“Most women do not creep by daylight.”
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” has been adapted countless times. This feminist horror classic is disturbing, fascinating, and frustratingly relevant. Its themes of the damaging effects of the patriarchy on women’s health, unfortunately, make it an evergreen story, while its unsettling imagery makes it popular for horror readers and filmmakers alike. The newest take on the iconic literary tale is THE YELLOW WALLPAPER, directed by Kevin Pontuti and co-written by Pontuti and Alexandra Loreth. Though the film suffers from a lack of depth and nuance both in its narrative and its lead performance, it expands on the original story in interesting ways and crafts some haunting imagery that strengthens its feminist themes.
THE YELLOW WALLPAPER follows Jane (Alexandra Loreth) and her husband John (Joe Mullins) as they spend the summer in a rented country home in the late 19th century. John’s sister Jennie (Jeanne O’Connor) handles the cooking and cleaning while Mary (Clara Harte) looks after Jane and John’s baby. John is a doctor and he has prescribed Jane with the rest cure for her “temporary nervous depression.” Jane, who is a writer, isn’t allowed to exert herself at all, mentally or physically. She can only take short walks in the garden or lie in bed resting. Her depression worsens and she becomes delusional, imagining that a woman lives in the yellow wallpaper in her bedroom. Forced to stay in bed with nothing but her own mental illness to keep her company, Jane eventually becomes a danger to herself and her child.
Jane’s “hysteria” is actually postpartum depression, which THE YELLOW WALLPAPER turns into postpartum psychosis in a slight departure from the short story. The rest cure is a long-debunked treatment for the long-debunked hysteria diagnosis, both of which reflect the historical misogyny of the medical field. In another puzzling departure from the source material, THE YELLOW WALLPAPER loses a lot of the short story’s feminist rage and nuance. Despite one or two added lines of dialogue that spell out how trapped Jane feels as a new mother forced to give up her passions, the film seems less interested than the short story is in indicting the sexism regarding women’s societal roles and mental health. Rather than representing all women fighting to be heard and believed, the film focuses more on Jane’s mental illness as one woman’s isolated story.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is a highly internal story: it is narrated in the first person as a series of journal entries and chronicles Jane’s descent into madness. So, the fact that the lead performance in the film steadfastly refuses to show any interiority is a bizarre misstep. Loreth plays Jane with a flat blankness that fails more than it succeeds in depicting a woman struggling to hold onto her sanity. Occasionally, this lack of emotional connection works in Loreth’s favor, as in the scenes where Jane clearly feels nothing when holding her own baby. There are two instances where her numb stoicism is perfectly suited for the story but, in later scenes where more emotion is required, it is frustrating to see that the feelings Loreth is supposedly experiencing never reach her eyes. Still, her blankness is ideal during one shocking moment that precedes the title card and during a cleverly shot sex scene. The viewer only sees Jane’s face and the yellow wallpaper as she stares at it while her husband has intercourse with her. We hear his breathing and the creaking of the bed, but we don’t see him at all. Neither does Jane, for that matter. She seems to be dissociating as she tolerates the act, underscoring the lack of equality in their relationship and the mistreatment of women at the hands of men.
Jane’s lack of interest in sex with her husband takes on an intriguing quality when compared to her relationship with her nanny Mary. At one point the two women lie on Jane’s bed facing each other and talking. Though the viewer sees Jane and John in bed together throughout the movie, they never face each other or share the same intimacy that Jane and Mary do. In a later scene on a bench in the garden, that intimacy becomes even more striking. As the women chat, the camera scans from Jane’s face down the length of her torso to her hands. It then moves over to Mary’s hands and traces the length of her body up to her face, which points directly at Jane. Finally, the camera follows Mary’s gaze back over to Jane’s face. This visual circuit establishes a startlingly electric connection between the two women and hints at a sapphic subtext to Jane’s disinterest in a physical relationship with her husband.
The camerawork and visual composition are the highlights of THE YELLOW WALLPAPER. The handheld camera gives the whole film a nervous, uneasy feeling that emphasizes Jane’s mental instability. The camera wisely lingers on particularly striking shots. The yellow bars of the metal bed frame shot against the sickly yellow of the wallpaper show Jane in a literal gilded cage. Later, Jane stands in her nightgown peeling strips of wallpaper off the wall as light trickles in from the window. It’s a simple image, but there’s poetry to its depiction of a woman unraveling inside as she unravels the physical world around her.
The woman who creeps by daylight is an indelible image in Gilman’s classic story, and THE YELLOW WALLPAPER uses this imagery to its advantage in the striking final scene. It once again extrapolates from the source material to demonstrate just how trapped Jane feels, and in doing so it paints a harrowing picture of a woman escaping the bonds of patriarchy. Though the lead performance fails to carry the film, the poetic visuals of THE YELLOW WALLPAPER tell an important story, conveying the seriousness of mental health issues, the tragedy of a medical field that refuses to acknowledge them, and the horrors of misogyny.
THE YELLOW WALLPAPER had its World Premiere on March 20th at the 2021 Cinequest Film Festival.