A Woman’s Face (1941)

24 03 2014

As much as I’ve enjoyed the Cukor films I’ve watched in the past week, they’ve been a little light on personality. Again, they’ve all been good but seem to be missing something that could be classified as uniquely Cukor’s. A Woman’s Face, on the other hand, is the first film of his that I’ve seen that seems especially unique, a film that one probably couldn’t find in the career of any other classic Hollywood director. The film, dripping with melodramatic flourishes, might not seem the most natural or easiest effort of Cukor’s to digest, but it is absolutely one of the richest, most complex films I’ve seen from the era. It’s not quite an out right masterpiece, but it is one of those films that is so singular and unique that it should be (re)considered.


Anna Holm storms into the court as the public loudly chatters. The charge is never read to the audience, but we can deduce that she is the one on trial. A group of witnesses explain how they met Holm, but their stories never seem to reach a climax, instead they just seem to be establishing context. Then, it is revealed that Holm is a blackmailer, and she runs a rural bar as a cover. Also, she has a very distinctive scar on the right side of her face, one she conscientiously tries to hide from the rest of the world. Her employees all know her truth, though, and they all gossip about her perceived ugliness. Holm sees herself as a monster as well, and when one Torsten Barring attempts to seduce her, she can’t help but falling helplessly in love with him. His affection comes at a price, though, as he expects Holm to kill off Lars-Erik Barring, his nephew who is the one obstacle to him receiving a large inheritance.


While the setup here is melodrama, I feel the need to clarify that I don’t think this is something inherently negative. Additionally, I don’t think Cukor plays things in the manner that an accusation of melodrama would be read as a negative. This is a melodramatic film, and by that I mean that the flow of the narrative is one that, taken out of context, would seem pretty ridiculous. Again, though this doesn’t make a film “bad” and Cukor thankfully handles the frequent emotional turns with a deft touch. The film’s wordless opening is particularly powerful, and it has the type of coldblooded austerity of a Bresson or Haneke. In fact, the visuals of the opening seem like they could easily be mistaken for Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc, perhaps a fitting comparison considering that the protagonist here is thrown into fire by a society already set against her.


Joan Crawford is important in selling Anna Holm’s “me vs the rest of the world” mentality. I guess conventional wisdom associates her with a type of heightened performance (see Mildred Pierce) but her ferocity here perfectly underscores the tragedy of her predicament. A woman who has never known love or affection, is suddenly overwhelmed by a wave of positive reinforcement, but her love can only validated if she murders a child. Holm has essentially been trapped in a box, indeed one that a patriarchal society fits for most women. Her appearance further ostracized her, which leads to her violence. “The world was against me so I was against it” she poignantly states during the trial. The use of the past tense suggests that her medical procedure has saved her from this scrutiny but it only leads to another set of issues. Sure, in a society that relates a woman’s worth with her beauty she does have an advantage after her surgery. However, her beauty makes her relationship with Torsten Barring more high-stakes and eventually, tragic.


Holm’s doctor, Gustaf Segert, laments pre-surgery that he may invent a monster if the procedure is successful. It’s him posturing as a philosopher when he suggests that a beautiful woman with no heart is a monster. The film doesn’t support his view, but it provides it to illustrate an important point. It’s Holm’s oppression, the disgust everyone greeted her with that made her cold and bitter. This might be the most crucial element of Cukor’s film. His queer identity was something I assumed would be mostly veiled from his actually work with maybe some moments of homoerotic subtext. Instead, here is he making a concise and important point: the need for such an identity and community is necessary because of the oppression. Now, this sounds kind of bad, as if I’m arguing that bigotry brought people closer. I mean that it created a vital resistance, because there had to be one. Holm is not to blame for being a heartless woman, but instead it’s a society that has done everything to point out her perceived flaws and distance itself from her. That’s why when she’s tormented by her acceptance as a beautiful woman, because it almost validates the ill treatment she received when she was (supposedly) hideous.


All of this seems like the heaviest political aspect of what is already a heavy emotional film, but Cukor’s own playfulness works to his advantage while it manages to reinforce the above argument. The relationship of Torsten and Holm is one that develops from him seducing her, the first ever femme fatale that identifies as a man. Quietly, Torsten follows the same trajectory of this stock female character. His evilness is meant to be Holm’s downfall, her punishment for not quietly accepting the way society has rejected her entire existence. Instead, the film concludes on a rather happy note. But still, Cukor’s gender reversal is not only sneaky and clever, but illustrates a more realistic point about power dynamics. The conventional femme fatale is an independent woman whose independence is associated with evil, and her modernity is the downfall of the typical, helpless male. This dynamic had such novelty because of its erotic potential, sure, but also because it actually reaffirms a very conservative set of beliefs. Cukor manages to tear all of this down, and the destruction is as captivating as the film’s superficial narrative.





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