Review: Wanda (1970)

Wanda, the sole feature written and directed by Barbara Loden, who also stars as the title character, is a gim film. A portrait of a life drained of the ability to find meaning and pleasure, Wanda’s titular character wanders (“wander,” “Wanda”?) without direction, finding herself eventually attached to a petty bank robber and becoming his passive accomplice. But this is no Bonnie and Clyde-style crime thriller; there are no genre hooks, no explicit references to other films or art. The closest frame of reference might be the pioneering independent cinema of John Cassavetes. Comparisons to Malick’s Badlands or other “on the run” films like the aforementioned Bonnie and Clyde of the early New Hollywood prove somewhat lacking or unhelpful. Wanda is not simply the opposite of Hollywood. It’s not positioned self-consciously against the dream machine, but seems to exist on another plane entirely.

Wanda is an immersion in the existential headspace of the title character for whom life has ceased to have purpose—in her roles as mother or wife, in her national or civic life. The film begins with Wanda, first introduced sleeping on a couch then slowly making her way to court amongst the massive coal industry that surrounds the neighbourhood. In court, she casually hands over custody of her two small children to her husband, granting him a divorce. Subsequently failing to find employment, Wanda hooks up with a series of men she meets in bars, eventually attaching herself to “Mr. Dennis” (Michael Higgins), when she mistakes him for a bartender in the midst of his robbing a bar.

As a record of American desolation, Wanda is a unique film. In its record of sights and sounds and grainy 16mm footage, it feels like wandering through a record of the post-60s failures of the counterculture, and the beginnings of American industrial decline. Memorable sequences, at least as far as lending the film its unique sense of time and place, occur in a shopping mall, anticipating the dull zombie-consumerism of Romero’s later Dawn of the Dead (another Pennsylvania set story), and another in the budget Evangelical Christian “theme park” of Mr. Dennis’s father. The film ends after a botched robbery, with Wanda finding no resolution to her existential crisis, and perhaps on the verge of being lost permanently.

Wanda is unique—and this is the aspect you read the most about—for being both made by and about a woman, with Loden writing, directing, and starring. Such stories of malaise and existential loss are usually thoroughly masculine, and for this reason Wanda resonates as an important document simply by granting a woman this central attention. But, it isn’t just the same old story with a woman in the lead. I could not imagine the same story that happens to star a man. The film challenges the expectations of mid-century American womanhood, of what a woman’s relationship to her family and society should be, while also showing how positing a link between passivity and femininity can challenge rather than affirm the existing gender relations in American culture. Put another way, Wanda’s abandonment of her family and lack of desire is an outcome of the way women are expected to subsume their own identity in family and relationships; rather than finding this rejection of norms and expectations liberating, Wanda finds herself still lost in America. It suggests that something is very wrong in the core of her world.

The most difficult part of the film is its record of how Wanda is abused, dismissed, and slapped around by almost everyone she meets. Wanda’s greatest violation of the unwritten code of America is in not wanting anything. As Mr. Dennis comments, “If you don’t want anything, and if you don’t have anything, you’re nothing. You might as well not exist.” And that’s how he treats her. It’s an ethos that Loden manages to evoke in the unadorned, handheld camera work and through her performance. Wanda is a tough watch at times; as the viewer enters into Wanda’s experiences, it becomes a kind of psychological horror film.

Barbara Loden, in an interview with the New York Times, soon after the film was released, noted:

I really hate slick pictures…. They’re too perfect to be believable. I don’t mean just in the look. I mean in the rhythm, in the cutting, the music—everything. The slicker the technique is the slicker the content becomes, until everything turns into Formica, including the people.

Wanda is not a Formica film, nor is the title character a slick character. It’s a film shorn of romanticism, politically radical and existential in its form, rather than by touting its ideas in grand dialogues and displays. It’s a unique and valuable document of American storytelling, one that in many ways seems rarer than ever.

9 out of 10

Wanda (1970, USA)

Written and directed by Barbara Loden; starring Barbara Loden, Michael Higgins.