The Chaperone: preferring a character stereotype over portraying the life of a real revolutionary cultural icon

Michael Engler, “The Chaperone” (2018)

A film of self-discovery and self-transformation leading to personal freedom, “The Chaperone” is a fictional account of real-life silent movie icon Louise Brooks’ journey as a young teenager from Wichita, Kansas, to New York City to audition for and join the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts in the early 1920s. The young Louise (Haley Lu Richardson) is accompanied by Norma Carlisle (Elizabeth McGovern) who offered herself to Louise’s mother as the girl’s chaperone after overhearing the mother in conversation with friends. It turns out that Norma has her own reasons for fleeing Wichita and travelling with Louise: Norma’s marriage to Alan (Campbell Scott) is on the rocks after she catches him in bed with a man; and she wants to know the identity of her biological mother who placed her in a Roman Catholic orphanage in NYC when she was a baby.

After Louise and Norma arrive in NYC, the film follows Norma’s travails in getting past the unyielding nuns and finding her details, in the process winning the admiration and then the heart of caretaker Joseph (Geza Rohrig), and then contacting someone who might know her birth mother. Norma’s further adventures in finding her biological family end in heartbreak however. In the meantime, Louise trains for and finally wins a place in the prestigious dance school run by Ted Shawn and Ruth St Denis (Robert Fairchild and Miranda Otto) though the film insinuates that she really only makes the grade more by sheer talent than by hard work and dedication: the girl spends her free time chatting up young men in cafes and nightclubs, mingling with Afro-Americans (at a time when black and white people were expected to lead separate lives) and generally being unconventional in ways that shock Norma. Through Louise’s example and the unexpected ways in which her own life unravels and develops, Norma learns to become a more tolerant person, and her inner evolution opens up new ways of thinking and feeling that enable her to take control of her own life.

The film excels mainly as a character study of a typical middle-class woman of its period who changes in ways that would have been rare or even impossible for most women of her social layer in Midwest America in the early 1920s. Elizabeth McGovern does excellent work in this respect though the eye-rolling seems excessive. Richardson as Brooks is a great foil who constantly prods and challenges Norma. The supporting cast also does good work and the film’s period details are meticulously done.

Where the film really could have excelled is in contrasting more strongly the trajectories of Norma and Louise’s personal journeys after the two separate: Norma eventually carves out an unconventional family life in which she amicably resolves her marriage issues with Alan and lives with a new lover at the same time; and Louise finds stardom as a dancer and then as a silent movie icon before her career hits the skids while she is still in her 20s. Viewers learn nothing about how and why Louise is all washed up by the age of 35 years when she and Norma meet again, perhaps for the last time, after an interval of 20 years. The battle that Louise Brooks waged to be her own woman and her refusal to be bullied by movie studios is completely erased from the film. The most the film allows viewers to see of Louise Brooks’ defiance of the social conventions of her day is when she tells Norma that she had been molested as a child but since then had refused to act a victim role and instead decided to flaunt her sexuality once she became a teenager. After Norma advises Louise to leave Wichita again, she saunters back to her own family, content to live how she wants while maintaining a facade of a happy marriage on her own terms. (This does not sound exactly revolutionary and for all we know, many families of all social levels could have lived in similar unconventional ways.)

While it’s a pleasant and visually attractive film to watch, “The Chaperone” in fact steers clear of portraying the life of a real revolutionary cultural icon and instead goes for a stereotyped treatment of a fictional upper middle class woman’s transformation. The real Louise Brooks and her battle against social and cultural expectations and attitudes would have been far more interesting to know.

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