The new Emma film, by Autumn de Wilde, is notable for its two butts. As the first is Mr. Knightley’s, and the second Emma’s, we can take the narrative — to paraphrase a social media comment from Louise D’Arcens (for whose review, see here) — as one designed to bring the butts together.
First, Mr. Knightley’s. He has arrived at the Woodhouse estate, damp and perhaps a little muddy from his trip, so, before joining Woodhouse père et fille by the fire, he has a manservant strip him naked, and then redress him tight in clean clothes. During the operation, facing the camera, we gaze upon his naked body, including his alabaster, hairless butt.
Emma’s butt is offered obliquely. She’s cold, one presumes, because she’s seen hiking the rear drapery of her dress up to her hips before the fire, so that her cheeks might bask merrily in its warmth.
It would be easy to take these two butts as just a bit of earthy humor in a story not exactly famous for its earthiness. It would be clever to take the butts, as I did on twitter the same evening I saw the film, as an allusion to Yoko Ono’s 1966-67 Film No. 4 (h/t Maya Weimer for turning me on to this). Her film’s title comes from the four segments formed by a butt as it walks: left cheek, right cheek, upper left thigh, upper right thigh, with a horizontal and vertical line dividing each. Unless you’re the Old Woman of Candide, who tragically lost one buttock to Ottoman Janissaries, same for you, same for me. Butts are an abstract, structural configuration, and, in this Emma, so very much a film by a photographer, abstract structural configurations are the order of the day.
It would be correct, though, to take the butts amid the various neo-classical and perhaps actual classical statuary the film offers us, and also as part of the great cultural tendency to disdain hairiness as declassé.
First, the statuary: the characters, especially the Woodhouses and Mr. Knightley, swoon or brood or flop through long hallways decorated with white marble figures, mostly busts. These aren’t butts, of course — indeed, the bust might be thought of precisely as the least em-butted of representations, removing the head as it does from the nearly the whole digestive apparatus — while the one full-bodied marble statue the film offers us does not, if my memory serves me, offer the camera its butt (it resembles, incidentally, Randolph Rogers’ The Lost Pleiad).
The smooth white marble does, however, match the smooth whiteness of Mr. Knightley’s and Emma’s skin. His back and butt and even his legs are hairless, his skin an undulating winter tundra. Emma’s legs and cheeks’ silhouette are, no surprise, also hairless. They are their statues come to life, but not too lively a life. For a long hairless marble-like leg is poised, skin and body comme il faut, nude perhaps, but not caught out in it.
I’d see Bean Pole just a few days before Emma — hence my need to assuage my bruised brain with Emma — and now that’s a film crawling with hairy skin, men and women alike: stubble, armpits, pubic hair, it’s all there. Leningrad’s a mess, and so is its skin.
Not so in this Austen film, and no surprise. Because hairy skin is unruly. Hairy skin is a reminder of the constant labor needed to keep the barbarians out of sight. Bare skin is an “mown lawn,” to recall Lydia Davis’s piece of the same name:
“Lawn [writes Davis] also contained the letters of law. In fact, lawn was a contraction of lawman. Certainly a lawman could and did mow a lawn. Law and order could be seen as starting from lawn order, valued by so many Americans. More lawn could be made using a lawn mower. A lawn mower did make more lawn. More lawn was a contraction of more lawmen. Did more lawn in America make more lawmen in America?”
American lawmen, as I hope we all know by now, have their origins in the maintenance of slavery. Their training and expansion has to do, as you know if you’ve read Stuart Schrader’s Badges without Borders, the maintenance of American empire.
And behind the smooth hairlessness of an Austen film is its hairy side, the sources of its wealth. Indeed, when we see the paintings of Mr. Knightley’s ancestors in his estate, they’re of his 17th-century ancestors, of the period just at the beginning — or, we might say, just slightly before — of England’s massive investment in transatlanic slavery.
Austen films generally have a difficult time talking about this source of wealth, with the exception of Patricia Rozema’s 1999 Mansfield Park. Shockingly, you can buy Tom Bertram’s sketchbook from the film, the one depicting the horrors of slavery in Antigua: $545, and its yours. De Wilde’s film, as D’Arcens’ review observes, isn’t particularly good at talking about poverty. We might note, too, that the film leaves its notorious — and I hope needless to say — racist “Gypsy” assault of poor Harriet Smith off-screen, one suspects from a slightly guilty liberal conscience, or perhaps because including the assault would have meant leaving the lawn unmown.
For when we’re in a medieval state of mind, we unwashed and unshaven proles like to imagine that the rich are just like us, doomed to mortality and putrefaction. We like to imagine that under our clothes, particularly in a society so sartorially hierarchized as, well, any classed society, we’re all the same, an envelop of skin over layers of fat and muscle over an armature of bones. Yet in Emma, we get what’s under the clothes, and what’s under the clothes is more perfection, social grace without limit and without need of any disguise.
For in the fantasy Emma offers us, Mr. Knightley doesn’t really need to be washed and changed at all. The fantasy Emma offers us is the characters’ own fantasy of themselves. It’s fetishes all the way through. For what the scene of Knightley’s butt insists on is a hairless, mown perfection at which the hairy us, having paid our price of admission, can do nothing but gawp.