About a year ago, I had heard The Yellow Wallpaper as a film circling festivals bringing the now one-hundred-and-thirty-year-old Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novella to life. A feminist masterpiece written as a series of journal entries, the story chronicles Jane’s physical and mental ailments as she becomes further disturbed by the foreboding nature of her bedroom wallpaper. Referring to his wife’s condition as “temporary nervous depression” and “a slight hysterical tendency,” the novella explores the lack of women’s lives outside the home on the cusp of the 20th century and the oppressive role men played in assigning the fragility of women’s mental states.
After seeing the trailer about a month ago, I was very excited about the film’s release. I’m not usually one for dramatic period horror, but every once in a while, a movie like The Yellow Wallpaper piques my interest. The trailer, which you can view at the bottom of the page, crafted an impressively ominous atmosphere through the sounds of shaky trumpets, spiraling into a host of images and rapid violin. It instantly sold me on this latest take of Jane’s descent into madness.
With my expectations high, I settled into The Yellow Wallpaper. Right away, I knew the film wasn’t going to satisfy every facet of my wants, and it started with the shrill sounds of the film’s tonally incongruent score, something that would continuously annoy me throughout the film. The first chords, if you can call them that, had the appeal of shrieking brakes fading into feedback from a melodica. It instantly gave me a headache, which I briefly considered could be what the film was going for, setting us up for Jane’s (Alexandra Loreth) illness by immersing me in the experience. Those thoughts were soon quashed, likely derived from seeing Gaspar Noé’s Lux Æterna over the weekend.
The Yellow Wallpaper sets the scene with Jane and her husband John (Joe Mullins) moving into a colonial mansion. The film infers that Jane is suffering from some post-partum depression as John intends to set her room inside the space that used to be the last tenant’s nursery. The bars on the window, combined with her husband’s absence, soon turn the room she’s been prescribed to rest inside into a cell. The wallpaper in the room becomes anxiety-inducing to Jane, bringing on a fight or flight response that leans into the supernatural as Jane insists a woman is living behind it.
Scenes depicting Jane’s mental anguish are abundant but not always effectual or noticeable. At the start of the film, it makes sense to pace Jane’s descent into madness, but as Jane begins her slow crawling decline, The Yellow Wallpaper remains content with the baseline it started with. The buildup to Jane’s breaking point never manifests the way the audience wants it to. Though the film is sometimes tinted yellow, this is about as atmospheric as it gets. Any dread or psychological components embedded in the script are almost entirely absent. The film suffers by being a strictly linear telling of Gillman’s narrative that rarely takes advantage of how potentially imaginative it can be. Even with moments of striking cinematography, the tone is undercut by the aforementioned film score.
Director K. Pontuti and star Alexandra Loreth’s script navigates some tough source material, which it deserves a lot of credit for. The story has only been told many times on screen, typically through short adaptations, given that the novella isn’t very long. This is bold storytelling, but as it tries to remain faithfully close to Gilman’s story, it doesn’t take advantage of instilling Jane’s fears onto the observing audience. As Jane begins to unravel, there’s no insight into what she may be manifesting or seeing in her mind beyond the narrative of the journal entries she’s been forbidden to write when her husband is present.
One of the things that I think the film gets completely wrong is not cementing John as more of an a**hole. He’s meant to be the villain of The Yellow Wallpaper. Considering it from the novella perspective, it’s the 1890s, and he’s moved his wife and newborn to a New England homestead then leaves them for days at a time to work miles away. He tells Jane that he’s doing this all for her, but when she asks to change the hideous yellow wallpaper, he responds with a no, and his word becomes the end of the discussion. Furthermore, even in his absence, he insists she’s hysterical, drugs her, and commands her not to write—the one thing that gives her peace. We’re made to consider who this is all really for by the end of the story. The film, instead, emphasizes Jane’s psychosis and less on the patriarchal archetypes and maltreatment of women by the medical profession of the time. That isn’t to say that these moments are absent; they exist heavily muted.
The film enjoys being nuanced and, as stated above, sometimes to a fault. There are twists in the movie that aren’t completely clear but are assumed to be a part of Jane’s disillusionment with reality, and there are questions that are never answered, like where does that gate in the garden lead? The film’s climax is the only time that most of what I’ve said in this review doesn’t apply. The film’s final twenty minutes is dark and affecting. Loreth, whose performance, in the beginning, leans slightly stoic and emotionless, ramps up to a mind-blowing state of sheer panic by its end. While the film’s finale is a lot of fun, it can’t make up for the first eighty minutes of unmet potential.
The Yellow Wallpaper lands squarely in the middle of the road for me; I love the idea but understand how hard it is to adapt. The result of Loreth and Pontuti’s film is a bit of a mixed bag of uneven ideas done in a similar vein to Nora Unkel’s A Nightmare Wakes. While I like many aspects of the film, The Yellow Wallpaper simply doesn’t inspire the landmark dread that its aesthetically unappealing titular subject designates or that its source material warrants.
The Yellow Wallpaper is now available on all VOD platforms.