Advance Review: Premiered last week at Cinequest festival as part of the Showcase Section!
THE YELLOW WALLPAPER (2021)
Directed by Kevin Pontuti.
Written by Alexandra Loreth & Kevin Pontuti (screenplay), based on the short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
Starring Alexandra Loreth, Joe Mullins, Jeanne O’Connor, Clara Harte, Mark P. O’Connor
Find out more about this film here!
A young mother named Jane (Alexandra Loreth) retires to a country home for the summer with her domineering and absent husband John (Joe Mullins) and finds herself falling into depression and dementia while living in a room lined with yellow wallpaper.
I’ve read and seen many an adaptation of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short descent into madness tale. I believe I first saw a short film on PBS as a kid and it still haunts me to this day. It is a story that is as potent today as it is when it was written, mainly because mental illness is something often overlooked and shut away in even today’s woke society. THE YELLOW WALLPAPER continues to be a story of a woman silenced and a madness shut away.
This version of THE YELLOW WALLPAPER begins with a shock with Jane and her husband John riding in a carriage to their new home. When their baby begins crying, John asks Jane to take care of the child to which Jane responds by throwing the baby out of the carriage window. As John rushes to stop the carriage and rescue the infant, it is immediately communicated that Jane is not a well person and while John appears to have feelings for her, it’s hard to argue against the extreme limitations he gives Jane. Jane is a jumble of emotions, confused, bound, and unclear as to what is happening around her. This lack of control is a central theme to THE YELLOW WALLPAPER and this opening, shocking scene tells the viewer that Jane is someone that requires much of the safe keeping she is enduring. It’s hard to argue that Jane deserves otherwise. Sure, she is forbidden to write, which seems to be a form of release and creative outlet for her. It is debatable as to whether or not it would help if Jane were allowed to write out her fantasies freely rather than sneak the diary entries we hear in the narration. It is also debatable as to whether or not the tight leash her husband has put on her, forcing her to stay to the grounds and remain in her room when excited, is something necessary given the actions Jane does at the beginning. Jane is definitely not well and unsafe around her child. This scene where the child is tossed, opening the film the way it does, really takes a lot from Jane as a sympathetic character put upon by societal rules and views regarding women and insanity.
It’s because of this thematic muddiness that I felt the story of THE YELLOW WALLPAPER to be somewhat unclear in its delivery. I always read the story as a statement about how a woman goes crazy because of the confinement she suffers at the hands of an overbearing and unsympathetic husband and a society that is not ready for a woman’s free-will. But this opener makes it difficult to argue for Jane’s freedom and shows her in a light that depicts her as downright dangerous to herself and others. Alexandra Loreth seems to be an actress unafraid to portray Jane in a dark and sometimes ugly light. She is a wonderful actress and brings this complex character to life vividly as we follow her down this dark spiral. Loreth is able to carry the heavy burden of the film on her own with simply her stone-like expression and whispered narration. I do have to say, Loreth’s vocal fry is something that is very distracting during these narrations. While it does communicate the character’s depressed tone, I couldn’t help but see Loreth holding a cigarette at a coffee shop doing these narrations and it took me out of this period piece. Some end of sentence annunciations would have made some of the narration fit the era it was intended to depict.
THE YELLOW WALLPAPER needs an edit here and there. Coming in at an hour and forty minutes, the film could have shaved off twenty-five to thirty of those minutes and been a much tighter tell. There are some fantastically paced nightmare sequences involving Jane’s blur between reality and dream. There are also some great long scenes of Jane languishing in her room, attempting to find things to write upon, dreaming of conversing with made-up friends, and of course, tearing and picking at the yellow wallpaper. All of these scenes, including the powerful ending, which anyone who has seen or heard of this story won’t ever forget, work marvelously in offering up both an enchanting and haunting image of a woman unfurling. While Kevin Pontuti’s film may need a snip here and there in the editing room and makes things less black and white with the opener, THE YELLOW WALLPAPER delivers in a harrowing dive into the abyss and an ending that gives the entire plunge a deep and resonant impact.