Limits of Choice and Movement: Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970)

Growing up, my family took long road trips. After “Are we there yet?” and “He’s pinching me!” stretches, my mom would pull the car over and threaten with a stern glare: “I’ll leave you right here on the side of the road.” While I was often tempted to escape the cramped car and my siblings, I never got out. Leaving wasn’t a feasible option for me. I was a kid; no money, no real knowledge of how to navigate the world on my own. So, of course I chose to stay in the car and be quiet – even though it didn’t feel like much of a choice, given the futile alternative.

Wanda Goronski, played by writer and director Barbara Loden, finds herself in a similarly unfavorable position throughout Wanda (1970). Undesiring of her life as a mother and wife in a mining town, Wanda shows no objection to being divorced by her husband and handing over custody of their children to him. For the rest of the film, she’s in and out of bars and shopping centers, falling asleep in a matinee – during which the small amount of money she has is stolen – and getting involved with men who exploit her. Most of her time is spent with Mr. Dennis (Michael Higgins), an abusive, callous man who turns out to be a sloppy and unremarkable thief.

Dennis and Wanda are driving on the road when she asks him a question. In response, Dennis pulls over and tells her to get out as he reaches across her to swing open the passenger side door. Wanda looks out at the frame-engulfing wall of green trees, then back at Dennis, weighing her two options. Neither one is great, but at least the car contains familiarity, while the woods offer the unknown. “I didn’t do anything,” she says in a tone resembling that of a scolded child. She stays in the car and doesn’t ask another question.     

Having received high praise in Europe but only sporadic recognition in the U.S. over the past 50 years since it premiered in Venice in 1970, Wanda remains a somewhat obscure and overlooked film. The original camera rolls were almost thrown in a landfill when the lab storing them closed down in 2007, but were ultimately saved. The film was restored and later digitized. With Criterion’s release of Wanda on DVD and Blu-ray just last year, there will be more eyes on it in the coming years – many more, I suspect and hope. With that, I also hope there will come more compassionate and multi-dimensional readings of Wanda, who has been the subject of cruel descriptions in the past. One rather influential critic labeled her an “ignorant slut.” In addition to being cruel, this sort of language is lazy and ignores the nuance of Wanda’s character and the mastery with which Barbara Loden portrayed her. 

As is made clear from the start, Wanda doesn’t desire the life she’s in. However, she doesn’t seem to know how to move toward something she does want, either. As Loden put it in an interview: “She can’t cope with life. She has no equipment… Life is a mystery to her.” Released of her legal ties to her family and from her job at a factory (for which her manager tells her she’s “too slow”), Wanda walks around a mall in a casual, neutral-colored outfit and high ponytail. She stops to gaze at a group of mannequins surrounded by artificial flowers. They don glamorous fashions she couldn’t afford, but the way she’s situated among them suggests she could almost be one of them – an indication of her humanity against the manufactured figures and yet a stinging reminder that she is, just as they are, stuck.

The first words Wanda speaks in the film are “He’s mad ‘cause I’m here,” which she utters from under a sheet on her sister’s couch just after her brother-in-law leaves the house in a perturbed manner. Wanda deems her mere presence an insult, an assessment that has clear roots in how she’s treated by those around her. After a man buys her a drink at a bar following her divorce hearing, they sleep together and then he tries to sneak away. Looking confused, she throws on her clothes in a hurry and calls for him to “wait just a minute” as she runs out to his car. He then leaves her behind at an ice cream counter, where she stands alone in her pale flower-patterned blouse. After Wanda and Dennis sleep together the first time, he responds with a flat “No” when she asks if he wants to know her name. Over the course of their time together, she asks him lots of questions, and when he meets her inquiries with silence, she usually follows up with a set of “Huh? Huh?” nudges. While this conversational poking may lead one to believe that she is new to the world, it is more so a reaching out, a plea for validation and connection.

The child-like behavior Wanda sometimes exhibits is reinforced by how Loden positions her within compositions. In a broken mirror, Wanda is exposed from the bottom of her nose upward, the mirror placed too high to show anything lower. While Dennis meets with another man to discuss a job, she is curled up on a mat, her ponytail cascading over the floor. Outside a bank Dennis fails to rob, she tries to get through a crowd, her soft movements getting her nowhere; her worried eyes, which resemble those in search of a lost parent, become the focus of a medium close-up shot. These framings encourage us to view Wanda in a more forgiving light, to extend our empathy to her as we more readily may if she weren’t an adult.

Loden places a remarkable amount of focus on Wanda’s blonde hair. It is often the physical feature that defines her within shared spaces, and it’s something she puts energy into maintaining. When we are introduced to her, her hair is in a mass atop her head that flops in front of her face. For her court appearance, it’s rolled up in multi-colored curlers and wrapped in a tulle head scarf. A bartender refers to her as “blondie” when asking what she wants to drink. Later, Dennis criticizes her hair when it’s up in a ponytail, telling her it looks “terrible” and that she should cover it with a hat. Even Wanda’s first encounter with Dennis, which occurs at a bar he’s robbing, finishes up with attention on her hair when she asks to borrow a comb. As she adjusts her bangs, the camera flips to show her miniature reflection in the mirror behind the bar, in which she is framed by a square of products: her upper body is rendered smaller than the box of cigars below her chest, her head tiny in comparison to adjacent alcohol bottles, her forearm shorter than the pack of gum off to her side. Through this brief shift in perspective, Loden offers us an aperture into Wanda’s perception of herself as shrunken and lesser. The sorts of products that border her and the atmospheres in which they’re found also inundate her existence, so they aptly serve to illustrate how her environment and circumstances confine her, keeping her within a context that only allows for limited movement.

Wanda often “shrinks” herself during and after interactions with others in response to their minimizing treatment of her. Explaining to Dennis why she can’t buy a hat to cover her hair, she says with a rapid cadence, “I don’t have anything. Never did have anything, never will have anything.” In response, he tells her she’s “stupid,” as he has before, and she concurs, slouched over and snacking on bread: “I’m stupid.” When Dennis then tells her she’s “nothing” and “may as well be dead” if she doesn’t have anything, she replies just before taking a sip of canned beer, “I guess I’m dead then.” Regardless of how often these kinds of sentiments are spoken to and by her, Wanda is far from “nothing,” but keeping her in this state of belief is beneficial to those who wish to take advantage of her or elevate themselves above her. After Dennis succeeds in hotwiring a stolen car, he’s very pleased with himself until Wanda reaches above him to the sun visor and pulls down a set of keys, asking with plain curiosity: “Why didn’t you just use these?” In a dramatic display of irritation, Dennis throws the keys against the dash and yells at Wanda: “Look, if you wanna walk, get out. Go ahead! Hurry up, make up your mind!” She stays and doesn’t push the matter, another instance in which we have to wonder if this was much of a choice for her at all. Wanda seems to retract and acquiesce because when she extends herself, she’s reprimanded. Just the night before, Dennis smacks her across the face after she’s late coming back with burgers. When she tells him that hurt and asks why he did it, he ignores her. Instead of leaving, Wanda fixes his food to his specifications and sits against the wall – almost melting into it — and eats with him, reaching up to touch her sore cheek in silence. Later, she mentions to Dennis that her kids are “better off” with her ex-husband, then states her opinion of herself: “I’m just no good!” Having been so undervalued and poorly treated with such consistency, this self-criticism is no surprise.

After Dennis is no longer around, Wanda is sitting in a bar booth with another man, despondent. As he talks at her, the camera is up close on her hair and a cigarette that rests between her pink-nailed fingers. Smoke floats out of the frame as she stays still and silent. Their table is full of beer bottles and the man calls for more, insisting Wanda needs a fresh one even though she hasn’t been drinking or showing any enthusiasm for the situation. In his red convertible, the man drives them out to a remote location near the edge of a forest, where he forces himself on Wanda. Initially, she displays a blank expression on her face and no visible resistance to him moving her body into a horizontal position. But just as it appears that she will resign herself to his assault, she screams and pushes him off her. The man continues to grab her, but with several hits and a final push, Wanda fends him off and escapes the car. She runs into the woods, falls down and cries on the leaf-covered floor. Above her looms the green canopy of the forest, swaying in the gray daylight. We can’t help but hope she stays here, away from the bars and the people who have abused her.

As is evident from Wanda’s escape, she has fight in her that contrasts with her usual demeanor. This affirms that on some level, she knows she deserves and wants better – and at the very least knows what she doesn’t want. Wanda does exit the car this time, does enter the woods. But it’s apparent that there is no real option for her among the trees, or at least not one that doesn’t involve death; she wouldn’t survive out there on her own. Instead, she returns to the world with which she is most familiar. In the dark, she walks back into town. She peers through a lit window, standing cross-armed and wilted outside alone before being invited into a bar by a woman dressed in red. Once inside, a flurry of drinks and cigarettes are offered to her. She sits in silence at a booth, squished between the men next to her as live fiddle music plays and movement swirls around her. The tight frame freezes there on her slumped body and shut eyelids; a lit cigarette clings to her drooping fingers and her hair glows in the dim light. Fixed in place, this is what a feasible option looks like for Wanda.

Early on in the film, through a wide shot that lasts almost two minutes, we see Wanda making her way across a black coal field in white attire, her tulle head scarf fluttering behind her distant shape. The outline of the path she follows is fringed with voluminous green trees, embellishing her route with tufts of ghostly alternatives.    


Sage Cruser works at Scarecrow.

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