Director: Desmond Davis
By Marilyn Ferdinand
During the 1960s, world cinema took a great leap forward. The French New Wave, the Brazilian Cinema Novo, and the British Free Cinema were among the movements that influenced each other in bringing film out of the studios and their staid conventions and into the streets and everyday life. As my blog partner Rod Heath has noted, the British Free Cinema was characterized by its “realistic life stories, honest portrayal of sub-bourgeois lifestyles … a visual rhetoric that had poetry and personality (and) strong literary influence.” Girl with Green Eyes is a typical example of this school of filmmaking from Desmond Davis, a Free Cinema director with few movies to his credit. With a screenplay by Irish writer Edna O’Brien based on her own short story, Davis creates a subtle farce that powers along on its own particularly Irish vitality—an interesting feat considering that all of its principal creatives, save for O’Brien, are English.
Kate Brady (Rita Tushingham) and Baba Brennan (Lynn Redgrave) are longtime friends from convent school who move to Dublin together to escape the boredom and provincialism of their small town. Baba is a flirty, gabby extrovert whose lighthearted approach to life energizes the more reserved Kate. Davis introduces us to the social milieu of 1960s Dublin in rapid skips through Kate and Baba’s daily life. Baba is a student at secretarial school. Kate works in a grocery. As she stands at a meat slicer, she is told by the female customer not to cut the bacon too thick this time—it only went around to three people the last time—an indication of the economic class of this Dublin neighborhood. The girls apply makeup with the experimental enthusiasm of 11 years old. They go to dances with boys who are more friends than suitors. They talk about fooling around in cars. They’re so full of youth, it made me quite jealous.
One day, the girls pile into a the rusted truck of one of the boys and head into the country—only 14 miles away—where they are to sell a dog. “I’ll get 10 quid for it,” one of the boys says with enthusiasm. They all pile out of the wreck. The man who is to buy the dog, Eugene Gaillard (Peter Finch), comes up the driveway, a walking stick in hand. Kate eyes him with a semi-innocent curiosity. She asks Baba later what he does. A writer, apparently, but of dusty, dry history or something like that.
By chance, the girls bump into Gaillard while they are having tea out one day. Baba launches into a flirtatious, nonstop chatter while Kate sizes Eugene up intently. She’s definitely fixed her fancy on him, and waits day after day at the tea shop for a chance to bump into him “accidentally” again. When he doesn’t appear, she writes him a letter inviting him to tea. It was a strange, but practical choice Davis made to show the note, perfectly legible and on screen long enough to be read, side by side with Kate at her desk writing it.
Eugene accepts her invitation. Kate arrives looking as smart as she knows how, which for her is wearing a gauzy scarf around her neck. Eugene chides her for being a convent school girl and mutters wistfully about young girls. He doesn’t want to get involved. Kate gives the usual answer to such a declaration, “Can we still be friends?” We know exactly what their fate will be.
One day, Kate, dressed in a scoop-neck dress, meets Eugene at her boarding house. She enters on Baba and Eugene already in conversation. Baba comments, “When did you start showing cleavage?” Embarrassed, Kate attempts an air of sophistication by lighting up a cigarette. She holds it awkwardly, and when her arm is jostled, the cigarette drops into her dress. Baba empties a pot of tea on her to douse the fire. Kate, infuriated, only says, “Now I’ll have to change.” This is more than a literal change. She dresses in a mod sweater, pencil pants, and gold chain necklace that belong to Baba, and goes driving with Eugene.
Kate starts spending nights at Eugene’s house, and finally, comes to his bed, though the experience remains awkward. One day, a friend of Eugene’s bumps into him and Kate on the street and asks him how the wife is. Kate runs off, and Eugene feels he must now take her ser- iously to make up for his caddish- ness. He gives her a wedding ring, buys her some sophisticated clothes, and moves her into his house. Their “wedding” night finally has real passion.
Kate takes this marriage seriously, but Eugene is world weary and makes no real attempt after the first couple of weeks to give a rat’s ass that she’s not old enough to understand the facts of his life—that he has a need to maintain a relationship with his estranged wife because they have a daughter, that he has to work when she wants to play, that he has friends that will understandably talk about his wife. For his part, Eugene does not understand the milieu in which Kate was raised.
Davis and O’Brien make sure we understand. After receiving an anonymous note detailing Kate’s scandalous conduct, Kate’s father (Arthur O’Sullivan) comes to Dublin and forcibly spirits her back to his home, where he invites the village priest by to tell her she is in mortal sin for which she must confess, that “this man” is God’s test of her love for Him. That does it. Kate runs back to Eugene, fearing that her father will find her. Eugene (and we) poo-poos her fears until the the comic showdown pitting five Irish farmers against the bourgeois writer in his home. The melee ends when Josie (Maire Kean), Eugene’s maid, empties a shotgun into the plaster ceiling, raining debris throughout the sitting room and scaring the Brady posse off.
We’re just waiting for the beginning of the end, which comes soon enough when Kate opens a letter from Mrs. Gaillard that contains a plane ticket to New York. Kate runs off, and as all young girls do, expects her man to run after her and beg her to come back. Naturally, he doesn’t. The film ends with Kate, now firmly transplanted in London with Baba, entering a pub with some young men. She’s older and wiser, but still sharply touched by her ridiculous, intense May-December romance.
Davis films Dublin and, briefly, London with a loving eye for detail and street life. The film fairly bounces off the screen. While Redgrave is the more showy of the two actresses, the homely Tushingham shows a spunky daring that explains why the pair is friends. O’Brien lovingly pokes fun at the emotionally intense Kate, while Davis directs Redgrave in a humorous caricature of a hyper, impressed-with-herself, teenage girl. Both actresses, however, are careful to rise above the comedy to make us feel this coming-of-age story in our hearts. I quite remember feeling just like Kate whenever young love struck, wishing I could be more fancy-free, like Baba.
The British Free Cinema tended to dwell on women as emotional beings whose rebellions, in contrast to the Angry Young Men, necessarily had to be romantic. Lindsay Anderson stretched this female role to include a woman as armed rebel in If..-.. Regardless of the somewhat limited aspirations of women characters during this period, the Free Cinema let them run as far as they could, making their own lives in the end. l