Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Dynamic of Being in 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day'

Some films are genre pieces intended to make a quick buck within the latest trend of animated movies about animals, say, or portraits of empowered women in the Victorian age. I found something slightly different with Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.

Although setting and plot made it look like something I might usually avoid at all costs, I was interested to see how Frances McDormand and Amy Adams, two actresses who have repeatedly proved their worth in cinema, would work together. McDormand came off as the wise old spinster with the character of Miss Pettigrew, who, despite some social ineptitude, manages to control the chaotic social world of Adams' Delysia Lafosse with the efficient, broad strokes of a master artist. But outside of the central theme (the impact of social class on defining the meaning of love) and the rather obvious plot developments, Miss Pettigrew offered something else to think about.

As Pettigrew weasels her way into the role of Lafosse's "social secretary," mending the ensuing chaos around her with quick thinking and witty turns of phrase, it soon becomes apparent that the whole world itself would have fallen apart without this main character's accidental arrival. Pettigrew immediately helps Lafosse usher off one suitor and deflect another, and Lafosse responds with a sort of "What would I ever do without you?" But the answer is clear -- even if Pettigrew hadn't shown up, Lafosse would still have somehow gotten rid of scrappy Phil before Nick appeared, or else have explained it all away with her charm. It's evident that her philandering has been going on for some time now, and her character doesn't need the accidental help of Pettigrew to set the situation right. Lafosse's sense of self-preservation would have kicked in, and she would have done anything to get rid of Phil in time, or else she would have said anything to Nick to cover up her indiscretions (a simple, "Oh, I was just auditioning for Phil's play, honey!" would have sufficed). This is reinforced later, when the audience finds out that both Nick and Lafosse's other suitor, Michael, already have a keen sense of what is going on and have just dealt with it all along.

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So, this is just the first in a long series of events where Pettigrew's presence seems absolutely necessary in the plot development of the movie. It's almost as if she's an omniscient character who peeks in every so often to push two elements together, just to step back again and observe all the events going on. Pettigrew instructs Michael to "Slug [Nick] in the jaw!" when things go sour between Nick and Lafosse, but wouldn't Michael have figured this out sooner or later anyway? After all, Michael -- the "extremely passionate" street musician who yearns for Lafosse, even though he knows that she is really "Sarah Grub" from plain old Pennsylvania -- hates Nick, and hates that injustice he witnesses when Nick tells Delysia what to do. The punch was well on its way already regardless of Pettigrew's fervent interjection.

Miss Pettigrew's actual "omnipotent" power of directing the actions of others around her is actually quite subdued. Enacting the old debate over determinism, the movie presents her as a necessary element of Lafosse's chaotic world, but, in fact, everything would have turned out very similar without Pettigrew around.

Another (lesser) emphasis in the film is morality. Pettigrew stretches the truth for Lafosse out of some strange devotion to Lafosse, her new boss. Is this dishonest, or is this just part of the job? For the aristocracy (which, according to Pettigrew, plays games with love), it seems like there are no aspects of morality, and Pettigrew is just fighting fire with fire, doing her best job as social secretary. But she realizes the morality of her actions, trying to opt out of the job at various points in the movie. Something, though, always pulls her back.

There are other entertaining aspects of the movie, but these are more apparent and less thought provoking. (The running gag of Miss Pettigrew's attempt to get any sort of food is one.) And while it's nothing that I would strongly recommend, I just thought I'd share my impressions on the film, stressing the point that sometimes you can find some interesting ideas in movies or other things that you might have dismissed as unnecessary. (I suppose according to my argument that Miss Pettigrew is unnecessary to the development of the movie, but, in fact, it is her presence that causes such interesting ideas [of determinism and morality] to unfold.)

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