Written in 2007
We usually analyze a film because it is intriguing. Indeed this film intrigued me. The first time I saw it I was dealing with a father deep in the nightmare of dementia and a mother immobilized by osteoporosis. I was surprised that the people I knew thought the film great whereas I was not touched by it. Later I showed it to a succession of U3A film groups and also to some of my friends. It brought some women to tears and was greatly appreciated by all.
The film is described as a semi documentary. Cynthia Scott says in an interview : the story is fiction but the people are real. Neither narrative nor character driven the film operates on many levels. It offers us the experience of being in the company of people we are not usually in contact with, in a timeless, safe, created natural environment.
The plot is banal: A bus carrying eight people breaks down in the middle of the Canadian wilderness. The passengers and driver are stranded with no means of communication with the outside world. After one night they believe – for a brief moment-that the bus has been mended but are soon proven wrong. Eventually one of the group sets off to find help and they are rescued on the third morning.
Although the lost in the wilderness theme has been explored in many films The Company of Strangers defies all conventions of the genre.
The characters are all women and seven of them are over 70 years. We will get to know the women whose ages are documented as Alice (74), Beth (80), Catherine (68), Cissy (76), Constance (88), Mary (74), Winnie (76) and Michelle the driver (27).
Cynthia Scott says that the decision to have a women only film was not a ‘political decision’ but she recounts: “ In the auditions we got the people to improvise – whenever there was a man present he took over. It was very interesting: there might have been only one man and five women, but the men would start telling them what to do. The decision to use women evolved in a very natural way. 3 (Programme of the XLVII Mostra Internatzionale d’arte cinematographica Venezia , 4-15 Settembre ).” Some markers do indicate a feminist approach. The discovery of the boot-jack in the shape of naked woman illustrate the oppression of women. The patchwork quilt has been reclaimed by feminists as evidence of the often neglected expression of the creativity of women and two occurrences of a jug can be interpreted as a female symbol.
Throughout, the women support each other both physically and mentally, they hug and comfort each other. They share food, feelings, fears and fun.
Although not specifically a feminist concept the group taking precedence over the individual is a strong element as we shall see later.
In contrast to other films of the genre where nature has to be fought against, nature here is magically generous, benevolent, serene .
Before the title shots the women emerge gradually to the mournful song of the loon as they walk out of a mist towards us and into a space full of bird song that is going to be a haven from the pressure of social conventions, stress and conflict.
This special place seems to be a safe clearing in the sombre dense forest and surrounded by towering mountains. It is also accessed through a tree-tunnelled path. The entry through the mist and the path gives us the impression of a very secret special magic place. On the hill in the clearing, an abandoned farm-house looks derelict; by a quiet lake stands, mysterious, a perfectly preserved house with no sign of human habitation. A stream and golden meadows complete this romantic recreation of nature. Throughout the film, the stationary camera lingers over this landscapes, the takes are long and a soft light romanticises the views. We see this environment in the early morning mist, the rosy dusk, in moonlight, in sunshine and under a gentle rain.
Some of these images scattered throughout the film have connotations that can be interpreted as spiritual. Mary Meigs who wrote a book about the making of the film interprets a bird flying across the lake as carrying a message about life and death. The contrast between the perfection of the house by the lake and the derelict farm-house emphasises the otherworldliness of the former. In the latter, life is lived and enjoyed. The derelict house is a safe place within a safe place where the women will sleep, eat, sing dance and play.
The sound track associated with landscape shots consists mainly of lyrical classical music and bird song. Bird song acquires an added meaning as we will see later. The setting and sound track express a beauty, a serenity that is reflected in the way the story is told.
NARRATIVE AND TIME: the pre title sequence shows a group of women, two of them with canes walking out of the mist towards us. In a flash back to the very near past we hear Mary’s voice-over explain that their bus took a detour to find Constance’s childhood summer-house. We then hear the sound of the stopping engine. The driver sprains an ankle and the women start walking in a tree tunnel to emerge in the mist of the first sequences towards this safe place previously described.
Mary’s voice over is not heard again and throughout the film there is no narrator’s point of view. As we do not know where the women come from or where they are going, it is impossible to anticipate a future or look back to a past. Time is not structured by the narrative. The main effect of this isolation on the women is not conflict, power struggle, but cooperation and getting to know each other. 60 mins into the 100 minutes film the women think mistakenly that the bus is mended but this event has only a dramatic impact on Michelle the younger woman. Overall it signals a momentary change of mood.
The sun rises, the night falls, meals are consumed but there is no sense of urgency to escape the situation. Scenes can be interchanged with no loss of interest or meanings.
Dramatic events are few and convey meaning rather than narrative progress. The first one occurs at the beginning when Michelle sprains her ankle and is forced to walk with a stick. This harmonises the group in making her as physically slow as the other passengers. Later on, the women have retired for the night in the farmhouse but Beth has remained in the bus relishing her privacy. However an animal’s screech frightens her and she runs to the safety of the group to be comforted by Catherine. Another event is Beth’s removal of her wig, that will be discussed later. Finally the rescue evokes relief but also sadness rather than triumph.
EDITING Without narrative tension the films consists of disjointed scenes. Transitions are sometimes brief shots of the natural environment. The scenes are long takes. They follow a certain rhythm. Action, contemplation, close-ups, dialogue, landscape pans, and still photographs, not always in that order. Time and again the landscapes and contemplative episodes concentrate the attention of the viewer to the moment.
Some action scenes depict getting the farmhouse ready for the night, fishing, gathering berries and frogs, cooking wild mushrooms and fish, mending the bus, and devising ways to get help. These survival activities have an unmistakable feeling of a camping adventure in that there is no threat, hunger, pain or fear. The slight figure of Cissy carrying a mattress too big for her, the efforts at making smoke signals, the Help sign spelt with stones on the beach, catching frogs in the meadow, stunning fish with rock like bears do, recall innocent and secure games in nature. Le Fabuleux Gang des Sept, the French title of the film certainly carries this meaning.
JOY OF LIFE
Others scenes depict pure enjoyment: dancing, singing, splashing in the river, playing cards, bird watching
Slow pans and tilts on the environment or the women make up long contemplative scenes. In these, point-of-view shots show the silent women looking at the landscape. A long sequence picks each woman in turn looking at the falling rain from the porch of the farm. A full moon precedes closeups of the heads of the women sleeping. We see the women in twos, threes or as a group. More than once a long shot of the group is followed by close-ups shots of each woman’s face.
The seven women, all over 70, have diverse body shapes. Cissie is small and slight, Alice and Constance are matronly and the others fall between these extremes. The usual physical stereotypes ‘little old lady’ or ‘matronly old woman’ cannot be easily fit this group of older women. The women display the universal sign of old age: more or less grey/white hair. The camera dwells on Constance’s and Mary’s completely white manes with the light shining through. This silvery white complements the palette of pinks, grey and light blues that is prominent in the indoors scenes. Hair is the subject of the third dramatic event mentioned earlier. We see that on waking in the morning, Beth first gesture is to adjust her wig. In one conversation, Michelle the younger black woman questions her about the wearing of the wig and challenges her to take it off. The sight of Beth without a brown wig is a shocking moment in this quiet film. It is shocking because it raises the question of aging. The viewer is confronted with an unavoidable inner sudden thought ‘she is older than she looked’ . While grey/white hair can be made beautiful by careful lighting and colour choices, scarcity and thinness of hair revealing the scalp is more difficult to accept. The solution in this scene is for Beth to cover her head with a scarf instead of the wig. That this scene is played out between Beth very conscious of her appearance and the much younger woman raises a few questions that we will come back to.
Close ups of very lined faces and hands with prominent veins and liver spots often signify old age in visual representation of older women. Here, lines except for Constance’s face are not highlighted and in closeups the hands are engaged in some activity: mending the engine, applying a poultice, drawing, writing, constructing a fish net, gathering berries.
In terms of the physical disabilities and vulnerabilities of old age, it is Cissy who mentions that she can no longer knit after her stroke but she still can do her gardening and caring for her grandchildren. Catherine on setting off on her long march prepares her arthritic feet for the ordeal. Most of the women are reliant on some medication in a scene where they mention in a very matter of fact way their different ailments and swallow pills of different colours. Mary on taking her pills declares she has pains everywhere and Beth has a heart condition. The episode is light-hearted and the women are not seen as diminished. The pills have another function in Constance’s case.
Otherwise physical loss and as we shall see, proximity of death are all embodied in one person: Constance. In the pre-title sequences as the women walk slowly through the mist Constance stops and tells Mary how she remembers the song of the white throated sparrow. In fact the bird is singing. Mary can hear it but Constance does not. This loss of hearing is observed again later at the mysterious house when Constance mourns the loss of the pleasure of hearing birdsong. Constance walks with a stick and is seen walking very hesitantly while the others are sure-footed. Whereas the other women take part in physical activities, she is shown sitting down or sleeping, away from the others and once she is seen crying.
Constance is associated with Death. Cynthia Scott recounts that her producers insisted that something should happen but she resisted the pressure of including the death of a protagonist. She exercised as Mary says “The art of leaving things out”. There is no doubt that Death is present both verbally and cinematographically. Constance herself articulates it. She says on seeing Mary’s drawing of a dead sparrow: ‘ Death is around us everywhere ”. She does articulate: ‘I will die soon, I might as well die here.’ Mary says of her:’ she is afraid of death– and so am I’. Her desire to see her childhood summer-house again, her declaring that she was happy here after the discovery of the house can also be interpreted as the end of a life. Cinematographically three scenes powerfully express the last journey. She leaves the farm-house on her own, and very carefully, slowly walks across the fields, along a path between the forest and the water, and finally discovers this ghost-like house perfect and with no sign of life. The return to the house of your childhood symbolises the closing up of the loop of life. This sequence is very sombre. The colours are dark green as opposed to the predominant pinks, light blues, greys and soft greens of other scenes. An unreal feeling is conveyed by seeing her progress on this path only in the reflection in the black water.
Another scene separates her from the other women. They are on the other side of the lake and one by one they call to her. One of them shouts: ‘we are alive’.
The last scene suggesting death is when on the verandah of the mysterious house, she deliberately throws her pills in the water.
It is the wonderful timeless structure of the film however that makes the idea of death so peaceful and acceptable. These scenes are scattered through the film in amongst the others celebrating the joy of living. Having associated Constance with death, the next time we see her, she is playing cards laughing and participating in the group’s activities.
One could interpret this as a temporary depressive episode in Constance’s state of mind but seen in the context of the whole film it puts death as a natural theme in the lives of these women.
Death and timelessness are the strongest theme and the most powerfully embodied.
Others themes of the lives of older women are touched upon but they do not define them.
By careful selection of aspects of these women lives, a rich and complex tapestry of older women experiences is woven.
Throughout, the women interact with each other in two or threes. In different permutations, they give each other – and us – snapshots of their experiences through memories and feelings. There are no shots/counter shots but often a single frame contains two heads in close up profiles giving a feeling of intimacy. Also the context of these exchanges , during food sharing, in the middle of the night, around a fire emphasises this intimacy.
The diversity of this fragmented information prevents close identification and stereotyping. Faith is discussed by Catherine the nun and Mary. The loss of a loved one has two modes. Cissy believes in an after life and thinks of her husband up there looking at her. For Beth the loss of her son at 27 is a tragedy that she encapsulates in one sentence.: “I have never been happy since.”. Marriage was happy for Cissy but disastrous for Alice: “How much I loved him then (when they first married) how much I hate him at the end”. Winnie is fickle and gets tired of a man after eight months. Alice and Winnie and Beth recall their working life while Constance regrets having to give up art school to raise her children . Beth illustrates the pressure of having to disguise signs of ageing by wearing a wig and she enunciates her need to conceal her lined neck. Mary bears witness to the change in attitude to lesbians over the course of her life and Cissy talks about the London Blitz. Some nostalgia of youth, the dances, the first love are expressed. As a group they share the fact they still have hopes, dreams and desire. However there is very little projection to the future. Alice expresses her sadness at the thought of not being there for her grandson when he grows into an adult. Cissy who is dependent on her son fears being left destitute if she loses him but Alice is sure that her daughter would look after her.
Each person’s experience of, death, illness, marriage, children and grandchildren, work, faith, exclusion, social pressures and changes, nostalgia of youth could be the source of a drama. As Cissy says: “ all life is a drama”. But apart from Beth, a private city woman getting to adapt to nature and the group, there is no character development, no interpersonal conflicts, no power struggles, no emotional outbursts.
What we know about these strangers is only what they tell each other and us about themselves. It has been said that these conversations follow the form of a documentary interview because one person asks a question and the other replies. But it can be argued that it is more like a very intimate exchange where listening is the mark of interest in the other and not a professional attitude.
Apart from what the women themselves tell us about themselves we have two other sources of information about them: their competences and still photographs of them in their past.
Catherine, a mechanic, tries to repair the engine of the bus in two long sequences and walks miles to get help. Alice rather stereotypically displays the folk wisdom of the Mohawks. She heals Michelle and construct a fish trap with available means, namely a pair of tights. Mary draws and writes. Winnie dances. Beth sings and performs. Cissy and Constance do not display any particular skills but it can be inferred that they looked after their families.
Just as the dialogue gives us snippets of information on the background and the past of these women, series of 3 to 4 still photographs taken in their childhood, youth and maturity are inserted in between scenes . They are thus situated in their own past and fashion indicates a particular time and class Cissy’s obvious working class snaps contrast with Constance artistic portraits. Beth posing in a swimming suit and the presence of her son as a baby, a toddler and a youth, stress the tragedy of her life. Catherine at some stage in her life wore a nun’s habit, and Mary is in some sort of uniform. These still photographs complement what we know about them but do not stimulate the imagination enough to construct a character, a life.
Michelle is the only one who does not divulge any information about herself and there are no stills of her. She is a listener but also participates in the activities. As seen previously her conversation with Beth is the only one which challenges the other. Other conversations show a desire to understand, but Michelle actually confronts Beth, her wig and the way she feels about her aging body. In contrast to most films, the young woman is in a minority and marginal. Although she is active and present, she is different. As we have seen she has been disabled right at the beginning of the film therefore she is not more physical fit compared to the others . Her difference is expressed by her loudness. She shrieks with delight on hearing that the bus is functional, she sings loudly in contrast to the softness of Catherine singing hymns. She is the only element that brings to mind the question of age in this film where 7 out of the eight women are over 70. “ I wish I look like you when I am 80”.
We know very little about Michelle or Winnie yet they are both as present as the others.
HOW THE FILM WORKS?
By doing away with narrative and motivation, by the disjointed scenes, by the lack of concrete information about the lives of these women outside the circumstances of the film we are constantly brought back to what is depicted on-screen. The closeups, the stillness, the fragmented knowledge we get about each of them and their behaviour in mundane tasks or games, simulate the way people get to know one another in residential study week-ends for example and the viewer is thus led into the company of these strangers. They are not characters who develop or change during the film. They just are. The use of a constructed nature and contemplative shots brings the viewer to the here and now. The photography, lighting , soundtrack and pace give a feeling of serenity that some people might consider spiritual.
This analysis enlightens to some degree the way different people have reacted to the film. Our view of older women is often determined by our contact with mothers and grandmothers, rarely nowadays aunts and others. The representation of older women in films is very limited and relies on stereotypes. This film is important in that it presents to the audience a diversity of older women rarely seen in feature films and thus dispels age prejudices based on stereotypes.
The majority of critics in the British press praised and enjoyed the film. Their comments were concentrated on the age of the women.
In my case both parents had very difficult last years and I, originally found the film too comforting. At a first viewing it is difficult to appreciate how present are death and loss. But there is no sentimentality or pathos in the treatment of these realities.
Cissy’s childlike naivety, Winnie’s wry sense of humour, the singing, laughing, the games express the joy of living and the contemplative episodes induce calm and contemplation. The environment is safe and devoid of conflict. The women are in tune with a benevolent nature and supporting relationships.
In fact the film presents us with a dream world where nature and people are in perfect harmony, where relationships are all understanding where time has lost its urgency, where death is not threatening.