A new translation of Nathalie Léger's prize-winning novel about Barbara Loden adds to the experience of watching the late actress's only film.
Barbara Loden’s directorial debut and swansong, Wanda (1970) is now considered a masterpiece of cinéma vérité. Set in the coal region of Pennsylvania, the film’s realism is bleak, providing no cinematic redemption to raise its eponymous non-heroine from the dust and dirt of the minefields, or monotony of smallville with its highways, bars, motels and malls. Having rejected a life of marital drudgery, Wanda moves through this landscape leaving no trace, casually used and abused by those she meets; Loden shows us woman as eminently replaceable, as a societal waste product.
Somewhat like Breathless, a work Loden greatly admired, Wanda has an improvisatory, documentary style, and its narrative action hinges on the schemes of a low-level criminal, here engaged in the deliberately uninspired folly of a bank heist. Made on a shoestring using only two professional actors – Loden, who brings understated brilliance to the title role, and Michael Higgins as the twitchy doomed crook, Mr Dennis – it was recognized at the Venice International Film Festival. Now, though, it is mostly forgotten.
In her book Suite for Barbara Loden (newly translated by Les Fugitives, and first published in 2012 as Supplément à la vie de Barbara Loden), Nathalie Léger, author, editor and curator, ruefully recounts how she was charged with the apparently simple task of writing une notice about Wanda and Loden for a film encyclopedia. But rather like Wanda she finds she can’t do what’s expected of her. Instead, after lampooning her own obsessive research for the entry – reading up on everything from the Pennsylvanian mining industry to the history of hair curlers – she lets the figure of Barbara/Wanda lead her on a fragmented journey that flickers between the real and imagined, the half-erased past and personal near-present.
Loden was a respected stage though never-quite movie actress with a troubled past; she was married to Hollywood director Elia Kazan; she was the first woman to write, direct and star in her own film; and she died from cancer ten years later without making another. But when Léger tries to dig deeper she finds family, friends and former colleagues unwilling to talk about Loden or provide any primary source material. Whilst we get Kazan’s version of events via his work and autobiography, Loden’s voice is withheld. However a crucial meeting with the legendary documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman changes Léger’s angle of approach. Having explained her predicament, he astonishes her by saying, ‘Make it all up. All you have to do it make it up.’
Wiseman’s words come very early in a text that it is full of anecdotes, recollections and quotes from or concerning figures like Godard, Kate Chopin, Perec and Sebald that allude to ways of telling; words that illuminate Léger’s endeavor to write about the half-obliterated Loden.
Positing the idea that all women act in order to survive, Léger talks to a group of actresses about how they convey complex emotions. Unwilling and possibly unable to explain, one plucks a book from the shelf and quotes Flaubert, ‘Everything we invent is the truth, do not doubt it.’ Whilst Léger archly notes she has almost dozed off at this point, her apparent boredom is a smokescreen. Coming like a cinematic midpoint at the heart of the book, it speaks to Léger’s project and Loden’s life and work; the subjective self telling stories as a way to assimilate, to find a narrative place for itself, to tell a truth. Both Wanda and Loden were looking for a way to exist, to escape the image that comes near the beginning of the film and which Léger recounts at the very start of her narrative – the tiny white figure of a woman, a negative imprint, moving against looming dark mountains of coal that threaten to engulf her.
How you decide to tell something, how you shape each sentence that becomes a paragraph, then a book, what you leave in and what you take out. Despite her stated desire to include everything, to name everything one by one, to sniff around in the dusty archives endlessly looking for facts, Léger knows the comic futility of such an endeavor. It is the action itself of looking, of searching that creates a kind of truth.
Quite unexpectedly then her book becomes a satisfying literary counterpart to the film, a kind of imperfect textual sketch, a series of gestures that mirror the film’s style, toying with the real and imagined and the liminal space in between; almost like a bookish version of the Godard and Warhol films Léger often references, and which Loden so admired.