratic attempt to drag them out of the cave (no accident that the semester begins with cave paintings). Conspicuously among these are Joan (Julia Stiles, CC '04), Betty (Kirsten Dunst), Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal, CC'99) and Connie (Ginnifer Goodwin)—it is by their growth that we measure Miss Watson's success.

Well, it's a good company from which to build a drama, even if one suspects many of them were chosen for their 50's-style small mouths. Dunst is a lesser actor than the rest, but she's not an absolute gaping sore. Stiles' trademark languor and sphinx-like delivery make a good foil for Robert's expansive performance, and Topher Grace, who plays Joan's fiancĂ©, is scene-stealingly charming, even if he does have a stupid name. Ginnifer Goodwin can play me in the movie version of my life if Lauren Ambrose turns the part down. Dominic West rounds out the cast as Bill Dunbar, the Italian professor with a secret—has any face ever been so craggily, deviously sexy? But most of all I must praise Maggie Gyllenhaal. She caramelizes every word she speaks, be it ever so banal. I charge you, listen to how she wishes Miss Watson a Merry Christmas, and marvel at how much she can imply with those two words. Consider the way she uses her lean limbs, forever out of balance with her center–childlike, dizzying, self-effacing, and fascinating.

Prof. Dunbar calls Miss Watson Mona Lisa, which coming from an Italian professor is clearly an intellectual flirtation worthy of gracing the film's title. But Mona makes other, less nuanced appearances in the film, properly expressing her popular significance. At Betty's wedding a bona fide crooner sings the song of that same title, shortly before Tori Amos makes a curious cameo singing "Murder, he Says." Miss Watson's class all share in voiceover their opinions and observations about the painting, ranging from evaluations of Leonardo's technique to the stories they have made up for his subject.

Now, Dan Brown's take on Mona (if I may be so bold as to assign his protagonist's viewpoint to the author) is that it is a straightforward code. The fictional symbologist (is that a real job?) Robert Langdon explains to us, "The painting's well-documented collage of double entendres and playful allusions had been revealed in most art history tomes, and yet, incredibly, the public at large still considered her smile a great mystery." He goes on to flash back to teaching a bunch of convicts that Mona is smiling at the big joke that she was deliberately painted to look androgynous. "No mystery at all, Langdon thought." The androgyny argument I happily accept, but this no mystery business is prima facie stupidity. Even in the literary world of The Da Vinci Code there is room for more complexity than this. In fact, Brown makes much of the layering of meaning in the codes left for Langdon to decipher. So why, of all codes, should we reduce any painting to a matter of denotation?

Despite Young Goodman Brown's assertion that there's no mystery to Mona's smile, clearly Konner and Rosenthal demonstrate that there is room for more meaning. If only because so many westerners have spent so much time puzzling over this portrait, it has become significant as a vehicle for the process of interpretation. It is the kind of blank that reveals more about the interpreter than the painting. They even have Miss Watson engineer for her students a sneak preview of Jackson Pollock's Lavender Mist No. 1, and she instructs her class that their assignment is only to "consider it." As the camera lingers over sections of the canvas it offers no answer to the questions posed by a style famously and consciously abstract. To consider is the real joy posed by art, and great art affords us the most room to consider, and it is to that pantheon that the Mona Lisa belongs.

So if we understand Mona Lisa as a smiling enigma, why cast Julia Roberts as her avatar? It's not that I fault Roberts' delivery, which is perfectly fine here. The problem is that Roberts' smile is nearly as famous as Mona's, but for very opposite qualities. Hers hints at little mystery and less inversion. She emotes and expresses, her method is devoid of sfumato, and if she is androgynous, then I am a cameleopard. That is the film's greatest weakness. Its protagonist lacks the blankness, the deliberate emptiness and coldness of the New England landscape, the repression, the withholding, and the mystery, that makes us want to consider her.

This is one of those movies that surprises because it isn't as formulaic as we expect it to be. Although Katherine Watson is every inch the hero, the film's judgment of the class of '54 and their choices isn't absolute. The surprises come in the form of undeserved forgiveness, the disappointment that turns out to be reversible, the tragic fall that doesn't come. It is softer than it could have been, and therefore subtler, truer and more interesting. But the obverse is also true; this is still a cinematically idealized world. Here no one is ever too afraid to kiss, bad mothers are easy to spot, all women are beautiful, and whole classes of students understand their professors to be human. It is telling that the writers and director are all men, because the story abandons female characters at the moment when they choose a partner. The women with good husbands and lovers end up happy, fulfilled, and off camera; only those with bad men end up with mixed emotions or the blessing of an uncertain future. Nearly unconsciously, the story teaches us that happy love closes a woman's story, defining her by that choice. And that is both a fallacy and a missed opportunity, but it is a small caveat to what is really a very strong and well-disciplined film. It may be more Rockwell than da Vinci, but it's well worth your consideration.

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