Cannes 72 Countdown: The Pumpkin Eater

This review first appeared on Filmotomy.com.

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We excitedly countdown to the 72nd Festival de Cannes with a different prize winning film each day.

The Pumpkin Eater (1964) Prix d’interprétation féminine – Anne Bancroft

Peter, Peter pumpkin-eater,
Had a wife but couldn’t keep her;
He put her in a pumpkin shell,
And there he kept her very well.

In The Pumpkin EaterAnne Bancroft deftly embodies the well-kept wife of the old, repugnant nursery rhyme. Bound not to a place but rather a state, she delivers a haunting performance as a woman who no longer feels whole, and fears she never will again. Director Jack Clayton, through his unadulterated lens, captures her unfurling mind as she, a psychological prisoner, gets stripped of her identity.

Anne Bancroft deservedly won the Best Actress prize at Cannes in 1964, tying with Barbara Barrie for One Potato, Two Potato. Bancroft also earned a Golden Globe, a BAFTA, and an Oscar nomination for her captivating turn as Jo Armitage, a London housewife suffering with a crippling melancholy.

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Jo Armitage has eight children, two of whom belong to Jake (Peter Finch), her third and current husband. Jo has a need to reproduce akin to addiction. She feels most fulfilled when childbearing; thus once her womb is empty, she feels empty too. But when concerns surrounding her most recent pregnancy threaten her and her family’s (mostly her husband’s) welfare, things take a dark turn…

The film starts with Bancroft’s hollow stare. She gazes listlessly through a window, her face obscured by the reflections of smothering trees, as the opening credits come and go. Her husband finds her and asks what she’s doing. “Nothing,” she drearily utters. He asks how she’s doing. “All right,” she softly lies. Then Jake, fed up, lividly says, “Are you ever going to get over this period of your life? Because I find it very depressing,” and storms off to attend a dinner party without her.

I am a depressed person, and that line, which Peter Finch spits with a nasty fervor, gutted me. Not only do I, like many people with the disorder, constantly dread being a burden—or a mood-killer due to my low energy—but I’m constantly bombarded with well-meaning but fruitless suggestions on how to not be depressed anymore. Get out, get some air.

And Jo tries that. Not wanting to be alone in her home, she goes where the people are. A busy
department store. She languidly glides through the hubbub, connecting more so with the lifeless
mannequins than the mindless shoppers. Then she stops, among all the strangers, and weeps. Jo
stands in place and cries until she can barely breathe, and hardly anyone reacts.

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There’s nothing quite like a densely populated space to make you feel like the only person in the world. The patrons of a busy café ignored my own emotional breakdown once, as tears fell into my latte, ruining the lovely leaf the barista had made with the milk. Granted, I was reading Hanya Yanagihara’s heart-wrenching novel A Little Life at the time, but that’s beside the point; I was already amid an episode, and the book was merely a catalyst.

Adapted from Penelope Mortimer’s novel, Harold Pinter’s script is comprised of several well-drawn yet roughly-strung together scenes. The flow is muddy, but the choppy nature somehow actually works in Bancroft’s favor. Its pacing, perhaps inadvertently, illustrates her character’s highs and lows and stagnations.

Jo’s arc zigzags with her mental state, and sometimes we get to see two radically different facets of her from moment to moment. Her close-ups are especially telling. Bancroft’s face fills the entire frame in a few shots, and she communicates so much with her wordless expressions, whether animated or flat.

Clayton’s visual choices definitely reflect the era, a time when the grammar of cinema was evolving. The film at first glance feels classically made, while also occasionally demonstrating a formal playfulness. Like adopting Jo’s POV and deliberately letting the camera lose focus in order to show how she sees the world. Clayton’s direction lends an artsy existential flare to the gutsy realism of Pinter’s script.

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Just shy of two hours, every minute of The Pumpkin Eater is emotionally draining. Anne Bancroft is marvelous here. She, as an actress, does not get the respect she deserves today. Sure, folks remember her as the sultry Mrs. Robinson seducing Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate—rightfully so, she’s wonderful in that role—but she was so much more than one brilliant performance.

In The Pumpkin Eater, she crafts Jo Armitage with such empathy and sincerity. Anne Bancroft took a character who so easily could’ve been played as pitiful and did her justice. We relate to the weight of the world pressing down on her, the walls of her metaphorical cage closing in, the absence she feels… But she perseveres. Jo will never be completely whole again—whatever that means—and Bancroft never really pretends that she will be. Because it’d be dishonest, and I find that devastating in the best possible sense.

Nephew Frank