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The heart has its reasons

Film review of Miss Marx

(Dir. Susanna Nicchiarelli, 2019)

by Don Longo

Tolstoy says somewhere that happy families have no history; if that’s true the Marx family is a rich source of historical reflection, marked as it was by struggle, poverty and tragedy. A recent film, Miss Marx, on the life of Karl Marx’s youngest daughter, Eleanor (1855-1898), offers a story of both rebellion and heartbreak. The film broadly follows the events and perspectives in a biography published by Rachel Holmes, Eleanor Marx (London: Bloomsbury, 2014).

Miss Marx (1h 47min) is an important addition to the drama of the Marx family. It is the fourth film directed by Italian Susanna Nicchiarelli (b. 1975). It had its world premiere at the Venice film festival in 2020 where it obtained the FEDIC (Federazione Italiana dei Cineclub) award for Best Film – not the most coveted prize, but a respectable award nonetheless. The film is in English even though it was funded by Italian and Belgian investors, probably to get maximum exposure in the Anglosphere. It was shown as part of Adelaide’s British Film Festival hosted by Palace films in November-December 2021. It was only shown twice and attracted a modest number of viewers. It is an important film in an environment where cinemas and Netflix saturate the market with mindless Marvel and escapist drivel or, worse, movies and TV series with reactionary ideologies that promote crude nationalisms under the guise of history. But that’s another story.

The film’s plot is simple: it begins with Eleanor (Romola Garai) speaking at Marx’s (Phillip Gröning) burial at Highgate cemetery in 1883 and follows the rest of her life as she becomes romantically involved with Edward Aveling, a British socialist and spokesman for Darwinian evolutionary theory. The slow but ineluctable deterioration of this relationship is the centrepiece of the film, though there are short episodes about conditions in English factories, the abolition of child labour and women’s rights. Some flashbacks provide background to her life in the Marx household and some short scenes show others in her family, particularly Laura Marx and Paul Lafargue. There are brief appearances by Engels (John Sinclair) whose role is essentially reduced to a pivotal revelation about Marx’s relationship with the family’s housekeeper. Eleanor dies in 1898, disappointed in politics and betrayed in love. It’s left open whether Aveling had a direct hand in her demise.

Reviews about Miss Marx often downplay Eleanor’s individuality and refer to her as an abstraction: it is a film, they say, about ‘the ill-fated daughter of Marx’. And there is the rub: her historical presence was great but not as great as it could have been because of the vagaries of ‘fate’. She was an original thinker in her own right and certainly the most promising and talented of Marx’s children, but in effect she added little to her father’s canon. Her story is one of unfulfilled promise and great but wasted talent. A common enough story, but the film’s main interest lies in the broader questions it raises about the connections between ideas and being, theory and practice, the personal and the political.

This is mostly film about interiors: of houses, of homes, of feelings, of minds. There are some visits to factories and speeches before black-coated radicals and some downcast workers assembled in front of factory gates, but most of the significant events take place in the ornate, cluttered spaces of Victorian drawing rooms and in intimate personal relationships. At its best, the film explores the contradictions and ironies of being a feminist and a socialist in late 19th century Europe. Eleanor is a translator of progressive works on the women’s condition by Ibsen (A Doll’s House) and Flaubert (Madame Bovary). Yet she was also the embodiment of devotion to an unworthy man and demanding father and never attains the courage and fortitude of Ibsen’s and Flaubert’s heroines. Why did she fall in love with a deceitful manipulator like Aveling? And more to the point, why did she stay with him, when everybody around her was warning her and telling her that he was ruining her life? Marx too had an ambiguous effect on her, cherishing her and nurturing her political and sentimental education, but this very care became something like a prison. Following Holmes, Nicchiardelli shows Eleanor as a victim of the two faces of patriarchy: one treacherous and abusive (Aveling) and another benign and solicitous (Marx). Both reduced her agency. Why, then, did an intelligent, cultured and brave feminist speak so eloquently of women’s rights but was unable to claim her own?

The film excels in demonstrating this dissonance between Eleanor’s head and her feelings, and the personal costs of her devotion to  father and lover. Eleanor was arguably Marx’s favourite child and she had a happy childhood under her parents’ protective wings. And yet, as the Director intimates in an interview by Naples’ La Repubblica (26/09/2020), this very happiness probably rendered her fragile, too trusting and devoted in her personal relationships. The heart, said Pascal, has its reasons that reason will never know. And indeed, we’ll never know the truth of Eleanor’s devotion in the face of a lover’s duplicity and a father’s fall from grace.

However… is this all there is to Eleanor’s story? Nicchiardelli’s perspective makes the film oddly un-revolutionary, even conservative. She works hard to connect Eleanor’s personal and political struggles with those of the present by inserting scenes from the student rebellions of 1968, photographs of the Paris Commune of 1871, and the use of a punk rock soundtrack by the Downtown Boys. But this doesn’t quite compensate for the largely bourgeois sensibility at its core: her beloved father’s emotional and sexual betrayal of Jenny and his non-recognition of a bastard son out of a banal fear of scandal is the pivot of the film. It’s given far too much importance and becomes the cause of anguish for Eleanor. Should it be such a drama? Isn’t this so very… Victorian?

The film is visually stunning, sometimes audacious, frequently spirited and earnestly progressive, and one reviewer wrote that ‘Miss Marx [is] our companion in struggle’ [www.letteratemagazine.it/2020/09/22]. Possibly. But it does not inspire.

IMDB score: 5.6/10; Rotten Tomatoes av 5.4/10. I’d give it 6.5/10.

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