The Gold Diggers Review

Celeste (Colette Laffont) works as a computer operator in a bank, who has become fascinated by the relationship between money and power. Ruby (Julie Christie) is trapped in a barren landscape and unsure of her own identity....

“Give me back my pleasure,” is a line from the song (sung by Sally Potter herself) that plays over the opening scene of The Gold Diggers, the director’s first feature after some well-regarded shorts. That’s something of a hostage to fortune,: while there are pleasures to be had they are of a rarefied, almost ascetic kind. This film depends more than most on its audience sympathy with its aims and techniques. If you lack that you will bounce off it, hard, and probably within the first fifteen minutes or so.

It’s no doubt a coincidence of the DVD release schedule, but in watching this I was reminded of another film made a decade earlier and released on disc by the BFI: Jane Arden’s The Other Side of the Underneath. Both are non-narrative works directed by women, made at times when hardly any female directors were working in the UK. Both are heavily influenced by critical and academic theory and avant-garde technique, used for explicitly feminist ends. (There's another connection in that both Potter and Arden were associated for a time with the Arts Lab, which along with the London Film-Maker's Cooperative, was a centre for experimental filmmaking in the late 1960s.)

There the similarity ends. The Other Side of the Underneath, shot in 16mm colour, is an attempt to evoke the mind of a woman who has suffered a mental breakdown. The Gold Diggers was shot in black and white 35mm on location in England and Iceland, takes on subjects such as female identity, woman as an active person as well as one held by the expectations of others. Ruby is a glamourous creature (and Christie, an icon of female glamour, is perfect casting), but creation is what she is – what she lacks is a sense of her own identity. Potter and her co-screenwriters Lindsay Cooper (who also composed and played on the music score) and Rose English (who also did the striking production design) play with and allude to many genres, from science fiction to silent film to musical to dance. (Potter trained as a dancer, a background which is very important to her later feature The Tango Lesson, also shot mainly in black and white.)

This will fascinate some, infuriate others and bore the rest of the audience. The Gold Diggers received vitriolic reviews on its release in 1983 and has been difficult to see since. Even the aspects of the film whose merit cannot be disputed (such as Babette Mangolte’s beautiful cinematography, which makes striking use of the bleak Icelandic landscape) tended to be derided. As the essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum in the booklet says, it is possible to make a film influenced by theory accessible to a wider audience, citing Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract, released the same year, as an example. But that’s a circle that Potter doesn’t square with The Gold Diggers and the result is a film that most viewers will find quite opaque. Some claim it as a neglected masterpiece, though I’m not one of them.

Potter worked in TV for a while, and it was nine years before she made another feature: Orlando, which to my mind remains her best work. Her later films do draw on her avant-garde background but do also engage a non-specialist audience. The artificiality of a film like Orlando is foregrounded from the start, by direct addresses to the audience and not least by having a woman play a male character (the title character, played by Tilda Swinton) and having a man play a woman (Quentin Crisp, as Elizabeth I). Some of the same devices recur in Yes, which has dialogue in blank verse – a film I was less in sympathy with. (I haven’t seen The Man Who Cried or her latest, Rage, so can’t comment there.)

The Gold Diggers is a film that will appeal only to a minority, but – like it or not – it has a place in the history of feminist and avant-garde film. And there’s no doubting the quality of the BFI’s DVD presentation.


The Gold Diggers is released on a dual-layered DVD encoded for Region 2 only.

As the notes in the booklet state, The Gold Diggers was filmed open-matte with the intention of being shown in cinemas at 1.85:1. This director-approved transfer, mastered in high definition from a new interpositive struck from the original negative, opens the matte slightly to 1.78:1. The results do full justice to Babette Mangolte’s camerawork. Blacks are solid and there are many shades of grey on display. Contrast, so important in monochrome, is spot-on.

The soundtrack is uncompressed LPCM, presented in mono across two channels. The result is full-bodied and warm, with Cooper’s music score in particular coming across strongly. Subtitles for the hard-of-hearing are available for the feature, but not the short films (only two of which have soundtracks anyway).

Potter’s admirers will certainly appreciate the fact that this DVD gathers together five key short films by the director. In chronological order, which is not the order they are listed on the menu, they begin with Jerk (1:57), made in 1969. Shot in 8mm and blown up to 16mm, with no soundtrack, this begins with an editing frenzy, alternating frames of Potter with her collaborator Martin Dunford. Play (5:07) was from the following year and is one of a number of multi-screen experiments carried out at the time. Shot in 16mm, and again silent, it places two 4:3 images side by side (rendered in Scope and anamorphically enhanced for this DVD), the left one in colour and the right one in black and white and features three sets of twins playing in the street. At one point they stop playing at stare at the camera. hors d'oeuvres (9:58) is from 1971, in colour and black and white (and very grainy due to being shot in 8mm and refilmed in 16mm), and features student dancers in an exercise in screen space.

Thriller (31:48) was made in 1979 and established Potter's reputation. A riff on Puccini's La bohème and thriller conventions (hence the title), it was shot in black and white 16mm (mostly using stills) and features several of Potter's future collaborators on The Gold Diggers. A young woman (Colette Laffont) muses on story conventions where a woman is object rather than subject and her place in the story is to die – which Potter punctuates with blasts of Bernard Herrmann's score for Psycho.

After the grainy monochrome of Thriller, the bold colours of The London Story (15:36), made in 1986 in 16mm and blown up to 35mm, come as a jolt. A woman called Jack Winger (Jacky Lansley) who is a spy involved in a plot to bring down (Margaret Thatcher's) government. The film ends with a striking dance routine set on the South Bank.

Apart from Play, all the short films are presented in 4:3. Thriller and The London Story have uncompressed LPCM mono soundtracks. Prokoviev's Romeo and Juliet in the latter, both in an orchestral recording and an organ arrangement by Lindsay Cooper, comes over particularly strongly.

Also on the disc are six PDF files. These are: the pages from the National Film Theatre programme for May 1984, when Potter programmed a season of films to accompany a showing of The Gold Diggers - a pretty eclectic selection by the looks of it. Next up are a two letters: one from Julie Christie to Potter, the second Potter's approach letter to Babette Mangolte. Next up are the original press pack and preview-screening invite, extracts from an early version of the screenplay, and extracts from Lindsay Cooper's handwritten score, and “On Shows”, an article written by Potter for the Institute of Contemporary Arts's 1980 catalogue, to accompany an exhibition “About Time: Video, Performance and Installation by 21 Women Artists”.

Finally, there is the booklet, and it's a substantial one running to 60 pages without the covers. It contains “The Gold Diggers Reconsidered” by Jonathan Rosenbaum, then a 1984 interview with Potter by Pam Cook with a 2009 introduction. Each of the short films gets an essay too: Sophie Mayer discusses Thriller (with a 1980 programme note by Potter on the film), Jacky Lansley talks about her work with Potter in The London Story and The Gold Diggers while William Fowler discusses Jerk, Play and hors d'oeuvres. Full credits are given for all of the films on this disc, and there are the usual transfer notes.

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Last updated: 18/06/2018 07:02:11

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