Sunday, October 12, 2008

"He died cheerfully in a gibbet of his own making"

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie contains one of cinema's most ridiculous spinsters, whose overweening affectation and carefully constructed fantasy world are intended to mark her as unique but only make it all the more painfully obvious that she is one of many of the type who fancies her own brand of whimsy to be special and different when she is, in fact, a dime a dozen. Colorful frocks and vintage bicycles do not a free spirit make. Take note, ladies of Brooklyn.

And yet, Maggie Smith's interpretation of Miss Jean Brodie is terribly entertaining, because it's so ridiculous and because her accent is soooo much fun to imitate. "Little gehls!" "I am in my prrrrime!" Her students imitate her too, and I am sure they were just as delighted with themselves as I was. There's almost nothing as fun as putting on a fake Scottish accent and swaning around uttering fanciful proclamations about Mussolini.

Other than some fairly marvelous dialogue, and some truly great speeches from Maggie Smith, the best thing about this movie is the dynamic between Jean and her cunning, nasty little student, Sandra. Plain, vicious Sandra resents her mentor's affection for pretty Jenny, a fellow student in the Brodie Set. Her jealousy of the hated Jenny drives her to turn on her master and destroy her: she rats her out to the uptight headmistress Miss Mackay. Dimwitted Mary McGregor is a pawn in their game -- when she runs off to Spain to fight for Franco and is promptly exploded on a train, Sandra immediately runs squealing to the schoolboard.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie perfectly captures the psychotic nature of teenage girls, and the final confrontation between master and pupil is a beautiful fireworks display. This scene demonstrates the interplay between manipulator and manipulated, with the change in power dynamics leading us to wonder who is, indeed, the most dangerous one? Narcissist Jean Brodie, who's apparently oblivious to her own bad influence, or the young, angry Lolita who's perfectly capable of killing without compunction? Miss Jean Brodie seems almost vulnerable by the end of it; the viewer osscilates between condemning one or the other, but ultimately you have to feel sorry for both the wretched teacher, stripped of the one duty that gave her life meaning, and the girl who tried to tangle in adult affairs and ended up hardened. Another thought: was Jean Brodie "assassinated" by provincialism? If she'd lived in Paris rather than Edinburgh, would she have gotten in any trouble at all? Would underage students sleeping with art teachers be a big deal, really? She'd still be on the wrong side of the fence politically, though, which might have done her in eventually. The lesson, schoolmarms of the world, is to keep your personal life and your politics out of the classroom no matter where you live.

In the final scene there is a voice over, perhaps one of the few really effective voice overs I can think of, in which Jean Brodie repeats her little speech that she gives to her girls at the beginning of each term: "I am in the business of putting old heads on young shoulders," and it's hard not to be moved by it, especially as tears stream down Sandra's normally composed face.


Levi Stahl said...

I haven't seen the movie, but the novel is wonderful: Muriel Spark paints Jean Brodie as simultaneously menacing and pathetic, charming and repellent. It's a book that sticks with you.

Andrea Janes said...

True -- Jean is maddening and unforgettable. I think Maggie does her justice, absolutely.