Cinequest 2021 Review: THE YELLOW WALLPAPER, The Dark Bends of the Fragile Mind
We've barely begun to scratch the surface of how the human brains works; that strange grey muscle that contains all these chemicals vying for supremacy, our emotions swirling, bumping against each other, always, it seems, at the edge of madness, even if we don't realize it. And at least now we aknowledge mental health problems, when in the past too many were simply shut away and ignored. Especially women.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman's haunting short story has seen its fair share of adaptations, and no wonder; the bizarre tale of a woman, mostly alone in a house, who becomes obsessed over visions she sees in the ugly wallpaper of her bedroom, can be a metaphor for so many things, not the least ignorance and ignoring women's health. Kevin Pontuti and Alexandra Loreth's adaptation has a low-budget, DIY feel, which strips much of the artiface to get to the dark heart of the tale.
In 19th century New England, Jane (Loreth), a writer, and her husband John, (Joe Mullins), a doctor, are spending the summer in the country with their newborn son. John's sister Jennie (Jeanne O'Connor) is there to look after Jane while John goes into town to work. Jane is instructed not to write, but to take walks, garden, basically relax and get over whatever is making her not be the kind of wife and mother John wants her to be. Jane, unhappy but trying, soon becomes obsessed with the ugly and strange wallpaper in their bedroom, and it might be driving her further into madness.
The introduction is simple and effective: there is a moment when the baby's crying leads Jane to do something that is both horrific and also in a twisted way, understandable, to any parent, especially women who are expected to have a 'mothering instinct' lying in wait to bounce at the first whiff of baby smell. In fact, that sense of 'smell', that sense of something being off that premeates the air, is a more relevant sense than sight in this film, evem given than Jane keeps looking for the woman in the walls. She can smell that something is hidden, something is decaying: in the garden, in the house, in herself.
We watch as Jane is left basically alone for most of the day, with her husband gone, and her sister-in-law (and another woman who may or may not exist) tending to the house and the baby. This leaves Jane to wander; she is supposed to 'take the air', do simple tasks, not task her brain too much, essentially. But that leave a mind unoccupied, a mind that psyche that has been traumatized, and whose pain and need is dismissed. Whether it's postpartum depression or just a woman stuck in an existence that denies her basic humanity, Jane's state is now free to explore the depths of darkness of her soul in a place that compounds on her fears.
The garden in which she walks hides some secrets, and Jane finds herself at a metal gate, desperate every day to walk through; but neither she, nor the audience, know what's on the other side. As she walks in her room, she spends more time staring at the wallpaper. Loreth excels in these moments of solitude and contemplation, her face evoking the varying emotions, some obvious, others obscure. We are subject to her perspective, and she joins us with her on this internal journey, one in which this strange madness seems the most logical conclusion to her experience.
The physical world in which Jane exists becomes smaller and smaller, yet the world in her mind grows, or perhaps more accurately, creates labyrinths in which she crawls; we crawl with her, finding the unending tedium eating away at her and us, and we can understand her obsessions. Loreth and the other actors imbue the film with their presence, as does Pontuti and his team with a design that allows us to feel the stretch and bend of Jane's stability, the scraping of her nails on the wallpaper, a seemingly arduous and pointless task, all that can keep Jane from further violence.
Turning a 10-page short story into a full-length feature is perhaps a bit of a stretch (there is a reason why it's generally adapted as a short film); we understand it faster than the film allows us to proceed, and we're left just a tad too long before it catches up to the place we need to be. But The Yellow Wallpaper is a strong and unsetting adaptation of this gothic tale, one that allows for the moments of silence and atmosphere to permeate our minds.