I try to do right by my wife. I make a decent living, which provides a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs, and food on our table. I do my best to be caring, thoughtful, and dependable. Though he's only three years old, our son shows her love as best he can. "I love you," he tells her all the time. We're not the Cleaver family, but all in all, things seem to be going pretty well at our house.
Now that I've seen The Hours, though, I know that if she were to decide one day, out of nowhere, to walk out on the boy and me ... well, life is like that. The heart wants what it wants, and nobody has any business judging her. She's just doing what she has to to be happy.
The Hours is a feminist movie that has been praised to the skies by critics, took home some major Golden Globe awards, and is expected to do well in upcoming Academy Award nominations. I think the movie is pure poison, and am going to tell you why (warning: Major spoilers ahead). Then again, Gloria Steinem figured I'd react that way.
In a Los Angeles Times essay lauding the film, Steinem wrote, "Some male moviegoers emerged bewildered about why Laura wasn't happy with just her nice house, nice marriage, and nice son -- as if they would have been."
Well, call me a caveman, but yes, I did wonder why Laura (Julianne Moore), a 1950s suburban housewife with a loving husband and a small boy who adores her, was made so miserable by her existence that she came close to killing herself, even though she was pregnant, and ultimately abandoned her husband and two young children to run off to Canada. It's telling that Steinem, who probably still thinks the National Organization for Women speaks for the entire female population, assumes that all women naturally understand Laura's decision (guess what, they don't).
To sharpen the point, it's not that Laura's unhappiness is hard to grasp, though she never talks to her nice-guy husband, or anybody else, about what she's feeling. The objectionable thing is the film's view that Laura owed nothing to her husband and children, not even an explanation, and that her pursuit of happiness should trump everything else -- and that this should be obvious to any fair-minded viewer.
That's the philosophical heart of this film: Individual happiness is the highest good in anyone's life, and brave are those who have the courage to put personal fulfillment above any other entanglement. The Hours is a fairytale for contemporary narcissists. No wonder Hollywood loves it so.
The film is beautifully shot and very well acted by Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep, who lend a great deal of professionalism and glamour to what is essentially an apologia for evil. Each plays a woman of a different place and time: Virginia Woolf (Kidman), living in her English country house in 1923; Laura Brown (Moore), a suburban Los Angeles housewife in 1951; and Clarissa Vaughn (Streep), a book editor living in present-day Manhattan. The film takes place over the course of a single day in the lives of the women. Each is linked by a connection to Mrs. Dalloway, the novel Woolf begins plotting over the course of her day.
Mrs. Dalloway (Woolf's original title was The Hours) is the story of a day in the life of an apparently cheerful woman who loves playing society hostess, but who suffers from inner torment, in part over the road not taken. Initially, as the film depicts, Woolf intended to have Clarissa Dalloway kill herself, but decided that was too dark. She had a "double" with whom Clarissa identifies do the deed, which allows Clarissa to ponder mystical possibilities of vicarious death and spiritual connection -- a theme that this film (adapted from Michael Cunningham's 1998 novel) explores in the lives of these three women, linked by an invisible thread.
In the film, Woolf is living and working in the leafy London suburb of Richmond, where her devoted husband Leonard (Stephen Dillane) has taken her in hopes that the quiet of the countryside will ease her suicidal depression. In the end, we see that Leonard's hopes are in vain. Demanding to return to London, Virginia tells her husband, "My life has been stolen from me. I'm living in a town I do not wish to live in. I am living a life I do not wish to live. ... If it is a choice between Richmond or death, I choose death."
The writer drowned herself 18 years later, as she began another descent into madness. The lesson The Hours wants us to get from this remark, though, is that for some sensitive souls, dying is better than the psychological confinement of boredom. And that that's ... okay.
Laura Brown is the stereotypical "perfect" 1950s housewife, who is discovering herself in the pages of Mrs. Dalloway. She puts the book down to spend her day with her son baking a cake for her husband's birthday dinner. After an impromptu kiss with a startled female neighbor, in which we see that her suppressed lesbian longings are probably the source of her misery, pregnant Laura drops her son off at the sitter's house, checks into a hotel with the novel, and plans to commit suicide.
In the present day, Clarissa Vaughan is planning a party for her AIDS-ravaged friend Richard (Ed Harris), who has won a poetry prize. Richard taunts her for her devotion to him, calling her "Mrs. Dalloway," with the implication that she is wasting her life in service to him. "Just wait till I die," he tells her. "Then you're going to have to think of yourself. How are you going to like that?" We see over the course of the day that she is dissatisfied with her life, including her lesbian lover of ten years (Allison Janney), and even the sprightly daughter (Claire Danes) she had with a turkey baster seems to have disappointed her.
In the end, Richard commits suicide by throwing himself out his high-rise bedroom window. In his final words to Clarissa, he tells her that she's got to let him go, that he must do what he feels is best for himself. As this climactic scene frames it, her years of devotedly nursing him through his sickness are a sign of Clarissa's weakness.
It turns out that Richard was the boy Laura left behind 50 years ago, and that his rage over his abandonment informed his work as an artist. An aged Laura, who didn't commit suicide but admits she embraced a kind of death by her sudden departure, turns up at Clarissa's door, summoned from Toronto by a phone call informing her of her estranged son's demise. "I left both my children," Laura confesses to Clarissa. "I abandoned them. They say it's the worst thing a mother can do." They say -- but clearly they are wrong.
Laura says she should probably regret having left, but she doesn't. "What does it mean to regret when you have no choice? It's what you can bear. And there it is. No one is going to forgive me. It was death. I chose life."
Poor Laura. No one will forgive her, because they couldn't possibly understand why she did what she did. She had no choice, which removes the onus of guilt; you can't hold someone responsible for something they do under duress. We are meant to sympathize with this existential heroine instead of seeing her for what she is: a selfish, cold-hearted bitch who walked out on a decent man and two little children to go off in search of herself.
This is just the kind of mean-spirited reaction Gloria Steinem frets over. She writes, "I worry that viewers, especially those who can't empathize with the self-erasure that goes along with living a derived life, may demonize Laura for leaving her family to save her life." Apparently this opinion is widely shared by film critics and Hollywood types, because there has been little criticism of The Hours from this point of view. But, let a film sympathetically depict a man leaving his wife and kids to go off and find his bliss, you can be sure it would be roundly (and rightly) condemned, with Steinem leading the charge.
If you buy the moral of this movie, you probably find nothing objectionable about Steinem's characterization of Virginia Woolf's suicide as a "radical act of self-deliverance." The only way one could describe suicide in such positive terms is by ignoring the effect it has on those left behind. But this is not fair to Woolf, either. The truth is, Woolf, who was herself lesbian to some degree, was falling back into severe mental illness at the time of her death. She wasn't in her right mind when she killed herself, and in any case her suicide note to her husband was filled with remorse over her ruining his life.
Anyway, there is a world of difference between the despair of someone caught in the grips of clinical depression -- an illness for which she had sought treatment, and the help of her loved ones in carrying the burden -- and what Laura does, which is to disappear without explanation into thin air, and leave three shattered people behind to pick up the pieces of their lives.
It's superficial to think that happiness comes easy; some people have everything, and yet are still estranged from themselves. It's even more superficial, though, to think the point of life is to find personal happiness. Most people outgrow that egotistical worldview after their teenage years, and come to understand that the task is to live a meaningful life, if not a happy one. A meaningful life is to be found in love, in living nobly and selflessly in the service of something or someone greater than oneself: God, family, friends, country, humanity, or some combination thereof. The secret to happiness is paradoxical: You find it most truly and deeply through loving others more than you love yourself. Only a father can know how joyful it feels to cradle his crying newborn at three in the morning. Only a saint or a hero knows the joy of dying so that others might live.
The Hours, in contrast, celebrates with chilly morbidity -- Woolf's midlife suicide by drowning, depicted in the first scene, hangs over the film like an autumnal fog -- the autonomous individual. When Clarissa, who has been thinking of leaving the pleasant woman with whom she's invested a decade of her life, signals in the final scene that she will probably stay faithful, we are given to understand that this is good because it was her own conscious choice. Had she packed her bags instead of kissing her lover goodnight, that would have been an equally moral decision. Who are we to judge?
"Hell is other people," said Sartre, because they keep us from becoming our true selves. So too says The Hours, because we fail if we become entangled by commitments that prevent us from fulfilling our desires. Selfishness is a virtue. It's no surprise that this heartless movie is a favorite of the American cultural elite, but for everybody else, The Hours isn't worth five minutes of one's time.
Rod Dreher writes for National Review Online.
Copyright © 2003 National Review. Reprinted with permission of the author.
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