- Movie Rating -

The Bell Jar (1979)

| March 21, 1979

I read Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar” when I was in college, mainly to understand why my female classmates were so moved by it and, yes, I could easily understand.  The book is about the emotional and mental strain that some women, particularly young woman, experience in a world that often seems determined to push them into a “woman’s place.”  Added to that, it is a bold exploration of being a person inside the personal Hell of mental illness.

Seen through a roman à clef narrative, Plath’s only novel chronicles her experiences as a young college student through her alter ego Esther Greenwood are seen through her desire to become a poet and rise above her projected role of mother and housewife.  Plath’s journey to her suicide at age 30 is seen in the book as a downslide from the heights of being a hard-working academic in college to the depths of electro-shock therapy.

Needless to say, a film version needed to be handled with kid gloves but that’s not what we have here.  Larry Peerce directs this movie as if he were juggling chainsaws.  He and Marylin Hassett who had a success with two parts of the hyper-superficial The Other Side of the Mountain, about a skier who ends up a paraplegic, never seemed to have any real idea about how to approach this material. The idea was the pry up the same amount of emotional content seen on the typical episode of “All My Children” to project that sheer torment featured Plath’s important work and then lay it out as lurid tabloid garbage with enough sad background music as to make the easily-led assume that the story was something significant..

Of Plath’s work, the screenwriter Marjorie Kellogg somehow thinks that it is important to lighten the load on Esther’s experience by actually making is not seem nearly as devastating as it needed to be.  Instead of a serious investigation into a woman dealing with mental illness, Esther’s journey is seen largely as just typical growing pains, using phony background music and weepy dialogue and journeys into experimental sex to make the point.

The depiction of Esther’s mental illness seems to charge into the movie more as a plot point.  She is a gifted student whose time on a summer internship at a women’s magazine brings her into a strange and unnecessary threesome between her southern-fried roommate and a local disc jockey for no real reason other than the movie needed something steamy and cheap to keep our attention.  The mental illness stuff comes in all of a sudden and so we get the indication that it happened overnight – like maybe after a night of bad drinking.

Hassett’s performance comes in two flavors: melodramatic monologues and screaming at the top of her lungs.  She’s so dull in this role and has so few intricacies that she seems more like a stand-in then a person whose mind we’re suppose to explore.

Much of the back half of the movie is given over to the various men that she meets and who attempt to rape her – sexual exploration here is seen as a blunt object.  The movie is lurid, sensationalistic and never seems to have any intention of dealing with the serious issues in Plath’s book.  What a waste.  I have a headache now.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1979) View IMDB Filed in: Drama