An upside of the pandemic, with the impossibility of going to the cinema, is that it provides opportunities to catch up with films not seen when first released. One such is The Gold Diggers
(1983), Sally Potter's first feature film, whose initial reception was chilly, not to say downright hostile, and which seldom saw the light of day thereafter until its release on DVD to coincide with BFI Southbank's 2009 Sally Potter Retrospective (Potter was the first British female director to have a full career retrospective at the BFI).
The film's title references the 1933 Busby Berkeley musical, which opens with Ginger Rogers, naked but for a large gold coin and gold bra, singing We're in the Money
, ringed by chorus girls dripping with gold coins. The film follows the progress of three showgirls seeking husbands: they are the gold diggers, out to catch their men.
In Potter's version, the 'gold diggers' are men digging for gold in a frosty Icelandic landscape, and women are associated with the precious metal. Ruby (Julie Christie) is the archetypal white film star whose value is literally measured in gold. Celeste (Colette Laffont) is a young black bank worker-turned-investigator seeking to uncover the secrets behind the ownership and circulation of money.
In her quest to unlock the connection between the circulation of money and the circulation of women, Celeste kidnaps/rescues Ruby (twice) on a white horse. Ruby is first seen at a lavish ball, being circulated between the men, passed from one to the other, while the first time we see Celeste without Ruby is in the computer room of a bank where she works, asking questions about the money she is helping to circulate. Ruby has her own quest, to recover her forgotten past and find her lost mother. The film is structured around these two quests.
The role of Ruby was designed specifically for Julie Christie, whose star status and the iconic power of whose face were well-established by the 1970s through high-grossing films like John Schlesinger's Darling
and David Lean's epic romance Dr Zhivago
. Potter explains, 'The star phenomenon is an actual form of investment and in real financial terms is a kind of circulation of the face'.
I watched The Gold Diggers
for the first time recently, along with two of Potter's short films on the same DVD: Thriller
(1979) and The London Story
(1986), the latter a glorious 15-minute spoof spy thriller, featuring a wonderful dance sequence finale starring Jacky Lansley (Lansley and Potter had been students together at the School of Contemporary Dance in the mid 1970s). I was curious to know what so roused the critics against The Gold Diggers
at the time, in contrast with their appreciation of her earlier, also black and white, Thriller
, the 1979 short that made her name.
re-imagines the life and death of Mimi, the poor seamstress who expires at the end of Puccini's opera, La Boheme
. Featuring Colette Laffont as the first black Mimi, in Thriller
Mimi unpicks the manner of her own death. Told with verve and wit, largely through still images pieced together with borrowed equipment, and marrying Potter's training in dance and performance with feminist counter cinema, it was a calling card, says Ryan Gilbey, raising expectations for Potter's first feature.
But critics hated The Gold Diggers
. Janet Maslin's comments are typical. Five years after its release, Maslin scornfully reviewed the film in the New York Times
, opining that 'this thing – a 1983 oddity, sort of a feminist, deconstructionist, riddle-filled anti-musical, much of it set on the Icelandic tundra – is pure torture. Its only noteworthy attribute is the presence of Julie Christie...'. Collaboratively written and entirely crewed by women, shot in black and white by Babette Mangolte (described by Jack Rosenbaum as one of the world's greatest cinematographers), the film met a hostile reaction in a world where culture and politics had undergone significant change since the mid-1970s: 1983 marked the ascendancy of Thatcher and Reagan.
The philosopher Stanley Cavell saw profound philosophical content in screwball comedies like The Philadelphia Story
(1941), but perhaps, as Ryan Gilbey has suggested, 'Britain wasn't ready for a... screwball-feminist discourse on gender, with added tap-dancing' in the 1980s. In her 2009 Guardian
interview with Gilbey, Potter recalls: 'We were called anti-male. We were derided and ridiculed'. As a result, she found herself 'cinematically in the wilderness for a decade': Orlando
, her most commercially successful film, was released in 1992, having taken eight years of international deal-making to get off the ground.
The storytelling of Orlando
is witty and fleet-footed, spanning 400 years in the life of a time-travelling nobleman (the perfectly cast Tilda Swinton) who jumps genders. I had seen and enjoyed several of Potter's later films besides Orlando
, including The Tango Lesson
(2009), as well as The Party
, reviewed here in November 2017
. I noted in the review that few British viewers seemed to notice the humorous, often mocking, tone of Potter's films, seeing instead only pretentiousness.
Watching The Gold Diggers
now, it seems astonishing that this playfully adventurous film examining women's role in cinema and society should have attracted such vitriol. 'It was supposed to be a comedy,' says Potter. 'I couldn't understand why no-one was laughing.' Besides missing the point, the opprobrium is even more astounding for its disregard of the sheer beauty of the production and its provocative use of the attributes most specific to film. 'All films are time travel films; all skips are ellipses in time,' said Potter in a recent interview on BBC Radio 3. 'We're all time travellers... We reinvent the past all the time through memory. The past is mutable because perceived. Film plays with time and memory.'
From the first shot of The Gold Digger,
before the title appears – a slow pan across a stark white empty Icelandic landscape, as close to an etching as to photography – I was hooked by the sheer beauty of the image. A song, Seeing Red
, voiced over by the director from the vantage point of a disenchanted feminist spectator (in counterpoint to Hitchcock's self-regarding cameo appearances, perhaps) is accompanied by a montage featuring: a dark-haired woman tramping along an empty snowy road; an image of her cradling a child by a hut in the wilderness; retrieving a model horse buried in the ice-bound wreckage of the wooden hut; and a prospector handling nuggets of gold.
As the film progresses, it becomes clear that these three figures are the main players in the repressed story that Ruby is attempting to recall and revise. The other main player is the glacial landscape itself, to which the film cuts repeatedly in long takes. Immediately after the prologue and titles, from bottom left of the screen an antlike line of gold prospectors emerges, winding its way in single file across the vast ice-packed space and into the distance, shouldering bags, spades and other implements. On the soundtrack, repetitive piano music and a riddle, spoken by Ruby/Julie Christie, the trapped screen goddess:
I am born on a beam of light.
I move continuously, yet I am still.
I am larger than life yet do not breathe.
Only in the darkness am I visible.
You can see me yet never touch me.
I can speak to you yet never hear you.
You know me intimately, and I know you not at all.
We are strangers, yet you take me inside of you.
Who am I?
This riddle is repeated later by Celeste in a voiceover that makes it clear that Celeste is Ruby's potential ally, suggesting that the conventions of stardom can be rewritten through collaboration between women. Celeste, like the director, is 'seeing red' and she announces, 'we have 90 minutes to find each other' – that is, for the female director, female performer and female viewer to find each other in and with the film.
Images compete with sounds in a juxtaposition that demands that we both see and think. They also create a surreal sense of wonder and suspense, feelings sustained by a haunting bassoon-and-piano-heavy musical score by Lindsay Cooper (one of the scriptwriters) and by the brilliance of Mangolte's high contrast black-and-white palette, giving the lie to the old canard about black and white being more realistic than colour. Art director and costume designer, Rose English, another of the screenwriters, has created an elaborate set where interiors and exteriors and onstage and offstage locations are difficult to distinguish. Some sets create an Alice-in-Wonderland
strangeness – a small man sits behind a giant-sized desk that dwarfs a tiny Celeste trying to solve the mystery of money.
The film is structured more like an orchestral piece than a story. The opening sets up and weaves together several layers and fictional worlds, between which we flit for the rest of the film. Visual references to the mother in the snow, the model horse and the wooden hut reappear from time to time throughout. Words are at a minimum, operating frequently as puns, chiming at a metaphorical rather than a literal level, like the many visual puns in the film. There is little dialogue, words mainly taking the form of occasional voiceovers by one of the main characters, including the director herself.
Scenes are revisited and replayed, each time differently, reflecting the film's spiral structure. For instance, in a return to the dance scene, Ruby/Julie comes down the stairs more mockingly than submissively on the man's arm. This time, she pushes each dance partner to the floor before moving on to the next. When all the men lie prone, Celeste appears on her white charger for her second rescue. This time, Ruby responds with pleasure, as do all the other women who slide down the banister and dance with one another, forcing the abandoned men to turn to each other for consolation.
In another scene, Ruby leaves her captor/rescuer's flat dressed in camouflage beret and overcoat. She enters a theatre to escape several men who are following her but they sit behind her in the audience. To her horror, she sees herself onstage, ruby-lipped, in a striped dress, in a hut with her mother. She flees, still pursued by the men. Finding her way backstage, she has an interesting encounter with a rehearsing tap dancer (Jacky Lansley), who seems to recognise Ruby: 'Have you forgotten?' she asks. 'Have I been here before?' replies Ruby, being suddenly ushered onstage in the same dress she saw herself wearing earlier. This time she refuses to play the scripted role: when the man arrives with gold nuggets, she weeps, to derisive hisses and boos from the male audience.
The concluding scene of the film contains the line, spoken by Celeste: 'I know that even as I look, and even as I see, I'm changing what is there'. Potter's own practice is to take received 'texts' – musical, film noir, costume drama, Julie Christie – and transform them to suit her interests. Some of the rage expressed at The Gold Diggers
' first airing was elicited by such transgressions. Potter's mixing of avant-garde and mainstream, her combination of musical, anti-capitalist satire, Hollywood Western, period costume drama and silent melodrama, with theory about the male gaze and a glamorous icon, was clearly too much for some.
The Gold Diggers
can be viewed free of charge via BFI online