‘The Bag Lady’ – the fatalistic female figure


Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine has Cate Blanchett, in the film’s final scene, sitting on a bench next to a woman and talking to herself out loud before, presumably, shuffling off to be a bag lady. Mike Leigh’s most recent feature, Another Year, and in homage to Truffaut, places the camera on Lesley Manville [Mary] as she is somewhat reluctantly welcomed back into the group of friends she once so needed, but, through her own self destruction, becomes estranged from- in the film’s finale Mary is allowed to the dinner table, but all chat excludes her and she is isolated once more, the camera allowing itself to almost freeze on her poignant desolation in its final frames.

There are other contemporary films charting the tragic/comic demise of female figures in modern society [think of Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea and Rachel Weisz’ beautiful portrayal of an epiphanous woman who literally lets go of her lover- there are no fears in Davies’ interpretation that she will repeat a suicide attempt, as in Reisz’] But I wanted to focus on these two in particular, not least because the two seem to be in conversation with each other [they are both by men, placing women at their core and watching Blue Jasmine, I immediately thought of Mary in Leigh’s film]. Blue Jasmine’s possible homage to A Streetcar Named Desire is already well documented [something Allen himself is skeptical of] except that we now see a deluded and hysterical coat tailing Blanche/Jasmine who, rather than being thrown into an asylum by an irate Stanley, simply lies about her prospects to her sister Ginger [who either doesn’t care or is unconscious of Jasmine’s state] and storms out of the house, to wander the streets homeless and talking to herself. This measure of feminism, which in this case, is a simple ignoring of Jasmine’s helpless state by everyone concerned, is perhaps a cynical comment on the state of equality and the change to our modernized feelings of responsibility for each other.


Allen’s ending is fatalistic, resisting a journey off into the land of fantasy, the place where Jasmine herself is so imprisoned. Allen’s Jasmine is a tantrum-ess, dominated by her feelings and unresolved child conflicts etc, unable to prevent herself enacting that self-destructive rampage which effectively destroys her family. His film is not so much about a Park Avenue Goddess who finds that her financier husband is a con man and adulterer, than a socialite, seemingly untouched by the feminist movement [this is an ambiguity in the film] and lacking in skills, who is fatally controlled by her emotions and need for revenge [emotions, says Allen, contributes to 99.9% of our decision making].

So too with Mary in Mike Leigh’s Another Year, although she is very much aware that she is the sinner and stands condemned by those she cares about most. In a low wage job as an admin assistant, Mary’s middle-aged hopes revolve around finding that dream man, buying a car and finding freedom. She unravels [and the extent is measured against her successful Counselor friend, wife and mother Gerri [Ruth Sheen]] as she heads along a path of alcoholism and fantasy, her unrealistic long term crush on Joe, Gerri’s son, soon to be her undoing. Unable to accept his new girlfriend, she compounds the tense family meeting with insults- to the extent that Leigh focuses the rest of the film on Mary’s attempts to apologize and be reaccepted into the fold.
Both Blue Jasmine and Another Year have key scenes where both characters, under the spell of their feelings, make fatal decisions. In Blue Jasmine, it is revealed at the end of the film, in Another Year, it is subtly worked up to. But what’s interesting is how we view these two characters and how our views are shaped by the films’ endings. A friend of mine, who loved Another Year, was antagonistic to the Mary character [I’ve got plenty of those she said] but loved Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine. I wondered why this was. Perhaps because, at the end of Blue Jasmine, Blanchett is wittering away, she knows the end is nigh, but even if she’s going down she’s still firing her guns. Mike Leigh’s treatment is far more Hamlet esque, Mary is more Ophelia in her sense of powerlessness and rejection- she does not go to her fate shouting at the world, but succumbs with a teary face. If both were to commit suicide, Jasmine would surely use a gun, whereas with Mary, it would be vodka and pills.


Could these endings be products of the directors’ cultural upbringing? Yet Allen himself commented that Jasmine could easily have patched up her marriage- why not have her patch it up, or at least try? Would that be more interesting? Or is Allen tapping purposefully into this hidden fear that all women have i.e. of becoming a bag lady? [The Fear That Dare Not Speak Its Name, by Lisa Schwarzbaum] Why couldn’t Leigh allow Mary to pull herself together and at least try to be happy in the last scene? I’d suggest it’s because of both the directors’ needs for realism, even if Allen’s is, in the good old American way, slightly romanticized. But these needs, I’d suggest, are products of our own cultures and are not so much about portraying reality as about refusing to explore other possibilities.

Compare this with two films by Renoir and Lang, of the same story but given vastly different treatments –

Renoir’s film comes first, based on a novel by George de La Fouchardière [La Chienne, or The Bitch] and tells of Maurice [Michel Simon] a married impoverished clerk and amateur painter, who soon falls in love with street walker Lulu. Aided by her boyfriend, Lulu swindles Maurice of all his finances and paintings and Maurice, when discovering this and her and the boyfriend in bed together, loses his self-control and kills Lulu. Lang’s film is basically the same story, albeit with a few changed details. But what’s interesting is the ending of these two films- the parting shots as it were- made 13 years apart. Maurice is caught and loses everything- his wife, his money, his job. But Renoir [similar to his film Boudu saved from Drowning] gives the audience an ambiguously uplifting end- rather than sink into misery and mourn all that he has lost, we see a Maurice freed from what was a life of burdensome love full of financial problems and embracing life as a homeless person. Lang’s treatment is much darker and closer to Leigh’s and Allen’s treatments of their heroines. Maurice who becomes Chris in his version, struck down by all that he has lost, is left curled up on a bench and crying out to God with the snow falling all around him, inviting certain death in the freezing conditions.

Thinking about all four of these films and how closely they seem related [the end shot of Jasmine made me think of both Renoir’s and Lang’s films] I am struck by how so much value and stress is laid [intentionally or not] on the last shot. On much we as an audience, are asked to accept or cry out against in indignation at the filmmaker’s vision. On how the endings in the best of films, whilst signposting a definite pathway, still, leave it up to audience to decide how the scene after, the one after the film finishes, would work out.

But surely the question must be asked, do we want realism or idealism at the end of our films? Do we want a Renoir vision, where the characters turn every situation to their advantage and potential happiness [and teaching a vital life lesson] or a more closed but truer vision that Lang, Allen and Leigh sometimes offer? It’s a question I often ask myself as a filmmaker- do I want to cure the world or show it how it is?

verity is a writer, filmmaker & workshop leader with an avid interest in all the arts, but particularly film & theatre. She writes about theatre for theatrebubble and short stories for Unintentional Hermits.