In a key scene of the beloved Bette Davis film Now, Voyager (1942), the heroine goes to dinner on a cruise ship wearing a cloak decorated with fritillaries. A fritillary is a spangled butterfly, and the scene signals that Charlotte Vale, spinster, has emerged from her cocoon. One of “the Vales, of Boston,” Charlotte has been sheltered and stifled to the point of neurosis by her formidable mother (Gladys Cooper). The cruise is the culmination of a rest cure prescribed by the wise Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains); Charlotte is sailing under the name of a family friend, who has lent not only her ticket but also her wardrobe, each item with its own instructions. Charlotte’s grand entrance is marred when Jerry (Paul Henreid), her new friend and unhappily married romantic interest, finds a note pinned to the cloak. Bewildered, he says, “Somebody must be playing a joke on you.”
One of several moments of abject humiliation for Charlotte in this Warner Bros. classic, the revelation that her wings are borrowed flips, with the suddenness and grace of a butterfly, into one of several moments of sardonic self-knowledge: “The joke is far funnier than you realize.” Davis spits the line. As a result of pressure from the Production Code Administration, the consummation of the couple’s relationship is merely suggested: they spend the night “bundling” when a car accident strands them in the hills above Rio de Janeiro (after an excruciating scene with their Brazilian driver that is meant to provide comic diversion but should have been challenged by the PCA in the name of the Good Neighbor Policy, a key reason for the Latin American setting in the first place). But much more is at stake on this cruise than a pity fuck. A declaration of independence is imminent.
“The particular depth of this film is how it entrusts us with aspects of the character’s interiority that no one in the film can access.”
“The film was a box-office success, a clear response to the studio system’s wartime efforts to answer the question that confounded Freud: ‘What does a woman want?’”
The Roaring Twenties: Into the Past
Hollywood legend Raoul Walsh’s first movie for Warner Bros. is an epoch-spanning tall tale that takes inspiration from the New York City of his childhood and closes out a run of influential gangster films he inaugurated in the silent era.
The Heroic Trio / Executioners: To the Power of Three
Combining the influence of the wuxia genre, the Hong Kong New Wave filmmaking of the 1980s, and loony comic-book futurism, these two ass-kicking fantasias are dazzling showcases of female physicality.
Nothing but a Man: What We Can See in Ourselves
Released at the height of the civil rights movement, this deceptively simple tale of a working-class Black man’s search for love and self-worth broke ground with its realism, nuance, and intensity.
Eric Rohmer’s Tales of the Four Seasons: Another Year
Through its echoes, resonances, and intricately branching stories, this cycle of films evokes the feeling that life, like the weather, is based on patterns too complex to ever be fully predictable.
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