French writer Léger muses on the life and work of American filmmaker Barbara Loden (1932-1980).
Loden directed one film, Wanda, which she wrote and starred in. Assigned to write “a short entry” about the movie for a film encyclopedia, Léger says she,“kept being carried away by the subject.” Her interest grows after learning Loden based Wanda on “a newspaper story she had read about a woman convicted of robbing a bank,” who “thanked the judge” when given a 20-year prison sentence. “[What] pain, what hopelessness could make a person desire to be put away?” Léger wonders, “How could imprisonment be relief?” Moving descriptions of Loden’s performance in Wanda dot the narration as Léger struggles to reveal joy or pain Loden may have hidden, beyond her early work as a pin-up girl, her marriage to Elia Kazan, and a 1964 Tony Award for her role in Arthur Miller’s After the Fall. Translators Lehrer and Menon give Léger’s voice immense verve in English as her small task becomes an obsession. “You think you’re dealing with pure formalities, footnotes...then somehow you end up with endless decisions to make, with abandoned hopes and collapsed hyphotheses.” Even a trip to the Pennsylvania coal-mining towns where Wanda was filmed yields no eureka moment. While Léger accepts that Loden is an elusive myth, this hybrid text mirroring that elusiveness fails to reveal what Léger actually found so fascinating. “When Wanda came out in 1970 feminists hated it,” Léger notes, saying it had “no self-awareness, no pioneering mythology of the free woman.” But the film had fans in Europe, including Marguerite Duras, who said of the final scene in Wanda, “I see a kind of glory there, a very powerful glory, very violent, very profound.”
Loden fans will enjoy Léger’s riffs; others may find the obsession mystifying.