Movie Review: The Mona Lisa Smile (Spoilers in Review)

I am offering another movie review of a feminist film, this time more comprehensively. Rather than wasting everyone’s time with my own review of the plot, let’s consult Wikipedia, which states:

In 1953, Katherine Ann Watson (Julia Roberts), a 30-year-old graduate student in the department of Art History at Oakland State, takes a position teaching “History of Art” at Wellesley College, a conservative women’s private liberal arts college in Massachusetts because she wants to make a difference and influence the next generation of women. At her first class, Katherine discovers that the girls have already memorized the entire syllabus from the textbook so she instead uses the classes to introduce them to Modern Art and encourages spirited classroom discussions about topics such as what makes good art and what the Mona Lisa’s smile means. This brings her into conflict with the conservative College President (Marian Seldes) who warns Katherine to stick to the syllabus if she wants to keep her job. Katherine comes to know many of the students in her class well and seeks to inspire them to seek more than marriage to eligible young men. Joan Brandwyn (Julia Stiles) dreamt of being a lawyer and enrolled as pre-law so Katherine encourages her to apply to Yale Law School, where she is accepted. Joan, however, elopes with her fiancé Tommy (Topher Grace), and is very happy. She decides that what she wants most is to be a wife and mother after graduation and asks Katherine to respect her choice.

Betty Warren (Kirsten Dunst) is highly conservative like her mother, the head of the Alumnae Association. Betty doesn’t understand why Katherine is not married and is strident in insisting that there is a universal standard for good art. She writes two editorials for the college paper, one which exposes the nurse, Amanda Armstrong (Juliet Stevenson), for giving out contraception, which results in the nurse being fired, and one attacking Katherine for advocating that women should seek a career instead of just being wives and mothers as intended. Betty can’t wait to marry Spencer (Jordan Bridges) as their parents have arranged and expects to get the traditional exemptions from attending class because she is married, but Katherine insists she will be marked on merit.

Connie Baker (Ginnifer Goodwin) is dating Betty’s cousin, Charlie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). Betty persuades her that he is only using her since it has been arranged by his parents for him to marry Deb, a girl more of his social standing. So, Connie ends the relationship. However, Charlie has already decided for himself that he is not going to marry Deb, so he and Connie get back together.

Giselle Levy (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has liberal views, and she supports Katherine because she sees her as having chosen what she wants in her life and because she herself has often felt out of place at the school being Jewish among the mostly WASP student body. Giselle brazenly has affairs with a professor and a married man.

Katherine confides to the girls that she was engaged when she was younger, but that she and her fiance were separated by the war. The relationship fizzled out, and she has since had several affairs. Katherine declines a proposal from her boyfriend (John Slattery) from California because she doesn’t love him enough. She begins seeing the Wellesley Italian professor, Bill Dunbar (Dominic West), who is charming and full of stories about Europe and his heroic actions in Italy during the war. He has also had affairs with many students (including Giselle), and Katherine makes him promise that it will never happen again. When Katherine learns that Bill spent the entire war at the Army Languages Center on Long Island, she decides to break up with him because he is not trustworthy. Dunbar responds that Katherine didn’t come to Wellesley to help the students find their way, but to help them find her way.

Betty’s marriage fails miserably, as Spencer spends as much time as possible in New York on business. Giselle also catches him having an affair and tells her about it. Betty’s mother, Mrs. Warren, tries to pressure Betty into remaining married to Spencer, at least for a while to avoid causing a scandal. She refuses and asks her mother if the Mona Lisa’s smile means she is happy. At graduation, Betty asks Katherine about an apartment, but Mrs. Warren interrupts her and asks her why. Betty tells her mother off that she divorced Spencer after learning how disloyal he was to her and wants to have her own future. She adds that she is going to share a flat in Greenwich Village with Giselle, and that she is considering applying to Yale Law School.

Katherine’s course is highly popular, so the college invites her to return. But Mrs. Warren and the president impose conditions on Katherine: she must follow the syllabus, submit lesson plans for approval, keep a strictly professional relationship among all faculty members, and not talk to the girls about anything other than classes. Katherine decides to leave, exploring Europe. In the ending scene, Betty dedicates her last editorial to her teacher Katherine Watson, claiming that Katherine is “an extraordinary woman who lived by example and compelled us all to see the world through new eyes.” As Katherine’s taxi speeds up, all her students follow on their bicycles and Betty is seen increasingly struggling to keep up with the taxi as a last effort to thank Katherine for changing her life.

Yeah I know that’s a long quote, but in case people haven’t seen it I wanted them to know the plot synopsis so that they know what I’m referring to. For my personal review, it’s a good movie in that it was well shot, well paced, well directed, well acted, had a decent soundtrack in my opinion.

It has two elements that are part of the feminist ethos apart from the blatantly obvious themes in the synopsis.

The first is that whatever men do that is displeasing to women is terrible, barley even worth discussion. For instance, there is this bit:

Katherine declines a proposal from her boyfriend (John Slattery) from California because she doesn’t love him enough.

 

This part of it is a really awkward part of the film. When she sees him she is overjoyed, they are clearly having a wonderful time, clearly lovers, and he takes it for granted that they will get married; she rejects him but doesn’t really explain exactly why she does. It is clear to the viewer that she wants to remain footloose and fancy free but still date and sleep with men when she feels like it. Contrary to feminist popular belief, this is NOT what men are trained and brought up to do generally–for the most part men are trained to date say during High School but to start taking things more seriously afterwards. This part of it is pure Germaine Greer–Marxist type destruction of family oriented stuff. But moving on…

She begins seeing the Wellesley Italian professor, Bill Dunbar (Dominic West), who is charming and full of stories about Europe and his heroic actions in Italy during the war. He has also had affairs with many students (including Giselle), and Katherine makes him promise that it will never happen again. When Katherine learns that Bill spent the entire war at the Army Languages Center on Long Island, she decides to break up with him because he is not trustworthy. Dunbar responds that Katherine didn’t come to Wellesley to help the students find their way, but to help them find her way.

 

In this part, the Julia Roberts character is hardly deceived; she has never really asked about his war record, and already knows he sleeps around with the female students BEFORE she accepts a date with him, obviously wanting him not in spite of his reputation but because of it, then finds an excuse to reject him later on.

However notice that this is very much in contrast with the behaviour of the female lead characters towards one another.

The Kirsten Dunst character has done the following things in the movie:

1. Got the school nurse fired simply because she gave one of the female students a diaphragm, suggesting that she was promoting promiscuity.

2. Lied to a schoolmate about how her boyfriend was really seeing someone else, so that they would break up. (reason not really made clear)

3. Exposed the fact that the Julia Roberts character was teaching about modern art (which apparently being an art teacher she wasn’t supposed to do) to force her to adhere to the curriculum.

4. Constantly tried to undermine Julia Roberts’ teaching.

5. Complains about how Julia Roberts encouraged the Julia Stiles character to go to Yale rather than focus on her upcoming marriage.

6. Is constantly bitchy and gossipy to the point where you’re amazed anyone even likes her.

Yet all it takes for her to be forgiven is for her to be really unhappy because her new husband doesn’t love her. She’s forgiven and all it takes is that loving forgiveness to make her a happy and whole person. Furthermore, the one girl, Giselle, who used to be the Italian professor’s lover and whom the Kirsten Dunst character has called a slut and whore (which she basically is) turns out to be best friends with her and they decide to get a flat in Greenwich Village together.

When I compare the two sets of conflicts–the ones with guys and the ones with other women, I see a huge contrast. Now hardly any woman is ever going to admit this, and especially no feminist will ever admit this unless she wants to be drummed out of the sisterhood, but it’s an ironic example of feminism in action. In fact the male characters generally encourage the women to do what they like, and try to pursue and impress them. When Kirsten Dunst’s character is encouraged by her mother to try to work on fixing her marriage, she flat out refuses.

I challenge others to come up with similar examples. Such films are increasingly common and persuade people in a passive osmosis like way to disarm themselves against the views of feminism. The basic message is “Man Bad, Woman Good.”

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