Saturday, September 22, 2007

Now, Voyager

Now Voyager poster"How much do you know about South America?" asks Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) of her psychiatrist Dr Jaquith (Claude Rains) late on in Now, Voyager. And of course Charlotte's question is not geographical but psychological: she is talking about her South America, where she had her first (and only) full experience of freedom, and wherein lies the key to her agonized state of mind in the latter stages of the film.

Now, Voyager is the story of a transformation, apparently of a liberation. When we first meet her, Charlotte is a spinster aunt who still lives in her family's imposing Boston mansion, utterly under the thumb of her tyrannical mother. Charlotte is the unwanted child, the ugly duckling, who exists only to serve her mother's every whim, and whose own desires are curtailed and repressed under the weight of family and class expectations. Things are now coming to a crisis, and psychiatrist Jaquith diagnoses a nervous breakdown. As a first stage in her cure, Charlotte is to be separated from her mother and taken to the sanatorium that Jaquith runs in rural Vermont.

At the sanatorium, Charlotte gradually recovers her sense of her self. But she is terrified by the prospect of returning home once her treatment is over. So Jaquith and Charlotte's sister-in-law Lisa conspire to send her on a cruise to South America.

A cruise is always a good site for retreat and recuperation: it involves both structured social interaction (dinners, dances, shuffleboard) and closed cabin doors, obscure corners to which to escape. Charlotte's one previous taste of freedom and desire had likewise been on board ship, steaming up the coast of Africa. But there her mother's presence had put an end to her adventures. In Olive Higgins Prouty's novel on which Now, Voyager is closely based, Charlotte's post-sanatorium voyage takes her to the Mediterranean. But it is more than fitting that the film adaptation should send her instead towards Rio.

En route, Charlotte meets fellow traveler Jerry Durrance, who further encourages her to feel at home in the borrowed sophistication that Jaquith and Lisa have forced upon her. She takes on Jerry's nickname for her, Camille, and flourishes on the care and attention of this kind-hearted stranger. Stranded in Rio for five days, after a car accident brought about by the only actual Latin American we meet, an incompetent taxi driver named Giuseppe, Charlotte and Jerry's love blossoms.

In Brazil with Now Voyager
The catch, however, is that Jerry is a married man. Ironically his wife is described to sound very much like Charlotte's own mother: tyrannical and domineering, a scourge upon her youngest daughter. But Jerry cannot bring himself to leave her. So when he and Charlotte part, as Charlotte's plane takes her to Buenos Aires to catch up with her ship, they agree that this must be the end of their romance.

Back in the United States, Charlotte comes to terms with her mother and maintains her independent ways. Soon she is the object of fascination and admiration, and receives a marriage proposal from an eminently eligible bachelor, who is likewise a scion of excellent Boston stock. Yet Charlotte can never quite let go of her feelings for Jerry, continuing to wear the corsages of camellias that he sends her, and when her former lover returns on the scene she breaks off her engagement.

But instead of pairing up with the love of her life, Charlotte enters into a rather bizarre arrangement whereby she becomes mother to the child that Jerry's wife has neglected, but not for that Jerry's wife. Indeed, surely this resolution is at least as unhealthily neurotic as the circumstances in which we first saw her. In the transformation from ugly duckling to sophisticated girl around town, it is not that any repression has lifted: rather that she has now taken on the responsibility and the burden of her own repression. Her desires are no longer repressed by her (now dead) mother. She herself chooses to keep quiet about what happened in South America. She has internalized the injunctions that derive from the very same class and family expectations that her mother had worked so hard to impart.

For in the end what happens in South America has to stay in South America: Rio is the receptacle for unconscious desires that can be expressed only in heavily sublimated form in the North, only in the surely unhealthy symptom by which Charlotte finds herself in bed embracing another woman's child, while colluding in both her mother's and her lover's over-riding adherence to the façade of social respectability.

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