“Are you reconciled with your history? Do you know what it is?” So asks Celeste (Colette Laffont) near the beginning of Sally Potter’s The Gold Diggers (1983). It’s an apt question, for The Gold Diggers is a work that’s much concerned with history - cinema history, in particular, and, more particularly still, the role of women therein. In creating what the director has called “a cinematic pun - a sort of semiotic shuffle,” Potter’s film reworks, subverts, fuses and reuses a variety of film genres, among them the musical, noir, the detective mystery, silent melodrama, the caper movie, and the New Wave. The resulting cinephile wet-dream has something of Guy Maddin’s trying-it-on playfulness about it, and a look and sound that would seem to have influenced Bela Tarr. Like all of Potter’s films, it’s a thinking and feeling movie with stunning black-and-white cinematography (by Babette Mangolte), a wonderful score (by Lindsay Cooper), engaging performances and a wealth of ideas. And yet this fascinating film (made by an all-female crew) drew significant critical hostility upon its release and has seldom been seen since. Why? It’s a question that Jonathan Rosenbaum raises in his essay on the film, which wonders how a work “as beautiful, as witty, as imaginative, and as brilliant as [The Gold Diggers] could have given so much offence to certain spectators in 1983.”
In her splendid book on Potter’s cinema (celebrated elsewhere on this blog), Sophie Mayer explores the polarised reaction to the movie, explaining that though “the film packed in audiences at film festivals … its critical take on capitalism, heterosexuality and a mainstream film industry which promoted both unthinkingly left it out in the cold… A vocal section of (predominately male) critics … railed against the film so harshly that Potter withdrew it from circulation” (Mayer 2009: 16). Whether or not viewers are any more amenable to such critiques now than they were in 1983 is a debatable point, but the great news is that The Gold Diggers is available at last, in a typically deluxe and thoughtfully-produced DVD package from BFI. Good things, it seems, really do come to those who wait. I watched the film a month or so ago and its words and music and images have remained with me since, returning at unexpected moments, and offering comfort and delight. It’s a great movie, one that could - and indeed should - have inaugurated a Golden Age of British counter-cinema.
The story - such as it is; this is, unsurprisingly, a film that doesn’t have much patience with the “ejaculatory” mode of narrative - revolves around the investigations of Laffont’s Celeste into the mysterious “movement” of gold, money and women in patriarchal capitalism. A bank employee, Celeste discovers a repeated ceremony in which a woman named Ruby (Julie Christie) is paraded through the streets and taken to a ball. Having descended the archetypal cinematic staircase, Ruby is passed from male partner to male partner, prompting the intrepid Celeste to come to our heroine’s aid. (On a white horse, no less.) Celeste’s intervention initiates Ruby’s process of "reconciliation with her history," and allows, ultimately, for the development of a new story that departs from the cinematic narrative in which she - and, by implication, a history of screen heroines - have been enmeshed.
From an opening song (sung by Potter herself) that takes issue with the unpleasurable - and ideologically dubious - “pleasures” of mainstream entertainment, through its cine-centric riddles and gender-bending rescue(s), The Gold Diggers confounds and delights, offering a rethinking of cinematic pleasure that remains as valid now as ever. (The film’s title itself is a revision, replacing a pejorative description with a dynamic and thoughtful presentation of women as active investigators and excavators.) Some sequences are heavy-going, yes. But most are accomplished with a wondrous freshness and lightness of touch.
As she has demonstrated elsewhere (Jude Law’s startling performance in Rage  springs to mind) Potter also has a gift for defamiliarising familiar performers, and her play with Christie’s star persona here probably deserves an essay in its own right. In my favourite sequence in the film, Christie is practically unrecognisable, as Ruby finds herself forced onto a stage, in the guise of a Lillian Gish-ish heroine. Her awkward performance (which is also being observed by Ruby herself from the stalls) elicits the jeers and boos of the male audience. Ruby’s unexpected rejoinder to this critique is perhaps the most overtly oppositional moment in the movie, an exhilarating response that encapsulates the film’s particular brand of subversiveness. Encompassing politics and play, the theoretical and the poetical, The Gold Diggers is serious fun.
The BFI DVD package is typically generous, including a selection of Potter’s short films and a pdf of related material, plus an excellent booklet of interviews and essays. I’m not sure that the experimental early shorts will be of much interest to anyone beyond Potter scholars, but the 16-minute The London Story (1986) is an intriguing and enjoyable piece. Thriller (1979), though, is another matter entirely, a superb 30-minute re-imagining of Puccini’s La Boheme in which the heroine Mimi is “resurrected” in order to tell (and tell again) the story of the character’s life and death. With Laffont cast again in the role of investigator, this brilliant short feels like a precursor and companion piece to The Gold Diggers and establishes that film’s de/constructive approach to traditional narratives. Knowing your history, in both of these inspiring movies, gives you the opportunity to revise it.