Friedrich Bhaer, the German professor who meets Jo in the first blush of her move to New York, is one of the most important characters in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Finally, with this month’s new film adaptation, we have a version which realises that.
This story contains mild spoilers for Little Women. If you’ve never read the book or seen any of the movies before and would prefer to stay in the dark about certain key characters and plot points before seeing the new film adaptation, stop reading now.
This is what you need to know: Winona Ryder was 23 when she made the 1994 film adaptation of Little Women. Gabriel Byrne, who played her character Jo’s ultimate love interest Professor Friedrich Bhaer, was 44. Age gaps like that used to be shockingly common in Hollywood. Richard Gere was 40 when he made Pretty Woman. Julia Roberts was 22. In Magic In The Moonlight, Colin Firth is 28 years older than Emma Stone, his love interest.
Maggie Gyllenhaal was once told, at 37, that she was “too old to play the lover of a man was 55… It was astonishing to me. It made me feel bad, and then it made me feel angry, and then it made me laugh.”
The 21 year age gap between Ryder and Byrne made their character’s coupling difficult to swallow for many Little Women fans. Even I, a diehard romantic who swoons at the mere suggestion of an emotional bit of a dialogue, struggled to accept their Jo and Bhaer as lovers by the end of the film.
Sure, in Alcott’s book Bhaer is described as being a not particularly handsome (though he has “good teeth”) German tutor – he isn’t supposed to be a smoldering, floppy-haired hunk like Laurie, played by Christian Bale in the 1994 version and, perfectly, Timothée Chalamet in Greta Gerwig’s new adaptation. Bhaer is supposed to be kind and intelligent and cultured, a true marriage of the minds for Jo (Saoirse Ronan in Gerwig’s film). Which is why it is an incredibly admirable flex that in the new Little Women adaptation, in cinemas today, Bhaer is played by French actor Louis Garrel.
For one thing, Garrel’s casting tightens the gap between Jo and Bhaer’s respective years considerably. Alcott’s book never specifies Bhaer’s age, only describing him as ‘middle-aged’. We know that Jo is 30 at the end of Little Women when Bhaer proposes after delivering the finished copy of Jo’s novel. In the rain. Under an umbrella. With declarations of love and fealty, even though Bhaer is penniless and can’t offer Jo financial security.
What he can offer her, though, is a life. A big life, full of passion and opportunity and challenges at every turn. This isn’t the life that Jo would have had if she married Laurie, her childhood best friend and the loveable rogue-next-door. What Laurie and Jo have is the platonic love of longterm pals, a love forged while ice skating for hours across frozen rivers and performing plays together in secret. Laurie and Jo are best friends. They would never have made for good life partners, and Jo knows this. It’s why she turns him down and it’s why he ends up, much happier, with her sister Amy March (Florence Pugh).
In Bhaer, Jo sees something different. In Alcott’s novel, Jo goes to great lengths to describe her immediate affinity with Bhaer, who though a little pedantic is big-hearted and open and warm. Their blossoming relationship is earnest and expansive, the relationships that you have when you start seeing the world through adult eyes. Bhaer teachers her about things, and Jo teaches him too, in her own way. She shows him what it’s like to have a family; Bhaer teaches Jo how to be on her own.
For Little Women fans who have always held a torch for Jo and Laurie, Bhaer is not the most beloved character. But in Garrel’s hands the character is fleshed out in ways that make him easier to understand. Sure, it helps that the French actor and star of movies like The Dreamers and Saint Laurent is decidedly more handsome than the “not handsome” man described in Alcott’s original novel.
But it’s more than that: Garrel has the right mix of wit and kindheartedness in him and a lot less of the parsimoniousness that has characterised previous Bhaers. He’s a worthy partner for Jo, someone who wants to take her out dancing in underground New York clubs and write in the margins of her books and love her the way she needs to be loved, the way maybe no one else can. Someone Jo and her sisters might conceivably dash through rural Concord to reach so that Jo can kiss her man in the rain.
Little Women purists may balk, but then Little Women purists will balk at Jo ending up with anyone at all. Alcott famously intended for Jo to remain single at the end of her novel, as she herself was her whole life, But when her story – published in two parts – became phenomenally popular she caved to expectations and set Jo up with Bhaer. She refused to truly give into her female readers, though, who demanded that Jo and Laurie end up together. Alcott knew, as well as Jo did, that Laurie was not the one for her.
There’s a sense of this in Gerwig’s new adaptation, too. The film is told from the perspective of an older Jo as she pitches her novel Little Women to a casually sexist (male) publisher who demands that her (female) characters be married by the end of the story. Or else.
Later, Jo delivers her best monologue in the film, an impassioned plea to Marmee (Laura Dern) about her role, and the role of her sisters, in society. “I just feel like women… they have souls, as well as just hearts,” Jo says. “And they’ve got ambition and they’ve got talent as well as just beauty. And I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for. I’m so sick of it,” Jo adds. “But I’m so lonely.”
That’s it, isn’t it? The perfect evocation of what it feels like to be independent and successful and ambitious and yet simultaneously feel like you want something more, too. That you can be enough and nowhere near enough, all at the same time. It’s the feeling that single women have been feeling for centuries, distilled and crystallised and put into the mouth of the avatar of one of the most famous literary single women of all time.
The independence and the ambition and the creative drive and the romance are all tied up together in Gerwig’s Little Women, as perhaps they always were. Her Jo has a soul and a heart, she has ambition and talent, and love is not the only thing she is fit for. But she wants to be loved, too. Still. Despite it all. So enter Bhaer, stage left.
Little Women is in cinemas now.
Images: Sony/Columbia Pictures
Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer based in London. You can find her on the internet talking about movies, television and Chris Pine.
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