Based on her previous contribution to feminist cinema, it comes as no surprise that Sally Potter’s latest film delivers a female coming-of-age tale that is deeply personal and deeply political. Ginger & Rosa, which was released in 2012, failed to achieve the kind of attention a film of its caliber deserves. A striking indictment of masculinity, male entitlement, and a treatise on the varying motivations behind political action, Ginger & Rosa tells much more than the story of its two teen protagonists’ ascension to adulthood. The two father figures in the film, one present, one not, frame the story, embodying the Western notion of the “patriarch.” Potter invites us to examine the power of the father figure, the complex relationship women have with the men in their lives, that the power of the father figure is not always evil, but it is always present.
Set in 1962, in the flurry following the bombing of Hiroshima, the film features Ginger (Elle Fanning), a young woman who’s swept up in the Ban the Bomb movement, dragging her best friend Rosa (Alice Englert) along with her. The two, who were born on the same day in the same hospital, embark on what begins as a sweet and intimate friendship. They share baths, cigarettes, dating tips, and straightening irons. The gulf between them is slowly revealed as Ginger becomes more enmeshed in protest movements and Rosa shows herself to be more preoccupied with boys.
The father figure is felt both in its presence and its absence. Ginger’s activist father rules the nest, expecting his behavior to be shielded from critique because of his work in the political sphere. Rosa’s own father is long gone, leaving her with a man-sized hole to fill. The relationship to the father, the motivation that comes from their fathers’ respective partial absence and total absence, both informs and restricts the girls’ behaviors. The father is ever-present in their lives: he’s a constant distraction, he’s a constant pressure, he’s inescapable.
Ginger’s parents Roland (Alessandro Nivola) and Natalie (Christina Hendricks) have a strained relationship. Roland, the handsome and charming activist is a model teacher and mentor outside the home. At home, he is far from the model husband. For the role of Natalie, Hendricks transforms into the dowdy housewife, in turns doting on and resenting her brilliant but distant husband. He is the put-upon worker, who devalues his wife’s work, viewing it as inferior as it takes place in private. Ginger survives the twists of their rocky marriage by escaping with Rosa, as they dip their own toes into the lukewarm waters of dating. They pour over girly magazines, and it becomes clear that Rosa has an interest in taking the advice these magazines offer, while Ginger prefers to mock it.
The abandoned child, Rosa, attends rallies and meetings with Ginger, though she seems to be inspired more by a desire to flirt than to protest. In contrast, Ginger’s interest in men is secondary to her interest in politics, and her flirtations last as long as the first semantic disagreement. The absence of the father figure in Rosa’s life pushes her towards powerful, older men, so it seems natural when her eyes settle on Ginger’s father Roland. Ginger sees it happening, sees her father’s eyes lock with Rosa’s in the rearview mirror of his car, sees his arm around Rosa’s waist as he steers them in a sailboat, hears her father’s moans in the next cabin as he beds her best friend for the first time. Yet she is not ready to loosen herself from his hold, so instead she draws further into herself, her face growing more somber as the film progresses, until she stops smiling completely and is examined by a doctor for depression.
Over dinner one night, Natalie implores him to treat her with a little more recognition, to compliment her meal, to show he cares. Roland adopts the victim role, claiming unfair demands are being made of him, and then launches into a critique of Natalie’s emotional state before admitting he’s decided to leave her. The brilliance of Potter’s direction is highlighted in this scene, which plays out slowly, maddeningly. The distraught wife and angered husband are so familiar—theirs is a fight one viewer has witnessed a hundred times. The difference here is Potter’s carefulness with Natalie, extracting both understanding and frustration from the viewer. Natalie is not victimized; she is relatable. Roland is not a monster; he’s a human being with flaws. There’s no good guy/bad guy binary here, which is Potter’s genius.
Potter places little judgment on her character’s actions, instead allowing events to unfold at her signature pace, which critics have called “labored.” To counter that criticism, I’d argue that Potter’s pacing in fact allows for greater reflection. The suffocation and inescapability of the father’s unyielding influence is amplified by how gradually it is revealed. Ginger, who is witness to her parent’s fights as well as her father’s philandering, is simultaneously drawn to him and repulsed by him. She is pushed further into her political work out of a desire to impress him. She is pushed further into her depression about the state of world affairs out of her depression over the miseries at home. She sheds tears over potential nuclear attacks and loss of lives she never knew because she cannot shed them over the loss of her father. She wraps herself up in her political causes as an escape, as a catharsis. This is not to say she is not truly passionate about her beliefs, yet her unrelenting pessimism is an unstable basis for activist work.
For all Roland’s posturing as a serious and set-upon political activist, he actively reinforces traditional gender roles within his home. Just as Natalie had cooked for him, her replacement, Rosa, and his daughter Ginger also cook for him. He flirts and charms and dances around with them but does not lift a finger to help. His complete embodiment of male privilege comes in the final scenes of the film, when he defends his decision to bring Rosa into his new home. Sharing a house with the new couple becomes too much, and Ginger flees back to Natalie. She confesses what she has seen between her father and her friend, sending Natalie into a fit of despair. Their close family friends turn on Roland, who will not accept blame, instead claiming he has spent his whole life fighting against political tyranny and the tyranny of the confines of “normal life.”
This is not a happy movie; Potter does not provide a neat resolution for Ginger; one in which she finally frees herself from the powerful grip of the father figure. Yet this is precisely what makes the film so poignant, and so valuable. Potter is demonstrating how powerful the patriarch figure is; that even when her father has betrayed her trust beyond the forgivable, Ginger turns to him with a look of reluctant acceptance and says, “But I’ll forgive you anyway.” The audience is left with this final thought, that the power of the father figure is stronger than her desire to be free from it.