“There either is or there is not a way that things are. The color of the day, the way it felt to be a child, the feel of salt water on you sunburnt legs. Sometimes the water is yellow, sometimes it is red, but the color of the water in memory depends on the day. I’m not going to tell this story the way that it happened, I’m going to tell it the way I remember it.”
I know that I’m probably in the minority here, but I love this movie. I’m speaking about the 1998 version directed by Alfonso Cuarón with Ethan Hawke, Gwyneth Paltrow, Chris Cooper, Anne Bancroft and Robert DeNiro.
Charles Dicken’s original novel followed the story of poor orphan Pip, who through the generosity of a mysterious benefactor is granted the opportunity to elevate in society as a gentleman. In this film, the setting is updated from Victorian London to Florida and New York of the 1980’s and 90’s (though time is suggested and not firmly planted). Instead of becoming a gentleman, Finn (the film’s version of Pip, played by Hawke) elevates in the art world (supported by gorgeous paintings done by Francesco Clemente).
This movie is about memory, manipulation and love. Many of the machinations are the same as the original novel: Finn encounters an escaped criminal (DeNiro) and gets him supplies and helps him escape (under duress). Finn is raised by Joe (Cooper, here his mother’s boyfriend, who continues to raise him even after she leaves). Finn encounters Estella as a boy and grows up with her as a playmate, under the observation of her aunt Ms. Dinsmoor (the film’s Havisham, played by Bancroft). And then, as a young man, a generous and mysterious benefactor offers to support Finn’s ambitions and his elevation in society. But here, it’s about art.
The first thing that you notice about this film is how lush everything is, even the poverty and dilapidation. From the first moments, we learn that there is a kind of magic in this place, the kind that can be found in the memory of it. The first moments of Finn are about him observing the world around him and then drawing it in his sketchbook. The water is deeply blue, the convicts appears under the surface of the water his face and blazing orange jumpsuit, a shock. The scenes drift from one to another, the way memory jumps around. After he returns from his final encounter with the criminal, helping him escape, he is just in time to accompany Joe on a job to a recluse’s dilapidated mansion. While Joe sees about the job, Finn wanders off into the overgrown garden in the back and amongst the crumbling structures and fountains he meets Estella. She approaches him as he is drinking water and kisses him. And there it begins, his infatuation. And his first response after leaving with Joe is to draw how the kiss felt. He is recalled to the estate by Dinsmoor to be a playmate for Estella, dancing, as it were, for his money. All he while, his affection for Estella acknowledges and nudged forward by Dinsmoor (“She’ll only break your heart, it’s a fact. And even though I warn you, even though I guarantee you that the girl will only hurt you terribly, you’ll still pursue her. Ain’t love grand?”)
They continue their arrangement throughout their adolescence and through high school, dancing and drawing. Until one night, Dinsmoor decides that Finn will escort Estella to a dance. He meets her there–the vastness of their economic standing showcased in him stopped at the gate of the Florida mansion where the party is occurring in Joe’s landscaper pickup truck. Estella comes out and climbs in and they go back to Finn’s place (Joe is out late). It is there that Estella begins her seduction of Finn, before abruptly stopping because she is so late and she has so much to do. And our hearts racing with Finn’s, our confusion his as she is suddenly gone. Gone. Finn goes to Dinsmoor’s estate in the morning and discovers that Estella has gone to Europe. (“Why, she’s gone! Estella’s left for school abroad – Switzerland for two years, then Paris – she’s gone! Didn’t she say goodbye? Oh! I’m sure she meant to.”) He discovers that all of the years together, his visits to the estate, were all a form of training for her. He was a mouse for her to play with. (What kind of a creature does this? Takes this? Takes such a gift, such a trust? Takes advantage of a 42-year-old woman. What kind of creature leaves this woman waiting like a fool? A man, a man does this. So men must pay, am I right? Estella will make men weep …When she returns she’ll cut through men like a hot knife through butter, chickaboom.) And it was all under the manipulations of Dinsmoor, jilted at the alter by a man years before. So he gave it all up.
“Seven Years passed, I stopped going to Paradiso Perduto, I stopped painting. I put aside the fantasy and the wealthy, and the heavenly girl who did not want me. None of it would happen to me again. I’d seen through it. I elected to grow up.”
And then suddenly he is approached with an opportunity to change his fate. A fully financed trip to New York, a deal with a gallery … all of the dreams he once had.
He dove in. He flew to New York, met with the gallery owners and began his work. In the city he starts out as left Florida, in squalor, a tiny, dingy single room. But as he is sketching in the park he stumbles upon Estella once again. The time and the distance, they seem to have placed them on equal footing somehow, in this city. She visits him in his room and poses for him-nude, their seduction has begun anew. He meets her friends, her fiancé, and he begins to change. He negotiates with the trust lawyer for a larger loft apartment, a larger stipend, publicity for his upcoming show. He suspects that once again this is all a game, that Dinsmoor is his benefactor and that she has put him and Estella together for some reason. He thinks that knowing this will somehow allow him to win this time. He is convinced that this time he and Stella will be together. He crashes a dinner that she is at with her fiancé and friends at a restaurant, they begin to dance and then he walks out with her, into the rainy night, into a cab, and into his bed. Surely this time.
When it’s time for his opening, it’s a blur. All of the people he knows in New York are swirling around him. And then Joe shows up, a reminder of where he came from. Of who he really is. In this version, Joe hasn’t died, Finn just concocted a story around his death. Invented a version of himself wholesale. Of course Joe doesn’t fit in, and of course it breaks Joe’s heart that Finn doesn’t welcome him into his new life, but Joe is Finn’s soul. He gets it. He knows that Finn needs to find his own way and he trusts that Finn will do right in the end. (“The night all of my dreams came true, and like all happy endings it was a tragedy, of my own device…for I had succeeded, I had cut myself loose from Joe, from the past, from the gulf, from poverty, I had invented myself, I’d done it cruely but I had done it, I was free…”). But Estella wasn’t there. He goes to her building and from outside calls up to her:
“I did it! I did it! I am a wild success! I sold ’em all, all my paintings. You don’t have to be embarrassed by me anymore. I’m rich! Isn’t that what you wanted? Aren’t we happy now? Don’t you understand that everything I do, I do it for you? Anything that might be special in me, is you.”
He is admitted inside to discover Dinsmoor. Estella has flown off with her fiancé to be married. Dinsmoor is not his benefactor. Once again, he was used to get Estella’s fiancé to commit. Finn kneels before the elderly Dinsmoor, places her hand on his heart, the same way she had done with his as a boy, and tells her: “Do you know what this is? It’s my heart, and it’s broken…can you feel it?” And she nods, a little broken know that she realizes that in preparing Estella to not end up like her that she has done to Finn what had been done to her. It was her revenge, but not in the way she had ever envisioned it.
The final revelation of the evening occurs when Finn returns home, he finds a couple of tough guys nosing around outside his building and an older gentleman asking if he could use his phone to call the police. Finn allows him in and we see that the older gentleman is the criminal from the beginning of the movie, softer now with his age and somehow more nurturing. And that’s when it all comes together, he had scrimped and saved money from all of his (presumably illegal) endeavors over the years to support Finn’s entry into the art world. Hiding out in Europe he had reinvented himself, carried along by both a memory of a kind act from a boy and a sketchbook full of beautiful pictures drawn by that boy. As in the novel, the criminal has chosen to push himself to ruin in order to support Finn (in the book it is a debtor’s prison, here it is returning to New York where he stole from some mobsters to set up his nest egg). The film doesn’t share the other revelation, which if you are unfamiliar with it, I won’t spoil it for you here. They try to make a hasty exit and escape from the goons, but fate isn’t that kind. As the dawn comes up on Finn’s new life he sits on a train with his benefactor, once formative in his terrifying appearance and now formative in his sacrifice, and he must choose what to do with his new life.
Years pass again. Finn has travelled the world, as suggested by his benefactor. He is still tied to his past, but he is not the poor boy he once was nor the jaded New York artist that his last encounter with Estella threatened to make him. He has returned to Florida,to visit his past: to see Joe and Joe’s new family, and to revisit the dilapidated manor where he spent his youth, which is due to be torn down (Dinsmoor had died there years before, alone, undiscovered for days after pushing away everyone that had once had any affection for her). It is while he is in the house that he sees a young girl run past, a young girl that leads him to the adult Estella, divorced now. Wistful and regretful.
Estella: Finn? Is that you?
Finn: Is that your little girl?
Estella: Yes. I had to bring her. I wanted to show her this place.
Finn: Have you been back often?
Finn: Me either.
Estella: So… I hear all about you. You’re doing great.
Finn: I’m doing okay.
Estella: Things have been… different for me. For a long time, I kept…
Estella: I think about you. A lot lately.
Finn: I’m glad.
Estella: Can you ever forgive me?
Finn: Don’t you know me at all?
The film ends with the two figures standing next to each other (are they holding hands?) as they look off into the horizon. The light envelops them where we can’t really see them anymore. The original novel had two endings, both of them as bittersweet as this film. The first involved Pip encountering Estella on the street while Estella, single, pushing a tram with her child inside. The editors rejected it because they thought that it was too dark, obviously Estella was ruined, and they wanted a happier ending. So Dickens wrote a new ending, one where Pip returns to the Havisham estate to find that Estella has been living there alone. They sit down to play cards as they did when they were children (dancing lessons was substituted in the film for cards). In none of these scenarios does Pip/ Finn actually end up with Estella in any concrete sense. But there seems to be an understanding of what had transpired between them and a hope of sorts for the future. They shared a history and a relationship that was completely unique to them. And for all of the damage and the secrets, they were the only ones who really truly knew the other.
“She did know me. And I knew her. I always had…from the first instant. And all the rest – it was past. And there was only my memory of it.”
I remember first seeing the trailer for this movie. I don’t remember what movie it was in front of, but I rewatched it every chance I got on our ancient dialup internet. There was something epic in this personal story. It took a book that I really did love (though now I haven’t read it in years and fear, just a little bit, that I may have mis-remembered details from the story) and updated it in the most fantastic way. I saw art and a relationship to making art depicted in the way that it felt to me to make art. When I saw the movie in the theatre, I remember standing at the end, as the credits scrolled, drinking in the Clemente artwork from the movie. The music enraptured me. I left and explored this new artist that I had never previously heard of. I bought the soundtrack and kept it on regular rotation. I got the movie on VHS and then later it was one of the first DVDs that I bought. Every time I put it on I found myself mid-movie with a pad of paper in my hands making artwork. And to some degree, this movie helped shape my experiences with relationships, but I’m not going to explore that subject again here. I think that this movie might be one of the first that I saw that I would describe as sensual–the colors, the feelings, the artwork. Others are welcome to tell me that I’m wrong. This is about how I remember this film.
More later …