Director: Bill Forsyth
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In the early years of Ebertfest, I never missed making the trip down to Champaign, Illinois, and the Virginia Theatre. Some of the great films I saw were Jan Troell’s 1996 film Hamsun, Bertrand Tavernier’s L.627 (1992), David Gordon Green’s George Washington (2000), and Wu Tian-Ming’s King of Masks (1996). I could never attend the entire festival, as I worked on the weekdays during which it opened each year in April, and one film I missed at the 2008 Ebertfest was Bill Forsyth’s Housekeeping. As a fan of the Scottish director’s comedy charmers Gregory’s Girl (1981), Local Hero (1983), and Comfort and Joy (1984), I made special note of Housekeeping as one to watch for. But I never did catch up with it, that is, not until this past week when the Northwest Chicago Film Society projected a vintage 35mm print of the film.
The love this film has engendered in those who have seen it approaches religious devotion. The catch in the throats of the audience members who spoke excitedly about this opportunity to see the film had me intrigued. Then, Chicago-based filmmaker Stephen Cone (The Wise Kids  and Black Box ), who provided the prescreening introduction, said over and over how much he loves the film and the book by Marilynne Robinson and Marilynne Robinson herself. Predisposed to like the film based on Forsyth’s other films, I started to grow both enthusiastic and nervous at this adulation, particularly when Cone asked us to turn off our critical faculties and just let ourselves go with the film. I had been asked by a filmmaker to do that once before, with rewarding results. Did Housekeeping live up to the hype? Yes, it mostly did.
The film centers on a highly impractical woman, Sylvie Fisher (Christine Lahti), the unconventional aunt of Ruthie (Sara Walker) and Lucille (Andrea Burchill), sisters whose father ran off long ago and whose mother, Sylvie’s sister Helen (Margot Pinvidic), drove them from their home in Seattle, dropped them at the isolated home of their grandmother (Georgie Collins) in Fingerbone, Idaho, and then drove herself off a cliff. The young girls were cared for by their grandmother until her death when the girls were in their teens. Their great-aunts Nona (Barbara Reese) and Lily (Anne Pitoniak) moved in to care for them—narrator Ruthie is convinced it was to save on rent and groceries—but could not accustom themselves to the cold and rugged living conditions. Thus, they tracked down the itinerant Sylvie and beckoned her back to her childhood home to look after the girls. Sylvie’s eccentricities enchant Ruthie but repel Lucille, who is very self-conscious about being ridiculed and only wants to fit in. The clash Lucille precipitates between Sylvie and the upstanding citizens of Fingerbone will end in a kind of reckoning no one anticipated.
Housekeeping strikes as delicate a balance in its storytelling as Sylvie maintains in her restless, preoccupied mind. While fashioning a rather clichéd story of conventionality versus free-spiritedness, Forsyth and his appealing and talented cast offer something more akin to fable. First, there is the remoteness of the time and setting—a small town in a mountainous region in the 1950s. Going even farther back in time is the legend of Ruthie and Lucille’s grandfather, a self-taught artist from the flatlands of Iowa whose enchantment with mountains compelled his geographic move and his fixation on painting them. His family’s notoriety in Fingerbone, however, centers on his being on a train that shot off the trestle above a frozen lake and plunged into the water, leaving nothing but a hole in the ice and a handful of personal effects that floated to the surface. The event shook the sleepy town with excitement, spawning winter picnics on the ice and legends about the snakelike train of the deep.
It’s hard to know whether the loss of her father caused Sylvie’s instability and her sister’s eventual suicide after living a fairly conventional life. But his loss, his absence is only one of the absences that inflect the characters in this film and set the stage for the imagination to move in both delightful and sinister ways, filling the screen with the kind of fanciful images and occurrences for which Forsyth is known, though laden with a good deal of pain and bewilderment along with comedy and celebration.
A sense of foreboding is cast from the very first, as Helen drives through rain and mist to her childhood home, her sing-a-long as the radio plays “Good Night, Irene” (“Sometimes I take a great notion to jump in the river and drown.”) a chilling secret she has kept to herself. The hole she creates in her daughters’ lives is every bit as dramatic and fathomless as the one created by the unfortunate train. Sylvie’s appearance gives them their first opportunity to try to learn about their mother and the man she married, though the sisters’ long separation gives Sylvie precious little to tell them. Like them, she can only look to her long-gone childhood for evidence of her life before she started to wander in body and mind; like many who have unstable lives, she gathers objects around her—piles of newspapers, cans, and eventually, cats—creating more unease as her absent-mindedness starts to shade with madness.
Yet, Sylvie’s seems like a divine madness to the lonely, awkward Ruthie. When Sylvie “borrows” a rowboat, outrunning the furious fisherman who owns it and keeps trying to hide it from her, she takes Ruthie to a wreck of a homestead in an unlikely spot in the foothills that is covered in frost all year long because of the lack of sunlight. Sylvie is sure she has seen children there, and has even set marshmallows on twigs to draw them out. Ruthie says she sees them, too, and is more than happy to sleep in the leaky boat with Sylvie under the train trestle, a glowing moon diffuse off the misty lake. There’s no question that this world seems enchanted, a place for pixies and elves and other supernatural beings who rule the natural world, and Sylvie is the siren who is pulling Ruthie into her orbit of restless wandering, riding the rails, and camping with hobos.
The clash of these two worlds can be quite funny, as when representatives of the ladies’ aid society (Betty Phillips, Karen Elizabeth Austin, and Dolores Drake) come to the door to determine whether Ruthie should be removed from the home for her own safety. They try to find suitable seating, but must move newspapers and even a pine cone, which one lady holds carefully on her lap. These women are not made into uncaring monsters, but their discomfort mixed with Sylvie’s nervous, Sunday manners makes for an awkwardly fun time. By contrast, the snub Lucille gives Ruthie at school and her eventual departure from the house to stay with some people in town reduce her sister to miserable tears of dejected abandonment. Another hole has opened up in her life and swallowed her closest friend up with it.
Most remarkable of all is the almost total absence of men in this film. The few who have speaking parts tend to cause trouble, however well-intentioned they may be: three boys free Helen’s car from the mud, only to watch her drive to her death; the sheriff (Bill Smillie) calls the ladies who will put Sylvie and Ruthie’s living arrangement at risk; and the school principal (Wayne Robson) catches up with the girls’ chronic truancy only when they are half-a-year behind. For better or worse, Housekeeping concentrates on the ways and means of women, eschewing cheap sentiment or pop psychology to show the multifaceted ways women and girls conduct their lives and dream their dreams.
All of the performances in the film are wonderful, but I hold particular affection for Walker and Burchill, who create characters of real complexity despite their youth. Their closeness and eventual estrangement feel bone deep and are very affecting. The hardness Burchill eventually adopts seems right for someone whose world was turned upside down three times in her short life. Walker’s painful shyness shows another path girls take in response to disruption.
Christine Lahti creates a very particular spine for Sylvie, with her deliberate, long walk and open arms that embrace the music of the spheres whether floating in a boat or standing on a trestle hoping to feel vibrations through the timbers. In a spectacular set-piece, the town is all but flooded out by four days of rain falling on frozen ground. Sylvie and the girls slosh through the foot of water in their home, rescuing half-drowned mice and trying to carry on with everyday life; Sylvie couldn’t be happier to welcome the water into her home, dancing with Ruthie with a big smile on her face. This joyful spirit is seductive, but is as lulling to the audience as it is to Ruthie as to the danger she poses. For example, the thought of disease never enters her mind, though sanitation and drinking water are at risk.
Not everything in this film works. At one point, Sylvie starts removing the labels from and washing the cans she has left all over the house. The gold and silver cans look just too clean and perfect, just as the piles of newspaper look too carefully placed, and the appearance of cats in the house crosses the border into cliché. One supposes that the inheritance from Sylvie’s mother is keeping the family afloat, but beautiful new clothes for Lucille appear as if from nowhere. Yes, this is a fable, but Forsyth’s habit of ignoring details of everyday life cheapens the film ever so slightly.
Nonetheless, there’s not much wrong with this film, and the finale is a bonafide work of genius. When her panic at the thought of losing Ruthie makes her as crazy as we’ll ever see her, Sylvie commits an irrational act as though it were the most normal thing in the world. She and Ruthie steal off into the night, a pied piper making off with at least one child down a treacherous causeway and into the night’s fathomless vanishing point.