Directed By: Paul Newman
Written By: Stewart Stern (based on the novel A Jest of God by Margaret Laurence)
Starring: Joanne Woodward, James Olson, Estelle Parsons, Kate Harrington
As the saying goes, you can’t help people who won’t help themselves.
Paul Newman’s directorial debut is a surprisingly bleak one. With Rachel, Rachel he takes us into the quietly morbid and renders a stirring perception of a world behind the eyes of a damaged mind. It’s an effective immersion into a mindset, but its cries for sympathy are muffled by the weakness of will in its central character, ultimately faltering with a protagonist who you quickly realise it’s futile to care for.
Stewart Stern’s screenplay works from the novel A Jest of God by Margaret Laurence and brings forth the character study of Rachel Cameron, a repressed and tragically introverted schoolteacher (Joanne Woodward). Woodward’s performance is an effective one, perfectly installing her eyes with fragility and longing, traits in her character that Newman makes a sombre beeline for and quickly dredges to the surface.
Rachel lives at home with her domineering mother (Kate Harrington), forever the subject of belittling comparisons to her successful sister and a voice which is characterised by a stigma of disapproval. The mother’s frequent tssk, tssks and head shaking burrow into the subconscious and prove difficult to shake, but it becomes apparent that Rachel’s introverted demeanour isn’t a product purely of her ungrateful mother. She lives above a funeral home once owned by her undertaker father, and the film is spliced with flashbacks to Rachel’s youth that trace her frayed mind. There is a moment when a young Rachel quietly moves into her father’s work station and curiously observes him mulling over the corpse of a boy not dissimilar in age. She then tries to sneak into a wicker coffin, one that we see her father use to transport the dead body of another child earlier, as though she wants to be close to death, even in youth. Rachel awaits her demise, after all it would offer a permanent respite, and just as the film is spliced with flashes of her youth which sketch her indifference to death, it also offers glimpses into the macabre fantasies of her own end later in life, grimly filling the sketch with cold colours.
Newman expertly gets inside the head of his character. We see the world in as haunting a manner as Rachel herself. You can feel the creeping stares that target her, at once leering ominously like the many beady eyes of Hitchcock’s villains in The Birds, and objectifying like the male gaze Clarice is tasked with negotiating in The Silence of the Lambs. Her repression manifests itself in spontaneous and overwhelming fits of passion from which the film pivots to-and-fro with suddenness and quiet intensity, the volatility of Rachel’s mind never questioned as her eyes dart helplessly, and she moves with a slight stiffness, as though rigor has already begun to seize her.
Rachel is humanised only by her colleague Calla (Estelle Parsons), an impassioned comrade who makes the soul attempt to bring empathy to her friend’s life and awaken her from her repressive slumber. In a truly haunting sequence Calla takes Rachel to a revival meeting to shake her from her self-apathy. The scene unravels like a nightmare mangled by LSD, as Rachel’s pent-up emotions bubble to the surface in the wake of the fiery preacher, a moment which epitomises the explosive subjugation with which she lives every day of her life.
It’s Rachel’s sexual repression which manifests itself the most rampantly however, her arsing relationship with former classmate Nick (James Olson) proving to be the one that truly captivates her. The crass Nick wears his lust on his sleeve but Rachel attempts to look past this, hoping she has found a true companion who can finally rescue her. But Rachel, Rachel isn’t a romantic film. Stern’s screenplay is low on story and high on character, detailing a woman who is fighting a losing battle to grip her own self-worth. Rachel is not detached from reality, she just doesn’t see herself as a worthy participator in it, and this defeatist attitude ultimately makes for a hollow plight.
In spite of the film’s ability to take us inside the mind of Rachel, where it falls short is in the lack of desire one faces with engaging the character. There’s great difficulty in trying to respect a character, or even pity one, that has so little interest in respecting themselves. The film feels baron and uninviting in its handling of its protagonist, and with a central figure who it is unsatisfying to cheer for, the hardships we watch her endure grow redundant.
As a visceral plunge into the icy waters of a repressed mind, the film is truly provocative, but as a sympathetic portrait, Rachel, Rachel asks too much of its audience. Joanne Woodward gets all she can out of Rachel Cameron with her terrifically nuanced performance, but unfortunately there is little else in the way of appeal to take out of the title character.