Monday, May 3, 2010

It's All About Me: Selfishness in movies

I've just finished watching The Painted Veil.  Spoilers, for anyone who hasn't seen it yet.

It falls into a category of movies I've given quite a long-winded name, that is nevertheless accurate: Selfish people who only realise what they've got in time to lose it.  Why do these movies exist?  I really do wonder.

Let's take a brief look at some reasoning:
a) We're mortal
b) By and large, we don't appreciate things as much as we should
c) We then lose them

Okay.  This happens in real life.  You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone and all those other upbeat songs.  But why make a movie about it?

Here's my question about The Painted Veil, apart from questioning why the movie was actually called that, which is a given.  But here, nonetheless, is the $19-million-dollar question: would it have been so much less sad if she had loved him from the beginning?

We see little of her at home, save that she's wilful and wants to marry for love.  In 1923 - scandal!  Nowadays, we expect it.  She marries Walter to keep her family from having to support her.  Okay.  She doesn't seem too attached to Walter - she talks a lot and he not at all - but at no point is there any sign of dislike.  She shacks up with Charlie, Walter finds out, and they wind up in a remote village in the middle of a cholera epidemic.

I can understand Walter might be having some severely self-destructive urges around about now.  But essentially what I'm left with is that she slept with Charlie because she was bored.  Not being an adulteress, I have to ask: is that cause enough?  I suppose if Walter didn't pay much attention to her, and Charlie did, they might 'fall in love', as she thought they did.  But if that's the case, why did Charlie give her a ring, and say he loved her, then refuse to leave his wife?

Again, not generally being a duplicitous person, so far as one can claim, this seems a little excessive.  He could have simply not said anything, having already said that women generally think men care more for them than they do.  Having, after that, said that he loved her, she and therefore the audience can assume he is genuine in his sentiment.  Not so, of course.  By why?

Despite the scandal divorcing his current wife would bring, unless she were of a high-born or important family - which we are never told, if she is - he would have no reason to stay with her.  Perhaps I missed some subtext, Kitty later saying she's of the Church of England, the one church at the time that was more okay with divorce than the rest.  But then why was she so horrified when Walter threatened to divorce her?  And if she was so horrified, how could she ask Charlie to do the same thing?

But never mind all that, they then go to this beautiful village in the middle of nowhere and learn to deal with the sentiment of the time.  It's decidedly a anti-foreigner atmosphere, which only really plays a part in that it makes you think Walter is going to get shot, or lynched, rather than dying of cholera.  In that sense, it's an effective red herring.  In a historical sense, it's probably accurate.  In a narrative sense, apart from providing background, it did almost nothing for the story.

I also contend the moment when Walter cuts himself on the broken flask.  He's not an idiot.  He may have been distracted, but since I imagine one of the easiest ways to contract cholera is to get the pathogen into an open wound, and since they seem to have servants to do everything else, I don't honestly think he would have tried to clean the broken glass up by himself, and with his bare hands.  I can understand that there needed to be something to point to what was about to happen, as we wouldn't believe he would fall randomly ill after being so careful when treating his patients, but again, in a narrative sense, it falls flat.

And I guess the main point of my argument is really a matter of personal preference.  They had to go through the rough times at the beginning of the film to show how much they'd grown, but I'd forgotten about Charlie by the time she fell pregnant.  Likewise when Charlie met her son at the end - I had completely forgotten there was a chance he was Charlie's son, because it simply didn't matter.  Everything was about Kitty, and even Walter dying was still about Kitty.  She's the main character, but if the point of the film was to show how being selfish blinds you to all else in life, then the film should not have been centred around her so blindly.

She makes a mistake, and she spends the rest of the movie paying for it.  Her husband pays for it, but only to prove how wrong she was.  This is a pattern I see far too often in movies.  The idea seems to be that if you're selfish, it's irreparable, and selfish characters generally either die or end up losing the one thing they care about.  I know movies aren't real life, and they don't reflect real life, but everyone's selfish at some point.  It doesn't take the death of your spouse to change that.

I think the movie could have started when they arrived in the small town, and lost all the flashbacks.  I think the metaphorical link between flowers and people was inappropriate.  And I don't understand the constant fascination with losing something you've only recently come to appreciate.  Do film-makers think that amounts to irony?

I think it's just as sad to lose someone you've loved for a long time.  With a new love, there's the forever-allure of the future lost, but with an old love, there's a lifetime of memories, and, often, regrets.  One may be easier to accept than the other, but that doesn't dull the pain.  And a lifetime of memories just means you have more to miss.

But more to rejoice in, too.  I'm not so pessimistic I can't see the connection.  But until you understand a thing, and how it relates to you, you cannot appreciate it.  It's only when the light goes out that you become aware of the darkness.

So, as a film about not appreciating what you have until it's gone, it suits.  As a contrived piece of writing made to increase our awareness of what's around us and to try to convince us to take time to get to know people before we judge them, and to not let our expectations blind us to who they really are, it suits.  As a story about regret, it suits.

But as a story about the true bond between two people, I found it lacking.

Post-script: This alone explains most of what I said above - "[Co-author of the screenplay Edward] Norton explained, "I like to think that we didn't change the book so much as liberate it...  I went on the assumption that if you were willing to allow Walter and Kitty to grow... you had the potential for a love story that was both tragic and meaningful."  Judging by this, the source text may prove nowhere near as inconsistent.  I will have to look it up sometime.

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