“My Friend Victoria”: Finding Value in Uncomfortable Readings & Viewings Part Two

PART TWO (Read PART ONE)

The farther away I get from my first impressions of this story the more it becomes other things. Is this what happened when Jean Paul Civeyrac began with Doris Lessing’s novella, “Victoria and the Staveneys” as the starting point for his film “My Friend Victoria,” which ended up being particularly different?

image from "My Friend Victoria"
image from “My Friend Victoria”

I read at least three reviews of the film which praised the director’s “faithfulness” to Lessing’s story but I got the distinct impression that not a single one of those reviewers sat down to read the story page for page.

Lessing’s story at least tells us that Victoria was smart in school and that her teachers expected her to receive scholarships and go on to university.

“At school she was diligent and often praised.”

“At school they suggested she could easily be a nurse, she could manage the exams. She was clever, they said………The teachers were proud of her: not so many children at that school were likely to be anything much—-on the streets, more probably.”

“A good little girl, a star pupil, doing her homework—-that was why they had made a fuss of her: she had liked to learn and do her lessons.”

Despite being a young child, Victoria has the adult responsibility of caring for her aunt, as well as paying their household bills on time. Victoria’s responsibility grows as her aunt’s health declines, leading Victoria to miss so much school that upon returning after her aunt’s death, she is now not only behind but her life experiences and responsibilities have set her apart from other children her age.

Lessing’s story also tells us how Thomas “aged eleven, fell in love with a black singer and thereafter went to every black concert or dance group that came to London. The secret torments of teenage lust were all directed towards one black charmer after another. He said often that he thought white skins were insipid, and he wished he had been born black.” This isn’t explored in any meaningful way by either Lessing or Civeryrac.

In Lessing’s story I was disturbed by her description of Victoria’s son, Dickson:

“Dickson was black, black as boot polish or piano keys. Somewhere long ago in his family tree genes had been nurtured to cope with the suns of tropical Africa. He sweated easily. Sometimes sweat flew off him as freely as off an over-hot dog’s tongue. He roared and fought; at the minder’s he was a problem, making trouble, causing tears.”

It is as if Dickson’s troublesomeness has something to do with the darkness of his skin and the profusion of his sweat—-both attributed to an African heritage. Might he be acting-out because he feels less visible and loved than his fairer-skinned sister? Is Lessing’s description some sort of code to indicate the undesirability of a French person who doesn’t have white French blood coursing through their veins or what? In the film Civeyrac opts not to show Dickson being bad; he does, however, show the child’s awareness that he is being excluded by the Savinets, and lacks an advocate in Victoria.

For my money neither Doris Lessing nor Jean Paul Civeyrac lavished any love on Victoria, and I wanted that for her. How is it someone could be orphaned and left to her own resources as many times as Victoria and no one ever inquire about her feelings and well-being? She is someone whom others talk about, but who never gets to speak for herself.

dust jacket description of "Victoria and The Staveneys" (photo by Leslie Reese)
dust jacket description of “Victoria and The Staveneys” (photo by Leslie Reese)

It is true that every person may not be particularly dynamic, ambitious, and effervescent. Not everyone feels or thinks deeply about themselves or others, or life. And its true that neither the novella nor the film treats any of its characters in a layered way. Maybe I wasn’t going to be a fan of this story; maybe I am not the intended audience. It isn’t just Victoria who lacks depth: the Savinets/ Staveneys don’t have any, either. Could I have been looking for a story that emphasizes character in a film that is not about character, but about nuances and silences?

Meanwhile my reading of Lessing’s story feels rather “clinical,” like a case history, something written from a distance and not intended to be a container of flesh and emotional content. In my mind I envision Lessing writing with an “outsider’s” curiosity; scribbling on the surface and not getting deep inside as guided by her own emotions. All of the characters are drawn from a distance, not just the black ones.

As an American black woman who has been a little black girl and a young black woman I came to both the film and the novella with a set of sensitivities that could not have been anticipated by Doris Lessing or Jean Paul Civeyrac. Does that mean that their portrayals are wrong?

Interestingly, my thoughts about “My Friend Victoria” and “Victoria and the Staveneys” continue to be prickly, difficult, and raw, whereas I had thought writing about the two would bring smoothness and clarity of thought. (Wrong again!)

Now I am thinking about how what we receive from our encounters with each other and with culture has a lot to do with what we bring with us; how our experiences inform our perceptions; how we impose our yearnings on what artists deliver.

What I stand to gain from “uncomfortable readings” is not only greater compassion, but a more flexible tolerance for myself and others. This doesn’t mean that I am giving anybody a pass or denying my initial responses. In my ideal world I still want storytellers to aspire to making their characters more human than stereotypical.

That said, I also have to accept that there are many styles of telling stories and many ways stories will be received. There will be people for whom “My Friend Victoria” resonates.

When something makes me uncomfortable I reach for a way to “draw a conclusion” about it to make it compartmental, neat, manageable. But maybe being open to exploring and understanding means living with the raw power of NOT sealing up the mess of discomfort. And maybe I can speak to others out of that uncomfortableness, and not just the arrogance of thinking I understand something when I don’t.
*********
Click here if you’re interested in viewing (en francais) a video of Jean Paul Civeyrac discussing “My Friend Victoria.”

Read what Beti Ellerson has to say on her blog, “African Women in Cinema.”

2 Comments

  1. I’m about a whole week late here, but I enjoy your writing, and reading your writing, kind of like you do films and books! I appreciate your eye and sensibility. Don’t seal it up or package it. Leave it bare for what it is. We always bring our experiences with us to the experience of a film and/or reading; it is almost a preamble. We then extend the experience through criticism and/or critique. This whole business of art goes on, grows us somehow, I believe, regardless of whether the storyteller delivers on what we believe are the objectives. Nuance? Yes. Complexity? Yes. Oversimplication and stereotyping? No. As in, I am less inspired by the two. Now, I want to check out the film, not so much because it sounds good, but because I want to see whether I see what you saw.

    As I write my upcoming work of fiction, I am mindful to not be distant in writing the characters, but rather, get intimate into their lives so I can not only write them better, but write better, period. We can’t have that distance, because the reader will pick up on it also, as you did.

  2. Thanks again, Leslie. The problems are not with your experiences, of course; they are with people who just want to design characters to move plots and think they can change the plots without having to put different, real people into them. If these people like the “estranged daughter” idea so much, let them put her in a setting they understand!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: