About seven minutes into the ingenious 1981 film adaptation of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, something thrilling and disturbing happens: a telephone rings. The sound of that phone instantly shatters the illusion of reality that the film has so painstakingly constructed over the course of its opening scenes, and substitutes a different reality: that of the making of a film called The French Lieutenant’s Woman. We are abruptly jerked out of the world of 1867, where the Victorian gentleman Charles Smithson has just proposed to Ernestina Freeman in the conservatory of her aunt’s house in Lyme Regis, and thrust into a hotel room in 1979 where Charles — or rather, the actor named Mike, who plays him in the film — is sleeping with Sarah, the French lieutenant’s woman of the title — or rather, Anna, the actress who plays Sarah. In an instant, the mid-Victorian world of the film-within-the-film collapses like a burst balloon, displaced by the behind-the-scenes world of present-day film-makers.
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