Fred Zinnemann’s penultimate film was an adaptation of a memoir that seemed almost impossible to translate to the big screen – Lillian Hellman’s Pentimento, released in 1973, which describes her relationship with a socialist activist named Julia, a character that several critics suggested was fabricated. In the opening scenes of Zinnemann’s film, Hellman, played by Jane Fonda, explains that “pentimento” refers to the process by which a painting fades over time, revealing the original canvas (or another painting) behind it. That same process extends to Julia, which outlines Hellman’s relationship with Julia, played by Vanessa Redgrave, in a pentimento style, superimposing a bricolage of past and present into an emerhent narrative, and never quite resolving whether Julia was a real or imagined character.
In Zinnemann’s hands, and in the hands of screenwriter Alvin Sargent, Julia quickly becomes a story about closeted lesbian desire. We first meet Hellman in the beach house where she lives with her lover Dashiell Hammett, played by Jason Robards, in the midst of profound writer’s block. She’s tackling her first work, the play that would become The Children’s Hour, itself a classic expression of frustrated lesbian attachment, but this alone doesn’t seem enough to explain how thoroughly blocked her inspiration appears to be. In order to conjure up the right words, she reminisces on the early days of her friendship with Julia, recalling their early days in the United States, and Julia’s move to Oxford to study medicine, along with one special night where she realised that Julia had “the most beautiful face I had ever seen.” As Hellman looks back on these memories, Zinnemann builds a moody, melancholy and mysterious sense of place, shrouding and cloaking her beach house in a heightened darkness, compounded by the crash of surf and roar of wind, that becomes the film’s main signature.
At first this beach house operates like a conventional framing device, but the dreamlike dissipation of past and present quickly displaces the present moment, leaving us with no stable vantage point for Hellman to contain her desire for Julia, and no way to seamlessly translate lesbianism into literature. Her writer’s block stems from precisely this difficulty of articulating lesbianism through writing, which in turn destabilises the relation between past and present, self and other, as Zinnemann searches for a cinema commensurate to the ecriture feminine that comprises Hellman’s impossible writing project. He finds the first main ingredient in Hellman’s voiceovers, which are nearly always accompanied by long zooms or pans back and forth, which immerse us in the deep time of closeted recollections. They also ensure that it feels quite natural when the camera occasionally zooms in and out of historical photographs in the same way. This voiceover operates like the framing device, starting as a point of orientation, but then becoming difficult to situate temporally, much as Hellman searches for a way to situate her own desire without outing herself in either present or past.
The result is a profoundly mysterious and luminous film, pairing the understatement and innuendo of Zinnemann’s classical Hollywood heyday with a more 1970s sense of surveillance and scrutiny. At one point Zinnemann includes two shots of fruit and food before cutting to Hellman typing, and the entire film has the patient calm of a still life, or even a memento mori, presenting us with situations that seem to accelerate and decelerate time in the same instant. In fact, the only part of it that’s not mysterious is heterosexual love, since Julia is never attached, and Hellman’s relationship with Hammett seems more professional than romantic, more like a mentor, or even a housemate, than a lover. On the one occasion that Julia asks about him, Hellman responds, peremptorily, that yes, “she has found someone” and leaves it at that, with Zinnemann refusing to ever really sexualise the two writers’ home life.
As that might all suggest, the first part of the film plays as a lesbian tone poem, a testament to Hellman’s love for Julia, in which Julia never quite seems to exist in the present moment. During this opening act, we only ever see Julia in flashback, while the narrative proper starts, in the second act, with Hellman heading to Europe to search for Julia, who has apparently joined an underground socialist network. When they meet again for the first time, Julia is entirely bandaged after an accident, making any proper recognition impossible, before promptly disappearing back into the underground the next day. The rest of the film follows Hellman as she tries to track down Julia, who becomes a romantic and political fugitive, always retreating from our grasp down shadowy channels into the film’s pregnant darkness.
Since Hellman can’t contact Julia directly, she heads back to the United States, where, in the film’s notional present (although the flashbacks come from Pentimento) she starts to write The Children’s Hour in Hammett’s house by the beach. For a long time, though, she can’t start the play, since she doesn’t know how to end it, so inconclusive is her relationship with Julia, which leads to her typing “The End,” over and over again, at random indentations on the page. During these scenes, her house becomes a memory palace, with cold ocean wind blowing through every aperture, while the scenes on the beach, where the darkness is most intense, play as a late career sequel to the Hawaiian sequences in From Here to Eternity. With a weight of classical Hollywood expertise behind him, Zinnemann can direct beautifully with minimal dialogue, which is perhaps why everything other than Hellman feels slightly imaginary – especially Julia, who seems more like Hellman’s projection as the story goes on.
In other words, this is a one-woman show from Fonda, since Julia feels more and more like a figment of her desire – a perfect role for Redgrave, who always feels slightly ethereal in even the earthiest roles. Yet the genius of the film is that it never decides whether Julia was a real or imaginary character, leaving her open as both, and refusing to weigh in on the controversies surrounding Hellman’s novel, except to sympathise with why she might have fabricated Julia, if indeed she did. Just as the action is mainly suspended on or around water, so the film is posised at the very cusp of Hellman’s fantasy of Julia, who thereby becomes an objet peit a that Hellman spends the whole film tracing, only to find that her fantasy grows more elusive every time that she tries to pin it down, like a horizon that never gets any closer.
As the third act proceeds, this romantic fantasy starts to segue into a political thriller, as Hellman returns to Europe on the eve of World War II to seek out Julia once more. A series of mysterious agents now appear to bring her closer to Julia, making vicarious contact in empty streets, hotel lobbies, railway stations and other spaces of mass transit. Julia’s lesbian mystique segues into the socialists she represents, as both socialism and lesbianism are fused into an existential horizon that cannot be fully articulated in either classical or New Hollywood. Zinnemann’s brilliance lies in recognising that he can’t express sympathy for either lesbian or socialist desire in either Hollywood mode – but that fusing them allows us to experience both without overtly identifying with either, as the film folds us into its encompassing closeting embrace, and Zinnemann’s draws on a lifetime of eluding censorship.
Julia thus becomes a figure of underground desire – the closer Hellman comes to her, the more she retreats back into the shadowy networks that surround and sustain her. She’s almost entirely absent from the film, but feels more and more present, especially when these lesbian and socialist elements converge on Zinnemann’s central set piece – a train trip that Hellman takes to finally make contact with Julia for three precious hours in Berlin. All the film’s mysterious infrastructure of desire constellates around this sustained train journey, while Zinnemann’s inky darkness reaches a climax here too, shrouding and cloaking Hellman’s thoughts enough for her to finally dream of (or remember) declaring her love for Julia directly.
When the two women do finally meet, it’s both momentous and oddly incidental – epitomised by the shot that Zinnemann uses to reintroduce Julia to the film, so wide and expansive that it’s hard to recognise Redgrave at the centre of it all on first viewing. For all the romantic intensity, this is also a functional meeting, since Julia has only come out of hiding to accept a money drop that she assures Hellman will save the lives of fifty or a hundred socialists. In one final gesture of intimacy, she asks Hellman to hand her the money in the bathroom of the tavern where they’ve met, but also instructs Hellman to do it from the outside, meaning they’re never able to retreat to a properly private space. Her final instruction, to avoid suspicion, is also phrased as a question – “Act gay, can you act gay?” – whose use of the word “gay” sounds both slightly dated and slightly ahead of its time. Zinnemann gets away with using this word so overtly because of his classical credentials, and its role in classical Hollywood lexicon, but there’s no doubt he’s aiming for the 1970s connotations of it as well.
From there, the fantasy of Julia starts to slip apart again, resulting in an experimental and fractured ending that proceeds through several distinct stages. First, Zinnemann abruptly cuts back to Hellman in conversation with a male friend, who crudely propositions her and then knowingly confides that “the whole world knows about you and Julia,” as if to paint the heteronormative world as doubly oppressive now that the fantasy of Julia has faded. Second, Hellman learns that Julia died, and attends her funeral, where she discovers that nobody else is in attendance. That might seem to make Julia more corporeal, or material, but Zinnemann now moves in a third direction, taking us through a compressed third story in which Hellman tries to track down Julia’s baby, also named Lily. We’ve never heard about this baby before, and don’t have much reason to suspect she exists, so it feels natural when we move into the fourth and final part of this dissolution, which follows Hellman as she tries to make Julia’s friends and socialist aquaintances acknowledge Julia’s existence and, by extension, her own.
This last part of the film seems to embody both Hellman and Zinnemann as they move to the late style of their careers, and revise the fantasies that they took for granted in their early years. That’s not to say that Julia is ever reduced to pure fantasy though, since her life as a prominent underground socialist would make it quite plausible that neither her wealthy family nor her socialist comrades would want to acknowledge her to Hellman. Instead, Zinnemann leaves us where we started, suspended with Hellman over water, on the precipice between fantasy and reality. While Julia never quite comes into focus as a real figure, she’s always a little more than Hellman’s efforts to allegorise and personify her own lesbian desire as well. In the same way, the film never quite chooses between the present moment and the pre-war period, between Zinnemann’s early and late style. Watching it is like watching the classical Hollywood closet haunting the present – sumptuously classical, but paired with the sensibility of the 70s, as close to Klute as it is to Zinnemann’s canonical films, and surely an influence on Todd Haynes’ Carol, so cautious and curious is it about articulating lesbian desire.