Moon Beams

Director Jill Godmilow mixes fact and fiction in a whimsical film about two literary and lesbian icons.

By Leo Charney
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Apr. 19, 2006

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Ladies in Waiting: Linda Hunt (left) and Linda Bassett play Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein in a fictional film about the power couple.

Waiting for the Moon
A-
Includes: Interview with Godmilow, critical booklet.
You'll Like It If You Like: Intimate chamber dramas, lesbian relationship stories, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.

Waiting for the Moon is an ambitious movie, but in disguise. It feels wispy and slight, yet it has tricks and ripples that play out long after the credits roll. It's like a convex mirror that keeps changing as you look at it differently-and that's just the way filmmaker Jill Godmilow wants it.

The movie creates its own genre-Godmilow calls it the "imaginary biographical film." Though large parts of the film are completely invented, Waiting seems like a straightforward biopic about American literary and lesbian icons Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, partners for almost 40 years in the first half of the 20th century.

We see them in Paris and the French countryside, where Stein wrote her dense modernist novels and plays. Toklas managed their lives and manuscripts, and the two held court for the star artists and writers of their time, notably Hemingway and Picasso. But the film's really about their emotional life, and it plays as a shimmering, almost musical riff on their feelings and spiky interactions.

Linda Bassett's fluty tones as Stein counterpoint Linda Hunt's deep, almost growling voice as Toklas. Stein won't open herself up, yet the movie captures the intimate texture of their life together in an almost tactile, impressionistic way. You feel as if you're sitting on the terrace with them, feeling the breeze and the heat as they squabble about a manuscript.

"I'm sorry. It's the way I am," says Stein in a moment of terse (if rare) self-assessment. That acceptance of the surface-the embrace of the surface, as if to insist that the surface and the superficial are two very different things-is the movie's method too.

On the one hand this style seems to reduce these literary lions to self-obsessed homebodies, bickering about their feelings in anachronistic ways. And yet the movie turns out to be more complicated because most of its events are fictional. For instance, the story takes place around 1936, yet Stein and Toklas are about 20 years younger in the film than they actually were at that time.

The storylines are all invented too. In the main one Stein thinks she's dying, can't find a way to tell Toklas about it, then learns she isn't sick after all. Later the women start caring for the lovechild of their friend, French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who dies from poisoned mushrooms-except in real life he died in World War I in 1918 and never had a lovechild.

In her entertaining self-interview on the DVD, Godmilow explains that she deliberately cast actresses with little resemblance to the real Toklas and Stein, just so no one would mistake this for a "real" biopic. She originally wanted tiny, terrier-like Hunt to play the large, domineering Stein. Hunt herself suggested little-known British actress Bassett, who seems more like a Northern Californian earth mother than a fearsome modernist writer.

When Bassett reads her gnarly Steinian prose, it's hard to imagine this insubstantial woman wrote it, and you start wondering whether we've hit the wall in this game. Why make a movie about real people in a historical situation if you're not interested in those things? It seems whimsical-and disingenuous-to choose some historical facts and abandon others.

Waiting doesn't quite get you over those doubts, but it changes the subject to mood and emotions, wafting them over history in place of harder things, like truth and facts. The film's almost 20 years old-it won the Grand Jury Prize at the third year of the festival that would later become Sundance-yet its feelings still feel vividly contemporary and its "is it real?" strategies feel way ahead of their time.

Godmilow successfully makes heavy lifting seem light. The film's ultimate achievement is its own self-effacement. It feels like a passing thought.


Just Beyond This Forest

A well-dressed old lady strolls through the Warsaw ghetto with a haughty look, as if sneering at its dirt and chaos. She seems out of place, wealthy and cultured, even arrogant. She gets to her destination, a dark apartment, and we slowly learn why she's there-a desperate Jewish family is giving her their young daughter to sit out the war in the countryside. The old woman's getting paid but is still reluctant: "You people are caring but I'm not," she bluntly tells them.

Soon we discover the old woman is actually the family's old housekeeper, saddled with a mean, thieving daughter and tortured by memories of her happy youth when she loved dancing and could've landed a rich husband. And so the movie becomes as much about class differences-and the randomness of fate-as about the Holocaust.

Like Roman Polanski's classic Holocaust drama The Pianist, this Polish film concentrates on what life was like for ordinary people in the middle of the war. From moment to moment, no one knows what's going to happen or how they'll react. Even if someone wants to do the right thing, it's not always clear what that is-or how to do it.

Brutally unsentimental, the story makes clear that doing the right thing and behaving morally aren't easy choices, even in a traumatic setting. Some people casually do bad things, some people casually do good things, some people waver-but the Holocaust doesn't automatically make them noble or self-sacrificing. The film creates a strikingly persuasive vision of life during wartime by sticking close to the realities of believable people acting in plausibly conflicted and uncertain ways.

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