Despite the impression left by its ad campaign, How to Make an American Quilt is not a romantic film. Those behind the movie seem to think they have made a heartwarming, tender picture about women and ways of love, yet there’s an uneasy attitude that pervades the film, a darkly cynical conviction that seeps through each line of dialogue and lingers after every scene. Quilt is a horror story about love that can’t face its own worldview.
The movie centers around Winona Ryder as Finn, a Berkeley graduate student who faces a marriage proposal from her boyfriend, Sam, with uncertainty and fear. In an effort to “clear her head,” Finn decides to spend the summer with her grandmother, great aunt and the other members of the Grasse Quilting Bee. The stories these women share about love and life form a narrative tapestry that is both compelling and uneven, insightful and unclear.
As the women’s tales unfold, one thing becomes plain: Men are worthless and marriage is a farce. Sophia, played by Lois Smith, tells how she once dreamed of traveling around the world with her geologist boyfriend and swimming in exotic locales. Years later she has three children and a husband who is always out of town. When he asks her why she never swims anymore she replies, “Because I became a wife, I guess.”
The other women’s stories carry the same ominous tone. Jean Simmons plays Em, a member of the quilting bee who has been married to an adulterous artist all her life. Em relates her story with helpless exasperation and comes to the conclusion that men are naturally unfaithful, and that the best a wife can do is put up with them.
What is skewed about this pessimistic outlook on love is that the filmmakers seem uncomfortable with it as well. If director Jocelyn Moorhouse and screenwriter Jane Anderson want to create a cinematic diatribe against men, they have every right to do so. But they should at least be consistent in carrying their theme through.
Quilt‘s troubles lie in the fact that Moorhouse and Anderson want their movie to have it both way – to be at once a cynical take on marriage and a romantic story of love. The entire film is set up so that Finn, based on the lessons she has learned, will come to some lasting conclusions about her own life. But the idealistic decision Finn makes is so out of touch with the jaded, world-weary stories she has heard that the film’s theme becomes disjointed and confused.
Still, Quilt is flawed only in its lack of thematic focus, for every other aspect of the production is first-rate. Each performer, from the distinguished leads to the young actresses who portray them in their youth, is a marvel. This may be expected from the legends in the cast (Ellen Burstyn, Anne Bancroft, Maya Angelou, Alfre Woodard and Kate Nelligan round out the quilting bee), but even those playing the irascible men , including rip Torn and Derrick O’Connor, bring their characters vividly to life.
And, of course, there is Ryder, natural and charming as the hesitate, confused young woman. When she asks if the quilt the women are working on is for the state fair, her enunciation – polite yet with a tinge of patronization – is just right. And when the older women reply that it is her wedding quilt, the significance registers perfectly on Ryder’s face.
Aside from its performances, the film’s use of imagery, particularly with the various quilts, is exceptionally rich. And with such symbolism as a foundation, each line of dialogue becomes infused with meaning, revealing the attentive economy of Anderson’s script.
How to Make an American Quilt also includes moments of inspired and thoughtful editing. One of these sequences takes place when a young Sophia and her husband-to-be, played by Samantha Mathis and Loren Dean, sneak off to a hidden swimming hole. As he slightly slips the straps of her bathing suit over her shoulder the camera immediately cuts to Sophia laying in bed with a crying child at her side.
Throughout the film Moorhouse skips time and place in similarly inventive ways. A final, elaborate quilting montage is handled with just such care, successfully coordinating all of the women’s stories onto Finn’s wedding quilt, now titled “Where Love Resides.”
Yet once again, none of these stories of love gone wrong coincide with Finn’s final attitude toward Sam. And an unmotivated fling that Finn has with a local stranger (along with the suggested, but never confirmed, infidelity of Sam) is even further ignorant of her given advice and throws the film’s entire emotional tone off track.
In the end, there are a multitude of ways to interpret How to Make and American Quilt.”One is tempted to use the same metaphorical cop-out the movie does when it includes the following poem: “Young lovers seek perfection. Old lovers learn the art of sewing shreds together and of seeing beauty in a multiplicity of patches.”
Such a sentiment may cover all the bases, but it still leaves a troublesome thematic hole that no amount of poetry, imagery or metaphor can fill.