Before I present films at the Lexi I read a great many reviews, and study the film screen by screen. The majority of reviews were favourable, but a few dismissed the film as superficial, made by robots etc… When studied, the film reveals a depth not evident on a first viewing.
“ …it occurred to me that Maggie and Rose are actually very similar to the two cops in LA Confidential. In both movies the two characters appear to be very different, however when they come together they form a complete human being. What I like doing is considering how a very binary, black and white vision of the world is overly simplistic. Contradictions are often no such thing.”
says director Hanson in an interview in the Guardian. Indeed the main theme of “In Her Shoes’ is contradictions and their resolution. The story, plot, characters, mise-en-scene, all have a binary structure until the last sequence where the seemingly opposites come together.
At the source of the story is a bipolar mother who commits suicide leaving her two daughters Maggie and Rose to be brought up by the father, Michael. Ella, the grandmother, is prevented from seeing her grandchildren because of the conflict between her and her son-in-law. It transpires that each of them blamed the other for the suicide. Ella thought that her daughter should be on drugs all the time while the father followed his wife wishes of experiencing the highs of the illness. Maggie and Rose grow up close but very different. Rose the responsible older sister has to rescue her feckless promiscuous sister time and again. When Maggie betrays Rose by sleeping with her lover (and boss) Rose asks her to leave her flat. The rift with her sister leads Maggie to find her grandmother Ella who works in a retirement home. Maggie is influenced by Ella to take a job as a care assistant. Meanwhile Rose leaves her lover/boss and her job. She starts a relationship with a colleague. Eventually Ella, Maggie, Rose, Michael, are reconciled at Rose’s wedding to her new lover.
In the first sequence of the film, Maggie and Rose introduce themselves in the diary style of many chick flicks. But the film continues in an objective type of narration, with alternating sequences of the two sisters shown changing their mode of life.
At first, Rose and Maggie fulfill the filmic stereotypes. Rose is the brainy type with glasses and brown hair. Maggie is the blonde with the beautiful body but ‘dumb’. In the course of the film we see Rose changing from a workaholic lawyer who has an affair with a boss who does not treat her well to a woman who enjoys the physical pleasures of life with a loving colleague whom she marries. Maggie on the other hand changes from a promiscuous, irresponsible, thieving, immature woman to a responsible adult.
This seemingly simple and predictable story however does not reinforce the Hollywood stereotype of the woman’s film where family is chosen above career and a man is the solution to women’s lives. It subverts it. The two sisters embody the anxieties of young women today: work/life balance, body image, appearance, sexual relationships. Although Rose gives up her job, we know that it is only temporary. Instead of the perennial mother daughter conflicts we have a grandmother being significant in her adult grandchildren’s lives. The film ends up with a wedding but it is less of the culmination of a romantic affair than the resolving of the differences in the many varied strands of the narrative.
Apart from the love/hate relationship between the two sisters other binary themes pervade the film. Two men are significant in Rose’s change : her weak willed boss and her loving colleague. Two persons are key to Maggie’s change: Ella her grandmother and the blind professor who relates to her rather than her body. Youth in the guise of the beautiful body of Cameron Diaz, plays against a big cast of old people. Maggie learns from the old people but she also helps them. The old people are mainly seen in gender groups. The blind professor’s view of Maggie contradicts the sexual gaze of the old men.
Philadelphia as the big, cold, rainy city contrasts with the retirement home in sunny Florida. And the ethnic mix of the city is set against the jewish ‘Retirement Community for Active Seniors”.
Other details make of the film a dense puzzle: For example the memory of Honey Bun the dog of Maggie’s childhood and the liberating effect of dog walking on Rose.
All these dualities are reflected in the cinematography and the art direction. The Maggie sequences are at the beginning shot with a hand held camera with a lot of mirrors and reflections, emphasising the importance of appearance for her. Rose’s sequences are long shots and long takes. The colour palettes of the two locations clash throughout the alternating sequences.
Finally the dialogue is witty and cutting and reflects again ideas of two extremes : “it is never ‘fine’ with grandchildren, it is the greatest day of your life or sheer torture” says Lewis, Ella’s suitor.
The two poles of the written word is also exposed. ‘One Art’ is read by Maggie to the professor as she practices her poor reading skills. She also reads ‘I carry your heart with me’ to Rose at the wedding. The two poems about loss and love contrast with the trashy novel that was Maggie’s usual fare.
Every frame, every scene has a function in this dense film. In opposition to popular women’s films ‘In Her Shoes’ is not sentimental. The only touch of pathos are the two poems. The feelgood effect comes not from ‘they lived happily ever after’ but from the possiblily of change and the resolution of differences.
Two men in the U3A audience found the psychology and characterisation of the two women superficial and the direction cliche’d. But the majority of the women enjoyed the film tremendously in spite of what they described as the unpromising beginning of the shoes and sex scenes.
I have not given the film the attention it deserves but tried to understand why a film seemingly so cliche’d and superficial has been so widely praised. It requires a detailed analysis and comparison with other chick flicks, the women’s films of the 50s and the context of the director’s other films.
One Art by Elizabeth Bishop
I carry your heart with me by e.e. cummings