Monday, November 18, 2013

The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1986): Envy or Vengeance

The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1986)
dir: Phillip Saville

When people mention She-Devil, most Americans automatically think of the Susan Seidelman-helmed movie starring Roseanne Barr and Meryl Streep. Some think about Fay Weldon's novel, and a rare awesome few know that there was a BBC-produced mini-series in between the two.

Seidelman's version is a truncated version of the novel and mini-series, which all but eliminates two of the main themes of the book: love can be toxic and beauty trumps all. Seidelman's She-Devil is a Barr vehicle that makes the case for "women doing it for themselves" and that men suck, which is actually a theme in Seidelman's career.

Saville's The Life and Loves of a She-Devil is much more complex than Seidelman's version, and it skews far closer to the source novel. Saville's She-Devil deals with sex, appearance, money, power, envy, vengeance, faith, and almost everything under the sun. Instead of being Seidelman's rather simplistic, but effective, feminist revenge fantasy, Saville created a whole world for the she-devil to rage against.

The Life and Loves of a She-Devil is Fay Weldon's feminist screed about a pointedly ugly housewife, Ruth Patchett, who is married to accountant Bob. Bob falls for the much more attractive Mary Fisher, a famous scion of trashy romance novels. After a series of disappointments, Bob leaves Ruth with their two kids to go live with Mary Fisher in her mansion by the sea. In the process, Bob calls Ruth a She-Devil, and Ruth takes that to heart proceeding to exact cunning and brutal revenge on Bob and the rest of the world.

Saville's She-Devil opens with Mary Fisher winning an award, and meeting Bob at an after party before getting him to take her home before seducing him. All in front of Ruth. Bob and Mary develop a relationship, and Bob steadily becomes distanced. During their anniversary dinner, at which Bob's parents are in attendance with Ruth having made dinner, the dinner is destroyed and Bob berates and humiliates Ruth in front of everybody. It isn't the first time he has humiliated her, either. At an earlier point, Ruth was making dinner, something minor had broken down, Ruth broke down with it and Bob screamed at her. Anyways, at the anniversary dinner, Bob humiliates Ruth, but even his parents side with Ruth and start to reprimand Bob, until Bob's father tries to dominate his mom. And, by the end of the night, Bob left Ruth permanently to start seeing Mary Fisher permanently.

In this scene, we start seeing the complexities that were smoothed by Seidelman. The sexism and male domination are not just a result of Bob and Ruth's toxic relationship, but they are also time-tested attitudes which Bob had been raised around. His father subtly abuses his mom, and tries to dominate her constantly. It's a system of patriarchy that Weldon displayed and is railing against. And these sexist attitudes are passed down by the generations, even though they have always been subtly challenged. The challenge of equality is growing from generation to generation against the will of men like Bob and his father.

Of course, in both versions, Ruth is as ugly as can be. She has a gigantic mole, skin conditions, bad teeth, limp hair, and is largely overweight. In Saville's version, Ruth is also 6'2" as yet another contrast between her and Mary Fisher, which becomes important by the end. Ruth is the opposite of Mary Fisher; thus, Ruth is the opposite of what society has deemed to be conventionally attractive, and she suffers for it. Saville and Weldon constantly harp about how Ruth is an ugly hideous woman and that she has a much, much harder life because of it. Ruth even soliloquizes that ugly women, as they get older, frequently get harder from the constant pressures and disappointments that they face while waiting for old age to equalize everybody.

And, so, the main thrust of the movie is Ruth's actions after being left for the younger, richer, single, childless, Mary Fisher. Ruth's first revenge is blowing up the house, telling the insurance company that she was at fault, and dumping the kids with Mary Fisher and Bob in their love nest before disappearing.

Ruth then dons a gigantic red wig and has sex with an ugly older man with an eye infection as a way to get hired into the old person's home where Mary Fisher's mom is. As she's fucking the old man, she kisses the eye infection, and connects as a pointedly ugly people romantic sex type thing, which is also a pointed counterpoint to the beautiful Mary Fisher fucking the average Bob (which is even more defined in Seidelman's version as her Bob is kind of hot).

At the rest home, Ruth hooks up with a nurse who eventually leaves to work at a psych ward. And, Ruth sends Mary's mom to Mary, while also working to have Mrs. Fisher banned from the nursing home. Ruth then reconnects with the nurse at the psych ward, and they develop a plan to steal money from Bob's clients and start up a temp agency business. The first round of embezzlement is sizable enough to start the agency. And, here is the first huge difference between the versions. In Saville's edition, Ruth embezzles money to herself through an ATM, causing her to be extremely wealthy. But, Seidelman's Ruth gets the money for the employment agency from the nurse.

As Ruth is both setting up Bob and stealing from his clients, she also hooks him up with a married secretary who also starts sleeping with him. The secretary's excuses for not getting what she wants out of her marriage sound slightly similar to Bob's excuses for sleeping with Mary. She's bored, and not getting what she wants.

And, it's here that Saville's version starts really departing from Seidelman's. In Saville's world, women aren't just oppressed victims. Sometimes they can be the criminal. The secretary is completely cheating on her husband. And, that she gets fired while Bob got hired for it is more evidence of the patriarchical construction of the world than that men are sleazier than women. In a man's world, it's OK for men to sleep to the top, but it isn't for a woman. But, in Saville's and Weldon's world, both men and women have the capacity to be equally terrible. Instead of it being an unfair game that men are constantly cheating on women, the secretary is also cheating on her husband, and it stops being so one-sidedly sexist. Sure, Bob slept his way to the top by hooking Mary Fisher's account through sex; while the secretary gets fired. But, both parties are being just purely icky.

At this point, Bob is getting arrested for embezzlement, partly set up by the vengeful secretary. And, as such, Ruth disappears again, to reappear as Polly Patch, as a militant nanny to the Judge ruling on Bob's trial. She develops a relationship with the judge on the judge's terms. She isn't scared of the judge, as his wife is. When the judge is stressed out, he abuses the wife. His wife is also completely scared of Polly.  But, Polly eventually manipulates the Judge to going harsh on Bob, in no small part by being the willing subject of his S&M bedroom games. Saville is spelling out the corruption of sex and justice.

Ruth disappears AGAIN, and shows up as a maid to a priest. The priest is the leader of the church where Mary Fisher has started going back to as a crisis of faith. Ruth semi-seduces the priest, who is now prepped to be seduced by Mary Fisher. Meanwhile, Ruth's kids have all but disappeared, and are now not a part of any of the equations.

Ruth's final act is to get a series of expensive plastic surgery with the money she embezzled. Her goal is to have herself completely made up to look like Mary Fisher, including getting 6 inches lopped off her legs. Mary Fisher, who had been fucking the priest, falls out of her window and dies after the priest ditches her. This leaves her mansion up for purchase. Now Ruth, looking like Mary, buys up the mansion, picks up Bob when he's released, and fucks guys in front of him. The end.

Throughout both version's of She-Devil, Ruth is constantly envious of Mary Fisher's wealth and love palace. She's always commenting on it with a source of sarcasm and derision that betray her true desires of wanting to be Mary Fisher. She wants her husband on her terms. She wants Mary's wealth. She wants Mary's good looks. She wants to have Mary Fisher's life, and she's willing to go to any length.

And, with Saville's finale, she is completely participating in the system that oppressed her. She had 6" cut off her legs, and had to learn to walk again. She would be in complete pain for the rest of her life. She would be on blood thinners to prevent clotting. But, she wanted the looks she was denied. And, she wanted the house that Mary Fisher had. And, she wanted the money that Mary Fisher had. And, she doesn't care that she's participating in the oppressive system to get there; this time around, Ruth is the oppressor.

Seidelman doesn't want to indict Ruth, really.  At least, she doesn't want to indict her nearly as hard as Weldon and Saville do. Seidelman wants to create a feminist revenge scheme where she crafts a completely happy ending by oppressing the male oppressor (Bob) while letting the independent woman win. Seidelman even lets Mary Fisher off the hook, by giving her a serious work to finally write, and letting her achieve success in the serious lit world instead of the trashy romance world

Seidelman's version is all about letting women succeed in the face of patriarchy, and she makes the story purely a revenge fantasy.

Saville's mini-series is far more scorched earth.  Ruth is an envious self-made bitch who doesn't care about the advancement of women so much as the advancement of herself. She's no better than any of the men in the novel. Mary Fisher is a bitch who insults Ruth at every turn. Her mom is a bitch who tells Mary that she wasn't wanted. Bob is an asshole because he's Bob. The secretary isn't innocent. Everybody sucks. It's far far darker of a revenge fantasy that hits on so much more of the system.

What's intriguing is that one is tempted to say "well, Saville is a dude, and Seidelman is a woman, so of course Saville is more apt to demonize women in turn." Except, no. Fay Weldon's novel isn't nice to women either. It doesn't let anybody off the hook. So, Seidelman's version is merely pointing towards a more purely feminist version than a real world adaptation. It's an interesting contemplation on what the differences are, except Seidelman had also made the weird Making Mr. Right in which a woman teaches a male android emotions.

While Saville's mini-series is deeper (of course, it also has a 3hr49mn run time to do it), and darker, it isn't as purely entertaining as Seidelman's simpler diatribe. It's a different experience. And for different results. With Saville's version, the acting is decent, and the production starts off typical BBC but advances to be better than BBC but still not cinematic quality. Saville's version is deeper, but it isn't the passive feminist entertainment that Seidelman's is. Saville's version is better. It just isn't lazy Saturday afternoon rewatch with belly laughs.

Added note: Saville's The Life and Loves of a She-Devil is not available on DVD in the US. But, it is available on DVD in Britain, as well as on Youtube in a playlist that was taken from a well-worn VHS copy. Indulge.

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