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Thread: LITTLE WOMEN (Greta Gerwig 2019)

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    LITTLE WOMEN (Greta Gerwig 2019)



    A new 'Little Women' for a frantic age

    "Todd — everyone called him that, did't they? — had so many useful nuggets of editorial wisdom, which he always managed to deliver in as few words as possible. One of them, I remember, was: 'Chronology is your friend.' By which he meant: Don't scramble the time frame of your narrative just to appear artful to the reader when simple chronology might work better." ("The Lives They Lived, Remembering some of the artists, innovators and thinkers we lost in the past year", in NYTimes Magazine).

    This advice from my old friend Richard Todd, the respected book editor who died this year, might have come in handy for Greta Gerwig when she was assembling her new version of Louisa May Alcott's perennial favorite Little Women, which opened in theaters on Christmas Day. Her chief innovation is rearranging the order of chapters and scenes, setting it all in a framework focusing on Jo's success as a writer in New York. She has also pumped up the speed and energy of it all. I'll comment here on this lively, if rather confusing, new version by comparing it to the last important previous film Little Women, Gillian Armstrong's, from 1994, with Winona Rider (who got an oscar nomination) and Christian Bale. There's also Samantha Mathis, Clare Danes, Kirsten Dunst, Eric Stolz and Susan Sarandan, among others, a roster I think the Gerwig version has a hard time matching. Thanks to being inspired to watch this older one, I now well understand the plot, with all its many characters, which is kind of ironic, given that Gerwig does nothing to make that plot clear to us.

    Most agree that film of 25 years ago, which I've just rewatched, holds up well today. It's also in chronological order, and with chronological markers. This approach may seem pedestrian to some people. But it also makes many things clear that are obscured by Gerwig, unless you already knew the book well when you watched her version. (For a listing of the many virtues and some faults of the new film, I refer you to the review by Richard Lawson in the current Vanity Fair.)

    There are many men in these women's lives but most important are the two who revolve around Jo (Winona Rider in '94, Saoirse Ronan today), the main character and narrator. One of them is a foreigner, Friedrich Bhaer, played by Gabriel Byrne, with a very creditable German accent. In the new one, he's played by French actor Louis Garrel, who's ten years younger, and French so, no German accent: Louis Garrel can only do his own very Gallic one. The other man in Jo's life is Laurie, the neighbor boy who is rich, and later on spoiled and maybe depressed, since his declaration of love to Jo is rejected. He was played by Christian Bale in '94; this time he's replaced by cool young guy du jour Timothée Chalamet.

    These two pairs of actors differ very much from each other, of course, but the key factor is the rearranging of scenes Gerwig indulges in. There is a whole set of scenes in New York in the '94 version missing now. They show Jo meeting Friedrich at a rooming house where they both live. They have long conversations, and even talk about Transcendentalism and its relation to German philosophy: Friedrich is a philosopher. He becomes a teacher for Jo, even taking her to a performance of the Bizet opera The Pearl Fishers, partly to apologize for criticizing her stories, where they sit backstage and he can explain the action to her aloud. It's a wonderful date. In the new version, Garrel is with (Saoirse Ronan) and abruptly criticizes her writing for being too popular and crude. She goes off on him at length and says she never wants to see him again. When Gabriel Byrne is involved, the criticism is gentler, and more helpful. No wonder Garrel disappears for much of the film, only to return at the end - and, surprisingly, to become Jo's husband. But Garrel's Freidrich still seems pretty nice, and his age is more appropriate for him to become Jo's mate. We just don't see how their relationship develops.

    The Christian Bale version of Laurie is sweet and gentle, the Timothée Chalamet one, provocative and defiant. But later we learn this apparent outrageousness is due to Gerwig's introducing a later scene of Laurie early on. Bale's Laurie gets depressed and lazy later too, but by a logical progression.

    It becomes clear through watching the two versions that Gerwig's makes not just the sequence of events unclear, but the evolution of the characters and their relationships. Christian Bale's Laurie is boyish, quiet, macho, and sweet most of the time. Chalamet's is rakish, defiant, lazy. And of course he's very scrawny. The actor seems to float around in his clothes, which seem more attention-getting than Garrel's. (In real life, it's obvious Chalamet is a flashier, more stylish dresser. Garrel is always impeccable, but his clothes are low-key.) Chalamet does undoubtedly sparkle, though. It's obvious he was a good choice for a teasing love interest and a charmer. He also seems more into himself.

    Others have commented on the style of the March family this time. They seem more bourgeois. They have not fundamentally changed, the genteel poverty is alluded to. But Gerwig downplays the ways they are impoverished and must pinch pennies, like handing down dresses from sister to sister. Everything is more high energy, almost frantic compared to the Gilian Armstrong version's more leisurely pace. This is underlined by the jumping around from scene to scene and back and forth in time.

    It's obvious this hampers our understanding of events, never more so than when somebody dies and then later is seen again, still alive.

    However, with all these characters in a sense many plot elements are distinct from each other, and any version of Little Woman will partly seem a series of vignettes. The ebullience and love of the sisters comes through. Little Women is a warm, joyful thing however you slice it. Maybe the new costumes and the Alexandre Desplat score are overdone. But it's not like you don't notice the costumes and score (then, by Thomas Newman) in the '94 version too.

    Obviously Greta Gerwig wanted to add her own defiantly original touch, and she has done so, clearly also expressing her love of the book. Louisa May Alcott connoisseurs will have to decide if she has used a heavy hand. I can only note that as I walked out of the auditorium, a tall woman told her friend that if she weren't too embarrassed to do so, she would gladly stay back and watch the whole film again. Now that I'm finally beginning to know the plot, I'm more curious to see other earlier film versions. I am not so impressed by the ladies in Gerwig's movie other than the intense, earnest Jo of Saoirse Ronan. The ladies in the '94 version seem more impressive, and better coordinated. The men? I like both sets. Chalamet and Garrel sure do add something new, attractive, and of this moment.

    Little Women, 134 mins., debuted Dec. 9, 2019 in New York. Also shown at Rio and MOMA events. Us theatrical release Dec. 25, 2019. Metascore 91%.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 12-26-2019 at 11:14 PM.


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