The Yellow Wallpaper is based on a short story by Charlotte
Perkins Gilman. It’s the same story that was one of the influences behind Sylvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic. A classic of early feminist horror literature, it was published in 1892. This tells you that women have been very tired of not being taken seriously and having their fears and depression trivialized and described as hysteria for a very long time. It’s been at least 130 years.
Here’s the synopsis: Jane (Alexandra Loreth), a young writer suffering from postpartum depression, is prescribed a rest treatment by her physician husband, John (Joe Mullins), who takes her to a remote country estate for the summer. When they arrive, Jane is enchanted by the old house. She becomes intrigued by the yellow wallpaper that covers the walls in her room. Over time, Jane’s treatment proves unhelpful and instead of curing her, the bedrest and isolation drive her deeper into psychosis. Jane begins to see things in the wallpaper and gardens and becomes convinced that a woman is trapped in the patterns on the wall. As Jane tries to save the trapped woman — and herself — John and her housekeepers (Clara Harte and Jeanne O’Connor)
become increasingly worried about her behavior and try to confine her even more.
This film is more of an art film than I expected and that’s a good thing. The story calls for the character to lay in bed and spend a lot of time examining the titular wallpaper and the film makes sure that you feel the distress and confusion of the character. I’ve read that some have said that the film lacks characterization, but I disagree. The character has lost part of herself. Jane is not going to have a vibrant personality because Jane is having trouble understanding who she is and what her place is in the world. You see her slack face because she is being held prisoner by her well-meaning but chauvinist husband who essentially tells her that the art that feeds her soul is what is making her crazy. He takes away the one thing that gives her soul expression and steadfastly refuses to listen to anything she has to say. He doesn’t want to hear what she thinks, he only wants to hear her say that she is better and that she will comply with his wishes. Her husband John and the servants in the house are spending most of their time gaslighting and piling guilt trips on Jane until it must be difficult for her to even know what day it is.
Jane is depressed because she doesn’t live in her world. She has no say in her life. She is expected merely to look pretty, submit to sex, and placidly agree with whatever her husband wants. If you haven’t been in that vast cavern of despair where you feel that your life isn’t your own and you feel that there is no escape, you might not understand why the character reacts in this way and why this portrayal fits the character. I think what some reviewers don’t get is that this really isn’t a scream of feminist rage. It is a woman trying to find her voice so she can even scream in the first place.
There is a meme that kind of shows how this feels and I am sad to say that it is of Kim Kardashian. If you are a woman, have you ever lain in bed feeling yawning despair that you can’t place or that you refuse to acknowledge is not your fault?
One of the other things that is very much an art film touch in THE YELLOW WALLPAPER is the moment where you watch Jane’s face as John is having sex with her body and she’s not particularly thrilled about it. Recently, I watched the Nina Menkes film PHANTOM LOVE and Menkes had put a scene like that in her film in 2007. It’s revolutionary to see sex portrayed in a real fashion. Many women simply endure sex because they know that the men involved either have no interest in their pleasure or have no idea how to give a woman pleasure. Or both. This is part of the overall theme of the story and the film. Women were put under pressure to acquiesce to men’s wishes to keep from being punished.
THE YELLOW WALLPAPER gets points for putting that into the film.
This film is low budget but they do a lot with what they have. It’s mostly one location and the cast is small. The period costumes are just okay, but since it is a low-budget film, this is understandable and the couple in the film are not rich, so it is logical that Jane would probably not be wearing the latest fashions from Paris.
One of the major themes in the original story and the film is the subjugation of women. The symbolism of the woman crawling behind the yellow wallpaper is a metaphor writ large. At first, Jane is frightened by the yellow wallpaper, then she is obsessed with it. She is drawn into its sickly smell and oppressive color and omnipresence in the room where she is forced to lie in bed as a rest cure for her “hysteria” and depression. Notice that all of the blame for her “illness” is placed squarely on her shoulders. I’ve even read reviews and descriptions of the film referring to Jane’s “hysteria”. Calling women crazy is a common way to discredit a woman’s feelings and desires and it is a direct descendent of our society labeling women as “hysterical” when they weren’t happy with their unfulfilling lots in life.
Who crawls? Children and people who are in a subjugated position in the hieratical order of society. People are made to crawl when they are begging for their lives or freedom. Who is the specter that Jane sees behind The Yellow Wallpaper? Just look at who that specter looks like. Why is Jane depressed? It’s very important to her husband that Jane herself is the one to blame. It never occurs to him, or sadly to Jane, that the reason that she is depressed is that her life is intolerable to her. This is a situation that still happens. Women have panic attacks and depression because they are scared of the situation or relationship that they find themselves in. Imaginative women find ways to escape, if only in their minds. The question that the film poses is where does this fantasy come from? Is it the wallpaper and the home or is it Jane herself? I understand, I do. I’ve been there myself, and literary heroines like Eleanor Vance have as well.
Director and co-writer K. Pontuti did a good job of making sure that the film shows you and makes you empathize with Jane’s suffering and yearning for more. Alexandra Loreth does fine work as a woman who isn’t always nice but someone who you can understand. Jane isn’t meant to be a sympathetic person per se, but that’s not the point. Men aren’t required to be nice at all times, so why should women be? Male characters are frequently allowed to be self driven in films, so film equality should allow female characters to be too. Early on, there’s a shocking moment that brings in the idea of Jane being an unreliable narrator. It goes against all the societal standards of femininity and womanhood, but it makes a point. Not all women want to be or should be mothers. That’s not our purpose in life, despite what some fundamentalists would have you believe. In a way, the story is the tale of Jane’s self-discovery and how she claims her rightful agency. The tragedy is how far she has to go to get it.
Joe Mullins plays John as a limited man who means well, in a way, but who is catering mostly to his own needs and following society’s dictates in regards to his wife. He is painfully unaware of who Jane is or what she wants. Jeanne O’Connor as Jennie and Clara Harte as Mary have a similar confusion about Jane and her plight. They are as in the dark about their needs and wants as Jane is herself, but you can see the light peeking through the curtains slightly with them both. Rebellion is infectious.
Sonja Tsypin is the cinematographer and she has given the film the look of a hazy classical painting. There’s always that halo of antiquity around the proceedings and the setting that gives it a dreamlike fuzziness that worked for me. I don’t know what painter she is referencing, but it seems a bit, Monet, to me with the painter’s veiled people and beautiful, if distant, scenes. That distance is thematically on target for the distance between Jane and her true feelings and desires.
THE YELLOW WALLPAPER is a film and an adaptation that hews very close to the source material and will make you feel uncomfortable. It might make you admit some uncomfortable home truths about yourself, but that means that it was successful in its mission. It is a horror story of a very personal sort.
You can watch the film on streaming services now: