June 12, 2007

(l to r Cheryl Hines, Keri Russell, Adrienne Shelly)

Billed as a romcom, Waitress is actually a cleverly disguised portrait of the widespread travesty affecting many women across the globe; domestic violence.

Jenna is a waitress in a pie diner married to real bully of a husband. The film follows her various attempts to leave him – stashing money away which he then finds, packing a suitcase only to be discovered at the bus stop.

Jenna’s husband Earl is verbally bullying and threatening, slaps her round the face a few times and tries to force her into having sex. So why were women in the cinema laughing when he raped her?
Admittedly it was not an extreme rape scene in that Jenna was shown as more annoyed than distressed, but it was still rape.

The actor and comedian Lucy Davis recently explained to me how audiences go to watch a comedy film expecting to laugh, and therefore may be harder to entertain than an audience who are watching what they have been sold as a straight film, which just happens to have some funny bits in it.
Perhaps this was the case with Waitress. Were people laughing in the bits that I found most harrowing, because they thought they were supposed to?

What is funny about a scene where an abusive, violent man pressures his pregnant wife into having sex with him? Nothing. But if you are at a comedy film, perhaps you think you are supposed to laugh at this grotesque caricature of a man, in a Men Are From Mars way. The sad truth is that Earl is not an exaggerated character. In many ways he is a tame pussycat compared to the evil monsters a lot of women on the receiving end of domestic violence endure.

To me the audience reaction was chilling proof that sex forced upon women has been normalised, and particularly that domestic rape is not seen as rape, or less damaging than rape by an unknown perpetrator.

How despicably resonant that Adrienne Shelly the writer, director and supporting actor of a film whose central theme is male violence towards women should herself be murdered by a man whose explanation was that he ‘was having a bad day.’ And how deeply sad to imagine Shelly’s only daughter Sophie, who she was carrying when she wrote the film, and who features in the last few scenes, watching Waitress – a portrait of Shelly’s pregnancy and love poem from mother to daughter.

In an industry where 7 percent of films are directed by women, Shelly’s no holds barred refreshingly female world view is to be applauded. The lineage is clear and the message is direct. Like Thelma and Louise, Jenna and her two best friend are waitresses in a diner and sisters doing it for themselves. How depressing that 16 years later this story is still relevant.

There are some very atypical sympathetically drawn characters here – our heroine for instance is a heavily pregnant married woman repeatedly initiating sex with a married man, and is also ambivalent about her unborn child to the point of considering selling it. Just two behaviours women are still publicly shunned for.

Waitress also contrasts dramatically with the traditional Bridget Jones/Jane Austen ending where the story resolves with the beginning of the relationship.

In practically every novel, drama, film or narrative of any sort women are typically given the choice between falling out of the arms of a bad man into the arms of a good one, between marriage and a career, between settling for any old man or loneliness.

It shows just how far women’s liberation has to go that a film where the woman keeps her power and chooses none of these options, instead choosing her daughter and the companionship of her two best friends feels dramatically radical and unusual. For this reason alone Waitress should be compulsory viewing for all teenage girls.

Released 10 August

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