Medusa’s Ankles

Medusa's Ankles
Screenshot from Vimeo

As anyone who follows my blog knows, I usually do book reviews. However, I recently watched a short film, discovered because of my unabashed infatuation with Jason Isaacs, called Medusa’s Ankles. It was directed by Bonnie Wright (Ginny Weasley of Harry Potter fame), adapted from the short story of the same title by AS Byatt. You can read it here. You can, and should, also stream the film for free here on Vimeo.

Medusa’s Ankles shows Susannah, a middle aged Classicist, who is concerned about signs of aging. She wanders into a salon, owned by Lucian, because she’s drawn to the Matisse painting in the lobby. She becomes rather infatuated with him over the months she comes to his salon, eventually coming unhinged and wreaking havoc on his newly remodeled salon when she hates the style Lucian’s assistant gave her.

There was so much character development in this tiny little film. It was about 20 minutes long and in that time, we see Susannah evolve from a meek and retiring woman to someone a little bolder, and eventually to an hysterical basketcase. Of course, her fit wasn’t really because of a hairdo. It was years of worrying over her aging and feeling out of place in her own skin as well as in a society which seems to be gearing more and more towards the younger generations. She feels left behind, unattractive, unwanted, and scorned. That Lucian, the object of her fixation, is another source for these emotions contributes to her snapping at the end. 

Unlike Susannah, Lucian is flighty and temperamental, never landing on one thing for long. He is essentially her complete opposite, and yet he comes to be a person she relies upon in some ways. She goes to him to help her see a younger version of herself, which will never happen, and when she realizes this, she snaps. Lucian helps her to see that younger self but it is, of course, illusory, as is his interest in her as a person. He is vain and shallow, telling Susannah that he is leaving his wife because ‘She’s let herself go. It’s her own fault. She’s let herself go altogether. She’s let her ankles get fat, they swell over her shoes, it disgusts me, it’s impossible for me.’ He is too self-absorbed to realise that his comments hit home for Susannah, who also has fat ankles now, and his comment serves as a catalyst for her destroying his salon. 

The link to Greek myth is interesting. At first, it isn’t clear what Medusa has to do with anything, but it becomes clear that she – and her ankles – are a proxy for women and being weighed down by the expectations of men. Medusa was once beautiful and then she was transformed into a monster. Susannah seems to view herself in this way as well, acknowledging that she was never beautiful but was attractive, then remembering a day spent with an Italian lover when she was young. Her body, which doesn’t feel like she remembers or wants it to, brings her back to present with a jolt when she realizes that her reflection is like her mother’s had been, all fake and unreal and trying entirely too hard to look young again. 

Her fit and destruction of Lucian’s salon may be a catharsis, but Lucian himself gives her permission and tells her it’s ok, the insurance will pay for it and he kind of wants out anyway. When she gets home, her husband really sees her for the first time in a long while and kisses her neck. Are both these instances freeing for Susannah, or do they reflect more of the control men have on society? Lucian essentially pats her on the head and sends her home when he should have rightfully been pissed off. Is her husband’s approval something she desires and feels good about, or is it effectively Perseus cutting off Medusa’s head? It raises a lot of interesting questions. I would love to analyze this in a proper literature course. 

Also, I just want to say that I think Jason Isaacs is a seriously underrated actor. I don’t say that just because I’m currently in love with him; it’s because he can inhabit the lives of so many different people in a totally convincing way. Not all, or even most, actors can do that. Actors like Harrison Ford or Tom Cruise might be famous and popular, but they all generally play the same kind of character. Ford is usually a dorky hero, whether he’s playing Han Solo, Indiana Jones, or the President of the United States; Cruise is generally an arrogant hero. Not so with Isaacs. He has played a wide range of characters including a racist, aristocratic bully (Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies); an Irish-American mobster from Rhode Island, complete with the heavy accent (Michael Caffee in Brotherhood); an arrogant and disinterested charmer (Lucian in Medusa’s Ankles); and a morally questionable, warmongering Starfleet captain (Gabriel Lorca in Star Trek Discovery). And he doesn’t just play villains in everything. He was a super dorky yet sexy dad in The Chumscrubber, a possibly mentally ill cop in the TV series Awake, an elegant ambassador in The State Within, and a beleaguered detective in Case Histories. He is utterly believable in every single role, and not one of his villainous roles, of which there are many, are at all similar to one another. I think he is in no danger of being typecast.

Circe

CirceCirce by Madeline Miller

I read it as a: hardback

Source: my own collection

Length: 333 pp

Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing UK

Year: 2018

Circe is the tale of a fascinating but somewhat overlooked woman from Greek myth. She is the daughter of the sun god Helios, a lesser divinity, immortal, and a witch. She has the power to transform things and she knows the inherent magic in plants. Most of us know her from her role in The Odyssey, which was significant even if it wasn’t long. This novel tells her tale from her childhood, her self-discovery, and how she finds a place for herself in the harsh world of the gods.

I absolutely loved how Circe deals with her role in and among the gods. She never has an easy time – she has the worst time, really – but she is a woman in a man’s world and she still makes a place for herself. She is seen, and forces the divinities to acknowledge her in some way, whether any of them like it or not, including her. I think this really mirrors the experiences of modern women in that we still struggle to be seen and be taken for granted, not be underestimated, and not shuffled off or ignored as though we are worthless.

When Circe encounters Prometheus, it sets the stage for her entire life. She learns she can defy the gods to an extent. Perhaps she will be punished for her defiance if she gets caught, but she also learns they don’t actually know everything and there are things people can do and get away with that they never know about. She manages to make this idea central in her own life, defying the gods in subtle and not so subtle ways.

I really loved the way crafts were woven throughout as well. They were, however, divided by traditional gender roles. It makes sense within the context of the narrative, though, since Circe, Penelope, Medea, were expected to know certain things and not others, and vice versa for Odysseus or Daedalus. The women knew weaving and spinning, herb lore, healing and midwifery. The men knew smithing, metalwork, sculpting, and woodworking. Breaking down crafts by gender roles reinforces the  roles and highlights the fact that even the gods are similar to humans in this world, which is super interesting because, even though the gods are immortal and have various powers, they are still limited in some ways with what they can do. They are governed largely by their emotions and desires. In many of the ways that count, they act more like immortal toddlers than as wise beings. Humans tend to be more reasonable in some situations than the gods, which I think is interesting. Is it how Circe sees the gods and humans, or is that how it truly is here? Intriguing commentary, either way.

There are just too many things that could be discussed for one review – how parents view their children and vice versa; the relationship between Circe and her sister Pasiphae or her brother Aeetes; how Daedalus affects Circe; Medea; Penelope, Telemachus, and Odysseus; power dynamics; transformations of a multitude variety. Like the Greek myths themselves, you could probably write a dissertation about the ways to interpret this novel, how the characters influence each other and the world around them, gender roles and expectations, or the role of choice and fate. I loved this book, and I love strong women, and strong women figuring out that they are strong is just the best.

I haven’t even gotten into the sheer beauty of Miller’s writing style. I think I will have to do a separate post just with my favorite lines from the book.

In any case, this is very highly recommended and an excellent way to get a ton of Greek mythology without reading the source material, if that isn’t really your thing. Though everyone should read The Iliad and The Odyssey at least once in their life.