Suite for Barbara Loden (2012/2016) Nathalie Léger, translated by Nathalie Léger and Cécile Menon
Paperback, 123 pages
Suite for Barbara Loden would appear to be a book for a very limited audience. Other than cinephiles, how many people know who Barbara Loden was? How many have seen her only directorial effort, Wanda (1970)? Thanks to a physical media release from Criterion in 2019, the film is readily available, but even if you haven’t seen it, you can - and should - read Suite for Barbara Loden.
Richard Brody of The New Yorker famously described Loden as the “female counterpart to John Cassavetes.” She worked in theatre and early television, appeared in the films Wild River (1960) and Splendor in the Grass (1961), both directed by Elia Kazan, whom she later married. You might say that’s where Loden’s problems began, but they probably ran deeper and earlier than that.
Suite for Barbara Loden is a hybrid of sorts, part biography and part fiction, yet the reader unfamiliar with Loden and her work won’t know the difference. (I’m not sure I do, either.) The book is a portrait of a life seeking answers, or perhaps a life that has reached the point beyond seeking answers, having found none before arriving at this point. Both Barbara and Wanda seem to be women looking for acceptance and self-understanding, seeking to discover value and finding little. Léger, the narrator of the book, is on her own journey of discovery, traveling through the mining towns of Pennsylvania, tracking down archives and attempting to contact people who knew Loden.
During one of her stops in Carbondale, PA, Léger asks a local waitress at a diner how mines work. Léger’s answer:
She spoke slowly, gesturing with her hands: you dig, you shovel, you sift, you extract, sometimes you use dynamite, you shovel some more, and each new layer of coal, each new seam, is uncovered, excavated, sifted, and shoveled aside, fashioning an itinerant landscape on the vast devastated terrain. That’s what I understood - the landscape is constantly being unmade in one place and reconstructed in another, and once the seam is exhausted it gets filled in with the waste that once formed a high, dark embankment, and is abandoned for another mine.
The implication here and in other places is that Loden’s life underwent such devastating handling. It certainly pertains to Wanda’s life in the film. Yet we don’t really know exactly how much of what’s written here is autobiographical, the same way we don’t know how much Loden’s life is mirrored in Wanda’s. In both cases, I suspect quite a lot.
Suite for Barbara Loden shows us that often there are no easy answers, no objective entity which can measure the value of a person. Sometimes we are the least qualified to judge ourselves, but that doesn’t stop us from doing so. Yet Suite for Barbara Loden is more than a discovery for Léger about Loden. It’s also a discovery of who we are.
This review is part of the 2023 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge. You can (and should!) sign up here and be a part of the challenge, telling others about the classic film books you're reading, and getting suggestions for your own reading. Enjoy!