There’s something about “The Yellow Wallpaper” that’s gotten under our skin. Though originally published in 1892, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story pulses with contemporary problems. Gilman invoked the Gothic literary tradition of her epoch to deliver a scathing indictment of Victorian patriarchal oppression. Yet, each generation of readers excavates a new layer of meaning buried in the tightly woven 6,000 words.
Screenwriters Alexandra Loreth and Kevin Pontuti revisit Gilman’s enduring tale and revive it for the silver screen in their debut movie, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which premiered at the 2021 Cinequest Film Festival. Directed by Pontuti, the film chronicles the psychological deterioration of a young mother named Jane (Loreth). Jane and her husband John, played by Joe Mullins, decide to spend their summer vacation at a spacious aristocratic estate. John serves as Jane’s physician and prescribes a “rest cure” to remedy Jane’s depressive illness. Though Jane observes a persistent strangeness about the house, John dismisses her intuition, requiring her to reside in the yellow-wallpapered former children’s playroom.
Per the treatment, Jane is forbidden to do anything active without permission from her doctor-husband; unable to read, write or even drink wine, she’s expected to pass time in her bed. Confined to her room, Jane develops an obsession with the pattern printed on her walls, and her sanity slowly slips away.
As expected, the scenery in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is gorgeously crafted. Jane’s room takes on a haunting, claustrophobic quality, and the frequent shot/countershots of her staring at the wall arouse an eerie implication that the wall is staring back at her. The film creatively plays with light and shadow to give wallpaper a delicate insidiousness. Jane becomes soaked in this color — there’s a particularly gorgeous shot of her sleeping with her face aglow by an eerie yellow haze.
The score in “The Yellow Wallpaper” immediately catches audience attention as well. Composed by Robert Colburn, the film’s original score hums, chirps and screeches in a melodic madness that ebbs and flows in tandem with Jane. The score’s enchanting quality inversely makes the few scenes of silence all the more spooky.
Since literature is a medium of interiority and film more easily showcases exteriority, adaptation becomes the ambitious task of reaching a compromise between the two forms. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a particularly difficult text to adapt since the plot’s bareness is upholstered by Jane’s narration and her flickering sanity. Though a short story, Perkins’ tale burns slowly. So, the runtime of a feature film should give “The Yellow Wallpaper” time to simmer, crackle and flare before its final eruption. Pontuti’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” however, struggles to access its protagonist’s psyche. Viewers observe Jane’s madness and her outrageous confinement, but it’s at a distance for most of the movie. The camera captures Jane through the gold bars of her bedframe and the iron bars of her window, visually emphasizing her domestic imprisonment. Yet, the clever cinematography and the editing are sympathetic rather than empathetic, which softens the story’s horror and thrill.
Nonetheless, this broadened scope delivers a refreshing advantage as it allows the characters around Jane to grow. Mullins is a standout performance, bringing new nuance to John. John represents control, reason and respectability in the Victorian Era — the foil to Jane. In the original text, he speaks with constant condescension and dismissal to his wife’s wishes with the bravado of a caricatured misogynist.
In the film, Mullins effectively straddles his character’s dual role as Jane’s husband and her doctor, emphasizing how John cares for Jane and how he hopes she will get better. Mullins’ sensitivity as John elevates the film’s depiction of patriarchal oppression: as much as John loves his wife, he still erodes Jane’s autonomy and believes he is best equipped to dictate her state of being.
Even in its deviations from Gilman’s text, the film is clearly a labor of love and a declaration of its relevance. Peaking beneath “The Yellow Wallpaper” is the promise of Loreth and Pontuti’s vivid and memorable filmmaking.