Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Ang Lees latest film has been deservedly praised (and also damned) for its frank portrayal of gay love and also for bringing to the surface what, by the sound of peoples reactions, seems to have been the best kept state secret: that the Western as a genre has always been rife with homoerotic desire. I wont go into the details of the protagonists sexual identity and orientation although I suppose that queer(-ish) would be a better label than gay to describe what they are or what they are up to. After all, neither of them seems totally averse to the occasional bit of hetero hanky-panky, with their wives or with other women. In the films sexual discourse homosex and heterosex do not seem to be incompatible but, rather, more or less parallel options (with a little difference between them). It could be argued that Ennis (Heath Ledger) falls in love with Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) because he likes him better than he does Alma (Michelle Williams), not because he is a man and his wife is a woman, and something similar, although perhaps not quite identical, could be said about Jack and Lureen (Anne Hathaway).
So the film appears to defend a sort of sexual utopia which contrasts vividly with its melodramatic social space, in which cowboys who engage in aberrant sexual practices are discriminated against, humiliated and murdered. We might say that the two narrative spaces of the film reproduce quite faithfully two of the cultural territories from which the sex wars are being fought nowadays: whatever turns you on versus the family. Its just a shame that the film chooses to focus so exclusively on the male characters and does not allow its women to have some of the fun. Not that this is news for the Western, but while Brokeback Mountain openly tries to break new ground in unearthing what we all had long suspected about screen cowboys, it remains strictly conventional in its representation (or lack thereof) of women. Alma and Lureen are never uninteresting but are as patchily constructed and as summarily disposed of as, say, the best female characters in Shakespearean tragedy.
We can, of course, always say that women is not what the film is about, and why should it be, or that they are the inevitable victims of the films highly effective narrative structure, which encompasses two decades of forbidden love and turns the ellipsis into its most salient rhetorical figure, but which must perforce concentrate on the goings-on between the two male protagonists. Still, the women are there and different choices could have been made to allow them to approximate the complexity and the dramatic intensity achieved in the construction of the two male lovers. This narrative near-absence is particularly glaring in the case of Lureen, who is seen doing little more that picking Jack up at the rodeo canteen, having sex with him in the back of a truck, selling tractors and keeping the accounts of their apparently flourishing business, enjoying her husband finally standing up to her father during a Thanksgiving meal, and giving Ennis the news of her husbands death.
This scene, one of the most spectacular in the film, in which a kind of shared flashback shows us that both characters know how Jack was really killed, is also a moment which makes the spectator realise (if we hadnt noticed before) how little we know about the character and what an unfair lot she has been dealt by the elliptical narrative. In spite of this, Anne Hathaway (is it a coincidence that she has the same name as that great unknown of English literary history, William Shakespeares wife?) manages to convey worlds with her performance at this point, and, although she is the only one of the four principals who has not been nominated for the Oscars, she brilliantly succeeds at filling in the gaps created by more than two hours of film. We guess now that she has known for a while now that her husband was not quite a respectable pillar of society and that she always knew about his friendship with Ennis, we can speculate that she hates Ennis for it or maybe not, that she hated her husband or maybe that she loved him, that she was sympathetic to his sexuality, and that she shares the moment of emotional intensity and despair with her rival. We can go on speculating and surmise that she married Jack because he was the type of man her father would hate, was proud of her husband because her father did hate him and was particularly elated when Jack finally showed Mr. Newsome (Graham Beckel) who was boss in his house. Perhaps she was fond of him but was more interested in being a successful business woman than in sex. Come to think of it, maybe this is the reason why the film largely ignores her. A story that, as I mentioned before, fantasises about a modern sexualised utopia cannot forgive a character who doesnt even have the decency of ever being horny in front of a man and betrays a marked preference for tractors. But then again, maybe its because she never met the right person. Maybe if she had hidden in the back of her husbands truck and driven with him on one of his escapades to Wyoming, she would have met Alma, and who knows. But I might as well stop right here: that would have been a different film and not at all a Western, and it would have been banned in even more States, and Hathaway would still have not been nominated for the Oscar.
Still, Lureen, in her radical otherness with respect to the films otherness, in her refusal to behave like the rest of the characters, in her very near-invisibility, fascinates us all the same and encourages us to construct our own Brokeback Mountains out of the gaping holes left by Lees movie. After all, thats what ellipses are for.