After a long, three-year wait, the cinematic adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's posthumous novel, 'The Garden of Eden' -- now listed as 'Hemingway's Garden of Eden' -- is getting a limited release this Friday. After coming together in 2007, the film screened at an Italian festival in 2008 and abruptly disappeared from sight. There were no further festival visits, no release dates, no word at all until it finally grabbed a solid date this year.
Though this can, and does, speak to the quality of the film, it also reflects Hemingway's own struggles with the material. Written over the last fifteen years of the writer's life, it remained unfinished and unique, littered with classic Papa themes while also challenging them. At its heart, it's the story of gender bending power that doesn't quite know how to express itself in 1920s Europe, nor now on the modern screen.
'The Garden of Eden' focuses on the long honeymoon of David (Jack Huston) and Catherine Bourne (Mena Suvari). What starts as a pleasure-filled relaxation is soon complicated by Catherine's manipulation of David's easygoing nature as she tries to find power as a woman in a male dominated society, the power of seduction quickly morphing into Catherine's quest to gain control in her life by becoming a "man." She darkens her skin, cuts off her hair, wears traditional sailor clothes and convinces David to let her take control in the bedroom. Naturally, this is a flawed plan that quickly spins out of control as she brings another woman (Caterina Murino) into their relationship as an act of conquest, quickly setting up the dichotomy between the doting mistress and the struggling-for-power wife.
On paper, it's a world at war between Hemingway's oft-used themes ("dark" and "light" women, emasculation) and a real sense of female understanding. The world is written through David's eyes, but with a careful respect for Catherine. She's a little girl at play in her own real life, trying any idea to see what sticks, looking to fill the void inside her. That is, until she's presented with the danger of her quest in David's latest story. She undoubtedly sees parallels between herself and David's memories of a hunt for an innocent elephant and his own rejection of the masculine pursuit -- almost like a rejection of her own masculine quests.
In the film, however, the continuing metaphors and gendered confusion fade away with Suvari's Catherine smirks and glares. She presents Mrs. Bourne as cold and calculating -- upholding the most negative connotations of Hemingway's work. There's no rhyme or reason to the screen's Catherine, her influence only that of a uncontrollable woman who needs to be set free. Scenes jump between African hunts and sexy dalliances on the French Riviera with few connections or cohesiveness, the gender bending a performance rather than a path towards possible empowerment or evolution. Or likewise, a towards a statement of any kind. Reviews like the one over at Slant note "the film's ultimate disinterest in actually broaching the issue [of masculinity]."
Perhaps it's just a confusion over how to relay women exploring masculinity. Though Marlene Dietrich's suit-clad lady of 'Morocco' is one of our first big foray's into gender bending, crossing gendered barriers is -- for the most part -- another boys' club. Though we've got films like 'Boys Don't Cry,' 'Victor/Victoria,' 'Transamerica' and 'Yentl,' the mainstream male genderbenders are much easier to identify -- 'Tootsie,' 'Some Like it Hot,' 'The Birdcage,' 'The Crying Game,' 'To Wong Fu,' 'Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,' 'Mrs. Doubtfire,' 'Rocky Horror Picture Show,' 'Breakfast on Pluto,' 'Kinky Boots,' 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch' or the work of Divine ... In fact, funny men in dresses, a la 'Tootsie' and 'Doubtfire' dominate the most successful gender bending films, alongside the likes of 'Big Momma's House' and 'White Chicks.'
Some of this is surely the victim of Hollywood's love of show. Most of the above focus on the performance and entertainment rather than the rationale, and to be successful at the box office, there often needs to be an air of ridiculousness. And if not that, ridiculous infiltration, with the battling likes of 'She's the Man' and 'Just One of the Guys' facing off against 'Ladybugs' and 'Sorority Boys.'
And now we're facing a world where the gender binary is in crisis, "man" and "woman" not adequately representing the human experience in two distinct forms, either through sex or performance/interests. But rather than elaborating on this increasing move away from the binary, it's almost as if today's cinematic gender bending has evolved into a way to hold onto the signifiers, co-opting the fringe not to challege the status quo, but to keep the mainstream world in-tact. Funny men like Martin Lawrence and Eddie Murphy throw on the fat suits and dresses to play women for laughs and rather than deteriorate masculinity, the cross-dressing is used to enforce it.
Though I can't help but think that there's room for deeper, more introspective pieces like 'Transamerica,' and what 'Garden of Eden' could have been that can not only discuss the changes to modern gender, but also the ways in which gendered performance once offered opportunity and power. In a list dominated by men, it must be noted that the most successful female-to-male gender bending was Barbra Streisand's 1983 film 'Yentl,' which has a lifetime theatrical gross of over $40 million, and number seven on the list of top ten grossing gender benders.
Of all the gender bending films to grace the screen, which do you like the most, and as the world changes, how do you think gender bending will evolve?