“Women in Love” is a movie about men. Ken Russell’s film boasts a misleading title, as it explores the ways and whys of men in love. Based on D.H. Lawrence’s novel of the same name, the film, which came out in 1969, rebukes conventional relationships and restrictive forms of love through the intertwining relationships between four people: Rupert Birkin (Alan Bates), a brooding school inspector with an almost utopian view of love; his best friend Gerald Crich (Oliver Reed), the philandering heir to the local mining business; and their respective romantic partners, Ursula Brangwen (Jennie Linden), an affably sweet schoolmistress; and Gudrun (Glenda Jackson), her libertine sculptress sister.
Although the two couples pair off rather traditionally, the film is more interested in the romances that don’t come to fruition — the expansive loves that are found beyond and are equally as treasured as the love between a married man and woman. As such, it is heavily skewed towards Rupert’s point of view, who waxes lyrical about pure relationships and his desire for love that is single, clear, yet balanced, as well as his relationship with Gerald, for whom he harbors more than platonic feelings. However, in focusing so much on Rupert, “Women in Love” inadvertently leaves out the messy emotions of most of its titular women.
Rupert is someone who has deeply gendered perceptions of the types of love worth feeling and lives worth living. He is a character who valorizes the natural — the bond he creates with Ursula in marriage — yet he thinks it inadequate because of the flaws of his female partner, and thus also desires a purer form of fellowship, a perfect union between men that will complete him.
An early pair of scenes establishes the main thrust of the film and reveals Rupert as its true lynchpin: and a man who yearns to be larger than life but remains ironically blinkered in his perception of women and their interior lives. Hermione Roddice (Eleanor Bron), a wealthy socialite desires Rupert, invites all four of them to her estate for a party, where she ropes Ursula and Gudrun into performing for her male guests, in an attempt to impress Rupert. The scene is fraught with tension as Rupert fumes at Hermione, still in full costume as an otherworldly widow, until she finally cracks him over the skull with a glass paperweight. It is a dynamic where the audience can sympathize with both characters, with Rupert tired of Hermione’s persistent flirtation, and Hermione so savagely rebuffed by a pompous faux-philosopher, but it is Rupert’s point of view that is ultimately validated later on in the film. This raises questions about how we are meant to conflate authentic displays of love with displays of masculinity.
Rupert finally gets the carefree passion he desires when he play fights naked with Gerald in front of the fireplace. There is a stark difference between Hermione’s entertainment and Gerald’s wrestling. Whereas the former is ostentatious and highly performative, with Hermione dressed in all black with dramatic but carefully applied makeup, the latter is extremely intimate, from the nakedness of both parties and the easy way they grip each other’s bodies, without awkwardness or calculation. At the end of the wrestling match, Rupert feels free and open.
Many speculate that Rupert is a cinematic stand-in for Lawrence himself, which begs the question of whether Lawrence chose the title “Women in Love” to thoughtfully explore feminine characters in their own right, or as a polemic against the inferior loves that women offered him. Regardless, “Women in Love” is a thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking film, which is shot in a way that illuminates stellar performances by Jackson and Bates as well as Lawrence’s own poignant meditations.
“Women in Love” will be screened at the Metrograph at 7 Ludlow St. on Friday, Dec 1.
Email Angelica Chong at [email protected].