Forging Female Identity

Forging Female Identity

My first three films—Angela, Personal Velocity, and The Ballad of Jack and Rose—are all mysteries of female identity, how it can be warped, destroyed, or saved, particularly in the context of family and sexual love. These films are highly charged with the early stages of female identity formation, when the spirit of a person is still in flux and the ions of character ricochet around, searching for a set form.

Angela is about a young girl (Angela, played by Miranda Stuart Rhyne) who tries to control her mother’s mental illness through rituals she invents herself. These rituals begin as a game, a way to control her younger sister, Ellie. But gradually Angela is sucked into her own imaginings to the point where she crosses the line between imagination and madness and destroys herself. The seed of the film was, on the one hand, my own certainty, as a girl, that the devil lived in my basement. When I wrote the script, I was fascinated by the magical thinking that leads children to feel both omnipotent and responsible when things go wrong. Some children play for real, for life and for death. I wanted to make a film that reflected what it felt like as a child not to know what is real and what is not, and how, when there are no adults to create boundaries and normalcy, a child can become lost in the wilds of her own imagination. I was also trying to get inside the power of the mother/daughter dynamic.


In Angela, Angela and her mentally ill mother, May, are tied with an invisible but unbreakable thread, a spell that can only be broken by death. This kind of intense parent/child twinning also exists in The Ballad of Jack and Rose. Even though this was my third film, I wrote it right after I made Angela. I rented a tiny bungalow near the sea, stayed there alone, and wrote without talking to anyone for a month. (Yet, because of how long it took to get financing, I kept rewriting that film for a decade). My premise was, what if the two characters who are left at the end of Angela—the father, Andrew, and Ellie—had stayed alone together, and were one another’s whole world? So, even though Jack and Rose became quite different characters from Andrew and Ellie, The Ballad of Jack and Rose is in a sense a thematic sequel to Angela, going even further to examine the child-parent relationship, to a point where it becomes so intense as to trespass on cultural taboos.

Jack and Rose live on an island, like Prospero and Miranda in The Tempest. The film is set in the ’80s, on an abandoned commune in the Pacific Northwest. Rose’s mother left years ago; Jack (Daniel Day-Lewis) has home-schooled Rose (Camilla Belle) all her life. Rose is, in a sense, Jack’s creation; she believes what he believes, and has become a sort of substitute wife, molding her character to conform to his ideal of femininity. However, early in the film, Jack realizes he is falling in love with his daughter, and so brings the woman he has been sleeping with, along with her two adolescent sons, onto the island in order to create an instant family and to distance himself from Rose and the danger he now realizes lurks beneath their bond. Of course, Rose, innocent of all context, explodes with rage and a sense of betrayal, yet the arrival of the strangers is the key to Rose’s survival as an individual. Without them, she would surely perish with the death of her mortally ill father. Unlike Angela, Rose survives the intense parent/child bond. She escapes her own funeral pyre and creates a life of her own.

The Ballad of Jack and Rose

With Personal Velocity: Three Portraits, I began to venture outside the family of origin as a subject and investigate women at a crossroads of identity within their adult lives. This is a film which goes deep inside three women—Delia, Greta, and Paula—women of different classes and backgrounds—and witnesses them each at a moment of cataclysmic change in their lives, looks at how they got there, and follows them up to the crucial moment of choice. I decided to use voice-over, both because a lot of the humor of the film is contained in it and also to free up the narrative. I thought of Personal Velocity as three feature films with the boring parts cut out. I felt tremendous freedom as I wrote the film, in part because I had already written these characters in a book of short stories. The way that happened was, around the year 1999 I had pretty much abandoned the idea of filmmaking when after eight years I couldn’t get money for The Ballad of Jack and Rose (or rather, I had the money and lost it, something that happens to me at least once a film), and another film had also collapsed. I wanted to make a life telling stories somehow, I was too impatient to wait forever for someone to give me money to make films, I had a baby, and so I retrained myself to write fiction. Once I was done with the story collection and had found a publisher, my friend, the legendary independent producer Gary Winnick, called me to ask if I wanted to make a low-budget film as a part of his InDigEnt film project, wherein Gary had a deal with Bravo to make ten low budget films with proven filmmakers. (Pieces of April, by Peter Hedges, and Winnick’s own Tadpole were also among them.) This offer was what brought me back to filmmaking. With Gary’s encouragement, I chose to adapt three of the stories and make a trilogy.

The first story I chose for the adaptation was “Delia,” about a woman caught in an abusive relationship with a man she loves. Delia was born as a character when I was living in Dublin with my husband; he was busy making a movie, my days were free, I had writer’s block, and I felt adrift. I volunteered at a local women’s shelter a few days a week, working in the daycare area with children ranging from two to thirteen. The women who lived at the shelter were very strong, ultra-tough women. It was hard to imagine them as victims. I remember one shiny young volunteer at the shelter recounting a conversation she had had with one of the abused women. The volunteer had been giving the woman facile advice, about leaving her husband and starting a new life. The woman had stopped her and said: “Have you ever been in love with a man who hits you?” The young volunteer had said no. “Then leave me the fuck alone,” said the woman. That exchange was the seed of the story “Delia” and of the film portrait that came later. I was trying to build a believable person: the strongest of women who is rooted by love to such a degree that she can’t break the bond she has with the man who savagely beats her. In my film, the moment Delia (Kiera Sedgewick) finally gets out is the moment she is locked in the basement by her husband, having been thrown down the stairs, and hears the terrified screams of her children. She realizes that they too are being brutalized, even if they are not the ones being beaten. She has to construct a new identity, and she does that by drawing strength from her earlier self, when she was the school slut, and used her sexuality to give her a feeling of power. This reconnecting with her past gives Delia the strength she needs to push into her future alone with her children.

“Greta,” the second portrait in Personal Velocity, is about how a young woman is so hurt by her powerful father’s betrayal of her mother and her mother’s subsequent death that she cuts down her own highly accomplished life out of spite. Greta (Parker Posey) re-creates herself on a humbler scale, marries a decent but unimpressive man, and embarks on a happy, average life. Yet Greta can’t avoid the reality of her own ambition; for better or worse she hears its siren call, and within it the voice of her father, whose character is lodged in her identity. She finds herself leaving her kind but unsuccessful husband, helpless to avoid the worldly destiny her character dictates.

Personal Velocity: Three Portraits

“Paula,” the third part of the trilogy, was inspired by a true New York story told to me by a young woman (Fairuza Balk in the film) who met a man at a club. As he walked the woman home, she changed places with him in the street; at that very moment he was hit and killed by a car driven by a dead man who had been shot seconds earlier. She had cheated death. I wrote “Paula” to be about the fateful sequence of events that bring a young woman to accept her own pregnancy. In the final moments of the film, she wakes up to the reality of her freedom and the simple joy of being alive.

I have a strange tendency to make films in “twin sets.” Angela and The Ballad of Jack and Rose are, as I mentioned, linked thematically and also in terms of their classical structure, whereas Personal Velocity, with its weaving in and out of the past, and its use of voice-over to free up the form of the film, is twinned with my fourth film, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, which examines the inner life of a “trophy wife” whose torturous past belies her calm and settled present, and finally threatens to entirely engulf her psyche. After Pippa, which, again, mines the complexities of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship, I turned toward a classic form, the screwball comedy—specifically the comedy of remarriage, a subgenre most beautifully exemplified by The Philadelphia Story. I found the genre to be extremely liberating, especially as I based it on a strand of a then-unpublished book by my friend Karen Rinaldi (The End of Men), and that it was possible to make a film very personal while also keeping a certain distance and using the stringencies of the form to liberate my imagination. I think that’s the direction I am going in at the moment, and I feel the spiritual twin of Maggie’s Plan gestating as we speak.

Angela, Personal Velocity, and The Ballad of Jack and Rose are now available to stream on the Criterion Channel. Personal Velocity expires September 30, 2019, and Angela and The Ballad of Jack and Rose expire at the end of the year.

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