Review by Jenny Jediny
Posted on 17 February 2008
Source BFI 16mm print
Categories The Lyricism of Sally Potter
Sally Potter’s first feature, The Gold Diggers, is somewhat of an extension of her 1979 short Thriller; both films examine the role of women in art, with a prying camera and inquisitive characters. Surprisingly, the feature length film feels far more experimental and less accessible than its predecessor, and these qualities may have contributed to the film’s banishment for over two decades. Upon its initial release in 1983, critics assailed The Gold Diggers with negative reviews, resulting in Potter herself withdrawing the film from public circulation.
Watching this film for the first time (in a New York Public Library basement, no less), I was surprised by its reputation of animosity. Certainly not an easily accessible piece, Potter’s approach is at times labored, as the obvious investment in putting film theory to practice with celluloid is sometimes too blunt (vague recollections of Laura Mulvey’s film experiments with Peter Wollen crossed my mind), weighing her arguments down. Essentially, the plot concerns two women of opposing class and race - Celeste, a black administrative worker, and Ruby, a white woman who appears to be a kind of trophy among the upper class - who befriend one another in order to form a united front against bureaucracy and commodification.
The film’s title inverts the modern definition of a “gold digger:” there are no women here seeking monetary rewards from wealthy men. Instead, men appear to be hoarding gold, along with women, from whom they withhold power. Lacking money or information, denied to her by the upper management at the anonymous company where she works, Celeste’s frustration is fueled to the point of protest, and she attempts to convince those around her, specifically Ruby, that they must take action. The emblematic gestures are broad - prior to Celeste’s intervention, Ruby is carried like an ancient Egyptian queen, aloft on men’s shoulders as a representation of wealth, with gold bars at her feet, and eventually rescued when Celeste interrupts a party on horseback, offering the grateful Ruby an escape route - yet they are a pointed criticism of common, strongly ingrained symbols. Perhaps the keenest decision is the casting of actress Julie Christie as Ruby—while publicly outspoken and obviously intelligent, Christie has been held in the public eye for decades as a sex symbol, a role clearly deconstructed here.
The Gold Diggers displays ingenuity in its visual aesthetic, creating surrealist imagery that accentuates Potter’s absurdist critique of mainstream cinema. Significantly, a number of shots and scenes are reminiscent of works by cult directors Guy Maddin and David Lynch; the Yukon tundra inhabited by these women immediately recall Maddin’s films, as did the oddity of the staggered musical sequences. More prominently, another sequence involving Ruby brings to mind Lynch’s Inland Empire; pursued by suited men, Ruby makes her way through a crowded theater, down a back staircase and ducks into an alley, only to reemerge in a dance studio, then onto the stage itself, where she sees herself watching in the audience and begins the process anew. Highly mesmerizing, the repetitive shuffling of time and space evokes Laura Dern’s fall through the rabbit hole in Inland Empire, a comparison that left me perplexed at how Lynch’s film could gain such critical accolades and Potter’s, while filmed two decades ago, fell so easily by the wayside. Perhaps this is partially a matter of timing and audience receptiveness, as it would seem that contemporary viewers would easily make the connection, but regardless, the dismissal of The Gold Diggers felt sharpest here, considering I am an admirer of Lynch.
The Gold Diggers is a challenging, if flawed piece, and a clearly divergent approach to filmmaking. Knowing that Potter specifically hired an entirely female crew for this project, her earnest intention to bring attention and opportunities to female-centric cinema is admirable, despite the fallbacks encountered. While Potter may not be able to reinvent cinema, it is clear that she far more values the ability and the freedom to question it, an invigorating, singular quality that has perhaps maintained her adaptability and drive as a filmmaker.