Sadist, Land Shark, and Reptile: Autumn de Wilde's EMMA.


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Emma, the last novel Jane Austen published in her lifetime, opens with the famous sentence, describing its eponymous heroine: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich.” Reviews of the most recent adaptation of the novel might recast this sentence as “Emma Woodhouse, sadist, land shark, and reptile”. It is our argument that Austen and the critics of Autumn de Wilde’s 2020 adaptation are essentially saying the same thing: Emma’s privilege makes her a heroine it is difficult to love, and both Austen and de Wilde revel in the opportunities this affords them. EMMA., the first movie by Autumn de Wilde, a photographer and music video director, was criticised for the zany punctuation of its title, for falling between modern innovation and old-fashioned period drama trappings, and for its outré and overbearing character portrayals, set design and music. We propose to take the superficiality of the film’s style seriously as a performance of what D. A. Miller calls “Austen style”. Premiering just before the pandemic, EMMA. provocatively offers its audience a “utopia of those with almost no place to go” (Miller, p. 29).
Taking as a starting point Austen’s place in recent popular culture, and particularly recent reimaginings of Emma, our article will consider how de Wilde’s movie presents Emma as a character who falls between modernity and periodicity, unmooring her from recognisable categories, making her ridiculous. As we will show, in adopting a humorous tone, which emphasises the ridiculousness of the characters and the situations in which they find themselves, this adaptation risks antagonising some viewers, even as it attracts others. The same is true for its characterisation of the heroine, which places the privilege that comes with her wealth and position in society at the foreground: de Wilde’s Emma is colder and less likeable than her predecessors, as the critics’ descriptions of her as “sadistic,” “land shark,” and “reptile” convey. However, the result is a characterisation that emphasises the most radical aspects of Austen’s portrayal of a woman who, precisely due to her wealth and social position, holds many of the privileges that would have been considered as the prerogative of men. EMMA. brings to the fore the progressive and transgressive aspects of a novel that is centred around an authoritative, compelling, and ultimately unchanging heroine.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Popular Culture
Early online date28 Jul 2023
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 28 Jul 2023


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