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Rarely screened for decades, Wanda, written, directed and starring Barbara Loden, is a landmark of American independent cinema

A young woman’s name is called in a courtroom. ‘Wanda Goronski?’ Eventually, she enters slowly through a door in the distance, holding a cigarette, her hair in curlers. Asked if she has anything to say, she quietly agrees to a divorce, saying her children would be better off with her husband. It’s unclear whether she wants to keep them. She barely seems to think she deserves to live.

It’s one of many indelible scenes in Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970), a landmark of American independent cinema set in Pennsylvania coal country. Loden, who died at 48 without making another feature, wrote, directed and starred in it. Rarely screened for decades, Wanda has only been growing in stature. It will be re-released in US theatres on 20 July in a restored version; opening its run at Metrograph in New York.

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Barbara Loden, Wanda, 1970, film still. Courtesy: ‎Bardene International Films

Wanda’s numbness sets her on a journey through a desolate landscape. She asks for a job in a garment shop, but the boss, calling her ‘lover’, tells her she’s ‘just too slow’. She lets herself be picked up by a callous salesman. She drifts through a mall, staring at clothing displays. Her money is stolen while she sleeps in a movie theatre. In a sad and hilarious scene, she encounters Mr. Dennis (Michael Higgins), a tightly wound criminal wearing a suit and a tie and throws her lot in with him.

Loden, who was born in 1932 and raised in North Carolina, ran away from home when she was a teenager. In New York, she modelled for romance and pulp magazine covers, danced at the Copacabana and was a sidekick on The Ernie Kovacs Show. She had a theatrical career, winning a Tony for her performance in Arthur Miller’s After the Fall (1964) and acted in two films by Elia Kazan, whom she married in 1967, memorably playing a desperately rebellious flapper in Splendor in the Grass (1961).

Loden wrote Wanda’s screenplay after she read a newspaper story about a woman who thanked a judge when he sentenced her to prison for 20 years for being an accessory to a bank robbery. Inspired by Andy Warhol and Jean-Luc Godard, she worked improvisationally, filming on 16mm with a tiny crew. Nicholas T. Proferes was the cinematographer and editor. Higgins was also a professional actor, but Loden mostly cast non-professionals.

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Barbara Loden, Wanda, 1970, film still. Courtesy: ‎Bardene International Films

Wanda won a prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1970 and was praised at other festivals but received mixed reviews when it was released in the United States. In The New Yorker Pauline Kael wrote that its protagonist was ‘such a sad, ignorant slut that there’s nowhere for her and the picture to go but down,’ but also called Wanda ‘very touching’.

Loden often noted Wanda’s parallels to her own background. In a 1971 New York Times profile, she said: ‘I’ve been like that myself. I came from a rural region where people have a hard time. They don’t have time for wittily observing the things around them. They’re not concerned about anything more than existing from day to day. They’re not stupid. They’re ignorant. Everything is ugly around them – the architecture, the town, the clothing they wear.’

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Barbara Loden, Wanda, 1970, film still. Courtesy: ‎Bardene International Films

In Wanda’s echo chamber, mundane details are startlingly resonant: American flags, a plate of spaghetti, a pastry box on the seat of a stolen car. Its score consists of the sounds of machinery and traffic. In the only scene that approaches an idyll for the outcasts, they have pulled off a highway and eat in a field frequented by stray dogs. When a model airplane buzzes overhead, Mr. Dennis climbs onto the roof of the car and yells at the sky.

During an eerie interlude, the couple visit a theme park with naively re-created biblical sites, scripture passages emblazoned everywhere and liturgical music pouring from loudspeakers. While Mr. Dennis meets with someone from his past, Wanda – the poignant wanderer – joins people milling past dioramas in faux catacombs.

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Barbara Loden, Wanda, 1970, film still. Courtesy: ‎Bardene International Films

Nathalie Léger writes in Suite for Barbara Loden (2012) – which was published in an English translation in 2016 – that her book grew out of an assignment to compose an encyclopaedia entry. Léger’s personal anecdotes and meditations on Wanda are often more effective than passages about the director’s life, but her fascination with the subject is understandable. It’s hard not to wish we had more from Loden, who hoped to make other films, including an adaptation of Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening (1899). In Rachel Kushner’s novel The Flamethrowers (2013), the narrator reflects on Wanda: ‘It was about being a woman, about caring and not caring what happens to you. It was about not really caring.’

Mr. Dennis is as focused on what he wants – stolen cash, hamburgers prepared just so, a woman who doesn’t wear slacks or lipstick – as Wanda is unable to allow herself to desire anything important. He tells her: ‘You don’t want anything, you won’t have anything. You don’t have anything, you’re nothing. You may as well be dead. You’re not even a citizen of the United States.’ She replies, ‘I guess I’m dead then.’ Yet, onscreen she seems painfully alive.

Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970) is in US theatres from 20 July in a restored version; opening its run at Metrograph in New York.

Main image: Barbara Loden, Wanda, 1970, film still. Courtesy: ‎Bardene International Films