A prominent physician escorts his wife, Jane, and newborn child to a secluded countryside home after a severe episode of hysteria rattles Jane’s mental state. For three months in the Summer, Jane is confined to the house grounds with strict instructions to do nothing to exert herself other than to partake in a little gardening. Even writing, which was profusely Jane’s pursuit, is harshly forbidden. The bedroom she shares with her husband is nearly unadorned with only their bed in the middle of the room and yellow wallpaper ornamenting all four walls. As the weeks pass in isolation, Jane can’t escape the feeling the yellow wallpaper is creeping into her mind, imprisoning her, and driving her mad, lending her relaxing retreat from societal nervousness be laid to waste in solitude.
Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” has seen a fair share of filmic adaptations in over a span of a century since being published back in 1892, but all of those variated works have been grounded in the last four decades . Amongst the numerous shorts and a handful of features, the most notable version of “The Yellow Wallpaper” would be Logan Thomas’ 2012 interpretation, starring Juliet Landau, daughter of the late Martin Landau. That’s the funny thing about public domain property is it opens up a plethora of pathways to spin and redefine creativity to rework Gillman’s feminist tale from the artists’ voices speaking of the times when women’s mental health, and mental health in general, was perceived naively as anxiety. Kevin Pontuti steps up to the plate to take a crack at the spiraling to madness story as the filmmaker’s inaugural feature directorial of the American and Ireland co-produced celluloid from an adapted screenplay written by the director and co-written with the story lead actress and producer, Alexandra Loreth. Under the duo’s entertainment banner, Hysteria Pictures in association with Ireland’s Emerald Giant Productions, the crowdfunded “The Yellow Wallpaper” project receives the latest contemporary treatment that brings Gillman’s words back to the screen.
Co-writer and producer, Alexandra Loreth, takes the lead as Jane coming down off the ledge of a nervous breakdown but still ballooning with instability that’s stretching her fashioned societal-front seams. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is also the California based filmmaker’s first feature film alongside Pontuti, basically penning Jane’s entire mindset of combating the time’s unfamiliar sexisms and mental health. Loreth crawls on her hands and knees, feign glossy, far away eyes, and be cold and distant to be in tune to a woman disassociating with herself and reality and, truth be told, portrays a convincible case that shows feature debut courage with on screen nudity and a stamina for being the focus for the entire 99 minute runtime; however these acts remain stuck in a excessive loop that roots Loreth’s character decline to one a taciturn setting, lacking range and depth to carry Jane into full metal straightjacket crazy. Opposite Loreth is Irish actor Joe Mullins as John, the physician, the only character mentioned in Gillman’s short story. Mullins impels like an automaton through the role with not a lick of zestful misogyny to contrast against. Loreth completely dominates the screen as you barely notice Mullins whisk in and out of scenes to medicate Jane or comfort her with little white lies. John’s dismissive attributes were more dispassionate with Mullins behind the wheel that leaves only half the work’s presence omitted and it’s sorely felt. In the role of Jane’s domicile caregiver, Jeanne O’Connor paves a road of sturdy era authenticity that also is fleeting from “The Yellow Wallpaper” and with her 19th century genteel aesthetics, we’re sucked into the period to keep us grounded in time. Performances round out with Clara Harte as the abstruse infant caregiver and Mark P. O’Connor briefly standing in as Jane’s doctor brother.
Pontuti and Loreth’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” targets the very essence of Gillman’s journal narrated themes of the downplayed and untapped mental health and the secondary expectations of women in 19th century society. The differences between the 1800’s paper and 2021’s movie narratives are ever so slightly tweaked into the contemporary medium with Loreth narrating right from Gillman’s pages word-for-word in between the auxiliary scripted dialogue and the finale concluding toward a more grim avenue that will surely satisfy the more macabre of hearts. Yet, not enough material could be extracted from the short story to entice as entertainment as the adaptation lingers in monotone fashion. Jane carries on about the woman trapped behind the yellow wallpaper and is shown going in circles of staring at the wallpaper, crawling on her hands and knees on the estate grounds (as describe in the short story), and just being listless throughout the entirety with her mental issues linked to post-partum and drowning in passive despair. Perhaps better suited for a short film, as many have been completed already, audiences will become tiresomely and frustratedly lost in all of Jane’s 99-minutes of tedium as there just isn’t enough to sate a feature length film unless you add embellishing bells and whistles in the realm of supernatural or the puppeteering of an unseen force symbolizing Jane’s fractured mindset. Don’t expect “The Yellow Wallpaper” to paint a gripping tale of feministic horror as the story peels off in a superannuated ream of soapbox issues.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” made its world premier this past March at Cinequest in San Jose, California. The film is shot in a modernly unconventional 4:3 pillarbox aspect ratio aka the black bars on each side of the near square image presentation. The intention by cinematographer Sonja Tsypin (“Scare Package”) was to meet the age of Gillman’s original. Yes, I know in 1892, video wasn’t exactly a thing, let alone pillarboxed formats, but aspect ratio does point the a modern adaptation into the right blast from the past direction. What is also curious about Tsypin’s photography, and I’m not positive if this is in fact intentional or not, is the lesser frame rate that induces jumps in the picture in an almost lag effect that doesn’t add much but of annoyance to the viewing pleasure. I was slightly more impressed with Robert J. Coburns score fathomed the depth of disturbance going through Jane’s head and lured out the creepy that played like a broken-melody music box. There were no bonus scenes during or after the credits. Even with a well established and powerful ending shot, a preserving memento of the patriarchy’s ill-conceived mansplaining of a woman’s mind and body, and an intrepid performance by Alexandra Loreth, “The Yellow Wallpaper” stagnates in faithfulness to Gillman’s short and doesn’t offer new and improved ideas of century old, feminist gothic literature.