Lost and Delirious is a 2001 film adaptation of Susan Swan’s The Wives of Bath. Directed by Léa Pool as her first English language work, the movie plays fast and loose with the source material, changing the tone and message significantly. Frequently lambasted by film critics for its melodrama, trite metaphors, and shallowness compared to the novel, the film nonetheless has a decent-sized following, especially (in my experience) amongst young lesbians.
The film follows a quiet, introspective girl named Mary, played by Mischa Barton. In the beginning of the movie, Mary tells us that her mother has passed away, and her emotionally-distant father has decided to enroll her in an all-girls boarding school. Arriving there, she soon meets her roommates, Tori (Jessica Paré) and Paulie (Piper Perabo). In shocking juxtaposition to the main character, Paulie is outspoken and open about everything, never flinching when the truth needs to come out — except, of course, when it comes to Tori, whose parents can’t be allowed to know the true nature of their relationship.
The first time I watched this movie, I thought it was pretty damn good, but it gets worse on every subsequent viewing. The reason, I think, is that it’s extremely lopsided — movies are a combination of plot, characters, visuals, music, pacing, and theme (the last three forming the broader category of atmosphere), but Lost and Delirious doesn’t do many of these aspects well. The plot scores an absolute zero, hitting nearly every single cliché in the queer and feminist books and being as boring as humanly possible. The visuals are fairly bland, with only one scene being memorably well-composed and many, many scenes which comprise a series of heavy-handed visual metaphors. The music is… well, there’s a reason critics have called it melodramatic. Even the theme, though it’s not done terribly, is kind of… generic. Are you surprised that a movie about lesbians and a shy girl is about feminism? Surprised that a movie set in an all-girls boarding school has something to say about patriarchy?
No, I understand fully why critics hate this movie. It’s very, very flawed, doing many key aspects of filmmaking utterly and completely wrong. But it does one important thing right: characters. The characters are amazing.
Regardless of what you might personally think of them (trust me, you’ll probably want to slap them a few times during the film), one thing you can’t deny is that they are completely honest. Yes, the overwrought musical sequences are melodramatic… but the movie is about teenagers going through what is, to them, the end of the whole damn world. The lengths Paulie goes to to win the heart of her girlfriend are absolutely insane, but I can name three people in my life who would actually do that.
Does that mean the movie can be forgiven for all it does wrong? No, not at all. A great movie takes a personal, emotional scenario, blows it up, and turns it into an experience that accurately conveys the complexity and meaning of the situation to the audience, including and especially outsiders who wouldn’t have understood the situation otherwise. But Lost and Delirious just isn’t a great movie — it’s a cult movie, or maybe you’d call it an insider movie. A movie made by a lesbian, for lesbians; by a woman, for women; and it makes no attempt to include the outside world in its equation. You’re in, or you’re out.
So no, Lost and Delirious isn’t good — but it isn’t necessarily just the clichéd mess that people claim it is. If you can relate to the characters, relate to the melodrama, relate to the age and place where a trite visual metaphor seemed supremely poetic — then you can get swept up in the movie and walk away feeling like someone just stabbed you in the heart. But if you can’t relate to it, you’ll be throwing popcorn at the screen. That’s just how it is with this one.
For the record, I’ve never read the source material myself so I can’t comment on why and how the movie could have been improved in that manner. However, I read that the newest edition of the book has a foreword by the author praising the movie, despite its differences. Take that as you will.