in Criterion Month

An Angel At My Table (1990)

This was already covered a bit in Sean’s review of Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters, but I’m not sure there are many genre’s that come with as much baggage as biopics. Mostly because unlike a lot of genres, there’s this almost preconceived “greatness” that a lot of biopics seem almost entitled to, which explains their typical Oscar bait-iness. That said, I’m not sure pre-’00s biopics quite have this baggage, because their formula wasn’t so definitively in place. Which is one of many reasons that this other Criterion biopic about an author often skirts the various clichés that could accompany a famous person’s onscreen life.

The writer in question is Janet Frame, a red-headed New Zealander whose life we see from early childhood starting in the 1920s. The movie is split up into three sections, each of them based on one of Frame’s memoirs, which also sounds pretty similar to Mishima. Anyways, we see that young Janet doesn’t exactly have the easiest home life, as two of her many siblings die young, while her father is somewhat abusive. Also, Janet always seems to be a bit of a misfit, quickly becoming more fascinated with books than boys or friends.

By the time we arrive at the third and final actress playing Janet (Kerry Fox), we see that she wishes to pursue a career as a writer, much to the bewilderment of her working-class colleagues and family. The movie is unclear whether it’s a symptom of her chosen career being “unbefitting of a woman” or not, but she ends up in a mental institution, diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia. She goes through several different types of shock treatment, while also managing to publish her first book of poems. This development leads the doctors to believe that Janet is fit for civilian life, which leads to her further development as a writer, while also leading a Kerouac-ian lifestyle trotting across the globe while writing about her experiences.

There’s something very simplistic and almost dreamlike about the first third of An Angel At My Table, where we see Janet going through the various discoveries that accompany any childhood. Which makes it all the more harrowing when we get to the passage of the film where Janet ends up in a mental institution. The movie pulls the rug out from under you, and it’s hard to make sense of exactly why Janet deserved this fate, other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. As if One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest didn’t already drive this home, these scenes once again paint the mid-20th century as a particularly bad time to be a mental health patient.

Then the film eases back into a gentle, dreamlike tone in the second half, as Janet resumes her life and continues to resume growing as a person. Still, it becomes apparent that Janet’s time in the asylum has done damage to her that can never be undone, as much as she tries to continue on living a normal life. And the fact of the matter is, she does manage to live a relatively normal life. I think one thing that makes An Angel At My Table feel less like a typical biopic is that it’s not really about a “famous person”. There’s one scene at the end of the film where she is surprised to see some journalists greet her at her home, hoping to take pictures of her. But otherwise, it’s mostly about a woman trying to find herself – through her work, but also just through living her life.

If there’s one big quibble I have with the film, it’s that it didn’t really get me interested in Janet Frame’s books. I think about a film like Capote getting me interested in reading In Cold Blood, or The End of The Tour getting me to read Infinite Jest, but I didn’t really get enough of a sense of Frame’s writing to know whether I’d like it or not. Though the movie is after all based on her books, so maybe that’s enough. Despite being one of the longer films I watched this Criterion Month (at 158 minutes), I was gently absorbed in it the whole time, and as a result, felt like the film equivalent of a page-turner.