I’ve seen two other films by Sally Potter: Orlando (1992), a fine adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel with a brilliant performance by Tilda Swinton, and The Man Who Cried (2000), which I watched because it had Johnny Depp in it and which made absolutely no impression on me whatsoever. I guess I’ve thought of her as an avant garde film-maker, although I’m not sure exactly why. Ginger & Rosa is an arty film, but it’s also a pretty straightforward melodrama about a teenage girl coming of age in 1962. What makes it arty is a certain elliptical quality that leaves much unspoken and up to our interpretation. It’s also slowly paced and full of beautifully composed shots of Elle Fanning (as Ginger) looking introspective.
So Ginger and Rosa are two girls growing up in London whose mothers were friends and gave birth to them about the same time. Rosa is a bit of a wild child who is already having sex. Her father abandoned the family when she was little. Ginger’s parents, particularly her pacifist professor father, are bohemians, but Ginger’s mother considers Rosa a bad influence. Ginger wants to be a poet and is becoming an activist in the anti-nuclear movement. Rosa just wants to find true love. Ginger is getting fed up with her miserable mother, and meanwhile her philandering father has decided to move out.
Although not much seems to happen, there’s a lot going on in the film, and it gradually builds to a very powerful climax. There are ideas of personal freedom versus social responsibility, conformity versus creativity, philosophy versus religion, activism versus domesticity. The characters are almost all intellectuals of some sort, so there’s a lot of smart talk, at least in short bursts. It’s a portrait of a particular place in a particular time, full of the music of the time, particularly American jazz. (The only music in the soundtrack is music the characters listen to.) It’s a portrait of a world on the brink of catastrophe, as JFK’s incredible folly, the Cuban Missile Crisis, rears its terrifying head. It’s a portrait of one young person’s struggle to understand her purpose in the world and to make sense of the behavior of the flawed adults in her life.
The way that the Cuban Missile Crisis intersects with Ginger’s personal crisis is extremely well handled. This is an ideal treatment of the feminist idea of the personal being political. The film’s feminism is not overt, but I kept thinking how extraordinary it was for its portrayal of women and the choices that were available to them in that society at that time. But the men — basically Ginger’s father and a gay couple who are friends of the family — are fascinating as well. Ginger’s father is a complex figure, both charismatic and completely selfish. Ginger’s relationship with him is complex as well, as are her relationships with her mother and with Rosa. If Rosa is finally a less interesting character than Ginger herself, I think it’s a conscious choice on Potter’s part, although not one I completely understand. This is Ginger’s story, and Rosa is the foil that brings Ginger into relief. Rosa is a kind of question mark, leading us deeper into the true center of the story.