When Baroness, Karen Von Blixen, aka ‘everywoman’ Meryl Streep, discovers that the one brother she’s in love with is not content with just doing her, and the other brother is busy doing everyone left over – including the servants – she decides that a change is in order. During a fashionable, upper class, Danish hunting spree in the snow, she propositions the other brother with a marriage arrangement: he gets funding for whatever he wants, in return for which, she gets what she wants: love – all that any woman wants. Brother Bror agrees.
For the occasion the Baroness has worn an enormous fur rimmed hat, which with its oval configuration and tipped up ends, can only be described as a giant, jauntily placed vulva. It’s the cornerstone as it were, the first of many hats and outfits to come, that appropriately seems to encapsulate the thrust of the film. Its sexual connotation is obvious, but its darkness hints at the tragedies that lie ahead. Its size confirms the underlying everywoman conviction that they have the ultimate trump card – i.e. a vagina – and the manner in which it’s displayed, reveals to us the elegance and style, which they, the gentler sex, bring to the world. Punctuating the idea, the Baroness concludes the discussion by shooting an unwitting life form flying overhead: a bird, possibly also female, possibly also with the same inherent conviction.
The change in order is Africa. Toot toot! Segue to a lusty steam train, forging through the arched expanse of a world in the throes of violation.
The train is stopped momentarily for Robert Redford, struggling with elephant tusks and the rigors of a wardrobe other than sport jacket and blue jeans. Interrupted from her own rigors the Baroness is introduced to the man of her destiny, a man who understands Limoges dinnerware (in Swahili no less), the mysterious American, blond, heartthrob Dennys Finch Hatton. But the movie is just beginning, Dennys will not be climbing aboard at this juncture. He strides off into the expanse of endless nothingness in search of more things to mutilate. The Baroness watches him wistfully while tapping her internal barometer. There is wetness in the offing.
Nairobi: metropolitan heart of the Dark Continent. White folks in suits and ties, black folks in their underwear. White folks in motorcars, black folks in the way. The Baroness discovers her own place in this world via the Gentlemen’s Club, where she is sternly informed that dress code above all requires the wearing of a johnson. A notion that obviously offends her everywoman conviction along with those of every woman in the theater and ignites a determination to have done with it before the end of the movie.
Bror arrives late from a philandering session to inform her that everything is ready and the wedding will take place in an hour. The horror! The gasps of the audience are palpable. Weddings take years to plan. Poor Meryl. Who can save her?
Wardrobe of course, the other star of the film. An Oscar was presented on account of it, and one carriage of the train was devoted to carrying it. Cool as an African cucumber the Baroness appears in an off the cuff princess Di ensemble and our beating hearts are stilled.
The wedding reception introduces us to the cast of upper class layabouts that run the show – raping, pillaging, and generally abusing an entire continent and its inhabitants. A gang of bored, backbiting, privileged spongers who welcome the occasion as an opportunity to get dressed up, drunk, lewd and overbearing.
In the midst of the mob, with the ring not yet warm on her finger, the Baroness intercepts her husband, mere inches from his first piece of extra mural ‘conviction’ and insists she be driven home. “Yes dear,“ says Bror, “You’ll love it here. The servants are wonderful.”
Domesticity is bad for movies. The spouse is generally killed off at the beginning to avoid this bog of inertia and make way for the excitement of seducing his or her replacement. In Africa it’s a little more colorful, but it’s still to be avoided.
The Baroness has most likely never boiled an egg, so she has the enormous task of ensuring that her Kikuyu chef prepares cordon bleu to perfection; her constant round of candlelit soirees demands no less. The chef is one of the many silly, superstitious, childlike black folks, who must be instructed as to her every need. To add to her problems, the man of the house is rarely around, and during a brief visit – probably to change his underwear – announces that they won’t be raising cows after all, but coffee. Before she can respond, he’s out the door in search of fresh convictions.
A superhuman womanly adjustment is now required and true to form Ms. Streep provides it. The female audience squirms with approval. Men are pigs! Apart from pissing over a six foot wall there’s nothing they can do that women can’t. Now he’s gone our plucky heroine can have what she deserves:
A different pig.
The domestic deadbolt slides back and she’s out of the house! She plants acres of coffee beans, builds a schoolhouse, hires a teacher, teaches the cute little ‘picaninnies’ to sing God save the King, tries on a half dozen outfits, goes to a show and so on. Feeling restless one afternoon she decides to do what all fine upper class layabouts do when they get bored: go shoot something. Coincidentally she bumps into Finch Hatton, who does such a thing on a daily basis, bored or not.
Before we know it, they’re up in a plane together and on safari in a truck with the entire LL Bean catalogue in the back. After a day of shooting whatever takes their fancy, they retire to a meal served outside their sumptuous tents on a candlelit, linen covered table. And then – after a couple of bottles of Chateau whatever – the Baroness retires winsomely to her own tent to prepare for the moment the audience has been waiting for: Bob is going to slip it to Meryl.
But the convictions have come home to roost.
Meryl has syphilis!
No matter says Bob, sliding below camera…
The layered labial gauze of the mosquito net is all we see, as the music swells like an enormous bosom.
Then there’s a war and a flood and the beans all catch fire. Bror needs money to marry someone else. Dennys’s friend dies. The baroness goes back to Denmark. Then she comes back and Dennys dies. Finally she goes back to Denmark for good.
She gets news that two lions, one male, one female were seen sitting on Dennys’s grave. It’s a poignant, poetic image to take with us as we stumble into the street with our hankies. A man who made a career out of shooting lions and anything else that would turn a fast buck has been forgiven.
In the end we are all forgiven.
But do we get our money back?
Malcolm Mc Neill’s first project out of art school was a seven-year collaboration with writer William S. Burroughs. His two books about the experience were published at the end of 2012.
His most recent exhibition of paintings was in August 2013 in New York.