Certain Women (US, 2016)

‘Hostage situation? No problem.’

It has taken over twenty years for writer-director Kelly Reichardt to complete seven features; not a terrible average for a mainstream director but an excellent one for someone who ploughs a distinctively indie furrow that doesn’t compromise. Her previous film, Night Moves, was more generic that Certain Women but I much preferred the latter. The film before that, Meek’s Cutoff, was a western filtered through Reichardt’s feminism. I haven’t seen her first four films.

From what I have seen it is clear that Reichardt’s concerned with women’s experiences and Certain Women gives us three tales that, tangentially, cross. Common to all are women’s battles against their lot where the dice are loaded against them by patriarchy. Laura Dern’s lawyer (Laura), in the first tale, finds a recalcitrant client only understands that his situation is hopeless when a male lawyer tells him. She later finds herself trying to talk down this client, who’s holding a hostage at gunpoint. Amongst the wintry landscape, dominated paradoxically by a distant Montana mountain range, there is deadpan humour. When it’s suggested that Laura is not qualified to deal with a hostage situation, the chief of police looks at her and she shrugs and says, ‘Well I’m here!” and goes ahead. Laura finds it difficult to deny men.

‘Why does it have to be so hard?’

Michelle Williams (Gina), in a narrative I struggled to follow somewhat, has to battle the passivity of her husband (who’s being unfaithful to her with Laura) and an alienated daughter. At a party (celebrating the Superbowl?) Gina hands her husband food, he’s watching the game, and he tells her to “stop working” and promptly asks for a beer.

‘I’m successful. Right?’

Kristen Stewart also plays a lawyer; she’s newly qualified and finds herself travelling for eight hours twice a week to deliver an evening class. Stewart’s exhaustion is writ large in the bags under her eyes but she is charismatic enough to catch the attention of a lonely ranch hand; astonishingly played by Lily Gladstone. The nameless ranch hand looks to have Native American Indian ancestry, further reinforcing the western references. You’ll have noticed it is a stellar cast but it is Gladstone that shines the most.

A glowing Gladstone

Like Meek’s Cutoff, Certain Women is a western; or rather a ‘Twilight’ western. The melancholic post-19th century take on the end of America’s ‘manifest destiny’. Trumpism is the complete disavowal, in its insularity, of America as a place of freedom; however, this isn’t a new phenomenon because once the frontier of the ‘wild west’ closed the institutions of society necessarily constrained freedoms. This conflict may explain much of what is wrong with America: from guns to libertarianism.

Reichardt’s ‘certain women’ are trapped by their circumstance as are the men; Laura’s client has been shafted by his company; the second Laura’s husband reeks apathy. After seeing Certain Women I watched Elle for a second time and I was struck more forcibly by the men’s pathetic attitudes. Reichardt’s vision certainly influenced mine.

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Elle (France-Germany, Belguim, 2016)

Just the ticket

Thrillers are mean to take us out of our comfort zone. If our lives are routine and safe then the urge to feel afraid, whilst in a position of absolute safety, can be a strong one; particularly amongst the young. Director Paul Verhoeven succeeds in creating this discomfort through the visceral portrayal of rape; making us jump in our seats with shocks and squirm in suspense; and, most importantly, he skewers bourgeois ideas by challenging our expectations about women (and reinforcing them, sadly, about men).

That said I’m not sure what say about Elle and that might be the point of the movie. It is a typical Verhoeven film and although I’m not keen on the auteur ‘theory’ in a few cases it is enlightening. His Hollywood films were often provocative: the possible homophobia in Basic Instinct (1992) and misogyny in Showgirls (1995); the sledgehammer satire of Robocop (1987) and Starship Troopers (1997). On the other hand, Black Book (Zwartboek, Netherlands-Germany-UK-Belguim, 2006) was more straightforward in focusing on the wartime thrills and so may it not be ‘typical’ Verhoeven. Which is one of the problems of auteurism: forcing films into preconceptions.

What provocations does Elle offer? The April issue of Sight & Sound has for/against pieces: Ertika Balsom and Ginette Vincendeau respectively. The brilliance of Elle lies, in part, in the fact that both writers are possibly right.

Roland Barthes described ‘readerly’ and ‘writerly’ texts: the former is closed and offers a clear ‘preferred’ reading; the latter is open allowing the reader to ‘write’ their own text; in other words, decide what it means. Elle is a ‘writerly’ film, though all texts are open to an individual’s interpretation some, such as this film, offer much latitude when it comes to trying to pin down meaning.

I suppose, what I am saying, is I’m not sure about what I feel about Elle. And this ambiguous response is what, I think, Verhoeven is after. He’s not offering us pat ideas or a black and white representation of the world but one that requires thought, particularly about areas we don’t necessarily want to think about. At this point stop reading if you haven’t seen the film as spoilers follow and preconceptions about the film are likely to muddy the spectator’s response.

The only preconception I had for the film, apart from the baggage of Verhoeven, was that it was a rape revenge thriller and Huppert was brilliant (of course). I also thought, probably because it was feted at Cannes, it would be more arthouse than commercial. Huppert is brilliant but, even though it started with a rape, it doesn’t follow the revenge trajectory (this rewriting of the genre is one of the most interesting aspect of the film) and whilst it is a commercial film it is far too unsettling for 21st century Hollywood (early ‘70s Hollywood might have made it) and it’s not surprising that Verhoeven could find no A-list actors to pay the Huppert role as he had intended it to be an American film. He had Nicole Kidman in mind; her glassy fragility would have offered a very different performance to Huppert’s indestructible visage. Kidman may have played the character as more neurotic than Huppert which would work against most of the film (or at least the film as it appears with Huppert) but might have made the film’s conclusion more convincing (except I’m not sure he wanted it to be convincing). I apologise for the lack of clarity but ambiguity is the response the film encourages.

Michèle is raped in the first scene and it is surprisingly restrained in the way it’s filmed (for Verhoeven) but that’s only because we return to the event on two more occasions where the restraint is undone. Then Michèle clears up the smashed crockery; doesn’t inform the police; does not tell her friends until a few days later. So it is immediately clear that we are dealing with a very unconventional kind of ‘she’ . This is reinforced when we find she’s the co-owner of a video game company that produces texts that include rape as part of the gameplay. She’s forthright in telling her mother to look her age and not play with toyboys; she also tells her son he’s been duped by his girlfriend and that the baby isn’t his (based on skin colour) while everyone else coos at the newborn. Although she is hard it is clear that she’s also protective of her son. Her decisiveness is clear including the fact that left her husband after he hit her, though they remain friends. This friendship does not stop her gleefully driving into his car when she’s parking next to it.

The rape-revenge tag would suggest that Michèle would spend the film tracking down her assailant but while she does take measures to seek out who assaulted her, this isn’t the prime narrative thrust. We are observing her life in the aftermath of the rape and we’re not invited to like her; she’s having an affair with her best friend’s husband, and her sexual tastes appear to be unconventional (which may make her more likeable – that depends upon you). She’s a member of the bourgeoisie, classical music is prominent in her home and she gives dinner parties. Some commentators have mentioned the film’s debt to Bunuel in the portrayal of these parties but they owe more to soap opera, with their bickering, than surrealism. The point is that, other than her friend Anna, there are no wholly likeable characters in the film; a bit like real life then. The men, in particular, are pretty rancid and it ironic that the weakest of them all should be the one that… That’s a spoiler too far.

Motivation for Michèle’s refusal to engage the police is explained through her serial killer father who was caught when she was 10; she was even implicated in the psychotic slaughter of 27 people. Her father, who’s seeking parole 40 years after the event, killed after he was preventing from blessing the children of the village. The Catholic faith also looms in the devoted neighbour who wants to watch the Mass at midnight on Christmas Eve during one of Michèle’s parties; at least one of which was thrown to get at her ex-husband’s new (younger) girlfriend.

As you can see, there’s lots going on but it is adeptly welded together until the final scenes. As a thriller it’s very effective: I jumped three times which is a record for me in my fifties. However, the ending… pat resolutions abound so much so that I doubt Verhoeven believes we should take them seriously and the last shot, of a reconciled Anna and Michèle deciding to live together, walking arm in arm though a cemetery must be a joke… isn’t it?

 

The Falling (UK, 2014)

Less than the sum of its parts

Less than the sum of its parts

I recommend going to see this film even though I was ultimately disappointed by it and there’s plenty of spoilers following so beware.

A film about females is a rare event in our Oedipal-riddled world and so The Falling immediately has novelty going for it; it is written and directed by Carol Morley and brilliantly shot by Agnes Godard. It draws upon a true story of fainting girls in a school in the late 1960s; nothing was found to be wrong with them. I experienced similar ‘fits’ in my first year of teaching when up to three lasses would keel over in the middle of my English class. Being male I didn’t attribute this to my teaching.

Morley indirectly diagnoses their complaint to be patriarchy; of course it didn’t need the late ’60s setting for females to be suffering from that disease however things were worse then. It focuses on the friendship between Abbie (newcomer Florence Pugh, on the left above) and Lydia (Maisie Williams familiar from Game of Thrones); the former’s sexual experiences unsettle their relationship. They are at a girls’ school full of repression, exemplified by Greta Scacchi’s Miss Mantel; a great piece of casting as Scacchi was known for libidinous roles earlier in her career. The acting is fabulous throughout the film.

Morley’s first feature was the effective dramadoc Dreams of a Life (UK-Ireland, 2011) which recreated the life of a woman whose body was found years after it had expired in a London flat. The Falling is extremely ambitious and there is so much to like: its obtuse take on nature, the brooding tree and autumnal pond; the inclusion of rapidly edited ‘subliminal’ montages that might be flashbacks; the male voice of the therapist questioning the girls is mixed  to feel as though it’s emanating from your own head (emphasising the hegemony of patriarchy); Maxine Peake, who plays Lydia’s mother, barely has a line but conveys pent-up frustration with the quivering fag in her fingers. All this is brilliant but…

For me it didn’t hang together. It could be the film needs a second viewing but I think the incest was pointless and detracted from the representation of repressed females through sensationalism and pathologising the protagonist. I’ve tagged the film as horror though it’s certainly not conventionally horrific; it’s only toward the end the genre makes its presence felt. It might have been better if horror iconography had been introduced earlier. Incidentally, the credit sequence at the end is terrifically designed.

As I said, it is a film that needs seeing because it deals with female experience and too many of western narratives (and those of other cultures) assume the male experience is paramount. Hopefully Morley will get to make another film soon; too many of our great female directors (Lynne Ramsay and Andrea Arnold for example) struggle to get their films made. Maybe in the next one Morley will be able to more successfully integrate form and content. If this sounds critical then I am being unfair as it is far from shameful to ‘fail’ (if that’s what she has done) when aiming so high. I’m very interested in what female viewers make of the film…

10 Films for International Women’s Day

Vera Chytilová, writer-director of Daisie

Vera Chytilová, writer-director of Daisies

10 cracking movies made by and about women; in alphabetical order:

  1.  Antonia’s Line (Antonia, Netherlands-Belgium-UK-France, 1995)
  2. Daisies (Sedmikrásky, Czechosolvakia, 1966)
  3. Dance Girl Dance (US, 1940)
  4. The Day I Became a Woman (Roozi ke zan shodam, Iran, 2000)
  5. Frida (US-Canada-Mexico, 2002)
  6. Ginger & Rosa (US-Denmark-Canada-Croatia, 2012)
  7. Meshes of an Afternoon (US, 1943)
  8. The Piano (New Zealand-Australia-France, 1993)
  9. Where Do We Go Now? (Et maintenant on va où?, France-Lebanon-Egypt-Italy, 2011)
  10. Winter’s Bone (US, 2010)

 

The Green Ray (Le rayon vert, France, 1986)

Where do I go from here?

Where do I go from here?

The Bechdel test is mentioned regularly on the feminist sites I look at and The Green Ray, known as Summer in America, certainly passes. It follows Delphine (Marie Rivière) as she decides what to do after a friend dropped out of a holiday at the last minute. Delphine is unhappy and whilst the cause of this is because she’s been dumped by a man the film focuses on her desires rather then men’s. It’s ‘co-scripted’, or rather improvised, by Rivière and director Erich Rohmer and this, with the location shooting, where you can see passers-by looking at the filming with curiosity, gives the film a realist dimension. All the other characters are ‘playing’ themselves including Paulette Christlein, the ‘free spirit’ Delphine meets in Biarritz, who, like the other performers I sampled, never appeared in another film.

The long-takes, and meandering narrative, is similar to the style and form that Richard Linklater used in his Midnight films; the subject matter is similar too. Not a lot happens, or rather, quite a lot happens slowly and I was wondering why I was enjoying the film so much as it seemed to be an example of Rohmer’s whimsy. It helps that Rivière’s is brilliant and the several locations used are beautifully shot. The revelation, toward the end, of what the ‘green ray’ is does give the film a weightier philosophical dimension. I don’t think the title Summer is a good one; presumably distributors were afraid audiences might confuse the film with science fiction.

It has recently been re-released in the UK and it’s well-worth catching this film, particularly if you like Linklater.

Gloria (Chile-Spain, 2013)

A lust for life

A lust for life

When discussing ageing with pupils I suggest that everyone wants to grow old. After a moment of derision they usually realise that the statement is true. However, the ageing body is clearly a monstrous Other in western society where we, women in particular, are urged to avoid showing the outward signs of decrepitude. Gloria, played brilliantly by Paulina Garcia, is a woman who is ‘past her prime’ and a lone divorcee who we meet in a singles bar. She has a lust for life and that, another taboo in mainstream cinema, includes a lust for sex. Few films deal with sex in old age though Hollywood has dipped into this demographic with films like the funny It’s Complicated (2009) and the dreadful Hope Springs (2012) (where giving her husband a blow job solves the marital problems). However neither of this films show the sex, Gloria does in all its glory and ageing bodies.

Sebastián Lelio directs (he also co-wrote) in a detached fashion, often framing in a medium to long shot with a static camera, in a relatively long take, allowing us observe the ‘always-on-screen’ Gloria at a distance. Sometimes this means the action isn’t clearly framed, however the technique works well to offer a certain detachment to the melodrama allowing us to more readily admire Gloria rather than be too emotionally involved in her situation. Gloria doesn’t want our sympathy, she just wants to get on with her life. There are a couple of marvellous melodramatic emblems: a street puppeteer has a skeleton dancing leading Gloria to give her on-off lover one more chance, it repreesnts mortality writ large; she finally rids herself of the ‘lover’ by shooting him with his own splatter gun.

Gloria’s lust for life includes her children but they, whilst loving, are detached from her and have their own lives; they obviously feel their mother no longer has much of a purpose for them. Garcia is marvellous at portraying her disappointment at her offspring whilst never showing them that she is hurt. This dislocation from the past is also a key part of the film’s politics. A dinner table discussion about Chilean society leads Gloria to suggest that children have been hard done by in the post-Pinochet period. Understandably Chileans want to move on from the brutal dictator’s time but Leilo suggests that the bourgeoisie are only concerned with their own cosy existence.

The film isn’t simply about ageing it’s also about gender and men come across as particularly pathetic. Gloria’s paramour, Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), whilst undoubtedly in lust, and maybe in love, with Gloria cannot break from his past – particularly his needy daughters. He’s shown to be emotionally stunted as if he believes his desire for  Gloria should be enough to sustain the relationship. He gets what he deserves when she shoots him. At the end we see Gloria, as she was at the beginning, dancing alone. At the start of this dance, however, she is surrounded by women. Leilo may be a bit too  harsh one men: we’re not all that bad!

Gloria is a cracking film that shows us oldies still have a lot of life in us.

The Source (La source des femmes, Belgium-Italy-France, 2011)

Power to the women

Power to the women

The lukewarm review, from the usually reliable Philip Kemp, in Sight & Sound, caused me to overlook this powerful melodrama. Kemp notes some faults in the film, a slightly tangled narrative, but they are far outweighed by the representation of strong Muslim women fighting against patriarchy.

It stars Leïla Bekhti as a young outsider in a North African Arab village who decides to organise a love strike, inspired by Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, to get the men to do some work rather than sip tea all day. Their demand is that water be piped to the village. Aided by a formidable older woman, Leila (also the character’s name) finds all the forces of conservatism arraigned against her. However writer-director, the French based Romanian Radu Mihaileanu, is careful to draw shades of grey with some of the women opposing the strike and some men supporting; the local town council are also shown to be complicit in women’s oppression; ‘if women get water then they will want washing machines next’. ‘Radical Islam’ is also represented and it’s important the representations of ‘liberal Islam’ are circulated in the west as many people’s views of the religion are shaped by the right wing press.

The DVD I saw is 15 minutes shorter than the cinema release (according the imdb) but I’m not sure that I missed much; though I would prefer to make my own mind up. The narrative does sag a little but the vitality, and humour, of the film made it a fulfilling watch.