Sylviaby Tess Taylor
"There is a charge/ For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge/ For the hearing of my heart."
—Sylvia Plath, "Lady Lazurus"
There’s a certain irony to movie stars earning more for several months of work portraying poets than most poets actually earn over their lifetimes. Nevertheless, exactly 40 years after her suicide, one can go screen director Christine Jeffs’s Sylvia, the story of the Ted Hughes/Sylvia Plath drama for $10, give or take the price of popcorn.
This may not be pleasant entertainment. Yet the fact that this film was made at all is evidence that the life (and death) of Sylvia Plath still commands immense interest, at least to some part of the public. A recent search of the New York Public Library catalog reveals 112 volumes about Sylvia Plath—slightly less than three a year written since her death in 1963. Indeed, Plath’s been exhumed by everyone from Janet Malcolm to Helen Vendler. For better or for worse, a given interpretation of her story has become a kind of cultural litmus test, or, as Plath might have put it, an "old lightning rod." As Janet Malcolm noted, the way we retell the story of Sylvia has as much to do with who we are than who she ever was.
Perhaps that’s why the desire to tell stories about her is as great as ever: In addition to Jeffs’s new film, recent months have produced Wintering, a novel by Kate Moses, Her Husband, a biography of Hughes by Diane Middlebrook, and Giving Up, an inquiry into Plath’s last days by Jillian Becker. Each text seems poised to offer some new revelation, and the promise a cinematic re-enactment seems to hold is that by watching her life we might finally understand it.
But while a few close-ups reveal a delicately painted scar on Paltrow’s cheek, Sylvia’s cameras conjure the relationship between Hughes and Plath from an austere, even cool, distance. The film offers cinematography in place of content: A number of the scenes are lifted directly from Hughes 1998 book The Birthday Letters, which explored the two poets’ relationship, while others reference Ariel, Plath’s final, posthumously published book. Other pieces of the dialogue might have been lifted in from an earlier book edited by Plath’s mother, Letters Home. This graft doesn’t make for bad watching: there’s a lovely scene of Sylvia quoting Chaucer to cows, and a long, deliciously tense segment when the fog descends over Devon.
It’s a beautifully rendered, if not entirely faithful, film. After a morbid quote from Lady Lazarus, ("Dying/ Is an art, like everything else/ I do it exceptionally well,") the movie begins on the day the couple meets at Cambridge in 1956 and follows the two through to her end. It meanders selectively through various stations of the couple’s six-year marriage, from the electric first days in Cambridge, back to Cape Cod and Smith College, where Plath taught, and then back to London and the farmhouse in Devon where the relationship (and Plath) slowly unravel. Yet for all the interiors and apartments the camera enters, there’s an inner life to each of the characters that remains out of reach.
This may be partly because there’s so little use of their poetry in the movie. Because the Plath/Hughes estate opposed the film, refusing any permissions, discussions of work in progress are thinned to mere allusions. "I’ve got a poem," says Hughes, sauntering up as if he’d caught a fish. "You go to write, you get an epic in hexameters," retorts Plath. "I sit down to write, and I get a bake sale." Later a montage sequence of the writer at work depicts Plath at her typewriter muttering poetic sounds, while a pane of glass reflects her, darkly.
There is, however, a poetic quality to the filmmaking. As the movie progresses, objects of everyday life warp into implements of torture: the baby’s milk dropped in fat beads on the wrist, for instance, or the flaming blaze behind Plath as she sits, watching her husband and his future lover through a blurry pane of glass. It’s not so much what the images reveal as what they hint at—some unsettlement, some unhappiness, and a vision of a world gone slightly off kilter.
Plath’s story is most terrifying when read as ars poetica, a model of what the art of poetry requires. In Plath’s case, her art seemed to require of her a madness. Her perplexing figure has offered an uncomfortable, quasi-universal parable about the impossibility of reconciling roles as a woman and a poet. In recent years, the stories that demonize Hughes and the constrictions of English society have been layered over by others which speculate about the internal workings of Plath’s body, which speculate about PMS and depression.
But it is possible to know Plath any better? Or just differently? All the reexamination of Sylvia Plath may simply reflect a new liberation regarding the material of her life: Her unabridged diaries have been released, and Hughes has passed on. It may also reflect the preoccupation of a generation of women artists who have come of age in her story’s long, uncomfortable shadow—artists, perhaps, for whom Plath is an uneasy model. Perhaps the new inquiries represent a need to exorcise her demons, to retell the parable to render it less noxious.
As a retelling, Sylvia neither universalizes, nor attempts to explain. At times, one wishes for more inner life, more hints of what might have been at work, or a sense of the moment when it all went wrong. But in the end, the movie reveals very little, which is perhaps as it should be. It does not pass judgment or point fingers or offer guidance or blame. There is no moral here, just her tragic and untimely death. And a sense that questions linger.
Tess Taylor has written articles for The New York Times and The New Yorker.