The last film of the U3A in Brent at the Lexi for this academic year was Woody Allen’s You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger. The audience showed interest but no one declared that they liked the film: “True to life, like what we read in the papers, wanting what we have not got, only happy couple is the old one who shared an interest, living with illusions and delusions “. One very strong contribution: ” I have no interest in these people, they have no moral values at all”. Everybody agreed that the film was very gloomy.
The title of the film on the face of it refers to the prediction of fortune tellers to needy romantic women but the tall dark stranger can also be interpreted as a figure of death as expressed by one of the characters. The film opens and ends with a Shakespeare quote “It (life) is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. In this cynical film Allen presents us with a group of self obsessed young people whose lives are chaotic, and relationships bound to fail. The older characters: Helena and her husband Alfie, as well as Jonathan the owner of a bookshop specialising in the occult, try to make sense of life.
As usual I would like to concentrate on the old woman Helena. Given Allen’s output of films, and the prevalence of women in these films it is not possible to assess Allen’s representation of older women in general but Helen is definitely not the overbearing stereotypical manipulating, controlling mother of New York Stories.
Physically Helena played by Gemma Jones (68) is an ordinary middle class older woman. Her face and neck show lines and folds. Her hair is an indefinite blonde and her gait slightly hesitant. Her clothes are stylish but muted in colours: cream, very pale blue and pink. Hat, gloves and pearl necklace complete this image of a well-off shy older woman. She has been married for 40 years to Alfie. He leaves her, she has a nervous breakdown, and attempts suicide. She becomes in the words of the voice over “the official burden of her only child”, Sally. Worried by her mother’s vulnerability and tendency to drink excessively, Sally recommends a fortune-teller and Helena finds in Cristal, more help and hope than the psychiatrists gave her. The focus of her life changes from her husband to a kind of spirituality. Belief in the supernatural gives a meaning to her life, and hope that she will meet another love.
It is interesting to note that the narrator describes ‘Mother’ left on her own as a burden on her daughter, although it is Helena who gives financial support to Sally and her failed writer husband. Roy resents Helena’s intrusion in his life and criticises her constantly. But Helena’s visits to the fortune-teller change her from the woman who is constantly blaming herself into a self-assured woman albeit deluded. She stands up to Roy’s verbal attacks about her drinking or her relying on a fortune-teller who manipulates her. She replies “I give you my money and you do not say what I want to hear”.
This assurance she has acquired also permits her to stand up to her daughter’s demand for a loan. The daughter’s vicious attack after being denied help is quite shocking and in a way recalls the attitude of the daughter to the mother in Kureishi’s The Mother. “I have to have that money. You poor pathetic gullible imbecile.”
Attitudes to ageing and death are revealed by the relationship between Helena and Alfie While the former accepts her ageing, her husband is in denial “my husband walked out on me for one simple reason, I was too honest with him. I refused him to allow him to delude himself … Christ no one wants to get older… I don’t want to get older, I do not want to spend the rest of my life alone.” In the first few scenes Helena’s and Alfie’s different responses to ageing are enunciated quite clearly. The dense dialogue is explicit about fear of ageing, ageing alone and death. Their importance is forgotten when the relationships of the younger people complicate the narrative. It is common in real life that an ageing man leaves his wife for a younger woman and it is usual to refer to this breakdown in relationship as ‘ he left her for a younger model’. In this film the breakdown of the marital relationship is due to the differences between husband and wife to the experience of ageing. We find parallels of this situation in Late Bloomers. It is after dumping his wife and trying to live a young man’s life unsuccessfully that Alfie meets and marries a sexy young call-girl. When this relationship does not work out Alfie comes back and says to Helena ” I am so fucking scared of being alone… can we start again?”. By then Helena has been seduced by the occult and has met Jonathan who has the same interest. From victim she has changed to being assertive and able to reject her pathetic husband serenely. Whatever we feel about her beliefs, her faith in an after life and reincarnation has given her self-confidence. Of course Allen’s irony in Helena’s pronouncement about Alfie’s delusion is ever-present.
The widower Jonathan also finds solace in the occult in order to cope with the death of his wife and after obtaining her permission in a séance proposes to Helena. Indeed the film is gloomy. The closing romantic image of the loving aged couple sitting on a park bench is contradicted by their talk about after life and reincarnation and the voice over: “It (life) is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.
As an aside: I have not studied the reviews of this film but it is often that ageist attitudes are found in critics’ commentaries. I came across Denny’s in the New Yorker and Bradshaw’s in the Guardian. Denny says “Jones, one of the greats of the English stage and still a vibrant beauty, gives the batty Helena a soft face and a rude directness that startles us with its aggression. ” Denny is startled by Helena’s assertiveness and interprets it as aggression. I felt startled by Roy’s and Sally’s cruel and aggressive attacks on Helena.
Bradshaw says “Helena’s beliefs, so far from being harmless eccentricities, actually destroy her daughter’s one chance at professional fulfilment.” Surely it is not up to Bradshaw to pronounce judgement on Helena’s motives and project his interpretation of the future consequence of her refusal? This attitude is bizarre specially in the context of a film where there are no closures in the fate of the other characters.