Overt Narration in the Film The French Lieutenant's Woman

Short Paper, by Zach Tomaszewski

for ENG 760J, Fall 2005, taught by Dr. Glenn Man


John Fowles' novel The French Lieutenant's Woman is known for its overt narration. The narrator is a distinct presence between the reader and the story, offering commentary on Victorian and modern culture, footnotes and historical references, and broad generalizations. At certain points, the narrator comments on his own act of story creation, revealing that he doesn't know all that the characters feel nor does he know what they will do. He eventually inserts himself into the story, and provides three endings, leaving it largely up to the reader to decide between the final two endings. This overt narration, while hindering the reader's immersion in the story, serves to highlight other themes of the novel, such as individual freedom and the nature of story creation itself.

The movie version of The French Lieutenant's Woman has not attempted to match this narration directly. However, it has still maintained a very overt style of narration by adding a framing story to comment on the main inner story. I believe the film primarily achieves this overt narrative style in three ways: by revealing and emphasizing the process of story creation, by foreshadowing and commenting on the events of the inner story, and by juxtaposing scenes from the two stories in order to highlight certain similarities and differences.

While the movie is an adaptation of the novel, it is also an independent work. It can be enjoyed without having read the novel. In the same way, I will examine here the movie's narration on its own terms, and not in terms of the novel.

The Modern Scenes

The primary storyline of the movie is the love affair of the Victorian characters Charles and Sarah. However, this affair is presented as the contents of a modern movie (incidentally, also titled The French Lieutenant's Woman) being made by the actors Mike and Anna, who are also having an affair together. Scenes of this framing modern story of the actors Mike and Anna are interspersed throughout the film with scenes of the Victorian story of the characters Charles and Sarah.

The modern scenes have a few notable style elements. Often the transition from the Victorian story to the modern is quite sudden. This jarring, interruptive effect is heightened by the fact that the modern scenes are generally more starkly and brightly lit. They all contain notable white elements, usually present in the first shot. They also tend to contain a lot of background noises, usually modern in nature--loudspeaker voices, telephones, stereos, helicopters.

(These "white elements" and the starkness of the lighting is much more obvious when watching the video rather than the DVD. Indeed, some of scenes that seem oddly and notably bright in the video--such as the love scene between Charles and Sarah--are quite dimly lit on the DVD.)

The following table numbers the modern scenes/sequences for ease of our discussion, notes the primary "white element" for each, and notes any modern (or simply distracting) background noises.

Scene DescriptionWhite Element(s)Background Sounds
1Mike and Anna in bed together; Mike answers the telephone callQuick cut to Mike on white pillowcase, who then answers white phonestrident phone ringing
2Mike and Anna reading and conversing together on a bedMike's white pinstripe shirt in foreground; sheets and white drawn curtains behindthe sound of a helicopter (loud enough to cause Mike to close the window)
3Mike and Anna rehearsingMike against white wall of conservatory(rain)
4Mike watching Anna sleepwhite window frame and inner curtainsounds of traffic outside
5Mike and Anna on the beachwhite shirts, white rock beach, white sailboatquiet motor boat, (waves)
6Mike and Anna conversing at outdoor cafeteria tables on the setAnna exits a white traileramplified call to set, (cast conversations)
7Mike sees Anna off on the trainwhite polished train sideamplified rail announcements
8Mike calls Anna, hangs up on Davide, talks to his wife, and calls back to invite Anna to a partyMike's bright living room, to Anna's very white hotel roomphone, music at Mike's that his wife turns down
9Anna visits the costume shop (broken into 3 parts)3 parts: Anna drives up a white alley; tries on a white costume; leaves the costume shop past a white vansound of car/traffic
10Party at MikesOpens on faded door (not quite white); white lawn furniture-
11The final cast partyInitially, a white hat on one of the dancers; later, the upstairs room and makeup tableRock music of the party

Modern sequence [10] has the fewest sound and white elements, but is still one of most subtly disturbing scenes in that we see so many of the cast members outside of their character roles. [3] also has very few elements, yet this scene is a rehearsal in which Mike and Anna assume the roles of Charles and Sarah for part of the scene.

Another thing to notice is that one scene in particular in the Victorian story contains these same elements. This scene is the final scene in which Charles tracks down Sarah where she is living as Mrs. Roughwood. It takes place in a very bright, white room, and contains continuous piano music seemingly from another room in the house. This fits the scene well, however, as it is the scene where, after Mike/Charles pushes Anna/Sarah down too hard, the two actors come out of their roles somewhat before continuing the scene. Based on this, it seems this scene can viewed as part of both the modern and the Victorian storylines.

Revealing the Creation Process

In some of the same ways that the novel's narrator discusses his act of narration and story generation, the film's framing story shows us the creation of the Victorian story. The first scene of the film is of Anna dressed as Sarah getting a makeup check. A director's voice asks Anna if she is ready, the scene is prepared, a clapboard is presented, and the credits begin as Anna becomes her character Sarah.

Besides the simple reminder of seeing the actors as themselves in the modern scenes, we receive further reminders that the Victorian story is a constructed fiction. In [3], Mike and Anna rehearse a scene together, with their rehearsal cutting directly into the finished Victorian scene. In [6], Mike is in costume as Charles while talking to Anna. In [9], Anna confirms the choices made for Sarah's costume for a coming scene.

There are also some subtle indications in the style of the acting--Mrs. Poulteney's over-the-top sternness, Ernestina's formalness, Sarah's aloof manner of speaking. This awareness of actors playing roles is of course most obvious in the last Victorian scene after Mike/Charles pushes Anna/Sarah. Anna laughs shortly; Mike looks at her worriedly and nearly whispers to her. Then both gradually resume their roles and finish the scene.

Interrupting and Commenting on the Story

Simply revealing that the story is a construction could have been done entirely in opening and closing scenes. Instead, however, the modern scenes continue to interrupt the main plot, breaking our immersion in it, distancing us from the Sarah-Charles story. As we've already seen, the modern scenes are effective at jarring us out of our immersion due to their generally sudden, stark style.

But besides serving to continually remind us that Sarah and Charles are constructed roles, the modern scenes take this a step further by providing interpretative and self-referential commentary and by foreshadowing scenes and events that have not yet happened. Some of Anna and Mike's dialogue is self-referential in that, while on the surface it refers to events of the Victorian story, it also obliquely refers to their own.

Here are a few examples of such commentary and foreshadowing:


As we've seen, the lines of dialogue above can take on double meanings, applying to both stories. But the simple placement of modern scenes also offers some implicit commentary of the Victorian scenes. It does this through either an interesting comparison or contrast with the surrounding scenes.

Here are a few examples:

Besides the juxtaposed comparison between scenes, there are also some elements that "bleed over" from one story into the other. For instance, Sarah speaks of envying the position of Charles' betrothed, Ernestina. Later, Anna tells Mike's wife that she envies her garden (and apparently the things that go with it--a house, children, a settled life).

At the final cast party, Mike, who is trying to catch up with Anna, passes by the actress who plays Ernestina with a quick couple hugs. He leaves her behind appearing somewhat dejected. In a small way, this mirrors Charles' treatment of Ernestina in favor of Sarah, despite Ernestina's love for him.

Certain elements, such as the soundtrack, also cross the borders between the two stories. For instance, after Anna hangs up the phone with Charles in [8], we hear "Will Ms. Sarah Woodruff urgently communicate her whereabouts to..." before the scene changes to Charles' investigator reading the newspaper ad. When looking for Anna at the cast party, Mike pauses in the makeup room with his hands on Anna's wig and and we hear Sarah's musical theme.

The two most striking cross-overs happen near the end. The first of these is in the final Victorian scene when the roles of Charles and Sarah slip for a few seconds, and we see only Mike and Anna in their costumes. The second is when Mike calls, not "Anna!", but "Sarah!", out of the window. It is these two moments when the two stories really become the same story. This is particularly intriguing considering, for so much of the movie, the modern scenes serve as overt narration, breaking our complete immersion into the Victorian story. Yet by the end of the film, we've come to care for both stories, and can see them as two facets of a very similar struggle.


Thus, we have seen how the modern scenes provide overt narration of the Victorian story. They are stylistically different and often interrupt the action, constantly reminding us that the Victorian story is only a construction. This narration foreshadows and comments upon the events of that story, but in doing so, it also comments on itself. As the film progresses, the two stories become more and more similar to each other, with themes, emotions, and elements bleeding across the border between them. By the end of the film, we find that, whether in spite of or because of its overtness, the "narration" is as important to our experience of the text as the "plot".

Chatman, Seymour. "A New Kind of Film Adaptation: The French Lieutenant's Woman." Coming to Terms: The Rhetoric of Narrative in Fiction and Film. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990.

The French Lieutenant's Woman. Dir. Karel Reisz. Juniper Films/United Artists/MGM, 1981. (CBS/Fox Video, 1984.)

The French Lieutenant's Woman. Dir. Karel Reisz. Juniper Films/United Artists/MGM, 1981. (MGM DVD, 2001.)

Man, Glenn K. S. "The Intertextual Discourses of The French Lieutenant's Woman." New Orleans Review. 15:2 (Summer 1988): 54-61.