Director Gillian Armstrong sets out to ruminate on the nature of great love in "Mrs. Soffel"--"This is a story about passion where intellect finally goes and emotion takes over," she said in a recent conversation.
But in evoking great love, she revives a Gothic notion of romance--women masochistically drawn to dangerous men--and makes some of her fans wonder where her feminist convictions have flown.
The movie is based on the true story of a doomed affair between a celebrated bank robber (Mel Gibson) and a prison warden's wife (Diane Keaton) who helped him escape from her husband's prison and fled with him. Ed Biddle is depicted by Gibson as history has recorded him: youthful, handsome, magnetic, manipulative, reckless. Qualities similar to those of the Gothic romantic hero, that beleaguered renegade whose place in fiction has been secure since the tragic romance of Catherine and Heathcliff in Emily Bronte's 1847 novel "Wuthering Heights."
Since then, women have associated a certain brand of prickly male hypersensitivity with high romantic passion. Heathcliff's clones have multiplied so fast they'd be hard to count: from the dozens of Count Dashleys in cheap romance novels to the Edward G. Robinsons and James Deans of contemporary cinema. What they share is a propensity toward criminal or delinquent behavior that heats up women's attractions to them as irresistible sexual magnets.
Women are fascinated by these mad-dog men because they symbolize all the social fury that many women feel but cannot express. For if some men feel thwarted to the point of rebellion, imagine how women feel. More women are born to limited circumstances, more have their horizons foreshortened at an early age. Yet where in fiction do we find the woman who will go down in flames before she'll knuckle under to the status quo?
She doesn't really exist in fiction, and for good reason: She's rare in reality. Angry women rarely do turn their anger outward and become rebels. They become depressives, schizophrenics, bag ladies or, as we are finding out, child abusers. Or if they commit crimes, they do it without real initiative. A recent study of women prisoners revealed that most of them had defied the law to please a husband or boyfriend. No wonder, then, that the outlaw women we see in stories are usually gun molls or prostitutes.
Neither stereotype can be taken seriously as a symbol of rebellion.
But what is the nature of Kate Soffel's rebellion? How could a well-treated, comfortable bourgeois housewife summon up the fury at society necessary to commit the act she committed?
As Armstrong, screenwriter Ron Nyswaner and Keaton depict her, Kate Soffel's rebellion is a mystery. We see her bored, suffocated, possibly misunderstood and ignored, but never really in extremis . Nothing festers in her. We don't get the sense of someone furious--the woman who looks at her position in life, her options, and concludes: This must end.
Nor do we see a misfit, a woman trapped in a state of chronic anger, hiding her misery under layers of mechanical domestic chores. Such a woman's incipient rebellion could reach flashpoint in the company of another misfit of equal and opposite intensity. But Diane Keaton's Kate Soffel has none of that intensity.
She is simply a rather oppressed, pinched women locked into the meaningless pieties of bourgeois life and organized religion. She feels uninspired by her husband--but then so do lots of women. She feels depressed enough to have to "take to bed" for months at a time--but then "neurasthenia" was common among women at the turn of the century. Nowhere do we see the special inner fire or vast confusion that would lead a woman to take off with a notorious rebel.
Without any persuasive motivation on Kate Soffel's side, the story has to rely on the sheer force of Gibson's animal magnetism to carry its logic. But as handsome as Gibson is, he can't shoulder this burden. The movie's publicist knows it, too: That's why People magazine ran the cover article with the absurd headline, "Mel Gibson: The Sexiest Man In The World!"
Skepticism about the ultra-romantic theme attempted in "Mrs. Soffel" comes particularly easy in this era, which has seen more than its share of real-life prison rescuers. Look at all the head-over-heels-in-love women who have put their lives and reputations on the line for "romantic" criminals. There was Eldridge Cleaver's lawyer, who not only defended him but brought "Soul on Ice" to a publisher she knew.
Her reward for her trouble was to be summarily dumped by Cleaver when he got out of jail (he had more important things to do, like go into business marketing codpieces).
Or there was Fay Stender, who defended George Jackson and was later shot and paralyzed by radical blacks furious over his death. She committed suicide a year later.