Life on the outskirts of society, the stories of poor, rootless drifters and petty criminals—rarely is any of this depicted on film without either sentimental or moral messaging on the one hand, or sensationalism on the other. Of those that have tried, Wanda, a 1970 film by Barbara Loden, is in a class by itself. An actress who got the attention of director Elia Kazan in supporting roles in his films, and ended up marrying him, Loden wanted to tell the story of a working class woman who, having never been considered capable of shaping her own destiny, falls into increasingly desperate circumstances. She made the picture on a miniscule budget, played the title role, and then saw it win at the Venice Film Festival. But it failed to be appreciated in the United States during her lifetime.
Wanda Goronski lives in the hardscrabble coal country of eastern Pennsylvania. She drinks as a way to cope with her unsatisfying marriage to a man who only seems to know how to criticize her. Eventually she walks out on him, living for a brief time on her sister’s couch, and then failing to appear on time for a court hearing, in which she gives up custody of her kids and grants a divorce. A series of misfortunes, resulting not so much from bad decisions but from the inability to make any decisions at all, culminates in her entering a sleazy bar and meeting Norman, played by Michael Higgins, whom she thinks is the bartender but in fact has just finished robbing the place. She ends up hooking up with this man, trying to be what he wants, despite the fact that’s he’s abusive towards her.
Shot on 16 millimeter, with a handheld camera and a markedly abrupt editing style, the film is remarkable for its clear-eyed view of the mundane life of someone without hope. There’s no music to accentuate moments for us; there’s no attempt to make Wanda a likeable person or even a victim to feel sorry for, although one does feel sorry in a deeper sense, the sense in which we perceive the waste of people’s lives through poverty and ignorance. Loden abandoned the safety of the conventional narrative arc. The film constantly defies expectations. Her quest was to show the truth you wish you didn’t have to see, the people you don’t want to care about, who are nevertheless people with a right to be on this earth. All the actors were nonprofessionals except for Loden and Higgins, who is excellent, but the movie doesn’t drift into an aimless improvisatory exercise as low-budget independent films often do—the focus is clear-cut and unsparing.
Wanda is one of the few feature films from that era of the 60s and early 70s to be directed by a woman. I think it demonstrates how a woman artist can bring a different sensibility to a motion picture. Wanda as a character is an unsettling combination of passive dependence on men and unconscious revolt from that very dependence, and it is chilling in its matter-of-factness.
Barbara Loden died in 1980, without making the second film she had planned, and this represents a loss to cinema of what might have been in terms of the emergence of women filmmakers. There’s no other film like Wanda, really. You’ll know exactly what I mean when you see it. After Loden’s death, the movie steadily gained critical regard. It was fully restored in 2010, and is available on DVD.