Phoebe (Alexandra Johnes), orphaned, is sent to a Virginia estate to live with her cruel grandmother. Grandma Coco (Glynis Johns) is not exactly neglectful, as she's a wealthy lonesome old woman who can afford a nanny, Mademoiselle Zelly (Isabella Rossellini in one of her very few great performances). But Coco is emotionally distant & prone to psychologically twisted ideas of suitable punishments of Phoebe.
There's a truly unsettling moment in Zelly & Me (1988) when Phoebe's only friends, her dolls & beloved teddy bear, which she talks to & interacts with on her bed, are taken away from her & destroyed by the insanely strict grandmother. And not even for a reason that by any stretch of the imagination deserved punishment.
Phoebe, more alone than ever in her big room, rolled up a pair of socks with the toes dangling to form feet, draws a face on the rolled socks, props her ad-hock friend against a pillow, & says, "It's just you & me now, Socky." I thought I'd fucking die of misery at that moment.
I must say I always liked Glynis Johns as an actor & she really is brilliant in this horrific role. She's playing a devoted gardener, a hobby of interest to me, & I wanted to be able to relate to her character, but she was just too mean to the child.
It was painful for me to see her playing such a convincing villain, as I didn't want to despise her so much. However, by the ending, we, like Phoebe, realize Coco is a broken soul that like just about everyone wants to be loved. It's just that she barely knows how to go about it.
When Madameoiselle Zelly comes onto the scene, she falls for the goodhearted little girl, & cannot bare the continuous psychological assaults of the grandmother. Isabella Rossellini being a look-alike for her mom Ingrid Bergman seems to have been worked into a textual subtext since Phoebe amuses herself with fanciful conversations with Joan of Arc, one of Bergman's best known roles.
Perhaps this was in the script separate from the casting, but it would certainly be a big coincidence.
At any rate, Zelly does attempt to be a sort of knight in shining armor for Phoebe. When she's fired & realizes Phoebe is going to be forever after at the mercy of the cruel grandmother, she seeks the assistance of her boyfriend (Isabella's real-life husband, director David Lynch, himself turning in a mighty fine little performance). She kidnaps Phoebe in order to save her from continuous abuse.
It was a foolish, foolish plan just on the basis of kidnapping being a serious crime. But the plan also failed to take into consideration how, despite all, Phoebe does love her grandmother.
At times this is like a Merchant Ivory film with a layer of emotional terror added. It is certainly one of the great independent films of the 1980s & should've been recognized as a milestone of emotional realism.
Instead, in the wake of this amazing artistic success, director Tina Rathborne seems to have had very little in the way of a film career, possibly because the film industry is not about artistic successes but commercial ones. And commercially, who wants to go to a movie in order to feel really, really bad.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl