So maybe RACHEL, RACHEL (1968) isn’t forgotten by everyone, but it’s certainly not in the accepted canon, and it should be. Aside from my love of films/TV utilizing punctuation within their titles, I’m in love with this film, because I stumbled on it while I was sick, had no idea who made it, and was completely enthralled for the duration. Finding it was Woodward/Newman just made sense, but I was shocked I hadn’t heard of it earlier.
As Paul Newman’s directorial debut, the film also marked his first time directing his talented, Academy Award-winning wife Joanne Woodward. As a team, on this film, these two were so good together, it’s very difficult to understand why RACHEL, RACHEL received such middling reviews. TV Guide even called it a “small” film (I refuse to give in and belittle this movie with that label), but more than anything, it’s clear reviewers in the ’60s weren’t ready for a female-led story of domesticity and duty and interiority, i.e. the stories of women at that time. In reality, film reviewers are often dead wrong—even the good ones—when something new hits the scene. Luckily, the Academy and Golden Globes thought otherwise.
The film, adapted from Margaret (Wemyss) Laurence’s novel A Jest in God by both Laurence and Stewart Stern (REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, THE UGLY AMERICAN), follows the life of a timid “spinster” school teacher who embraces a rare opportunity to break out of rigid social mores and live for once. But with every life change, there comes catastrophic consequences, when one realizes the outside world is endless and endlessly challenging. For those who haven’t read Laurence’s novel, or her work in general, she was a Canadian writer—obviously of a native descent, though she constantly denied this, but sources close to her confirmed she was of Canadian-Aboriginal descent. To Laurence, her identity wasn’t tied to a specific culture. She traveled extensively, living in Africa and London for a time. And while her identity wasn’t tied to a culture, it was definitely tied to “the outsider.” From this space, she wrote gorgeous prose, relatable to anyone who has felt displaced. “I belong to those who don’t belong,” Laurence once said. “Only a stranger can help another stranger.”
Should be noted that in other, less-“small” hands like Michael Haneke and novelist Elfreide Jelinek, a story like RACHEL, RACHEL becomes something of an erotic thriller, and very well received. Stories of “spinsters” abound and become sensationalized, and I love them all, but this one, for all its quiet intensity and surreal realism, is one of my favorites. Here’s an original trailer if you’re not convinced.