Actress Barbara Loden, perhaps best known for her standout performance as Warren Beatty’s sister in SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS (1961), wrote, directed, and starred in this award winning low budget film. The title character is an inarticulate, irresponsible woman with very little sense of who she is or what she wants from life. At the beginning of the film, Wanda is being divorced by her husband for desertion. She gives up custody of their two small children, telling the judge they would be better off with their father. Then she wanders off into a meaningless existence of one night stands, bars, and motels. In one of these bars she meets a totally weird man, Mr. Dennis (Michael Higgins), who happens to be robbing the joint at the time. With nothing else in particular on her immediate schedule, Wanda attaches herself to this man. He steals a car and they go off into the world as a sort of bargain basement Bonnie and Clyde, executing a bank robbery that, to put it mildly, does not go well.
Loden the director/writer doesn’t give Loden the actress all that much to say as Wanda, which is appropriate for a woman who appears to have very little going on in her brain that might need to be verbalized. Having no goals, plans, or self esteem, she allows herself to be controlled by Mr. Dennis, who abuses her psychologically, gives her instructions on how to dress, and exhibits practically no affection toward her. Getting swept into a life of crime doesn’t appear to be a carefully considered life choice for Wanda, but rather a passive acceptance of a situation she finds herself in. Wanda doesn’t act. She reacts. She drifts. And when her time with Mr. Dennis is over, she drifts back into the same nothingness she started from.
WANDA has the look and atmosphere of a reality show that might play on late night television after the Zombie Apocalypse has decimated most of Western Civilization. It was filmed in the Appalachian region of Pennsylvania and makes good use of its locations.
This film, like so many other films of this era, is frustrating because of it’s downbeat ending and lack of any kind of satisfying conclusion. Yet as a portrait of a woman caught up in a pointless, directionless life, it makes a powerful and haunting impression.
WANDA won the International Critics’ Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1970.