What does it mean to be a man? Maybe it means whatever the society one is born into says it means – gender is a cultural construction, and so being a man means acting in certain ways, taking up the proper attires, attitudes, and preconceptions of the age into which one is born, and wearing them so that, in the eyes of others, they fit. If one wanted to be blunter, or more essentialist, one might say that being a man simply means having some native power, and making use of it. For a large part of history, at least in the West, woman has been defined negatively, as the absence of such powers (enumerated as characteristics). To put a finer point on it, being a man means being the nexus of potential powers of which women are deprived: political, economic, legal, religious. Power, though, is a flow (thanks, Foucault), running in both directions, and one can argue, as one should, that women have always had power, and wielded it, if in ways discursive and liminal. (They were forced to be men through means other than biology). So let me be even more specific. Being a man has less to do, perhaps, with power than with desire. Men are those beings who, by dint of a position of privilege vis-a-vis power, are allowed to desire. Yes, there are better or worse desires, and yes, there are desires which may be forbidden, or at least heavily taxed by the social order, to keep the social corpus from disintegrating, but a man gets to espouse his desire. Which is another way of saying that man is that creature that has a right to self-creation, or self-definition, and when he exercises that right, for good or for ill, in a way sanctioned or not, nobody is surprised; indeed, everything is as it should be, as such a thing is “natural.” (Nature being that which hides in plain sight). But desire is also, and notoriously, unseemly. To want something else, even in the crudest form of seizure and hording, grabbing a hold and not letting go of “the goods,” admits a deficiency. To want is inherently feminine, as it admits to a preexisting lack, a need, a weakness. When the object of desire is something petty, money, or property, perhaps, the desirous individual may also be deemed petty, but at the same time, there is less danger to his propriety; when the object of desire is another person, however, the chasm can open quickly, and swallow up the individual, unmasking, for society and for the man, the charade on which power as essential manliness is founded. If to be a woman is to be not-man, then to be a man in the thrall of desire for a woman is to be… nothing. (Or rather, at the center of a vertiginous spiral. Hence Lacan et al). “Love” is what we call such a crossroads, the place of no place where bets are set, cards are revealed, and reality eventually steps unclad from its social proscriptions. In this way, love is the domain of woman, as it is the space of vulnerability, risk, and seeking an identity through relations rather than assertions. But all identity is relational, and we arrive at the realization that nobody knows what it means to be a man – all those norms, all that “power,” is indeed simply an empty signifier, and the social trappings of manliness an almost endlessly elaborated denial of a negation (man is the neuter, and is defined negatively against the reality of woman). Thomas Vinterberg’s Far From the Madding Crowd, following in the hewn path of the material it is adapted from, asks what it means to be a man, what it means to desire, and what it means to love, and it does so by portraying a woman who desires to be a man while retaining her femininity.
The film concerns Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), a young woman just starting out on a path of self-sufficiency. The opening is dream-like in the isolation of its characters; Bathsheba has just acquired a small farm near the property of Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts). He is a sheep farmer, and has put himself into hock in an attempt to better his condition and make a way for himself. For the first quarter hour or so, these two are the only inhabitants of a lush primeval world. After knowing her for a seemingly short period of time, Gabriel proposes marriage – the act speaks less of presumption than it does of inexperience, and indeed it feels somewhat natural, given that we feel these two are a kind of natural pair, mirrored both in their isolation, and in their hard-scrabble natures, each possessing nothing besides education (hers learned, his lived). Bathsheba doesn’t exactly refuse, but she lets Gabriel know that she doesn’t want a husband; she, being a kind of mirror of him (or he her) is also looking to rise, or, at least, test herself against the world (a double test, as she doesn’t have the same social warrant he does). Before any of this can play out further, fate, in good Victorian fashion, intervenes, and Gabriel’s farm meets with disaster. He is forced to sell everything he has to cover his debts, and he sets out to rebuild his life by selling his labor. At the same time as he is brought low, she is lifted up – her uncle dies, leaving her the sole heir to his farm estate, and she steps into his shoes, vowing to make use of the opportunity destiny has provided to “astonish” everyone and prove herself the equal of a man. Gabriel, after a short period of wandering, happens onto her land, assists during an emergency (his metier), and is hired by her as shepherd, showing he is indeed her equal by remaining unperturbed at their reversal of fortune, and unashamed to be in the employ of a woman he once courted. Bathsheba works hard and makes use of her considerable mental and social abilities to make the farm a success, and in doing so, attracts the attention of the local most eligible bachelor, a successful and wealthy farmer named William Boldwood (Michael Sheen). We sense he is constrained by social strictures in that, during early encounters, he steers clear of this powerful woman, paying her deference, but also treating her with some coldness. She responds by sending him, by way of sussing out his nature, a Valentine, and this causes him to warm to her considerably, although not in the way she might like. He proposes marriage, and she, not wanting to hurt him (feeling guilty that she has led him on with the Valentine), doesn’t say no; she asks for time to think. He takes this as having greater import than it does. All the while, Gabriel serves as her foil. At times, he is a protege (although really he is more experienced at farm work than she), at times, a confidant, her conscience, her master-at-arms. That is, they become, slowly, closer and greater friends, although the relationship of employee and master always takes precedence. While Bathsheba runs the farm, keeping both men on the slow burn, a new force emerges to be reckoned with: one Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), a Sergeant in the Army who seemingly happens upon Bathsheba while trespassing her property one night. He stays on to work, she tries to dismiss him, given his rank in society, and he, stereotypically dashing and romantic, susses out she has not had any adventures in the realm of love (indeed, she’s never been kissed), and proceeds to give her some. She is momentarily swept off her feet, and after trysting with him in the city, the two return wed, to the consternation of most everyone (except the farmhands he proceeds to get drunk). She immediately sees that the match was rash and unwise, and the rest of the film is a working out of this triangle: Troy, the callous mistake who now has a purchase on her material wealth; Boldwood, the stable, sturdy, but overly traditional and older bachelor who could make her “problems” go away, but at the cost of her self-definition; and Oak, her twinned other, the match both recognize is “meant to be,” but who will not make a move on her for the same reasons she won’t on him.
I am far from a well-read individual when it comes to Thomas Hardy (I have not read the book this film is based on), but one thing I love about him is that his characters both fit into types and at the same time subvert them (or exceed them). So, it is not a surprise that while the woman in this film takes on the characteristics of a man of her era, so do the men contain aspects of the feminine that, in the end, marks this drama as a dance of full humans trying to work against circumstances that would reduce them. For instance, Boldwood is indeed a traditionalist, and his vision of a marriage with Bathsheba would be very much one of him providing for while possessing her, even as he understands this is not her nature (and would make her unhappy). At the same time, he is in most ways the woman in their relationship. We understand that his aloof nature early on is the result of being jilted by a past love, and of a resulting lack of confidence. He is shy, and thus Bathsheba, in taking the reigns and sending him the Valentine, fits into what he might hope (and fear), even as it works against what society expects of him. For her part, she regrets playing “the man,” and effectively mocking his past hurt, but instead of keeping in the role, breaking his heart (by giving him a firm no) and moving on, she gives him hope. And indeed, she does seem undecided; she is not fickle, but is trying to negotiate what she desires with what society expects, and is leaving open the space of possibility that society might be right (or at least might win out). In this sense, she, like a man, wants to have options. Unfortunately, this leads Boldwood to grow only more attached, and to love her, unrequitedly, not from afar, but from just next door. Troy is similarly a mix, but in the opposite sense. On the surface, he is the usual rogue/dastard/adventurer we expect, knee-jerk, from a young, good-looking, and callow Army officer of this period. He is a gambler, a drinker, and we learn that he sees in Bathsheba a source of funding (although this is not his only motivation). At the same time, his romanticism is not a ruse; he is the only male in the film who openly cries, and without shame. While he treats Bathsheba poorly, we know he can be decent, honorable, and, above all, steadfastly loyal, as we have knowledge of a prior relationship, a doomed love with a wasteling of low birth named Fanny (Juno Temple). He is part cad, part Byronic hero, and part heartbroken idealist. While he is the husband, and thus lord of the estate, Bathsheba remains the “man” in that she is the effective, level-headed, scrupulous and industrious striver, while he is a layabout. Oak, while seemingly the most straightforward of the characters, is indeed the most complicated, as he is somewhat protean. Early on, he has the chance of joining the Army (he is called out by the recruiter as an exceptional specimen), and could have given up farming to become “like” Troy (in stature, at least). He is also a striver, trustworthy, conscientious, and sober-minded, and we can picture him easily turning into a Boldwood (who courts him as a manager of his property, and as a confidant and friend). The difference, though, is that, like Bathsheba, he is not content to play along with social expectations – or rather, he sees beyond them, to something truer, deeper, and more permanent. Unlike his male counterparts, he is not tormented or vexed, even though he has a much tougher existence, materially, than they. He is comfortable being feminized, as he has been granted the “gift” of maleness by birth; he is confident, comfortable in his own skin, and strong because of this existential stance. Bathsheba is his twin in all but this way – she has had to earn her access to “manliness,” nothing she achieves is a given, or granted, so she lacks the ability to see through or beyond the masks of the other men. Well, this is not exactly fair – for her, the stakes are too high. One wrong move might finish her, whereas Oak is always already allowed to reinvent himself, to move on, and to rework his life again, to the best of his abilities. In the end, it is this similarity – the ability to see beyond the dictates of the age, and to realize the absurdity of the expectations placed upon them – that marks Gabriel and Bathsheba as a natural match. One of the reasons I love Hardy, and what makes him interesting, is that, for all his similar farsightedness, he ultimately posits that humans do have natural affinities, based on type and temperament. Like should go with like. Troy’s natural match is Fanny, Oak’s is Bathsheba. The real tragedy is that, for Boldwood, his natural match never materializes and so he, in a sense, martyrs himself so that Bathsheba will be free to make hers.
The film ultimately suggests that we are types and we are mixtures; we are male and female, and personality emerges in the struggle we each conduct, psychically and within, between how we see ourselves and how we are seen. Vinterberg has not made a radical film by any means, but it is an impressive one in its astute observations of human nature. Like his equally impressive The Hunt, Far From the Madding Crowd seeks to investigate how identity is formed by social consensus, how identity feeds back into, and informs social consensus, and how the damage and pain that emerges from this process reveals truth. It is a truth without an answer, though, and thus it, like most of reality, lacks catharsis. This is not a criticism, as it marks the film as mature (and as art) in my mind. All the same, it explains why we feel strangely subdued at our happy ending. Like goes with like, and what we knew all along is reinforced – that Gabriel and Bathsheba, as best friends and partners, are meant to be. But there is also the nagging sense that we’d have preferred them to have been married at the first, back when they were still isolated, truly equal in their nascence. While their experiences make it more likely that this relationship will endure, compared to the unrealized one, all the same, there is something more remote and distanced about them now. They know the many ways life can go, and go wrong, as they have borne witness to it together; ultimate disaster is no longer out there somewhere, a lurking unknown. But cataclysm is a quickener, and perhaps it would have been better to have lived, together, without knowledge of any other way, in fear of loss and catastrophe, than to know that, come what may, one can always go on, and make a way, alone.