Released: 25th April
Seen: 8th May
The life of Louise Brooks is a fascinating thing to learn about. She started her career as a dancer of the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts in 1922, joined the troupe and would be fired in 1924. She would soon find a job working in the legendary Ziegfeld Follies in 1925 where she would be spotted by Walter Wagner of Paramount who would put her in her first movie, The Street of Forgotten Men. From there she slowly became a contract player for movie studios where she would appear in films by Howard Hawks and William Wellman, including one of the first talkies, and her iconic bob haircut was soon turned into a trend. She would soon grow to hate the Hollywood scene and went to make films in Europe and was eventually placed on an unofficial blacklist which effectively killed her career. Take a brief scroll through her Wikipedia page sometime and you’ll see just how wild her life was, filled with soaring highs and saddening lows. Even her life after Hollywood reads like the most dramatic tale, filled with bankruptcies and addiction. She even became a call girl at one point in order to make ends meet before becoming a writer, a collection of her writing titled Lulu in Hollywood was a best seller. Her life story would make for a 3 hour epic of grandiose proportions… but that would take a large amount of effort and no one wants to do that so instead, we’re going to slap some ill-fitting costumes on people who look a little bit like Louise and tell a story about her Chaperone instead.
The Chaperone ignores 90% of the story of the life of Louise Brooks and shoves it into the background so we can instead focus on Norma (Elizabeth McGovern) who is a simple housewife from Wichita, Kansas. In desperate need to get out of her town and experience life she agrees to be the chaperone to a young Louise Brooks (Haley Lu Richardson) who has just been accepted into the Denishawn School and since Louise’s parents are too busy to do basic parenting (It’s the 1920’s, what’re you gonna do?) they let her go to New York with an uptight stranger who they met at a show. Once in New York, it’s a culture clash for Norma who not only has to deal with trying to reconcile with the more open lifestyle of the big city but also wants to go to the orphanage where she grew up in so she can find her mother. Oh and she might also end up meeting a new man since Norma’s husband had an affair with another man, it’s a whole thing that really doesn’t end up mattering that much. While we’re dealing with Norma, Louise is there doing things just off screen where you can’t see them.
For a film that has a joke about how bad historical fiction is during its first 20 minutes, this film is a pretty bad attempt at historical fiction. Just from a story perspective, we’re not really given anything to latch onto. It’s hard to really care about Norma’s struggle to find her mother because it’s hard to care about Norma. She’s not a character; she’s a series of objections in a funny hat. She doesn’t like anything until the second that the story requires her to suddenly become a total progressive. Her storyline is basically to be there while Louise is off doing the fun and interesting things, and we never see any of those until it’s time for Norma to come in and save her. We’re stuck following Norma who seems to hate New York until she decides to like it and goes to try and find her mother who we see exactly once and it’s never brought up again. I do not understand why I’m meant to care about her, and I’m never given a chance to care about Louise. It’s a similar problem to one that many people had with Green Book, namely that the interesting person is the side character and we’re left following the boring character who was dragged along for the ride. We’re just fortunate that this time the character isn’t a disgusting racist. Once you don’t care about those two, the rest of the film becomes pointless.
The rest of the film isn’t exactly worth finding a point in either. The story structure barely holds together but it never looks right visually. The film is, ostensibly, set during the 1920s but it feels like it’s wearing the 1920’s aesthetic like a cheap suit. Heck, half of the outfits worn by the cast might actually just be cheap suits that were bought at a charity shop about 45 minutes before the first take and no one had time to iron them or take make them fit the actors properly. The world doesn’t feel lived in; it’s too fresh and new. Letters allegedly were written decades ago and look like they were posted on Tuesday, sidewalks look like they were laid last week. It feels like they just closed off streets, put two decade-appropriate cars on the side of the road and that was the entire set design before they called action. It just doesn’t feel right, and this is before we talk about their weird use of flashbacks.
The entire film is effectively told in flashback since we open on a 1940’s Norma going to visit Louise before we’re thrown back to the ’20s. While we’re in the ’20s though, Norma keeps having her own flashbacks to her childhood and more recent times to fill in back-story. This is fine but the flashbacks never look right. The weird filter effect used is inconsistent, at one point the screen has a calming blue tinge and it’s suddenly interrupted by two shots of a bright pink filter that’s just randomly there. It feels like they couldn’t figure out how they wanted the flashbacks to look or what they wanted them to mean. The stuff where Norma learns about her husband’s affair actually feels plot relevant but then we get stuff from when she’s 6 months old (because we all remember a song that was sung to us at 6 months old when we’re in our mid 30s right?) or a train ride as a child and it just feels like it’s there to create some kind of misdirect but all it does is exist as a monument to wasting our damn time.
When we talk about the husband’s affair, it’s one of the few things they handle well. A decent amount of the plot is a battle between progressivism and conservatism, with Louise representing a free progressive life where people are accepting and believe in freedom and rights while Norma is the stuffy conservative who thinks prohibition is a great idea and was literally raised by nuns. The shock to Norma’s system is that her husband turns out to be gay, a subject matter that is handled surprisingly well. Sure there is the moment where they argue about it (it’s an affair, she’s allowed to be insanely pissed about that) but the interesting part comes where they flat out address the fact that he really can’t come out, it’s the 1920’s and if we think gay people have it hard now let’s not forget that in the 20’s it just wasn’t a thing that people accepted. They explicitly state that if there’s even a rumour about his sexuality that it would lead to him being killed, an important topic that I’m glad they touched on… but they only touch it. They do the same thing earlier in the film where they have Norma speak to a friend and that friend openly and proudly talks about joining the Klan. Again, they pull this idea out in front of us and show us how some things haven’t changed… but they only touch it. Not even put a full hand on it, they extend a pinky finger out and gently tap the edge of their nail against the topic before running away screaming “WE DEALT WITH THE THING!”
You’ll notice that this entire time the only thing I’ve talked about is Norma, about her relationships and her struggles and barely even brought up what Louise goes through. That’s another big issue with the film; it’s too cowardly to even touch what Louise’s life was like. Sure we get glimpses, we see her dance and maybe catch her flirting with boys who take her to speakeasies but she’s basically there so that Norma has an excuse to be in New York. You could remove Louise Brooks from a movie about Louise Brooks and you wouldn’t lose anything of substance, that’s a huge misfire. The story should be about her, even if we’re only going to focus on the part before she had a career. But nope, can’t have that because that would be interesting and there’s no point in having interesting things happen when we can just make an entire characters arc revolve around if she decides to go outside without a corset… which is an actual thing that they do with Norma.
The Chaperone is a sloppy mess of a film that phoned it in on a phone made out of cans and some string. It’s not like its unwatchable, I can see the potential for a great movie lurking around here somewhere but it never even tries to reach for that potential, sometimes it just actively runs the other way because trying would be difficult. It shouldn’t even be aired in a cinema; this is the exact movie that you put on the 2nd lowest rated TV network around midday as a replacement for a soap opera that ran out of episodes. You can almost see there being something here, a few more goes at a script and more care taken with the visuals, you could have something. Here, you just have something that exists and nothing more than that.