Desire, Shame and a Movie That Might Change the Way You Look In the Mirror
Emma Thompson breaks all kinds of boundaries in 'Good Luck To You, Leo Grande,' and asks us to reconsider how we see our lumpy, imperfect selves.
I cannot stop thinking about one scene in a movie I saw last week. In it, a 62-year-old woman lets a hotel bathrobe fall to the floor and stands nude in front of a full-length mirror.
Her body is not a testament to discipline, surgery, or unusual genetic gifts. It is fully human, softened by time and gravity, a map of her life. She has the kind of figure most of us find in our reflections (or will soon enough). And the camera just stays with her for ten or twenty seconds. We must look. It’s shocking, this unexpected confrontation with an ordinary sight.
But what made me emotional was the way this woman was looking at herself. She's not posing flatteringly for an unseen audience, nor is she pinching some bit of flesh with dismay. Instead, she seems illuminated by her own gaze, eyes widening in recognition of her physical self like she's seeing a friend. She places her palm on the uneven ripples of her belly gently, with love, the way you might if you were pregnant, but she's embracing a different kind of fullness.
And in that gesture, we understand her as a human being who inhabits a body rather than a body whose appearance reflects her value and purpose as a woman. I've never seen anything like it in a mainstream film. It reminded me of this poem by Derek Walcott :
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.”
Nancy, the woman in the mirror is played by Oscar-winning actor Emma Thompson, 63; she of the radiant smile and sharp wit. Written by comedian Katy Brand, the film is "Good Luck to You, Leo Grande" (Hulu), and it's the story of a widowed religious education teacher in her early sixties who hires a 28-year-old-sex worker, Leo. For Nancy, it's a kind of private rebellion after a lifetime of repression, insecurity, and sexual disappointment.
Over the course of several hotel-room encounters, in which there is so much talking, and not so much sex, Nancy and Leo eventually become physically and emotionally intimate but not romantic. Leo helps her embrace her physical self and he does so with uncommon empathy and care.
And while there are revealing scenes with her young co-star, Daryl McCormack, Thompson says that the final shot, in which she faces her own body alone in the mirror, unfiltered, was the hardest thing she's ever done as an actor. "I had to act like someone who wasn't concerned, who was accepting." And, as she admits, she hasn’t achieved that kind of acceptance personally.
Thompson has made her press tour for the film something of a crusade to "change the iconography" of women, to banish shame, and to urge all of us not to waste any more time seeing ourselves as a collection of parts to be critiqued and ranked. She insists it’s time to reconsider the way we inhabit our one precious body, telling reporters:
"This is your vessel, your house, where you live. There's no point in judging it."
Of course Thompson is correct and wise. But watching this film was also a reminder of the devastating ironies of having a woman’s body at this juncture in history.
Initially, Nancy is alienated from her physical self and its pleasures. Yet, many of her life choices were constrained by that very body. Whether she thought she could expect pleasure in her marriage, whether she had children, what kind of career she had after having them, all of that was circumscribed in one way or another by the fact that she was born female in a particular place and time.
After being widowed, Nancy rebels against a culture that often ignores women once they are no longer fertile. She wants to be seen and to have her desires acknowledged, so she crosses her own ethical boundaries to hire Leo. And at last, she’s able to connect body and spirit on her own terms. And isn’t that what we’re all aiming for?
Watching Thompson bound onto late-night show stages to talk about the film in her bright velvet suits with a swoop of glorious white hair, I want to believe that she's lighting the way. I want to believe that the next generation of women won't have to wait till they're in their sixties to find independence and agency over their bodies. But I wonder now is it just a mirage, a hopeful fantasy of progress when in reality, we might be going the other way?
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Emma Thompson’s essay on why it’s so hard to talk about sex and her role in “Good Luck to you, Leo Grande,” via Vogue. And above, talking nudity with Seth Meyer. And Daryl McCormack on playing a sex worker.
ON MIRRORS AND IDENTITY
What do you see in this image? In the standard critic’s interpretation of “The Old Woman in the Mirror,” (1615) by Bernardo Strozzi, the painting is about vanity. How dare this old woman adorn herself? In her face we should see “embarrassment” and “moral warning.” But psychologist and author of “Women Who Run With the Wolves,” Clarissa Pinkola Estés disagrees. To her, it’s a portrait of the artist’s beloved mother and the message is one of tenderness and generational connections.
“The Mirror Effect” How the rise of mirrors in the fifteenth century shaped our idea of the individual. — Lapham’s Quarterly
ON THE NEWS
“Mary Shelley’s Prescient Warning About Reproductive Rights” A teenage girl from another epoch illuminates the fault lines of ours. — Maria Popova at The Marginalian
“Joy doesn't betray but sustains activism. And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated and isolated, joy is a fine act of insurrection.” ― Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark
And speaking of hope…
“We are the night ocean filled
with glints of light. We are the space
between the fish and the moon,
while we sit here together.”
― Rumi, The Essential Rumi
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
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I am always a bit wary of wordings like "the body we inhabit" like our brain is what we think and feel with but like the brain is not part of our body. We don´t inhabit a body, we are a body that thinks and feels. That´s what feels so revolutionary in the scene you describe - that ultimate realization.
I heard a commentary about this film on NPR the other week--it sounded interesting. Your essay focused on it from my a mostly different perspective. Still all interesting!