Cecilia Ștefănescu’s Short Film Shows a Women’s Liberation Isn’t a Breeze

Nadina Štefančič

Some film characters seem to live in parallel universes, bumping into each other in the most unexpected places. It is a notion one might get when watching the short film MORSKI BRIZ (2018) by Romanian writer-director Cecilia Ștefănescu, shown as a part of the Competition Programme – Short Film at this year’s Sarajevo film Festival. Her protagonist Laura (Gabriela Baciu) is anchored to the societal values of traditional family life, and this anchor cannot be moved by the gentle sea breeze from the film’s title.

The characters she bumps into are women from THE HOURS (2003) by Stephen Daldry, based on American writer Michael Cunningham’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. THE HOURS, let’s recall, follows the modernist writer Virginia Woolf while writing her novel Mrs. Dalloway – perplexed under the control of her husband, planning her escape from the countryside to city, ending it all with a suicide. In an interconnected narrative, the film shows two more women, the early-2000s New Yorker Clarissa Vaughan, lovingly called Mrs. Dalloway, and the Los Angeles housewife from the 1950s Laura Browne, who happens to read Mrs. Dalloway. The film centers around Woolf’s classic novel and her life, both of which crucially questioned and reshaped a woman’s role in the family life. In Daldry’s work, the housewife Laura is the hero of Virginia’s efforts, turning her back on tradition and the American dream. She leaves her husband and child, moving to a new town, disconnecting from her family completely after learning she cannot change the family structures in a way that would make it bearable for her. Staying was death, she explains. And she chose life. For her role of Laura, Julianne Moore was nominated for an Oscar.

Ștefănescu’s Laura holds a resemblance to Daldry’s Laura, and of course also – fittingly – shares her name. She is a mother and wife in her sixties, stiff and quiet. Through the impossibility of liberating herself from the mother-wife position, she gives us an idea about what would happen if Laura from THE HOURS would not have left her family. With that she opens a new gaze at how the questions of Woolf’s literature still linger around. The Romanian Laura is a woman for whom it is too late. Before we see it in her life, we understand it through the surroundings she fuses with. We get to know her in a holiday village on the northern Bulgarian coast, vacationing with her friend (Simona Măicănescu). It is a resort in the beginning of the autumn, in which everything suggests it is too late for a carefree, summer getaway. The tourists are gone, the colors are pale, and even the weather shows some disappointment – filled with rainy afternoons. There, Laura meets a flirtatious younger man and has an emotional and sexual encounter with him. The choice she makes as a woman turns out to be a choice she makes as a wife-mother. Nevertheless, the film’s protagonist is especially intriguing for the fact that she does not expect what follows. She acts as if she had not noticed her deeply anchored social vulnerability until now. That is how detached she is from herself.

As the day after the one-night-stand unravels along with the imminent consequences, what unravel also are all the repressions she lives under, and we get to experience this with her. The reactions from her holiday friend and family anger her, yet she has no access to mechanisms to revolt, or even self-protection. Every possible guilt trip is embodied through a reaction from someone from her close social circle. Even the waitress in the local bar gives her a judgmental look. As she is driving home, paralyzed with her life’s limited options, she is on a one-way road, and we get to understand what Laura from THE HOURS was so terrified of. Not even a sympathizing scriptwriter can touch the stiffness of her position – it passes her by like a sea breeze. A possibility of women’s family-life liberation is still at a dead-end street in many ways. Virginia Woolf’s work is not done yet.