Nathalie Léger’s ‘Suite for Barbara Loden’

Power and submission in the actor-director’s 1970 film ‘Wanda.’

A man and a woman are in a car on highway. The man wears a brown suit and clear-frame glasses; he sports a mustache. The woman wears a collared shirt, green flowers on a white background; her blonde hair is in a high ponytail. The man pulls the car over; he reaches across the woman’s body and opens the passenger-side door. “Get out,” he says. He turns to her only briefly as he says the words; then he turns away. The woman looks over her shoulder at the world outside the car, at the roadside greenery. She looks back at the man. “I didn’t do anything,” she says. Her tone has the mildest of lilts and there’s something about the angle of her head, of her neck that suggests an attempt to seem smaller; but she’s not pleading, not exactly. After a moment, she closes the passenger-side door. The man takes off again.

We are forty-five minutes into Wanda, Barbara Loden’s directorial debut; Loden also wrote the script and stars as the titular character. The 1970 film would be the only one Loden directed; she died, ten years later, of breast cancer. The plot is ostensibly dramatic, though its quiet unfolding is hardly heart-pounding (this is not a complaint). Wanda gets divorced: in an early courtroom scene Wanda’s husband accuses her of abandoning him and their two children, a charge she does not refute. Wanda drifts: to a bar, to a mall, to a movie theater. She sleeps with one man, and then with another, a thief, Mr. Dennis, after accidentally interrupting him in the middle of a robbery. She stays with Mr. Dennis, and he forces her to participate in a bank heist; predictably, the heist goes wrong, and Mr. Dennis ends up dead. Wanda drifts away again.

I found Wanda thanks to Nathalie Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden. Translated from the French last year by Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon and tagged as fiction, Suite reads as part biography (of Loden), part memoir (of Léger), part critical study (of Wanda). It also offered a sensibility, a style, and ultimately, an interpretive lens through which to view the film, which emerges, in Léger’s reading, as a portrait of (female) submission as resistance. In the car, Wanda’s “I didn’t do anything” isn’t quite true. (What she has done is questioned — which is to say angered — Mr. Dennis.) In the film, it becomes something like a mantra, an intention, a wish. She didn’t do anything.

“Once upon a time,” Léger writes, “the man I loved reproached me for my apparent passivity with other men … He couldn’t understand how hard it is to say no, to be confronted with the desire of another and to reject it — how hard it is and possibly how pointless. How could he not understand,” she continues, “the sometimes overwhelming necessity of yielding to the other’s desire to give yourself a better chance of escaping it?” Wanda spends almost the whole of the film yielding. After sleeping with Mr. Dennis, he demands that she leave their hotel room to get him three burgers. No junk, he specifies; no onions. When the burgers she brings back have onions on them, he slaps her. She picks the onions off and throws them in the trash, hands him the denuded burger. Leaning against the radiator, she eats her own, garnished patty. Her head is down, her neck bent; she eats like a wounded animal.

Later, on a different day, the pair drive out to a deserted field. Wanda sits on the trunk of the car while Mr. Dennis paces, slugging from a fifth of whiskey. “Why don’t you do something about your hair?” he asks. “Looks terrible.” “What can I do?” she asks. He tells her she should cover it up, tells her to get a hat. “I don’t have anything to get a hat with,” she says. “I don’t have anything. Never did have anything, never will have anything.” “You’re stupid,” Mr. Dennis tells her. “I’m stupid,” Wanda agrees. “You don’t want anything, you won’t have anything,” he declares. “You don’t have anything, you’re nothing. You may as well be dead. You’re not even a citizen of the United States.” “I guess I’m dead then.” Wanda’s tone, as she says this, is almost cheerful. It’s as if no one’s told her that there’s a difference between being alive and being dead, that being alive is generally considered preferable.

The submission Léger’s lover cannot comprehend is specific, tactical. The submission Wanda seeks is total. It is a rejection not only of American citizenship, but of citizenship in any capitalist, patriarchal system — that is, a rejection of citizenship per se. If survival depends on the use and abuse of her body — and for the penniless, all but friendless Wanda, it does — she will allow that use and abuse, but she will take no positive action; she will not participate. She prefers not to.

I believe in this kind of rejection: the kind of rejection that reads as submissive, but which is in fact resistance. To quote Jenny Holzer, “absolute submission can be a form of freedom” (Truisms, 1977–79). But there are few true Bartlebys and Wanda is not one of them. When Mr. Dennis demands she participate in the bank robbery — she is to drive the getaway car — she protests. “I can’t do it, I can’t do it, I can’t do it, Mr. Dennis,” she repeats, through the bathroom door. Mr. Dennis enters the bathroom. He speaks to the back of her blonde head. “You listen to me,” he tells her. “Wanda. Maybe you never did anything before. Maybe you never did. But you’re gonna do this.” In the mirror, we can see that he is holding her by the shoulders.

“What is it that attracts me so to Wanda?” Léger wonders. This is the question at the heart of Suite for Barbara Loden, which, as Léger tells it, began life as “a short entry for a film encyclopedia.” In its finished form, it touches on Léger’s mother’s divorce; on Wanda’s critical reception (“feminists hated it”); on Loden’s marriage to Elia Kazan; on the real woman who inspired the fictional Wanda. Léger dissects scenes from the film (my own dissections are inspired by hers); she travels to Waterbury, Connecticut, and Centralia, Pennsylvania; she invents a meeting with Mickey Mantle at the Houdini Museum in Scranton.

Her question remains unanswered, perhaps because it is unanswerably mysterious. “I have never been homeless,” Léger muses, “I have never abandoned my children, I have never given over my existence or even my financial affairs to any man, I don’t think I have ever entrusted even the most banal area of my life to anyone.” But then, a few lines later — just after she swears she has “never” had “the experience of surrender” — Léger doubles back: “And yet: it did happen to me once, just one time and it was not enough, but who hasn’t experienced that — not knowing how to say no, not daring to say it . . .” Perhaps the question remains unanswered because it is unanswerably obvious, to women at least.

The problem with submission as resistance, with submission as freedom — apart from the obvious pain inflicted on the individual psyche which chooses passive complicity in its own exploitation — is that the desire to be useful, to live a life of (even negative) meaning, is an overwhelming one. Wanda agrees to participate in the doomed heist, not because she is scared of Mr. Dennis. She agrees because the petty human need to do something is more powerful than the ethical injunction to do good or, failing that possibility, to not do bad.

The first step in Mr. Dennis’s plan involves kidnapping the bank manager. There is a tousle, the bank manager briefly overpowers Mr. Dennis, and his gun falls to the ground. Wanda picks the gun up, holds it to the bank manager’s back. Outside, Mr. Dennis hands Wanda the key to the getaway car. “You did good,” he tells her. “You’re really something.” Wanda flashes a shy smile. A moment of genuine pleasure, one of her few, if not her only, in the film.

If there is power in submission, and pain, there is also relief. One does not want to deny Wanda, poor and alone and female and in coal country, this relief. But to make submission moral — that is, to transform it into the total denial that is protest — requires a vigilance perhaps even more taxing than active resistance is to maintain.

After Mr. Dennis’s death, Wanda again finds herself at a bar. This time, she is picked up by a soldier. He drives her out to another deserted field and, in the front seat of his banged-up red convertible, he begins to force himself on her. At first, she seems to submit; then something changes — her mind, maybe. She struggles out from underneath him and runs into the woods.

There’s a line from Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” that I’ve been worrying for the last month or so. “Every woman adores a Fascist,” Plath writes, “The boot in the face, the brute / Brute heart of a brute like you.” And if Plath is hyperbolic, she’s also right: the desire to obey, to be told what to do and then patted on the head for doing it correctly, is a powerful one. Which is why it’s been heartening to see the multiplicity, the spontaneity, and the decentralization of protests mounted in opposition to each new outrage announced by our current administration. It’s a vision of resistance that fans out horizontally, rather than climbing vertically: harder to control perhaps, harder to lead, but also harder to manipulate or crush.

Miranda Popkey is a writer based in St. Louis, Missouri.