Mona Lisa Smile: A tug-of-war between feminism and the system

mona lisa smile
A still from the movie. Source: Fanpop

In India, should you be a woman of 25 or older and unmarried, it offends people to no end. An unmarried woman taking life at her own pace is an irritant in their otherwise peaceful lives. I’d recently been to a friend’s house, we were meeting after a year of only WhatsApp messages. We were talking and her father walked in, and before I could finish saying “Hi, Uncle”, he shot the question at me: “Eppo saapaadu poda pora?” (rough translation: when are you going to invite me to your wedding?). He is not even a wee bit familiar with me as a person, he just knows me as the friend of his daughter (who’s married of course). This man is the quintessential marriage-obsessed Indian. We cannot fully blame him or his lot. It has been drilled into their heads that women are meant to be married off, and that that is what they are meant to aspire to. If you are a woman and married, even if just for a week, people will start asking you about your plans to start a family.

Mona Lisa Smile, set in 1953-54, tackles this unhealthy obsession with subjugating women as merely meant for marriage, borne out of patriarchy, how the system drives it, and what it takes to be an individual who goes against the established norm. And boy do the ethos and social demands of those times reflect the India of 2018.

Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) joins the Wellesly College, Massachusetts, as a teacher of Art History. She looks forward to having an easy time there, only to discover that the women’s college is rather conservative and orthodox in its approach to educating women; they even have “marriage lectures”, as Katherine puts it, where girls are trained to take care of their husbands and be supportive of their spouses’ careers. The girls are equally eager to get married, bake sugar cakes, and have children. Katherine is appalled to no end that young women with so much potential do not aspire to be more than just good wives. She introduces the class to modern art, teaches them to pay attention, observe, think beyond the textbooks, for her classes and more. She faces resistance from the snooty, condescending students and a hostile management.

How Katherine deals with all of it, and whether she succeeds in making the students think big, forms the plot.

Julia Roberts, needless to say, is brilliant. There is this scene where her first day as a teacher does not go well, and she calls her boyfriend for comfort. The moment she hears him ask if she’s okay, she chokes. It is so realistic and relatable, it makes you want to reach out and comfort her.

The actors who play the students, too, are convincing and breathe life into their otherwise one-dimensional roles (Kirsten Dunst, Ginnifer Goodwin, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Julia Stiles). The interactions among the students in class, is so natural and reminiscent of your own college days, they have you smiling. There is also a scene where Giselle (Gyllenhaal) stands in front of a mirror in the college’s dormitory, and after a moment of consideration wonders out loud if she looks like Katherine. That was, again, a very natural, starry-eyed-student thing to do. Props to Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal for the screenplay.

The cinematography (Anastas Miches) warrants appreciation. The set up moves from freeing to suffocating, based on how Katherine feels in each space, effectively taking her side: the room for the marriage lectures and the dormitory seem suffocating, and in both settings, the topic of discussion is marriage, child-rearing, being a good housewife. Katherine’s room at the college, in contrast, is cozy, messy-in-a-nice-way, and true to her non-conformist self. The amount of thought that would have gone into carefully arranging the space to set the mood shows how much the makers care about the art.

On the whole, Mona Lisa Smile is a heartwarming tale of lessons taught and learnt, told in a manner that is not melodramatic or overtly sentimental. Worth a watch. Or two. Or maybe three.


MONA LISA SMILE (2003)

Director: Mike Newell

DoP: Anastas Miches

Cast: Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Ginnifer Goodwin, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Julia Stiles


Published by Kirthika Soundararajan

Journalism student. Loves animals. Aspires to write about history, art, culture, and people.

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