John Fowles’ adaptation of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, directed by Karel Reisch, can be called the standard postmodern “film in film.
As the main character of the “film production” is a man of aristocratic origin, Charles Henry Smithson, also a scientist and Darwinist. He intends to enter into marriage with the daughter of a solid merchant, who has considerable influence in his circles. As if everything is solved, but chance intervenes. Charles becomes interested in the mysterious young lady Miss Woodruff, referred to locally as “the mistress of the French lieutenant”. Allegedly a certain military man once led her into sin. Now, despite the weather conditions, the woman stands on the pier, waiting for her lover to return.
Sarah Woodruff, who was an outcast in society, at first became a sort of nebulous “object of desire,” a subconscious obsession of Charles who intervened in her destiny. Thanks to him, the woman, supplied with finances, goes to London. Eventually Charles decides to tie his life to Miss Woodruff, taking her as his wife, and tells his fiancée Ernestina to break off his relationship with her.
The family of the failed wife is outraged and takes measures to deprive Charles of the right to be called a gentleman. And now the man becomes a social outcast. In addition, in London, where the hero goes, his fiancée does not exist. She ran away from him at a time when the man sacrificed everything he had.
Between the American actress Anna (Sarah), and the British actor Mike (Charles), a love affair spirals. They are bound by family ties to other people, but the relaxed creative atmosphere that reigns on and off the set allows the actors to behave quite freely. They unashamedly flaunt their love affair, contrasting their behavior to the standards of morality of Puritan England of the past century. Mike and Anna are a little condescending towards their characters. However, this does not prevent a masterful reincarnation of them. This is especially true of Anne, played by Meryl Streep. Charles (Michael), played by Jeremy Irons, is somewhat inferior to the experienced actress due to the fact that this role is only the second in his acting career.
However, the shooting of the “movie” is ending. Only the final scenes remain. To Anna’s husband arrives. The couple, along with several of the crew Mike invites them to a picnic in his garden. This is when it turns out that it is completely incorrect to contrast the feelings of the modern age and that of the past. Gone is the “looseness” of lovers. Mike, surrounded by members of his family, feels a painful sense of uncertainty. He appears to be more weak-willed than the character he is playing. Anna is also tormented by the impossibility of making a concrete decision. It turns out that there is no particular difference between the twentieth and nineteenth centuries. It turns out that everything depends not on moral foundations, but on human nature.
The picnic episode is a kind of artistic allusion. Here it is as if the boundaries of the times are blurred. In the background of the Bach prelude played by the guest, the lovers experience a true “Victorian passion. The heroes are afraid that their excessively “talking” gazes, which are aimed at each other, will inadvertently be revealed.
The boundaries between past and present, the fictional and the real are finally erased in the ending of “The French Lieutenant’s Woman. In the novel, which was transferred to the screen, there is a bad and a good ending. Curiously, Mike’s “stalemate” after asking Anne’s spouse what the only ending to the novel in the movie would be. He really is totally confused, not understanding what kind of romance we are talking about, because there are many options. Mike doesn’t know how these romances will end. At the party, arranged on the occasion of the end of the filming process, Mike has to talk to Anna. However, there is no way to do so because of the colleagues and friends fussing around, who divide them.
It ends this way: Mike runs into the house where the movie finale was played out. That’s where Anna is supposed to be waiting for him. In fact, the actor finds himself in the 19th century, but his beloved is not there. All he can hear is the sound of a car driving away. Such a repetition of history. Anna is Sarah and Mike is Charles. Only the denouement of the real movie, which the audience watches, is not clear.
The audience, thanks to this nested “movie within a movie,” empathizes with the characters, but this feeling is deceptive. The reality of cinema embodies reality. As the saying goes, “everything is as it is in life.” If the filmmakers use a “good” ending where Charles and Sarah are reunited, real life dictates its own laws. So “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” just has to end “badly.” After all, “that’s life.” The film’s creators, represented by director Karel Reisch and screenwriter Harold Pinter, convincingly lie to the audience about the close intertwining of reality and art, about their interaction.
But this is far from being the case. The audience merely watches the film, absorbed in yet another illusion of their own, perhaps even unattainable life, which has been composed and filmed by someone else. It goes without saying that there is no “historical authenticity” whatsoever.