In an interview promoting her film Wanda (1970), Barbara Loden proclaims, “I hate slick movies.” Loden’s Wanda, a film that she had written, directed, and starred in, evidences that sentiment with incontestable clarity. If ‘slickness’ is characterized by the standardly satisfying resolutions and easily identifiable moral polarities of films belonging to the Hollywood Production Model, Wanda is a radical cinematic rarity whose agenda and construction are aptly described as unsparingly coarse.
The film follows the titular character who, after separating herself from her family, wanders from no-place to nowhere in the rural Pennsylvania coal company, suffering abuses from the transient men who appear in her life. The film’s visual style is brutally minimalist, enunciating the grotesque and alienating landscapes of motel room interiors, mountains of stockpiled coal, and colorless roadways. The road in particular becomes a motif of oppression within the film; instead of symbolizing the opportunities that lie just beyond every horizon, the open road is empty and hostile, the purgatorial waiting room in between the misfortune awaiting in every new town. The constant motion and displacement of Wanda’s passive drifting paradoxically create a life in which nothing is familiar or grounding, yet everything is predictable—as if pulling cards from the same deck of days.
Wanda’s journey, if it can be described as one, begins with her falling in with a petty bank robber on the lam and forming a warped but hopeful relationship with a man who has slid off his axis entirely. Their time together on the run plays like a tragically incompetent and severely unromantic Bonnie and Clyde story. Mr. Dennis, an emotionally combustible materialist fixated on his next score, brusquely tolerates Wanda, an underprivileged and underintelligent washout who hopelessly seeks something sentimental and pure that cannot be found inside of a bank vault. The contradiction of these characters and the motives that compel them render a near-constant discordance that is only rarely broken by a moment of peace or a kind phrase in passing. The portion of the film dedicated to fleshing out this unvarnished and unsatisfying crime caper is when Wanda begins to be stripped of her simple-minded geniality and recognize herself as a victim of undue cruelty. By the film’s conclusion, after having parted with Mr. Dennis, Wanda is as empty-handed and rudderless as she had been immediately after leaving her husband and son, now disillusioned, listless, and dispossessed of the naive tenacity that willed her to keep going.
The value of Loden’s relentless and bathetic story of Wanda is forcing a stark and uncomfortable humanism onto an audience who is typically only equipped to empathize with characters they can identify with and root for. Wanda is without characterization, without charm, and despite her good-nature, hugely unlikable. However, the abuse and neglect Wanda suffers is untenably harsh and assigns to the viewer a simultaneous repulsion and investment. It requires a dedicated mindfulness to locate that sympathy, and the sharply-etched ambivalence generated by that very effort is what Loden urges her audience to experience. Viewers of the film who wave off Wanda as an irredeemable loser align with the abusive characters who meet and mistreat her; whose unyielding judgment and condescending scorn actually authors and sustains her inferiority.
However, Wanda never slides into self-pity or gratuitous anguish in depicting one woman’s futile wanderings, and Loden demonstrates her brilliance in striking the most resonant chords in her viewers with as few cinematic tools as possible. Wanda is an audience’s exercise in human empathy and a roadmap to the recurrence and perpetuation of victimhood and suffering told with heart and conviction.