February 9, 2020

No Happily Ever After in Gerwig’s “Little Women”

Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet in Greta Gerwig's adaptation of "Little Women"

Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet in Greta Gerwig's adaptation of "Little Women"

Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Are our hopes for good things in life bound to end in disappointment? The anxiety built into this question has fueled a number of great films in the history of cinema, like Milos Forman’s Loves of a Blonde and Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank. Maybe the most famous is Yasujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story, which steadily builds toward its main character Noriko’s tearful, desperately earnest confession: “Isn’t life disappointing?” This tradition is by no means exclusively cinematic: Poet Philip Larkin, too, warned of the “sparkling armada of promises” that “leave us holding wretched stalks of disappointment.”

The most recent inheritor of this storied artistic lineage is Greta Gerwig, who burst onto the stage of world cinema in 2017 with her solo directorial debut Lady Bird. That film, in the words of K. Austin Collins, insisted that “dreams, and the future, are by definition beyond reach.” And with her most recent effort, an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women, Gerwig has returned to that theme once again. Despite the fact that Little Women is set in a wildly different time and place, Gerwig has managed to extract from her source material the subject that clearly moves her so much, and put it center stage by refashioning the story’s structure with her ingenious script.

While Gerwig is a woman of many talents, her writing has always been the most powerful tool in her arsenal, as was already on full display in Lady Bird. The fraught relationship between the titular character and her mother is at the center of that film, and the primary theater of war in their protracted battle of wills is verbal in nature. In their dogged pursuit of the last word, they go to dizzyingly passive-aggressive—oftentimes straight-up aggressive—lengths.

A scene in which the two go shopping for a special occasion fipetitnds them engaged in a precipitously escalating dispute over Lady Bird’s “feet dragging”—until they spot the perfect dress and dissolve into mutual delight, the argument of just a couple seconds ago now completely forgotten. This is a case study in the film’s pitch-perfect attunement to the reality of parent-child relationships—the way they’re balanced on a knife’s edge between love and resentment.

The intelligence of Gerwig’s writing is evident not only on a line-by-line level, but also on a broader structural scale in the way that the film as a whole is meticulously organized around its central theme. The film flows so smoothly that it’s easy to overlook the rigorous conceptual architecture that undergirds it. The film’s subplots are all tied together by a recurrent cycle: Lady Bird inflates her expectations for something, which are then brutally punctured by the unforgiving facts of reality. The most crushing instance of this cycle comes when she receives her admission to a New York City university, the primary engine of narrative suspense throughout the film and the objet petit a of her adolescent dreams. But once she actually arrives on campus, this stroke of good fortune promptly disintegrates into yet another fantastical expectation cruelly denied. If the film’s relentlessness in repeatedly subjecting Lady Bird to variations of this ordeal seems a little bleak, then that’s just evidence of how true to life it is. It’s also evidence of a writer who knows exactly where she wants to go, and who’s equipped with a command of her craft that will take her there.

With Little Women, Gerwig retains that signature theme but transforms her stylistic method of articulating it. She trades in Lady Bird’s organizing principle of relentless variations on a theme for Little Women’s scrambled chronology, which follows the four sisters at its center in two separate timelines, one set in the past and one set in the present. Where Lady Bird relied on a series of repetitions to make its point about the inevitability of disappointment, Little Women reaches for that same insight by way of this structural gambit.

Gerwig’s brisk cuts throughout the film between these intertwining timelines enable her to highlight the stark disparity between the way things used to be and the way things turned out. The idyllic carefreeness of the sisters’ happy past is sharply juxtaposed with the deflated disappointments of their present, and the impact of Gerwig’s editing to this effect can be breathtaking. There’s a shot in which Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) descends the stairs of the family home to find her sisters happily carousing at the dinner table. This vision of domestic bliss, however, belongs to the past—and Gerwig immediately follows it up with another, visually identical shot of Jo descending the stairs again, this time in the present day (the temporal jump is clearly signaled by the contrasting color scheme). But what she finds at the table this time around is only the devastating reality of illness and death. The visual rhyme between these shots throws their emotional asymmetry into even sharper relief, and the cut lands with a devastating thud. We see the March family’s happiness evaporate quite literally in the blink of an eye.

The many similar leaps between past and present that the film makes over the course of its runtime lay the groundwork for its tour-de-force final sequence, which supercharges this editing strategy to unleash a stunningly audacious metafictional gambit worthy of David Foster Wallace. Spurred on by a death in the family, Jo has finally finished her novel and taken it to a publisher who’s willing to put it out into the world—on the condition that she change the story’s ending to a happy one.

What follows is a series of negotiations that blurs the boundary between the character in Jo’s novel and the character of Jo herself. The various possible endings that the two interlocutors propose and reject are visualized on screen for us, with Jo “playing” the character that she herself created. But the degree to which these endings are purely fictional becomes increasingly unclear—and the stakes of this unclarity become a live issue when we arrive at the film’s penultimate scene. This is a vision of pure bliss: Jo has sold her book, become a successful writer, and opened a thriving school in Laurie’s beautiful mansion. The March sisters have been reunited, and the emotional scars left by Laurie and Amy’s marriage have been healed by the affections of Jo’s dashing European suitor.

But is this the way that things actually turned out for Jo? After all, the film had already driven a wedge between events represented on screen and events in the film’s reality. The bond between them was loosened by the sequence in which Jo and the publisher negotiate her book’s ending, where what we saw represented on screen was nothing more than the visualization of ideas in the characters’ heads.

This would suggest that Jo’s storybook ending is nothing more than a compensatory fantasy that she’s imagined for herself. It’s Jo’s misfortune to have lived in a historical period in which personal fulfillment and professional success are mutually exclusive options for women. The protagonist of Jo March’s Little Women gets her happy ending—but the protagonist of Gerwig’s Little Women might not be so lucky.

This interpretation of Jo’s ultimate fate is confirmed by the film’s final shot. As Jo watches her book—significantly, also titled Little Women—being printed en masse, she’s brought to the verge of tears. But the exact cause of those tears is left shrouded in ambiguity. Is she crying out of happiness because of her professional success? Or is she crying for everything that that success cost? Ronan’s beautifully expressive performance here manages to convey both of these possibilities at once, and it’s the cherry on top of a closing sequence that finds Gerwig working at the very top of her game. She’s too honest to just let her protagonist have it all—that’s not how life works, and it’s not how her movies work either.