London can take it: "Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day

By Steve Sedlak

As London braces herself in the shadow of the oncoming menace of the Battle of Britain, Miss Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) loses her governess job and finds herself wandering the dank streets of the city as a bum. Denied further employment by her agency due to a tenuous track record, she snatches the business card of a possible employer off the desk of her boss and heads back out into the streets. She arrives at the apartment of Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams) and walks into what will be a 24-hour-long employment full of surprises. Miss Pettigrew finds out that her employer is a promiscuous starlet who believes wholeheartedly in playing the game of love. At first, Pettigrew is horrified. Then, she ends up puffing on a cigar to save her seemingly immoral employer’s butt (and ends up being pretty much the pimpingest middle-aged woman in a bob I’ve ever seen on celluloid). In the end, the reviews I had read that called “Miss Pettigrew” a screwball comedy revival really missed the mark. Yes, Delysia Lafosse is a goofball like Claudette Cobert’s character in “It Happened One Night” or Katharine Hepburn in “Bringing Up Baby,” but the parallels pretty much stop there. There is more melodrama here than there could ever be in a real screwball comedy.

Now this might be sacrilege to say, but I found more parallels between “Miss Pettigrew” and Jean Renoir’s “The Rules of the Game.” The audience gets a chance to spend an evening with a bunch of rich people acting ridiculous at parties and philandering about. The same theme seems to be present in “Miss Pettigrew,” but the story is a little more driven in terms of its narrative, and there are certain goals that we expect Pettigrew and Lafosse to achieve by the end of the movie. It’s also less of a scathing social satire on the French upper crust.

Even though the film does little in terms of cinematic style at first glance, everything reeks deliciously of the early 1940s in the world of “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.” The camera is continuously tracking, so much that when it decides to stop for a moment it’s a breath of fresh air. A computer animated sequence of planes flying above London at daytime ruins the relatively realistic world produced within the film with an awkward tilting up from the balcony of Lafosse’s apartment to an obviously computer generated roof and sky. But throughout “Pettigrew,” Bharat Nalluri, a British director whose primary medium is television, employed what I’d like to call “remedial deep focus” in his staging of scenes. This sets up another parallel to “Rules,” a film renowned for its use of deep focus.

So before sounding like a pretentious elitist (I just thought this was really cool when I got thinking about it!), let me try to define what deep focus is. Deep focus is a technique that keeps the planes of vision in front of the camera in sharp focus, regardless of how far away to or close to the camera they might actually be. I call Nalluri’s use “remedial” mostly because it isn’t really deep focus, but totally normal focus. The characters in the foreground are often in focus, while those in the background are not.

But it’s hard to overlook the similarity between Nalluri’s positioning of the characters in some shots and Renoir’s use of deep focus. There are times when the camera is sharply focused on Adams’ angelic face, but still keeps the background in sharp enough focus for the grimace on McDormand’s face to be perceptible. Perhaps Nalluri’s greatest use of this technique is in a nightclub scene, where the positioning of characters in shots and the changes of focus clearly imply who will be with who when morning breaks.

But personally speaking, it wasn’t the technical aspects or even the atmosphere of the movie that drew me into it. It’s the acting of Adams and McDormand that really catches the eye. Adams (“Enchanted,” “Junebug”) would get anyone’s attention in her bouncy blonde tresses of hair, which is a shame for McDormand (“Fargo,” “Almost Famous”), because she does an equally good job of being a jaded middle-aged woman (it was hard to forget about Margie, though.). In the end, you learn to smile for both of them as they go their separate ways in the search for happiness, even as the destructive threat of air raid sirens echo in the London nights they inhabit.

Overall, “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” is a fun and fancy free movie, but certainly nothing revolutionary. And really the female protagonists still believe that the only road to happiness is to be with a “good man” (and all of them in “Pettigrew” are incredibly flat), which is a pretty pernicious message for such a simple, sweet film.