Magazine article Clinical Psychiatry News

Reel Life: The Governess. (Psychotherapy)

Magazine article Clinical Psychiatry News

Reel Life: The Governess. (Psychotherapy)

Article excerpt

"The Governess" is a film conceived and brought to life by women. The writer-director is Sandra Goldbacher, the star is Minnie Driver, and most of the other names in the credits are those of women.

The screenplay began as an attempt by Goldbacher to understand her own background: Her father is an Italian Jew and her mother is a Scotswoman from the Isle of Skye in the Hebrides. Goldbacher took an exotic leap back into British history circa 1840 and tried to create the diary of a young Sephardic woman, Rosina da Silva, growing up in London's insular Jewish community.

This is a coming-of-age story seen entirely from the young woman's point of view and almost self-consciously explores women's issues. Its text is the patriarchal world that appropriates a woman's self and deprives her of love and work, but there is no ax grinding or venom. This is a psychological inquiry that wants to understand, not censure or impeach.

When her father dies in debt, she refuses to yield to a loveless marriage. To support her family, she hides her Jewish identity and passes herself off as Mary Blackchurch, governess. An advertisement secures her a position with the Cavendish family on the Isle of Skye. Rosina's premise, which proves true, is that these Scottish aristocrats, knee-jerk anti-Semites like almost everyone else in Christendom, would never take a Jewish woman into the bosom of their family. Goldbacher's imaginative draft of the impostor's diary became her first screenplay which intrigued Minnie Driver enough to commit to the film.

Rosina is played by Driver, who has made her career acting in independent films that hit the jackpot at the box office. She was the sexy Harvard premed in "Good Will Hunting," for which she got an Oscar nomination. She is neither a conventional beauty nor the mousy governess type, and playing Goldhacher's governess might have been a stretch for her.

Rosina is like a "back from the future" governess--with a lot of that Harvard premed student still in her, yet dropped as if by a time machine into the world of Jane Eyre. Goldbacher replicates many basic elements of Charlotte Bronte's romance: the aloof older man, his crazy wife, and the fateful attraction between the employer and his virginal employee.

The bright young woman's emotional-erotic submission to her intellectually superior father figure is a staple of 19th-century literature. Jane Austen does it in "Emma"; George Eliot, in "Middlemarch"; and Bronte, In "Jane Eyre."

With its gothic twists (the unseen mother goes up in flames and the heroine gets her suffering father), the artful Jane Eyre version is the ultimate Freudian wish fulfillment: The sublimated sadomasochistic elements cause enough pain to pacify the superego while the id still gets what it wants.

Of course Bronte and her predecessors imagined all these Electra-Oedipal variations long before Freud reduced them to their unconscious meaning. But Goldbacher and Driver come after Bronte, after Freud, after late 20th-century feminism, and they released their film at the height of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. The parallels between the intern in the Oval Office and the governess in the Cavendish household set off bells too loud for an audience to ignore. But Clinton's scandal is unfair to their movie.

We are obsessed with sexual politics and the perversity of power: the professor hitting on his student, the psychiatrist on his patient, the employer on his employee, and of course, the president on his intern. Even when the relationship is legalized, disdainful images of the "trophy wife" reflect our culture's judgment that there is something sick about the older man and younger woman. We are so obsessed with the perversity of power that we do not want to entertain the Freudian possibility that the trophy wife goes after what she wants, and it is not just money power, and status.

Freud got a lot wrong about women, but "Emma," "Middlemarch," and "Jane Eyre" suggest that he was on to something in what he stubbornly calls the woman's "Oedipus complex. …

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