Sunday, June 18, 2017

Snout-y Fairy Tale and Privilege: The Goods and Bads of 'Penelope'

Penelope film poster.
Whimsical, quirky Penelope is one of my favorite guilty pleasures. It has a wonderful, strong lead character, a handsome anti-prince charming, a simple ugly duckling narrative with a twist, and pensive indie music. Scenes often look like fairy book illustrations come to life. Plus, there is laughable cursing. Penned by Emmy award winning Leslie Caveny (producer of Everybody Loves Raymond), the film follows the antics of Penelope Wilhern (Christina Ricci), a rich, pampered young lady living among people with American or British accents. For example, Penelope and her mother, Jessica (Catherine O'Hara) are American while her father, Franklin (Richard E. Grant) is clearly not.

Penelope's snout got so much unnecessary hate from rich men and even her own mother.
The film opens with backstory of how the Wilhern family received their awful curse. A selfish, aristocratic jerk knocked up a poor servant and refused to marry her, instead marrying another. The girl commits suicide. The vengeful mother, instead of rightfully inflicting pain on the guilty responsible man, curses the Wilburn clan.
"And only when one of your own claims this daughter as their own til death do them part will the curse be broken!"

Pretty unfair criteria, right?

Thus, the newest Wilherns take that to mean that once their daughter, the chosen one born with the unfortunate affliction-- pig like features-- must marry someone who would accept her and break the curse.

Penelope (Christina Ricci) is quite beautiful, but a certain demographic of men don't see it as such.
For years, since turning eighteen, future horticulturist Penelope has been introduced to rich men behind invisibility glass, hoping that her impressive dowry will entice a man to marry her. The moment she comes out to politely greeting these suitors, however, disrespectful ruckus often ensues. They tend to stare at her in horror, scream, run off, and jump through the Wilhern mansion's second floor glass windows. Of course, this must have done a number on Penelope's mental capability, dwindling what was left of her little self-esteem. Jessica also rejects her daughter. She rarely looks at Penelope's face, doesn't consider Penelope's feelings, and prefers that as the husband search continues, Penelope must stay in. There is even a swing in Penelope's room. Bird cages have swings.

Now at age twenty-three, Penelope is right in the middle of finding another. A boring, conceited, spineless Edward Vanderman calls her "Dear Sweet Penelope" as though he's some Lord Byron reincarnate. She comes out, uttering her signature polite "hello." Edward immediately rushes out and screams, beating out sneaker clad Jake, who has for the first time, not caught up to have him sign the gag order.

Max (James McAvoy) and Penelope (Christina Ricci) have a solid connection.
Peter Dinklage has a meaty role as Lemon. He is a nosy reporter who first discovered Penelope's "condition" and would have exposed the piglet baby if it hadn't been for Jessica clocking him in the eye. At that time, Jessica had faked Penelope's death. Lemon never bought it. He joins forces with Edward and finds a down-on-luck Max, offering the poor lad money to flush out the truth about Penelope. In exchange for newly acquired gambling money, Max has to wear a suit with cameras sewn in, in hopes of snatching pictures of the presumed dead Wilhern daughter.

Kind, compassionate Max has other ideas in mind for the sheltered heroine.

He befriends the real Penelope, through the invisibility glass of course. He comes by often. In the same camera-strapped suit, he discovers her favorite author, gets his butt killed in chess, and sings "You Are My Sunshine" whilst terribly playing several instruments. It is on his piano playing visit that they physically meet, by hands. He stares at her, observes her with mild affection and quiet yearning. As he lifts a hand to touch her face, the camera snaps and he lets out a curse.

Their romance becomes both infectious and problematic. Max does want Penelope, but cannot due to specific conditions of the curse. His deceit is discovered. He tries to tell her the truth about his origins. Penelope begs him to marry her anyway (which is quite pathetic, they haven't known each other long enough). He says, "no." Yet his "no" doesn't come with screams, fingers pointing at her nose, the urgent need to run, and jump out of the window. He goes only because Penelope tells him to.

Much later, Penelope decides to steal Jessica's purse and runs away, finding freedom, adventure, and friendship with Annie (nice Reese Witherspoon cameo), wrapped in a sleek purple coat and multi-colored scarf. The confident, spirited lady is turning in photographs of herself to Lemon for money, having beers at the Cloverdilly Pub (Max's favorite spot), riding the back of mopeds, visiting museums, and sending her parents post cards.

When her parents find her, independent times are over.

Penelope enjoying her first taste of on tap beer, slurping it through a straw underneath her trademark scarf of course. Don't know many fairy tales featuring their leading princesses drinking ale, but it was quite a humorous turn of events to have Penelope involved in an adult social realm that always seems taboo. After all, her bedroom still had a swing and lots of fluffy toys.
The public discovery and acceptance of Penelope is very sweet. Much like the tepidness of current society, in which anyone who has an unusual tidbit or connection become instantaneously cherished (or hated), they treat her like a celebrity talent, celebrating the hated nose, in collective awe of her. Jessica, forever the Negative Nelly, believes it is hype.

"You're just a talking pig to them," she says tartly.

She encourages (more like forces) Penelope to marry Edward (who still cannot look her in the face) and Penelope reluctantly agrees. On the wedding day, Penelope runs away (for good reason). It is then, Penelope discovers the power to break the curse.

Max and Penelope are together in the end. Thankfully, they don't get hitched (which would have been cheesy). They still need to learn about each other, find out their individual sleeves, especially Penelope.

Max doesn't know that Penelope has changed......
and kisses her anyway.
It is great that the film is written by a woman and has that vibe, especially memorable scenes-- when Penelope befriends Annie, turns the tables on Lemon, and accepts herself.

Still, there should have been some inclusiveness.

Penelope is a guilty pleasure (for me) because residual feelings of exclusivity kick in. At times, it is extremely discomforting to enjoy glaringly white privilege with the exception of the black British officer serving minor comic relief. Despite Penelope's lonely existence, she is spoiled relentlessly in her prosperous, upper class lifestyle. When she caught Max trying to steal a book from her antiquated library, she informs him that three hundred and twenty five books are worth big money. She also has the Disney body shape, gloriously long brown hair, beautiful tailored clothing, and wide eyed naivety that can sometimes be irritating or downright corny (i.e. she encounters joggers and runs from them, petrified). She isn't even asked for ID when she checks into a hotel with Jessica's card or when she has beer. In this fictional place, contemporary imperialism stays present, leaving all else as invisible as Penelope's unique mirror.

In the end, Penelope is a flawed fantasy bubble. We are just looking in it.

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