Review: Take it Like a Man, Madam

[Originally published in Movietone News 48, February 1976]

Attend a special screening as one of a collection of handpicked weirdos and you deserve whatever you get. Seattle’s Specialty Films outfit has been looking at a recent Danish film by women, and inviting others to do so as well, as a means of gauging whether the property has any commercial future in the United States. The audience in which I sat was composed of Specialty Films employees, recognized regulars at company-affiliated theaters (the Movie House and the Guild 45th), and two conspicuous sub-groups, “film people” and feminists.

Before the screening got underway, theater owner and Specialty Film’s rep Randy Finley thanked the audience for coming and advised us that we were about to see a very interesting film; advised us also that the first 20 minutes or so was “a little heavy” but we should “stick with it.”

A little heavy, yes. Take It like a Man, Madam begins with a series of titles statistically documenting the un-extraordinariness of the late-fortyish housewife and mother played by Tove Maës. As the credits periodically appear, and long after they’ve ended, we are asked to bear witness to her deadening lifestyle. She vacuums the carpets. She vacuums the cushions on the davenport. She straightens the pillows. She listens, or does not listen, to a radio quizmaster as he stumps other poor benighted housewives with trivial questions and then consoles them with “Maybe hubby can explain it to you when he gets home.” She looks through her bank of house plants at the apartments across the way and sloshes a mid-afternoon dose of vodka into her glass. She tries to share some musings with her husband at the dinnertable and he gets up and wanders away—not contemptuous of what she was saying, merely oblivious to the fact that she was saying anything at all. She watches her grown daughter heft the newest baby around while talking about resuming her educational career, and smiles at the grandchildren who barge in to ask what Grandma has brought them this time. She accompanies her husband to a farewell testimonial dinner for a member of his firm and observes how her conversation, and that of the other wives, girlfriends and secretaries, is deemed irrelevant. The guys talk business. She gets snockered and ventures that her husband doesn’t know what he’s talking about. And so on and on.

Oh, I know, I know: It’s All True. Very bad. Very unfortunate. Very unjust. But also, as enumerated here, very very dull. Tove Maës contributes a quietly sympathetic presence, but it’s not enough. The fact-events are laid out as testimony, but without wit or nuance or notable hint of individualized perception (can three people direct one film?). Even the males’ crassness and petty chauvinism lacks the force of its own banality. And stylelessness is not to be confused with documentary validity. Ideas of symbolic inequities are transferred to film—nothing more. We get the point rightly enough, but there is nothing but the point, from one shot, one scene, to the next.

Then Maës reflects: “What if it were the other way around?” And the … I can scarcely say the film, but the whatever-it-is takes off. Husband, in apron, is fixing dinner. Wife comes home from a meaningful day at the office. How’s it going, dear? Oh, fine [pained smile], but you could help me by setting the table, I’m so wrapped up in this cooking…. Polite smile of concurrence, with, of course, the table remaining unset despite several gingerly reiterations of the request/suggestion. Woman friend comes in and begins stroking the embarrassed cook: hiya, cutie! have I ever been looking forward to this visit so I could see sweet little you again! And it’s very funny. Not inspired; not inventive; not more imaginatively staged and filmed than the preceding depiction of marital stultification. But the reversal concept is audacious in itself, and the all-too-familiar oppressive rituals, enacted in a violently deranged context, take on a comic awfulness they lacked when the-way-it-is passages were onscreen. Besides, the performers—female and male—obviously relish the turnabout, and their delight is infectious. For half an hour or so, as scenes continue in this vein, the … it still isn’t a movie, really, just sketches recorded on film; but whatever the category, it’s quite enjoyable, and also didactically effective. Why didn’t they simply start here, I ask myself, and do the whole film this way? Given the want of any cinematic style, it might have been just as well to make it a short; but it would have been a funny and pointed short. (During this stretch of the film the women have, you should pardon the expression, a ball; but the men are directed even more interestingly: with perhaps one exception, they step right into traditional roles, poses, and mannerisms of women—or rather, girls—without in the least suggesting they’ve become fags—a tribute to both the cast and the filmmakers.)

It can’t last. Maës awakens from her reverie with a start, and also with a nervous collapse the warning signs of which her (male) physician has shrugged off as “typical” menopausal phenomena (“Get her a puppy,” he advises the husband). But she has awakened to something and insists on redirecting her life. Getting a job is hard, of course. She’s older than the optimum starting age, she’s not qualified for anything in particular, she’s neither physically capable of nor interested in seizing such employment opportunities as charwoman. Temporary clerical jobs do arise, then evaporate on her. She joins a consciousness-raising group consisting of female coworkers; we are vouchsafed representative fragments of their complaints and aspirations. On the job she suddenly finds herself on the periphery of a strike action that has class as well as sexist implications. She seizes a key symbolic role that her immediate neighbors have not recognized, or have avoided seizing themselves; and we learn via a subsequent dialogue that she has lost her job for it, although she doesn’t greatly mind that since the strike itself succeeded. “Things are changing,” she tells her husband, slyly merry; and as he just begins to turn her way with a newly apprehensive look creasing his features, and her own are flushed with the pleasurable anticipation of righteous battle, the shot freezes and the film ends, a feminist marching song on the soundtrack.

I fill out my preview questionnaire and drop it off in the lobby. The air is rather charged out there. I keep on moving. Outside the theater Finley asks me what I think of it and I start telling him. I am about to say something like “Well, cinematically it’s worthless and politically it’s blameless,” when two women emerge from the lobby. “All the men are saying, ‘Well, aesthetically it stinks—'” I turn around and say, “Well, aesthetically it does leave something to be desired, wouldn’t you agree?” She gives me the look. She reads me right down to the tight elastic in my boxer shorts. She knows what that one means: They can’t take The Truth! Suspecting it’s hopeless, I hazard a “Wouldn’t it be nice if somebody made a movie that said all the right things and was also a good movie?” “It is a good movie!” “Why?” “Because it’s time somebody made a movie like that!” I was under the impression people had been making movies like that for some time now; that’s just the trouble. I say as much, and am told: “Why don’t you make one then?” “As a matter of fact, I’m not making any movies; I’m not a filmmaker. But, look, I mean, you can have a good movie and a movie that says good things, can’t you? I mean, wouldn’t that be nice? Would it do any harm?” I’m obviously camouflaging my raging masculine insecurity, so she says, “We don’t always have to have art all the time!”—and with that, pops into a now-waiting car and tools away. I am left with no one to ask, “Are you suggesting you want to cede art as an exclusively masculine realm?”

Other screenings of Take It like a Man, Madam are held. Friends who receive invitations report that the watchword is: “The women all love it and the men all hate it. See it with a man[/woman]—it’s more fun that way.”

There’s no question that that’s the most effective way to sell the film, if it ever does come to selling the film. (As of this printing, it is unknown whether the movie will be acquired for U.S. distribution.) But it’s a damned unfortunate way to black-and-white the issues, either aesthetically or politically. My sidewalk interlocutress knew what she wanted the film to say; it said it and she was happy. (She also knew what I—or any other male—really meant no matter what I might actually say.) But what good does it do to preach to the converted? It may recharge their batteries, but will it effect anything else? Take It like a Man, Madam is such a tract film that the people to whom its commentary might be news are the very persons least likely to sit through it and learn from it; let a real-life Tove Maës tentatively recognize herself in the first several minutes and announce as much, and hubby would drag her out of the theater to go see a Charles Bronson movie.

In the film’s favor—aside from, again, the hilarious center section—it must be said that it is not in the least hysterical, selfrighteous, or shrill. More importantly, it exemplifies a direction that, as Kathleen Murphy has suggested, more filmmakers might profitably take: to deal with a woman who is not a closet glamour-girl and not given to leaping into the station wagon and driving off across the U.S. of A. in search of the romance of liberation. It is a film about a woman—a person—who, like most of us, has to stay at home and make the best of it.

RTJ

TAKE IT LIKE A MAN, MADAM
This Danish film was written and directed by three women and shot by a mostly (entirely?) female crew. MOVIETONE NEWS deeply regrets that, despite a valiant series of endeavors, we were unable to obtain any names beyond the single one retained from a viewing of the film, that of the star, Tove Maës.

2012: That was then, this now. Thanks to the wonders of IMDb.com, we are able to give Ta’ det som en mand, frue! and its makers and cast their due.

Direction and Screenplay: Mette Knudsen, Elisabeth Rygaard, Li Vilstrup. Cinematography: Katia Forbert. Editing: Ann-Lis Lund. Original music: Fuzzy, Nina Larsen, Gudrun Steen Anderson.
The Players: Tove Maës, Alf Lassen, Flemming Quist Møller, Cæcilie Nordgreen, Berthe Qvistgaard, Birgit Brüel, Hans Kragh-Jacobsen, Claus Strandberg, Asta Esper Hagen Andersen, Lone Lindorff, Arne Skovhus. 

A pdf of the original issue can be found here


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