The Triumphant Return of Barbara Loden's "Wanda"

Met with little acclaim upon release, the sole feature by Barbara Loden has been restored and is receiving a much-deserved re-release.
Elissa Suh

Illustration by Yelena Bryksenkova.

After I saw Wanda for the first time, at a public screening a few years ago, I caught another viewer’s impromptu critique. A young man remarked, “She seemed like a dumb blonde,” shrugging away the last 103 minutes. How many others, I wondered, had sorely missed the point and tossed away Barbara Loden’s exquisite film? And how many other films that choose to orbit unlikely and atypical heroines have been casually misinterpreted? Turns out my fellow moviegoer was not alone in his ambivalence; while Wanda debuted, and won the award for Best Foreign Film at the Venice International Film Festival in 1970, it was met with little acclaim when it arrived stateside the following year. Not until recently did it garner significant attention, gaining speed on the repertory circuit and having been rightfully inducted into the National Film Registry in 2017. Restored by the UCLA archives, with funding from The Film Foundation and Gucci, the tremendous film finally receives a much deserved nationwide re-release.

Loden’s first and only feature turns the camera on a penniless and directionless young woman who shacks up with the world’s most inept robber and drifts into a life of crime. What this briefly accurate synopsis fails to relate, however, is the somber vacancy of marginal living and the stifling despondency that permeates the characters’ lives.  Set in desolate northern Pennsylvania, the camera wends its way through stations of Americana—ice cream stands, dingy diners, sterile shopping malls—in what resemble the ghostly remnants of photographs of William Eggleston or Stephen Shore, both cataloguers of the quotidian, should they have been blanched of their subtle optimism and hint of the quixotic beauty, scuzzed up and sooted instead with coal country grime.  In fairness, Wanda, played by Loden herself with an instinctual downward glance, is difficult to read. Or perhaps she is the easiest. It is not a lack of intelligence, but a lack of knowledge, by no fault of her own, that informs the foundation of her character and which is precisely Loden’s point. Ignorance is not a choice; it asks and wants for nothing, bestowing itself on those less privileged. At a child-custody court hearing, Wanda’s willful concession to her husband taking the children, combined with her slipshod behavior—tardy arrival, hair still affixed in rollers—seem to signal a lack of concern. On the one hand this painless dereliction of motherhood is an unexpected narrative amusement, and on the other a jarring unconventionality—the more dogmatic might label it wildly abnormal, condemning Wanda’s absence or surrender of maternal instinct. Her non-decision is all the more intriguing because the film has been audaciously purged of backstory.  Loden discards any illuminating bread-crumbs of character development that might offer a fuller picture and its effect is distancing—Pauline Kael described Wanda as “extremely drab and limiting piece of realism,” but no one could accuse it of unjustly withholding particulars or pompously wielding detachment for the sake of artiness, as is often done by filmmakers without much to say.

The fullness of Wanda, her complexities and nuances, springs from Loden’s complete embodiment of the character, spun from but a few components into a woman simultaneously so realistic, yet unknowable, making this one of cinema’s great performances. Her introduction arrives in a small deception: at the film’s beginning an older woman, not Wanda, attends to a wailing child. The camera glides around the kitchen from scattered cola bottles and a huffing husband until it reveals Wanda on the sofa shielding herself behind a mess of blonde. “He’s mad because I’m here,” her tinny voice rings out. The way Loden plays her, Wanda exudes little in the way of gross negligence or flagrant carelessness that typically accompanies representations of impoverished moms. Instead, writ large on Wanda’s forehead is a sense of demoralization, compounded over the years.  Rumpled and angular, Loden’s performance is a very physical one making use of her whole body.  Her movements can be wildly frantic; when getting dressed, or strapping on her new fancy heels her movements, fingers fumbling over simple tasks she’s performed a thousand times. Other times she exhibits a calm dexterity— see how delicately and deliberately she plucks potato chips, a few at a time, with her fingers. Unexpectedly, thefilm contains a handful of memorable food scenes, adding further detail to Wanda with the unintended side-effect of inducing an appetite for American standbys. Food and the act of eating tends to be a place of retreat, somewhere to withdraw to in solace, whether it’s an ice cream cone underscoring the sullen abandonment of a one-night stand, or spaghetti twirled and eaten with messy abandon.  

Most memorable though is a scene involving a bungled order of three hamburgers, requested by the squirrely Mr. Dennis (Michael Higgins, appropriately shouty), the low-level criminal Wanda encounters when he forgets to lock up the bar mid-robbery. Their meet-cute reconfigures the film loosely into an odd couple on-the-run thriller by way of John Cassavetes, exposing the caustic tug and pull of human relationships, Wanda becoming the object of mistreatment and outlandish ire when she brings burgers outfitted with all their accouterments—he had asked for plain. Buffoonish and cowardly, hiding what appear to be tinted glasses, even his gustatory tastes point toward his immaturity.  Mr. Dennis employs almost exclusively the language of reprimands and imperatives. (“No slacks around me!”) There’s a sad and sharp jab of humor present these scenes, predicated not on absurd human misunderstandings, but rather the viewers solid recognition of Wanda’s mistreatment. She gamely denudes the sandwich and enjoys one herself, resuming normal behavior after being slapped. 

Beneath Wanda’s brittle edges though lies a softness. At the core is a girl never given the chance to escape her small town, her way of life, wholly unaware that an alternative even existed. That naiveté is even subtly emphasized by her hairstyle, a ponytail hoisted high, typical of a teen, and wardrobe—for which Loden was responsible.  Floral patterns, always reminiscent of childhood, appear on her blouse spangled with powder-blue posies, and later the petal-covered cap Mr. Dennis insists she wears. Before the film’s end, Wanda will be abandoned and violated once more, rising past passivity, but suffering the damage. If the film’s beginning slyly avoided her, the final scene memorializes her in a haunting freeze frame. While lively music and laughter bubble up on around her, she smokes a cigarette, eyes lowering once more. Back to where she began.

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