Ever AfterSeptember 12th, 2009 at 10:40
I think many of us have that particular movie that we can watch over and over and seem to never tire of its familiar scenes. A piece of work that calls out themes and values that we hold dear perhaps, and inspires us once again, every time to go out and live those things we hold dear. For our daughter Emma, her mom and I, that movie is “Ever After”, writer/director Andy Tennant’s feminist re-visioning of the Cinderella story starring Drew Barrymore.
The film invents a historical context for Cinderella as the character Danielle De Barbarac, the daughter of a woman from the landed gentry and a commoner father, which by patrilineal protocol made Danielle a commoner as well. Danielle never knew her mom, who died when she was an infant, and was raised by her father, who she adored, but came to die an untimely death as well, soon after remarrying Danielle’s step mother. The story is set in the environs of the French royal court during the early 1500s as it is just beginning to be influenced by the ideas of the Renaissance.
Danielle and her dad both resonated with the ideas of Thomas More and his book Utopia, which her dad used to read to her when she was a kid. For our daughter Emma, her mom and I, we also share forward-thinking ideas as represented in books we read to her or otherwise all have read, including Ursula Le Guinn’ anarchic utopia in The Dispossessed and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s feminist re-visioning of the Arthurian legend in The Mists of Avalon. So we of course resonated with that values connection between offspring and parent in the movie.
Danielle’s step-mom, Baroness Rodmilla de Ghent, wears the “wicked step-mother” hat of the original fairy tale. But as played by the very talented Angelica Huston, the character is a fully realized person with serious unresolved issues from her own childhood that lead her to treat Danielle poorly and favor (and live vicariously through) her older daughter Marguerite, who she schemes to marry the young Prince Henry. Huston’s character is light-years beyond the Cruella de Vil type one-dimensional villains of your typical Disney tale, and more like the complex Morgause and Gwenhwyfar, antagonists in Bradley’s Mists. We share with Emma a love of complex characters and their development.
In an attempt to save one of their family servants from being sold to pay one of the Baroness’ debts, Danielle summons all her courage, risking prison or worse to impersonate a courtier, penetrate the King’s Court, and bargain for the release of their elderly retainer. In the process she encounters handsome, headstrong yet naïve Prince Henry and chastises him using Thomas More’s words for the poor way he treats the commoners who are in fact the backbone of his father’s kingdom. The Prince is (of course) struck by her pluck and beauty, and ability to quote More (who he admits he found “tiring”) and inquires to her identity at which point she has to bid a hasty retreat which only makes him (of course) more intrigued by this passionately intellectual young woman.
Living a life of principles based on the best of intellectual discourse is a path that Emma shares with us and is happily reaffirmed every time we have the occasion to watch “Ever After”. There is nothing the three of us like better than sitting around the kitchen table discussing the ideas of politics, philosophy and religion. The Prince is smitten by Danielle and this passion for ideas, which leads him at the end of the tale to convince his father the King to establish the first French university and even allow the social out-group Gypsies to attend.
Danielle is ever the resourceful and pragmatic role-model of a young woman. At one point she is walking alone with the Prince in the woods when they are set upon by a band of Gypsies intent on capturing the Prince or killing him in the attempt. She holds her own, assertively bargaining with the Gypsy leader to give her a horse since he is robbing her of her escort. The leader carelessly agrees to let her go with “whatever she can carry”, to which Danielle walks over to the Prince, hoists him up and over her shoulder and staggers off down the trail. The Gypsy leader, enough of a principled person to admit it, acknowledges he has been outwitted and agrees to free them both, even inviting them to share dinner with his band.
What a great role-model Barrymore’s character is for the young women (and young men, for that matter) watching this piece. She is thoughtful, self-possessed, and courageous, ready to speak her mind and back up her words with action when the situation requires. And particularly for our daughter, who has always been passionate herself, though shy, but has emerged in recent years thoughtful and assertive, and carrying herself with dignity akin to Danielle.
Add to the mix in this re-visioned tale, the character of Leonardo de Vinci, who is the guest of the King, and is the thoughtful presence and elder statesperson, a champion and spokesperson throughout the movie for invention, art and true love. He becomes enmeshed in Danielle and the Prince’s budding romance and ends up wearing the fairy tale’s fairy god-mother hat, constructing for Danielle the fairy-winged costume and providing the glass slippers that she wears to the masque ball for the movies momentus climax.
Danielle has her final trial when she is revealed at the masque by her step-mother as a commoner only posing as nobility, is scorned by her Prince, leaves the ball in tears and is subsequently sold to their lecherous and genuinely disgusting neighboring landowner, the aptly name Pierre Le Pieu, who plans to “break her” like he would a wild and untrained horse. Danielle, spurned and shamed, but never allowing herself to be fully defeated, manages to gain possession of one of Le Pieu’s swords, and demonstrating the sword-play skill taught to her by her father, threatens to slit her captor from “navel to nose” unless he releases her. Le Pieu, pragmatic himself in his own disgustingly self-serving way, decides that Danielle is too much for him to handle and reluctantly grants her freedom.
Just then the Prince, who has come to his senses after de Vinci’s stern lecture about ignoring “his one true love”, has just been made aware of Danielle’s involuntary servitude, and has come to rescue his damsel in distress. But in a final feminist twist, encounters his damsel who has already rescued herself thank you. He admits his folly, begs her forgiveness and for her love once again. She agrees of course, and the two live happily “Ever After”, as eventual monarchs over an evolving French kingdom that now will embrace the progressive ideas of the Renaissance.
Ah… my kind of fairy tale, and happily my daughter’s too. What a blessing to exemplify or at least aspire to values that your offspring freely and whole-heartedly take on and make their own. Every occasion I have to see the movie for the umpteenth time, I feel once again awash in that blessing, and inspired to move ever forward in my own and our shared evolution.