The most important visual image in Rambling Rose (1991, dir. Martha Coolidge) is the view from the front yard of the Hillyer family home. The front yard looks towards the nearby river, and a bridge that arches over the river, approaching the home. This view is what the narrator sees when the film first begins. It is the bridge over which Rose walks when she first comes to live with the family. And it is the closing image of the film. The image of the bridge suggests both the family’s isolation from the rest of the world, and its connection to that world. The bridge is the connection to everything that is out there, to the future, to adult experience. For those approaching from the other side, it is the connection of memory to the past, to the sacred idyll of family and home and childhood.
Rambling Rose uses the tried and true frame of an older man remembering his childhood days at his family’s home in Glenville, GA. We begin as he drives towards his family home, planning to spend time with his elderly father. He arrives, and as he looks for his father he remembers his childhood days there. The film then jumps backward to the mid-1930s, when the narrator was a boy of 14. At the end the film returns to the present. The narrator’s boyhood name was Buddy. His family was an unconventional one for the deep South. His mother (Dianne Ladd) is a graduate student in history working on her thesis. She is hard of hearing and has to turn on a hearing aid whenever anyone speaks to her. She is an independent and outspoken woman who is also kind and compassionate. The house the family lives in a house she bought with her inheritance. The father (Robert Duvall) manages a hotel in the nearby town. The mother and father are full of witticisms and odd expressions. The father speaks with rhetorical flourishes, sometimes fraught with meaning and sometimes not. Buddy (Lukas Haas) is their oldest son. He has a younger sister and brother. Although the film takes place in 1935, the Depression is mentioned in passing only once, and there is otherwise no mention of it.
Despite their unconventional nature, the Hillyers live in an old Southern house with columns—there is little in the story that plays off the symbolism of the columned plantation house, but it is here nonetheless. The closing credits to the film scroll down the screen as the song “Dixie” plays in the background, not as a “fergit Hell” anthem but rather as a plaintive song of memory, “old times there are not forgotten.” But the use of the song nonetheless seemed odd.
The story revolves around a young woman named Rose (Laura Dern) who comes to work as a housekeeper for the family. She has a troubled past, and the mother and father agree to bring her to work for the family to help her escape her difficulties in Birmingham, where it seems she was being pressured to work as a prostitute. The film doesn’t dwell on the fact, but the mother and father have a sense of social responsibility. They see it as their Christian duty to help a girl like Rose. She quickly bonds with the family. She feels a connection with the mother, who was also an orphan. She develops a crush for the father, and while the mother is away at a meeting she throws herself on him. He rebuffs her advances, after a few long seconds of apparent hesitation. She develops a close friendship with Buddy, who is fourteen. When she comes into his room to talk about her crush on his father, she climbs in his bed. He asks to feel her breasts and other parts of her body, and despite her misgivings she lets him. This is a disturbing scene that reflects both Rose’s strongly sexual passions and the nature of her problems. (Except for the fact that he falls in love with Rose, Buddy seems to suffer no damaging side effects from this episode). Rose has a number of misadventures with various men of the town, including the local doctor. Daddy Hillyer becomes increasingly convinced that the family must let Rose go, while Mama Hillyer resists, insisting that Rose is a good girl, despite her problems.
What I take away from this film are the eccentric family and the theme of sexual repression. Although they are a Southern family from the 1930s, the Hillyers all agree that black people are mistreated (although we see only one black man in the entire film). When Rose makes her advance on Daddy Hillyer, both Buddy and his sister watch through the door, slightly ajar. They are interested at what is going on, curious, but not shocked or ashamed. Therefore we encounter another Southern family that is not representative of the norm. They are exceptions—not typical Southerners—whatever ”typical” means.
One could argue that because of the sexually repressive, male-centered atmosphere of the South Rose is unable to fully express herself sexually. On the other hand, she is a victim of an abusive childhood. She has been left sterile from a gonorrhea infection, and her sexual appetite is as much a product of her childhood as it is part of her natural character.
The film emphasizes the power of patriarchy. When Rose believes she is pregnant, the family takes her to a doctor, who diagnoses her with an ovarian cyst. This is when we learn that she is sterile. Because of her scandalous reputation in the town, the doctor proposes that when she has surgery for removal of the cyst that she ought to be given a double hysterectomy, which will remove the source of the hormones that fuel her sexual appetite. Such surgery would fundamentally change her. The father at first agrees that this is a necessary measure. The mother refuses to allow it, and the father changes his mind and agrees with her. As sometimes gruff and domineering as the father sometimes appears to be, in the end it is Mother Hillyer who wields authority—she is the source of human judgment and moral standards in the film. She sees through Rose’s loose behavior to the human being that she is. She refuses to allow the surgeon to cut out of Rose’s body an essential part of her identity.
In the final scene of the film we return to the present time where Buddy, now a grown man (played by John Heard) talks with his elderly father about Rose, who has recently died. Buddy had loved Rose, and when she left to get married he wept. He weeps now in the present time, remembering her. The father and Buddy both agree that they loved Rose and that she was full of life and passion and then the film ends.
It’s difficult to get a handle on this film. The characters carry the film more than the story does. But the big question is what we are to make of Rose. Why is she interesting? Is she significant? Is the film suggesting that she lived in a repressive time that didn’t allow her to give full expression to her sexuality and to the person she was? Or is it suggesting that she was a damaged product of an abusive childhood and of manipulative men such as her father and the doctor and even Daddy Hillyer? Or some combination of both? After he rebuffs her advances, Daddy Hillyer tells Rose that women and men are different. He says something to the effect that men cannot help but fall victim to their sexual passions, but that woman have the ability to choose not to give in to their passions. This may serve as some sort of justification for the sexual double standard that allows men to wander while their women ”choose” to remain at home. Clearly Rose does not choose to resist her passions—both she and Mother Hillyer insist that love and not sex is what matters to women. We are told that it takes Rose four husbands before she discovers the man meant for her, and they stay married for 25 years.
The film offers something of social commentary, something of melodrama, a fair amount of sentiment and a touch of hokum. Laura Dern is good in her role as Rose. Robert Duvall, who is usually effective in any role, in this one seems more of a caricature than a real person, and the same can be said of Diane Ladd’s portrayal of Mother Hillyer. In a sense, the film comes off like an Erskine Caldwell novel rewritten by the novelist John Irving.
The Hillyers are as middle-class Southern family. Rose comes from a lower-class background. Class difference may have something to do in the film with how the Hillyers view and tolerate Rose’s promiscuity.