Fragments of a Self
A Review of Anthony Asquith’s Film The Millionairess
The stereotypes of women in this film are more dominant than its plot. The Millionairess, based on George Bernard Shaw’s play, starred Sophia Loren and Peter Sellers, and was released in Britain in 1960. Packed into a mere ninety minutes, Epifinia the protagonist appears in a variety of ubiquitous female roles: an object, a child, the wild woman, and an emotional, irrational wreck. At best, she is difficult to take seriously; at worse she is a capable woman, trying desperately to mask her intelligence. Kabir (Sellers) is largely a foil character, as the film largely revolves around Epifinia’s internal struggles.
“Long live the Millionairess” …Immediately we realize possessions define Epifinia, rather than defining her by character or accomplishments. Her identity depends upon her wealth; not even money she earned, but that bequeath to her by a man. At the reading of her father’s will, she is told her inheritance is contingent upon her obedience to his wishes. Even after his death, he has power over her.
The first glimpse we get into the erratic life of Epifania is outside of her apartment. The door ajar, Epifinia and Alastair, her husband, argue. He shouts she must “obey” him, because “I am your husband”. Epifania resists dominance by throwing him out, followed by a plate, which barely misses his head. The room is trashed. Her hair is in disarray, her dress is ripped nearly exposing her breast. The front of her skirt is torn, inches short of revealing her crotch. This creates a link between resisting male authority and hyper sexuality. In Sagamore’s office, she crawls across the floor like an animal with a broken chair leg in her fist, reinforcing this. There is a deliberate connection between her animalistic behavior and resistance to the dominant paradigm.
Portraits of her father and husband loom over Epifinia in the foyer. A voice echoes from the painting admonishing her for “disobeying me”. She kneels subserviently in front of the painting. Epifinia begs the painting for advice- insecure about her ability to make her own decisions, wanting someone to take care of her, as if she were a child. Her choice of clothing is bright, childlike, and ridiculous, making it impossible to view her as an adult and not as a decorative object.
Kabir pulls Epifania out of the river, bringing her to a fish smokers to change into dry clothes. She seeks attention, initially throwing her dress and later her undergarments at him, visibly frustrated when he ignores her. She tries to seduce him by feigning illness, insisting he check her pulse, shoulder and back while she removes more and more of her loosely draped coat. Throughout the film she attempts to use her sexuality to gain attention.
Occasionally, Epifania surprises the viewer by acting out of character. Her anger is aroused when the psychologist insults her father. She throws him to the ground and in the river. In addition to physical strength, she is also quite intelligent, spearheading an operation to build a clinic in Calcutta. When she takes on Kabir’s challenge to work for three months, she is analytic, pragmatic, and clear headed. If she is able to demonstrate this level of competency and clarity, we assume she is playing the ditz the remainder of the film. Sadly, we later learn that her motivation in building the clinic was to entice Kabir, hoping to gain his approval and increased physical proximity. Her business savvy at the pasta shop grows from a desire to win the affections of Kabir. None of this is prompted by an interest to create, strive, or succeed on her terms. The only time she makes a decision that addresses her own needs, is after Kabir rejects her. At that point she decides to establish a deliberate community of women, to will live out her days away from men.
It is interesting that Shaw inserts a character like Kabir as the object of Epifinia’s desire. He is selfless, altruistic and sincere in his role as humanitarian doctor. He ignores Epifinia’s coquettish behavior, scolding her for wasting his time. Kabir states her “sickness is beyond my skills”, calling her an “imaginary invalid” when she plays sick to gain attention. He states his worldview as “being, not having”, telling Epifinia “power must come from within”, rather than from the possession of money and objects.
During the denouement, Kabir is told that Epifinia “will withdraw from the world at midnight”, which he interprets as an allusion to suicide. He swiftly enters, as Epifinia is ready to depart for her hermitage. Kabir attempts to stop what he perceives as a suicide attempt, when she is really leaping into a boat from a ledge. At the last moment, Kabir proclaims his love for Epifinia and then they dance off…living “happily ever after”. Which is hard to believe, based on the storyline up until this point. I would find it hard for a man with Kabir’s values and sense of self to resign himself to the lack of such in Epifinia.