‘Hysteria Pictures Presents’ reads text that opens The Yellow Wallpaper, in what is as much an announcement of theme as a production credit. For as this film begins with the primly dressed and veiled Jane (Alexandra Loreth), her physician husband John (Joe Mullins) and their baby son travelling in silence by horse-drawn carriage to the country mansion that they have rented for the summer, we might be expecting a demure historical drama. Yet as Jane takes out a book to read, only to put it away again when she sees John’s disapproving look, and then ignores the infant’s disruptive crying until John’s plea that she “do something” prompts her to throw the baby out the moving vehicle’s window, it becomes clear that we are seeing a woman both constrained and resisting this constraint. The film’s setting might be late nineteenth-century America, and its form might be the dignified, stately modes of classical period cinema, but Jane’s shocking action rebels against this form, as she (literally) rejects the rôle of obedient wife and loving mother imposed on her by the values of her times. She is, to use the misogynistic, pseudo-medical parlance of the day, a hysteric, afflicted with a depressive, post-partum illness – but also with the broader condition of being a woman in a man’s world.
Jane’s rebellion is also internalised and private – for that sudden defenestration of the baby seems to take place entirely in Jane’s head rather than in the real world. When they arrive at the mansion, Jane hands the uninjured baby over to the young nanny Mary (Clara Harte), and John reassures his sister Jennie (Jeanne O’Connor) – who is to serve as their housekeeper and Jane’s nurse over the summer – that the journey was “long and uneventful”. Notably, the baby-throwing incident was also absent from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s original 1892 short story The Yellow Wallpaper – which director Kevin Pontuti and his star and co-producer Loreth are here adapting together for their first feature, after earlier collaborations on the short films Onere (2016), Pescare (2016) and Vanita (2018).
Adaptation is often a matter of reading between the lines – teasing out the subtext hidden behind all those words on the page and giving it a visual form. Yet Gilman’s novella was already playing this game: for much as its heroine becomes convinced that the old, sickly hued floral wallpaper decorating her summer quarters conceals beneath and between its textured layers a ghostly woman trying to escape, her own story too, presented as a series of short, often single-sentence observations that subdivide the blank page like prison bars, offers an impressionistic portrait of a woman struggling to break free of her own prescribed form and to give expression to her disturbed, subversive inner self. The wallpaper which she obsessively describes – and regards as a living, animated signifier in need of decipherment – becomes the proscenium on which she projects the dramas of her own unraveling psyche. Put another way, that wallpaper, which offers up its coded pattern to fixated contemplation and interpretation, and blankly reflects the onlooker’s interiority right back at her, is something closely akin to cinema. Even in Gilman’s text, the protagonist is already adapting her innermost feelings to a visual medium. The writing is, so to speak, on the wall.
In both book and film, the very fact that Jane is keeping a journal is an act of rebellion in itself, given that, for the lengthy duration of her ‘rest cure’, writing has been forbidden to her (despite her stated talent for it), along with reading and smoking and taking a glass of wine with dinner. Jane’s holiday is to be a stultifying confinement, doing her far more harm than good, despite the best intentions of John and her own brother James (Mark P. O’Connor), also a physician, in prescribing it. As played by Mullins, John is not demonised as such, and seems genuinely to care for his wife and her welfare – but he also ignores her wishes and dismisses her anxieties, treating her patronisingly like a child (his terms of affection for her shift from ‘my dear’ to ‘my pet’ to ‘my blessed little goose’ and ‘my sweet little girl’). When John has sex with Jane, he appears not to notice how utterly disengaged his wife is throughout, as she stares vacantly at the wallpaper (something she will do more and more). Left largely to her own devices, and effectively imprisoned on the property, Jane takes occasionally to the garden, but mostly to bed, her ‘nervous troubles’ deteriorating more and more as the weeks go by. Jane’s voiceover, mostly lifted verbatim from the novella, offers a counterpoint to the film’s images, revealing mental turmoil that we cannot always see, even as some scenes – for example, Jane’s prolonged conversations with Mary about dreams (again deviating from the novella, where Mary is mentioned only once, in passing) – appear to be Jane’s mere fancies. Everything becomes unreliable and illusory as Jane slowly succumbs to her mental illness, until eventually the bedroom’s interiors and the garden’s exteriors become as confused as Jane’s inner states and external perceptions. In Jane’s labyrinthine mind, everywhere is the same place, and she sometimes travels freely between them in her imagination without so much as leaving her bed.
Where other directors might have chosen to use special effect and post-production CGI to transform the wallpaper into a hallucinatory headscape, Pontuti relies on more old-fashioned methods (in keeping with his film’s period setting) to convey Jane’s uncanny untethering from reality. Much as in the novella her writing gradually becomes more fragmented and unhinged, here the cuts introduced by Pontuti and Loreth’s editing start coming faster and more jarringly as Jane’s delirium progresses. Cinematographer Sonja Tsypin ensures that the luridly coloured walls always look different by subjecting them to a wide range of lighting and weather conditions, shown off to best effect through a panoply of unnervingly canted angles. Meanwhile, Robert Coburn’s minimalist electronic score, at first barely noticeable, becomes more and more pervasive, like the smell that Jane insists comes from the walls and gets into everything.
By the end, sight and sound have combined to engender a heady synaesthetic response in the viewer, so that the oppressive atmosphere becomes almost palpable. As Jane narrates the final lines of the novella, the harrowing image that accompanies them will have viewers racing back to the text to see if that is how Gilman’s story really ended. The evidence is indeed there, but involves a very close reading – indeed, a reading between the lines – that allows us to see the last act, hidden behind the words, of a deranged, despairing woman caught in the cloying, claustrophobic trap of patriarchy. Where the final five words in Jane’s voice-over – “So that I had to creep over him every time – again and again and again” – are an annex to Gilman’s text, they serve as an acknowledgement not only that this story has since been reproduced many times and in many forms (just in the last decade there have been three other film versions), but also that its concerns with female repression and resistance remain both recurrent and ever-relevant. It is a haunting debut that you will find creeping around in your head long after it is over.
© Anton Bitel