DIRECTED BY: William Forsyth
FEATURING: Christine Lahti, Sara Walker, Andrea Burchill
PLOT: Two orphaned girls are joined by their transient aunt who becomes their guardian in this dreamy, pensive study of nonconformity and the breaking of social mores in a restrictive 1950’s environment.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While Housekeeping has an original plot about unusual characters doing unusual things, it is not truly weird. If anything, the entire point of the movie is to illustrate that what many consider odd is perfectly normal, depending on the angle of interpretation.
COMMENTS: Housekeeping is a surreal atmosphere piece that questions right and wrong, debates the meaning of normality, and examines the consequences of non-conformity. The story follows the erratic behavior of two teenage girls and their seemingly irresponsible caretaker.
In the 1950’s Pacific Northwest, a series of bizarre events unfold, leading to the abandonment of two adolescent girls. In a dramatic early scene, the girls’ misfit mother asks some young boys for help in getting her car out of a muddy rut. When they do, she casually commits suicide in front of them by driving over a cliff. Her daughters, long abandoned by their father, become the wards of their grandmother and aunt, who see them into their early teens. When the deceased mother’s sister shows up, the grandmother and great aunt disappear into the night, leaving them in the care of the newly arrived “Aunt Sylvie” (Lahti).
Sylvie, as it turns out, is an avowed nonconformist with an unconventional lifestyle and unique view of the world. Her permissive parenting enables an alternative existence for her nieces. This new freedom includes skipping school, stealing boats, riding the rails, and other risky, unstructured behavior: acts which are particularly outré when performed by young women in the conservative 1950s.
The film is an odyssey of self discovery as Ruth, from whose point of view the story is presented, begins to question social convention and accepted folkways. As Ruth gravitates toward Sylvie’s atypical values, her sister Lucille is upset by the lack of structure and begins to embrace social norms.
The film presents this evolution of the girls’ characters and personalities through a series of ethereal misadventures and explorations. This transition is further influenced by the recounting of early childhood impressions, and their observations of the unique geography of their home, which is located on a surreal lake surrounded by wooded mountains. Ice and snow symbolism connects different story segments, along with railroads and trains, particularly a spectacular derailment disaster that occurred many years in the past. The lake itself, a massive body of deep cold water holding the wreckage and bodies from the doomed train, embodies concepts of obstacles, boundaries, mystery and the transcendence of space and time.
Ultimately, and inevitably, outside authoritarian interference descends upon the trio; the tale alludes to fear of witches by the unsophisticated locals. Nonconformity is equated with a dread of the unknown. At this point, the slowly building tension between the girls’ independence and the mainstream establishment comes to a rolling boil. The three must choose between two extremes, either one of which will create dramatic and permanent consequences.
Some credit Housekeeping with exploring themes concerning transience, self reliance, dependency, female marginalization, and freedom. This may be true, but the literary eye rollers —that crowd who seek to distinguish themselves intellectually via the discovery of a plethora of symbolism, real or imaginary, in any work—are likely to perceive Housekeeping as an exploration of feminist issues. This would not be the best interpretation of the story. Housekeeping is not a women’s movie. It is a beautifully photographed, thought-provoking atmospheric fantasy about unconventionality and its consequences. The events are experienced from the point of view of a youngster who happens to be a girl. The choice of gender serves more to facilitate this study of social taboos than to make any sort of statement. Those who wish to interpret Housekeeping as being a feminist vehicle will miss the nebula for the stars.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…one of the strangest and best films of the year… not a realistic movie, not one of those disease-of-the-week docudramas with a tidy solution. It is funnier, more offbeat, and too enchanting to ever qualify on those terms.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)