Welcome to Auteuse Theory


Welcome to Auteuse Theory. The purpose of this blog is to allow us to think about and write about a range of films made by women, from silent re-discoveries to the latest releases, from activist documentaries to mainstream Hollywood features, taking in examples from across the globe, whether famous or obscure. We have no desire to force ham-fisted links between very different films and very different filmmakers, to insist that they fit some pre-designated template of women’s cinema. Quite the opposite; we want to explore the diversity of forms taken by women’s filmmaking across different nations and eras. So why focus on women as a separate category at all? Why isolate their films from those of their male peers and think about them as some kind of exceptional or special case? Well, there’s still the matter of persistent inequality of opportunity within certain key authorial roles in the film industries. We all know the stats: even now, post-Bigelow Oscar win, women only constitute 10% of directors globally, and 15% of screenwriters. This is an improvement on previous years but it’s still (obviously!) a very minor proportion of the whole. As the British director Lynne Ramsay has commented, it’s ‘a bit like a country not being filmed – and that country not having a voice. It really does matter.’ And although we are very reluctant to make simple equations between the fact of there being a woman being at the helm of a film and that film offering a more complex picture of femininity (there have always been battalions of male directors who are very good at telling female-focussed stories), there is nonetheless plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that this is often true.

Our main subject is film but we will inevitably make forays into television and other media from time to time. We will be focussing predominantly on films directed by women, but we’re also interested in including films which demonstrate female authorship in other ways (writing, producing or performance). And we won’t be thinking about those films solely as women’s films. We don’t want to ghettoise them, so we’ll be connecting them to the time and place of their production, or their place within a genre or a movement, as much as we connect them to each other. There will be no rhyme or reason to the films that we discuss or the order in which they appear, instead we’ll be hoping for serendipitous connections, unexpected correspondences, sharp contrasts, strange juxtapositions; in other words, a blog that aims to be perpetually different and surprising. Most of the writing will be undertaken by the two main authors but interspersed with guest reviews from others who will each bring a fresh perspective.

And, finally, why the title Auteuse Theory? We were scouting around for a name that indicated a response to the old-fashioned auteur theory, and its insistence on ‘virility’ as a marker of directorial quality (all that Hawks and Ford worship). Women hadn’t only been marginalised in the making of films but the select few who had managed to break through were often given short shrift in the founding critical histories of film (with the exception of the highly problematic case of Leni Riefenstahl), until feminist scholars put Arzner, Weber, Guy-Blache, Lupino and Varda back into the picture. And this work of excavation and rediscovery continues – see the Women Film Pioneers and Women and Silent British Cinema websites for ongoing examples. We are aware of the problems of using the French feminised form of a professional name, drawing a gendered distinction between male and female practitioners (just as some publications reject the word actress in favour of actor for both men and women), but in the spirit of subversion, we wanted to occupy and feminise a word - auteur - which still sits at the heart of so much film scholarship and film appreciation. And although the blog is called Auteuse Theory, it might be more appropriate to think in terms of 'theories', the more intellectually generous plural form. These are some theories and thoughts and ideas arising from watching these films made by women. We hope you enjoy reading them…


Wednesday, 24 June 2015

‘Solide mais pas Solitaire’: Female Solidarity and Feminist Empowerment in Girlhood (Bande de Filles, Céline Sciamma, 2014)

DESPOINA MANTZIARI



Céline Sciamma’s latest film, introduced at the Cannes Film Festival 2014 during the Directors’ Fortnight, has become a worldwide sensation. After travelling the festival circuit (Toronto IFF 2014, Sundance FF 2015), it was finally released in UK cinemas in May 2015. Its contemporaneous release with Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014) has had an ambiguous effect regarding its critical reception, as it has tempted most critics to somehow compare the two. Sue Harris in her review noted the differences between the two, describing it as “much more defiant and unsettling than Richard Linklater’s subtle meditation on middle class American suburban boyhood”[1]. Mark Kermode has gone further in finding visual and thematic kinship between Girlhood and the British films Kidulthood (Menhaj Huda, 2006) and its sequel Adulthood (Noel Clarke, 2008)[2]. And of course, its generic predecessor, La Haine (Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995), has been frequently conjured up in discussing the film’s contribution to the French cycle of realist banlieue cinema. However, it seems more tempting to consider this film alongside Andrea Arnold’s 2009 film Fish Tank, for its focus on the underrepresented and marginal social group of working class adolescent women. The portrayal of the stifling environment these young women are growing up in, and the difficulties they have to face in order to fulfill their desire to transcend these barriers that time and again are raised in front of them in their journey towards adulthood, is the strongest point of comparison, which are lacking in the rest of the films other critics have referred to. Both girls, Mia and Marieme, are strong and solitary[3] in their struggle to adapt and survive in a world that is fundamentally hostile to them.

 

And yet, the comparison to Boyhood may seem inevitable due to the choice of the English title Girlhood. The film’s original title Bande de Filles would be more accurately translated as Girl Gang. In her review, Harris comments: “[t]his cookie-cutter title, while great for distribution, does a great disservice to [the] film”. Initially this may seem like a just comment, but one could argue that this choice is actually a stronger statement, challenging mainstream assumptions concerning the semantic category that the word girlhood triggers. It is too often that we get this type of over-generalised title – and Boyhood is a case in point – to refer to an unmarked minority in society, i.e. white and middle class. Films like The Women (Diane English, 2008) and the Sex and the City franchise come to mind as examples of a multitude of screen products that unashamedly adopt these overarching titles to portray a very specific type of glamorized, Western, white, upper class femininity. And although the issues presented in them point to the wider social structure and the problems it presents [some] women with, one can only celebrate the ramifications of a different use of such an all-encompassing term. Therefore it can be argued that what sets this film apart from the films mentioned by other critics, is its feminist attitude in challenging pre-existing assumptions concerning young women of the social periphery.

 

A lot can be said about this film and the complex account it presents audiences with, concerning the inextricable link between gender, sexuality, race and social class in the constant negotiation for individual identity. The present review focuses on the manifestation of feminist authorship in terms of the representation of the empowering possibilities, as well as the vulnerability, of homosocial female bonding within a strongly patriarchal society. I will specifically address the main character’s need to belong and be accepted by society, which is the central factor impacting all her actions up until the very end, where the film insinuates that she is resolved to venture out on her own. The individual’s need for society has been observed as far back as Aristotle’s time, as well as women’s inferior position caused by legal subordination and poor education. Sciamma, through the depiction of Marieme’s struggle with the social role she is expected to perform as a black woman of the banlieue, produces a passionate social critique, which beautifully completes her trilogy of non-conformist coming-of-age femininity.

 

The film starts with the scene of a group of girls playing American football. The powerful physicality and the vociferous celebration of homosocial female bonding comes in stark contrast with the behavior of these young women outside the pitch, where they have to keep quiet and bow their heads in front of men. From the very first moments the film makes a statement concerning women’s strength as a collective and their vulnerability as individual entities within a patriarchal society. Marieme, facing hostility on all fronts (state represented by the school counsellor, family, and the hyper-masculine world of the banlieue), finds solace, even if temporary, in these all-female groups (e.g. her sisters and the girl gang she joins). And yet these relationships are constantly threatened by male intervention and are only ‘allowed’ as long as they reinforce the status quo. For instance, Marieme’s relationship with her younger sister, Bébé, reflects the solidarity as well as the delicacy and vulnerability of their bond. During a tender scene where they are alone in their room Marieme playfully teases Bébé about her budding breasts. They are laughing and shouting, but they immediately fall silent when they hear their older brother, Djibril, come out of his room. They wait until he leaves the flat to resume their chat, at which point they are both serious and Marieme asks her sister whether Djibril has noticed the change. She advises her to wear baggy T-shirts in order not to draw attention to the fact that she is growing up, which creates the impression that becoming a woman for them is dangerous, as it seems to accompany further restrictions and cruelty. They both seem terrified of Djibril and Marieme is systematically bullied and beaten by him.

 

This sisterly alliance within the domestic space mirrors the supportive bonds that are created amongst the members of the girl gang within the wider social structure of the banlieue. Marieme becomes acquainted with the girls – Lady, Fily and Adiatou – after she quits school, because she is not allowed to progress to general high school. Once stripped of this opportunity, and as a direct consequence of the state’s inability to support people from less privileged backgrounds, she joins the girl gang. Despite her initial reluctance she gets into a lifestyle of petty crime and violence (shoplifting, gang fights, etc.). However, the film does not adopt a judgmental attitude towards these gangs, showing that this disruptive behaviour is a result of their effort to create a little space within their restricting environment where they can forget their problems and enjoy each other’s company. When the girls are alone they can experience a sense of freedom, but they have to create alternate tough-girl personas (Sophie/Lady, Marieme/Vic) for their public encounters with other gangs. They have to constantly prove themselves to the boy gangs by literally fighting for social status against other girl gangs. Quite tellingly the only time Djibril acknowledges Marieme is after he finds out she has beaten another gang’s leader in a street fight.

 

Therefore it seems that male power is predicated on dissolving the supportive bonds between women, and Marieme once again hits a brick wall in her desire to develop as a person and transcend the boundaries that restrict her. After she has achieved Alpha female status in the group, Marieme sees her sister with her friends, bullying a younger girl and stealing her purse. She immediately heads to that direction, grabs her sister and commands her to go home. When Bébé talks back she does not hesitate to slap her hard in the face, at which point Bébé tells her that she is just like Djibril. Their solidarity comes near breaking point and it is a moment of realization for Marieme, who leaves the group and goes home with her sister. Not long after, once her secret relationship with Ismael is revealed, Djibril is once again violent and beats Marieme. This leads to her decision to leave the neighbourhood and she cuts off her ties with her sister and her friends. She meets Abou, who employs her as a drug trafficker, and although the girls try to dissuade her from leaving, Marieme sees no alternative and makes one more attempt to gain some kind of independence. Her visual transformation – dressing in high heels, a red mini dress and a blonde wig while at work and changing into loose trousers and baggy T-shirts after the deliveries – marks her effort to be perceived as one of the boys thus discouraging sexual attention from the men in her environment. However, Abou tries to force himself on her during a party, which results in her running away once again. It seems therefore that for a young woman in her position relationships with men (familial, romantic or professional) seem to only bring her trouble one way or another. Ismael is the only one who seems to genuinely love her and he offers to marry her in an effort to repair her reputation within their social circle. However, Marieme realises that by accepting his proposal she will have to settle for the life of a housewife and she expresses her desire for more than this life can offer. The film ends with Marieme alone crying, finding herself at an impasse and not wanting to return home. As the camera moves forward, she is left out of the frame her crying still audible. At the last minute, the sobbing stops, Marieme, looking strong and determined, moves in the centre of the frame from the right side and walks out of the frame on the left side. The open ending leaves a glimmer of hope that Marieme will keep on struggling for the improvement of her situation and the fulfillment of her innermost desire to find a viable place within society.

 

In her final installment to her coming-of-age trilogy, Sciamma delivers a beautifully crafted yet disturbing picture of the difficult transitions a woman has to face growing up in the Parisian banlieue. Even if Marieme is solid and solitary, the same cannot be said for the director, who is part of an increasing number of women directors who can rightfully claim the status of a feminist auteur within global art cinema. Without being patronizing she makes a film “with” black women instead of “about” them, as she herself has commented[4]. Sad and touching but not “misery-mongering”, as another critic has commented[5], it can serve as a strong social critique demonstrating the need for feminism in creating a fairer society not only to the usual middle-class art cinema audiences but to young black female audiences as well[6]. A celebration of female strength and resilience in the face of adversity, which crosses geographic boundaries, and provides a relatable experience for women who are facing similar restrictions the world over.



1 “Film of the Week: Girlhood,” Sue Harris, last updated May 11, 2015, accessed June 9, 2015, http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/reviews-recommendations/film-week-girlhood
[2] “Girlhood review – electrifying portrait of a French girl in the hood,” Mark Kermode, last modified May 10, 2015, accessed June 9, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/may/10/girlhood-gritty-teen-life-review-mark-kermode
[3] This phrase, “solide et solitaire”, is used by Abou, Marieme’s drug trafficking boss, when he meets her after she runs away from home.
[4] “The stars of Girlhood: ‘Our poster is all over Paris, with four black faces on it…’,” Jonathan Romney, last modified April 26, 2015, accessed June 9, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/apr/26/girlhood-film-karidja-toure-assa-sylla-celine-sciamma
[5] “Girlhood,” Sheila O’Malley, last modified January 30, 2015, accessed June 9, 2015, http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/girlhood-2015
[6] This intention was achieved by a series of screenings in multiplex cinemas outside the Périférique to target specifically young black women.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Tied Up In Knots: In Defence of Fifty Shades of Grey



Richard McCulloch (Regent’s University London)
 

After several weeks of critical derision, rowdy cinemagoers, and one bizarrely controversial fancy-dress costume, Fifty Shades of Grey now appears to have stepped into an elevator and walked out of our lives; at least until the sequel. Many people, I’m sure, will be relieved to see the back of Sam Taylor-Johnson’s adaptation of E.L. James’s phenomenally successful erotic novel, but I am not one of them. I saw the film the weekend it opened, and have been arguing about it with my students, friends and colleagues ever since. 

Yes, it is rife with contradictions. Its tone, for instance, appears playfully ironic one moment, deadly serious the next, while its gender politics seem to tread a peculiar line between misogyny and female empowerment. But it is precisely these contradictions that I think make the film so interesting and effective.  

I cannot remember the last time I went to the cinema and left with such an overwhelming need to talk about what I had just experienced. I had absolutely no idea whether I had enjoyed myself or not, nor could I say how I felt about either of the protagonists, yet these ambiguities fascinated me.  

Having now watched it for a second time, what I want to do in this article is to address some of the prevailing complaints directed at it by professional critics, and offer up a defence of sorts. It is not exactly a masterpiece, but I think Fifty Shades is far more sophisticated than has so far been acknowledged, and it certainly deserves better than to simply be laughed at and discarded. What many people have dismissed as a trashy mess – a tame, vanilla porno with unrealistic characters – I see as an entirely self-conscious romance, whose only major ‘failing’ is that it does too good a job of aligning us with its protagonist.

 
CRITICISM #1: It’s not sexy enough

COUNTER-ARGUMENT: Ana’s reaction to the sex is far more important than the sex itself

When they weren’t competing with each other to see who could come up with the best headline (‘Porn again, Christian,’ ‘Making a bad fist of it,’ etc.), most critics spent their reviews of Fifty Shades explaining how dull they found it. The bulk of this criticism, however, had little to do with pacing or the romantic drama at the centre of the plot, and instead focused on the film’s sex scenes. Reviews were littered with lines such as:

 

‘About as erotic as an ad for Pottery Barn’ (Rolling Stone)

‘Porn for people who shop at Marks & Spencer’ (The Mirror)

‘Those looking for hot, kinky sex will be disappointed’ (USA Today)

‘Nobody in the film has visible genitals’ (Entertainment Weekly)

‘Anyone hoping the movie would really push the S&M envelope may find Christian’s tastefully shot toy room a little… vanilla’ (New York Daily News)

 

Clearly, critics not only wanted but also expected some kind of sexual ‘excess’, and became frustrated when the film apparently refused to give it to them (ahem). What these complaints demonstrate is a struggle over the film’s genre; Fifty Shades is implicitly being categorised as erotica/pornography above all else – sexually explicit material whose primary goal is to arouse its audience. One reviewer even went as far as calling it ‘the movie that promised to be the most titillating motion picture ever made.’

But where on earth has this generic expectation come from? It seems to me that this criticism has much more to do with the hype surrounding Fifty Shades (both novel and adaptation) than the movie itself.  

Its marketing campaign undoubtedly has a lot to answer for here, with posters and trailers continually teasing prospective audiences about Mr. Grey’s ‘very singular’ sexual predilections. Promotional materials often chose to hide parts of Christian (Jamie Dornan) from the audience, depicting him from behind, through enigmatic close ups, or with his face partially obscured (Figure 1).
 


- Figure 1. Fifty Shades of Grey poster (2015)

Similarly, trailers gestured towards steamy sexual encounters without really revealing very much. Perhaps, then, some critics took those gestures as ‘promises’ of what the film would surely deliver – the equivalent of a TV episode delaying viewers’ gratification by demanding they ‘tune in next week’ for narrative closure.  

I actually agree that the film is not especially risqué, but mainstream Hollywood has historically shown little interest in on-screen depictions of sexual dominance and submission. Why should we expect Fifty Shades to be any different?

While critics overwhelmingly bought into the idea that the film was trying and failing to be sexy, I would argue that those scenes were never intended to be focal points. Instead, they seem to function more as character identification devices than isolated moments of spectacle. In fact, there is ample evidence for this across various promotional materials. For instance, in spite of all the whips, restraining devices, and orgasmic writhing that the trailer fleetingly shows us, its clearest emphasis is on reaction shots of Ana (Dakota Johnson) (Figure 2).

 



- Figure 2. Reaction shots of Ana, as seen in the Fifty Shades of Grey official trailer
 

These shots position her as audience surrogate, and suggest that her response to (and curiosity towards) BDSM is far more important than the sex itself. Significantly, the first full-length trailer for the movie ended with Ana’s coquettish request for Christian to ‘enlighten’ her, while posters generally led with the tagline, ‘Curious?’ In one sense, then, the film adopts a strangely paradoxical attitude towards its own sexual content: BDSM is presented as both non-normative and a central selling point – elusive yet alluring. And crucially, this is just as true for Ana as it is for the mainstream viewer, both of whom experience the sex scenes as ‘educational’ rather than titillating. They might be fun, but ultimately they are just brief forays into implicitly unfamiliar territory.

CRITICISM #2: It’s sexist

COUNTER-ARGUMENT: Christian is sexist, but the film is not 

At one point in the movie, Christian explains his fondness for dominance/submission by telling Ana, ‘By giving up control, I felt free. From responsibility. From making decisions. I felt safe. You will too, you’ll see.’ On first viewing, I read this as blatant ideological conservatism – a barely-concealed dismissal of feminism, empowerment and individual agency: Be a dear and stop dreaming of freedom – if you do everything I want you to do, we all win! Similar concerns were echoed in a large number of reviews and think pieces, with writers variously proclaiming ‘misogyny never looked so mesmerising,’ or arguing that the film ‘idealises male power and emotional abuse as something seductive and sexy.’ 

My second viewing, however, made me realise that Fifty Shades’ ‘problematic’ moments are never actually presented as the ‘correct’ choice for Ana. Again, what many writers see as grounds for criticism, I see as psychological realism; Fifty Shades does such an effective job of aligning us with Ana’s emotions that we come out of it feeling just as conflicted, frustrated and unsatisfied as she does.
In the opening half-hour, for example, both Ana and the film are detached, cynical and playful, especially in their attitude towards Christian. When interviewing him near the beginning, she deviates from her roommate’s mostly deferential questions, calling him ‘lucky’ and a ‘control freak’. Importantly, her refusal to take Christian at face value is one of the things he seems to like most about her, as well as being one of the film’s central pleasures.


Ana also jokes that he would make ‘the complete serial killer,’ and in one of the film’s funniest scenes, drunkenly berates him for being ‘so bossy.’ Her subsequent impersonation of him undermines his hyper-masculinity (she adopts an exaggeratedly gruff voice) and his indecisiveness (‘Ana, let’s go for coffee! No! Stay away from me Ana, I don’t want you! Get away! Come here, come here! GO AWAY!’) Moreover, some of Christian’s most frequently-maligned lines of dialogue (‘If you were mine you wouldn’t be able to sit down for a week’) are met with incredulity from Ana, who delivers a brilliantly deadpan ‘What?!’ on several occasions. Moments like these consistently construct Christian as a ridiculous, unbelievable character, whose desire to control Ana deserves to be laughed at or criticised, not celebrated.

It is no coincidence that the film’s detached, playful tone gradually disappears at the same time that Ana herself begins to take Christian more seriously. Their ensuing romance is characterised by an increasingly uncomfortable tension between their competing desires. Ana is clearly attracted to him and intrigued by the BDSM, but yearns for a fairly conventional romance that never fully arrives (‘Why do I have to sleep in [a different room]? We slept in the same bed last night, like normal people!’). Christian, on the other hand, only seems interested in their sexual relationship, and repeatedly shows that he is unwilling to cross the line into romance.  

Because the film encourages such tight identification with Ana, the failure of the couple’s relationship is placed entirely at the feet of Christian and his refusal to compromise on his own desires. The tension between the two characters is manifested in the battle between her desire for ‘conventional’ romance and his desire for ‘unconventional’ sex.

The contract they negotiate throughout the film is thus very much a tangible reminder of Christian’s inflexibility, yet along the way there are plenty of hints that perhaps he isn’t really as stubborn as he appears: he insists, ‘I don’t do the girlfriend thing,’ but then sends her first editions of a selection of novels by her favourite author; he refuses to touch Ana until he has her written consent, but then declares, ‘Fuck the paperwork,’ and kisses her passionately in the hotel elevator; the first time the couple have sex is extremely conventional – nothing non-normative, a nice clean bedroom, and far closer to Ana’s idea of perfection than to his; and he sleeps in the same bed as her twice in the opening 45 minutes, something he claims he ‘never’ does. 

In short, Christian seems to want Ana far more than he wants to stick to his own ‘rules’, which are held up as preposterous and antithetical to the film’s narrative. In order for the narrative to conclude as it ‘should’ (i.e. with the union of the final couple), it is him that needs to change, not her.  

Yes, siding with Ana means that we want her to end up in a happy relationship with a ridiculous, controlling man, but this is not the same as saying that Fifty Shades of Grey endorses an abusive relationship. On the contrary, like Ana, we find Christian’s domineering behaviour both laughable and impractical. The closer their relationship veers towards the dominance/submission that Christian desires, the less happy Ana is, and it is absolutely significant that her final words to him are ‘STOP!’ and ‘NO!’

CRITICISM #3: It’s unrealistic

COUNTER-ARGUMENT: The film is consciously exposing the gap between the ‘fantasy’ and ‘reality’ of romance

When reviewing a new release that also happens to be a widespread cultural phenomenon, it is easy enough to get swayed by the power of consensus. Reading several reviews in preparation for writing this blog, however, I was struck by how few critics seemed willing to take Fifty Shades seriously. The Daily Mail’s Jan Moir’s review is typical in this regard, describing the film as…

‘A tale of two lovers exploring a relationship that takes in the wilder shores of bondage, submission, dominance and terrible dialogue. “Laters, baby!” cries hero Christian Grey, as he leaves his lover, Anastasia Steele […] “That was nice,” she says, after taking a bit of a thrashing from Grey. Nice? You’d think he just gave her a half-hearted peppermint foot rub.’


Philippa Hawker of the Sydney Morning Herald spoke in correspondingly negative terms, insisting that ‘no one can make the trademark phrase “laters, baby” sound anything other than ludicrous.’

It absolutely baffles me that anyone could criticise the film’s dialogue in this way, quite simply because it completely ignores the way in which the lines are delivered, and the context in which they appear. ‘Laters, baby’ is said first by Christian’s adopted brother to Ana’s roommate. When Christian then repeats it to Ana shortly afterwards, he does so with a knowing smirk on his face, highlighting its ‘corniness’ and turning it into an inside joke. In this moment, even Christian is capable of drawing attention to his own artificiality. Equally, the use of the word ‘nice’ to describe their sexual relationship is explicitly marked as incongruous by Christian, who says, ‘it’s been nice knowing me?! Let me remind you how nice it was!’

In a wonderful article for Slate, Amanda Hess goes as far as reading the film as ‘a kind of fan-fic of Fifty Shades the book.’ She argues that, between Sam Taylor-Johnson’s direction and Kelly Marcel’s screenplay, the source novel’s dialogue is laced with irony, which in turn makes its ‘bad’ qualities more palatable. While I am not entirely convinced that the film deems itself ‘superior’ to the book (fanfiction is not always resistant, for example), Hess persuasively demonstrates just how important tone is to understanding and appreciating the events on screen. Taylor-Johnson seems to want us to laugh at the silliness of love while simultaneously being swept up by it.

But Fifty Shades of Grey knows exactly what it is doing, and is extremely self-conscious and upfront about just how fantastical its romance narrative is. The clearest example of this is when the couple spends the night together for the first time, following Ana’s drunken night out in a bar. She awakens to find painkillers and fruit juice at her bedside, along with notes reading ‘Eat me’ and ‘Drink me’, respectively. These overt references to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland mark the couple’s relationship as dreamlike and fantastical from the start.

The movie’s soundtrack plays a central role in heightening this sense of fantasy, with lyrics often referring to escapist pleasures:

·         The opening montage unfolds over Annie Lennox’s cover of ‘I Put a Spell On You’, acknowledging romance’s potential to mislead and distort our perception of reality

·         Their first formal ‘date’, in which Christian whisks her away in his private helicopter, is accompanied by Ellie Goulding’s ‘Love Me Like You Do’. She sings, ‘I’ll let you set the pace / ‘Cause I’m not thinking straight / My head spinning around I can’t see clear no more / What are you waiting for? / Love me like you do.’ These words explicitly draw attention to Ana’s state of mind and the astonishing (albeit pleasing) unreality of this as a romantic experience, while the final two lines hint at her willingness to buy into the fantasy that Christian represents

·         The other song at the centre of the film (and its marketing) is a slowed-down, sexed-up version of Beyoncé’s ‘Crazy in Love’. Again, this is a song that, as its title implies, is very much about the potential for love to alter our sense of normality (‘Such a funny thing for me to try to explain / How I’m feeling and my pride is the one to blame / ‘Cause I know I don’t understand / Just how your love can do what no one else can’) 

If the film is signposting its own fantastical elements so consistently, there seems little value in dismissing its dialogue, characters, gender politics and/or sex scenes as ‘unrealistic’, let alone ‘harmful’. Taylor-Johnson’s goal is to not to see things objectively, but through Ana’s eyes, simultaneously finding Christian attractive and infuriating. The sex is an interesting distraction, but is certainly not the focal point of the film’s drama. By the half-way point, it is abundantly clear that Ana is less keen on an odyssey of sexual discovery than on a relatively ‘normal’ relationship. Her frustration and upset stems from her realisation that the relationship she yearns for is nothing but a fantasy, and impossible in practice.
 

CONCLUSION: Fifty Shades and women’s cinema

The reference point I keep coming back to in relation to all of this is Paul Verhoeven’s infamous Showgirls (1995). Roundly dismissed as trash? Check. Implausible characters, dialogue and acting? Check. Sexual content that ‘fails’ to titillate? Check. Yet Showgirls has enjoyed a modicum of critical re-evaluation since its release, with a growing number of people entertaining the idea that its ‘unpleasantness’ is actually intentional satire, not incompetence (Hunter, 2000; Mizuta Lippit et al., 2003; Nayman, 2014).

Also like Showgirls, Fifty Shades of Grey already has all the trappings of a stone cold cult classic – a chaotic production process (James and Taylor-Johnson argued extensively), critical derision, passionate fans, wildly divergent interpretations, and cultural notoriety. Yet the criticism surrounding the film has been so vehemently gendered that anyone who actually likes it has to either call it a ‘guilty pleasure’ or keep schtum. It is significant that, when I first told my students how great I thought it was, the reaction was overwhelming laughter, followed by disbelief. It is also significant that I knew such a reaction was likely.

The idea that movies aimed at women are inherently less valuable than those aimed at men is as pervasive as it is ridiculous, making it difficult to avoid being taken in by the cultural narrative of critical haughtiness. Debates around both novel and film have, for example, been characterised by a sneering condemnation of female sexuality (particularly regarding older women and ‘mommy porn’), and accompanied by a succession of news stories about unruly women behaving hysterically. One widely-publicised report even described how a woman watching Fifty Shades in Milton Keynes literally lost control of all her bodily functions, causing the cinema to be evacuated.

Of course, when you read past the headlines, it becomes clear that this admittedly unfortunate incident had more to do with the lady in question being heavily drunk than the film she happened to be watching at the time. But it’s not a story if it’s reported like that, is it?

Like Christian Grey himself, critics have remained fixated on Fifty Shades’ sex while refusing to take its romance seriously. Pejorative references to Mills & Boon novels, daytime soap operas, and uncritical female audiences position the film as ‘lowbrow’, and romantic love stories as intrinsically worthless. Needless to say, there is a great deal of hypocrisy in criticising something for being anti-feminist while simultaneously deriding a genre traditionally associated with female audiences.  

Significantly for this website, Fifty Shades of Grey’s opening weekend in North America broke box office records for a female director. Not only that, but this cultural phenomenon has been built on a rare degree of female authorship. Between Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight novels on which E.L. James’s based her fanfiction and subsequent novel, Kelly Marcel’s screenplay, Taylor-Johnson’s direction, and a widely-praised performance by Dakota Johnson, this is by some distance one of the most prominent examples of women’s cinema to come out of a major Hollywood studio in recent years.  

Irrespective of all the hype, critical backlash and commercial success, however, Fifty Shades is also a really sophisticated piece of filmmaking. I admit I went in expecting a load of trashy nonsense that I could laugh at. What I didn’t expect was a film that was in on the joke, but also smart enough to slowly reel me into the narrative without having realised it. I left the cinema despising Christian Grey but somehow also annoyed that he and Ana do not end up with each other, and it took me a good 24 hours of introspection and discussion with others before I managed to come to terms with that contradiction.

After Ana first meets the much-hyped but mysterious Christian, she tells her roommate, ‘He was very smart and intense […] I can understand the fascination.’ I’m saying the same about the film as a whole. If you stayed away because of the bad reviews, or if you saw it once and hated it, I urge you: cast aside your preconceptions and try again. I can’t promise you won’t end up like Ana – frustrated and yelling for it to stop – but find out for yourself what makes it tick rather than just believing all the rumours you’ve heard.

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Hunter, I.Q., ‘Beaver Las Vegas! A Fan-Boy’s Defence of Showgirls’. In Xavier Mendik and Graeme Harper (eds.) Unruly Pleasures: The Cult Film and its Critics (Guildford: FAB Press, 2000): 189-201.

Mizuta Lippit, Akira, et al., ‘Roundtable: Showgirls’, Film Quarterly, 56.3 (Spring 2003): 32-46;

Nayman, Adam, It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls (Toronto: ECW Press, 2014).

 

Monday, 9 February 2015

Le Petit Prince a dit (Christine Pascal, 1992)

NEIL SINYARD



When I first saw Christine Pascal’s Le Petit Prince a dit (1992) some twenty years ago at my local arts cinema, I was so moved that I missed its next (and final) showing because its poignancy was still resonating so powerfully in my mind. I’ll catch up with it again later, I thought. I’m still waiting. On my list of favourite movies awaiting a proper dvd and blu-ray release, this has occupied top spot for some time.
The subject-matter could hardly be less enticing, concerning a ten-year-old girl who is diagnosed as having an inoperable brain tumour and only a short time to live. Yet Pascal’s handling of it is faultless. All dangers of mawkishness or morbidity are scrupulously avoided. For one thing, father (Richard Berry) and mother (Anemone) are not happily married but happily divorced, which is a piquant complication. Also the girl, Violette (Marie Kleiber) is not cuddly cute but plump and petulant i.e. real and believable. And the handling of the revelation of her illness is satisfyingly oblique rather than overtly sentimental. Her scientist father  accidentally discovers it through an overheard conversation  and his scrutiny of a scanner screen in a cold hospital room. Her actress mother learns about it midway through rehearsing an opera in Milan. Life has a way of cutting the rug from under your feet when you are least expecting it. When the father has to explain her illness to the girl, he does it by diagram and behind dark glasses: evasion takes a while to give way to emotion. He will eventually snatch her from the examining table and take her to visit her mother in Milan and then to their family home in Provence, believing that prolonging the child’s life for two more years of painful surgery will be less beneficial  than a joyful holiday break and perhaps the illusion that father and mother have been reunited.
The midsection of the film makes superb use of its locations. The off-season hotels and the open roads, with their deceptive promise of release and freedom, gather a momentum of gentle melancholy. During the final scenes a stray dog that Violette has adopted on their travels goes missing; the father is distracted as he eases Violette’s stepmother out of their cottage so the parents can be together for what could be the girl’s final hours; the mother adopts a tone of strenuous cheerfulness; Violette becomes a bit exasperating. Everything builds to the concluding moments where the girl is about to fall asleep, with her head hurting terribly. The father grips her pillow so tightly that his knuckles show. A mercy killing, if not enacted, is surely being contemplated, at which point the film mercifully stops.
The performances are all superb, and Bruno Coulais’s lovely score put me in mind of  Ravel at his most gravely beautiful. One particular image has stayed with me: the moment when a butterfly lands almost caressingly on Violette’s forehead whilst she is asleep in the country and then flies away. It is as if Nature has come to bless a departing spirit.
Two years or so after seeing the film, I read with deep sadness and shock that Christine Pascal had committed suicide at the age of 42 by throwing herself out of the window of a private hospital near Paris where she was being treated for severe depression. ( Her psychiatrist was later fined and imprisoned for ignoring the danger signs and not ensuring her safety and protection.) Not having seen her other films as writer/director, I remember her mostly though her career as an actress, particularly in five fine films she did for Bertrand Tavernier; and I think of her as someone who, like her one-time flat mates, Isabelle Huppert and Isabelle Adjani, could have become a leading light of post-1970s French cinema. She is extraordinary as one of the sisters in Andrzej Wajda’s  exquisite Young Ladies of Wilko (1979). Her superb acting of the young woman’s breakdown when the hero departs seems to pierce further than mere romantic disappointment: it is more suggestive of someone sustaining an emotional wound that a lifetime will not heal. That kind of hypersensitivity permeates Le Petit Prince a dit, which for me belongs with Rene Clement’s Jeux Interdits and Louis Malle’s Au Revoir les Enfants as one of the great French films about childhood and about the unforeseen tragedies that can befall children. Yet as with Christine Pascal, so with the film: it is the beauty that lingers in the memory more than the sadness. What is sad is that a dvd copy of the film is still so hard to obtain. The film should surely be part of a full, widely available retrospective set that commemorates and celebrates the acting and directing career of this remarkably talented artist. I am ready for my second viewing now.
 
[first published in Sight and Sound, January 2015]

Monday, 26 January 2015

Marleen Gorris and Antonia's Line (1995)

NEIL SINYARD



 
Antonia’s Line won the Oscar for the best foreign language film of 1995, the first film by a female director ever to accomplish this feat. The woman in question was the Dutch film-maker, Marleen Gorris, who had sprung to prominence with her sensational debut film, A Question of Silence (1982). Under the guise of a thriller about the seemingly motiveless murder of a male boutique owner by three women previously unknown to each other, the film was an audacious feminist polemic that stormed the citadels of oppressive patriarchy. Made almost as a kind of avant-garde movie which therefore pulled no punches, the film’s uncompromising originality propelled it into the mainstream, where it became hugely controversial.  Rather like the legal figures at the end of the film who fail to see that the huge explosion of derisive female laughter is directed at them, hypersensitive male critics missed the film’s mode of black comedy and were offended by its seeming proposition that the solution to patriarchy might be murder. (It was not proposing that, any more than cannibalism was being seriously offered as a solution to poverty and starvation in Jonathan Swift’s political pamphlet, A Modest Proposal: both satirists were taking up an extreme position and suggesting a metaphor that highlighted the horror of a particular social situation in the hope that the oppressors might feel some guilt and shame.) Possibly goaded by the angry accusations of an anti-male bias that bordered on hatred, Gorris’s second film was the even more ferocious Broken Mirrors (1984), whose main setting is a brothel in a city where a serial killer is on the loose.  1They’re all bastards,’ says the  proprietor about the clientele of her Happy House brothel to a new girl, who, significantly, has become a prostitute out of economic necessity. ‘Even the nice ones aren’t nice.’  Ironically, the only sympathetic male character in the film is literally a dirty old man,  a harmless,  unseen hermit who is befriended by the brothel-keeper, but who ,to her dismay, is expelled from his hideaway because he is not ‘normal’, the implication being that the ‘normal’ male is much more of a threat.

 

The vehemence of Gorris’s feminism in her first two films even discomfited some feminists, who accused her of being not so much provocative as paranoid. (See, for example, Pam Cook’s review of Broken Mirrors in Monthly Film Bulletin, April, 1985: 114) Nevertheless, The Last Island (1990) continued in much the same vein, being a feminine Lord of the Flies for grown-ups, in which a motley group of men and women are shipwrecked on an island, fall out, turn violent, and where only the women survive. Still, the characterisation of the men is more complex than before; and this strain is continued in Antonia’s Line, which is mellower and even upbeat in effect and allows some males to exhibit such hitherto unacknowledged characteristics as kindness, unselfishness and compassion. Here the nice ones stay nice. Admittedly, the narrative is still unashamedly female-driven and dominated, and the most sympathetic man is a philosophical recluse who would make even  Schopenhauer look cheerful by comparison. Yet there is a greater generosity of spirit to all humankind, and an exuberant relish for life’s variety that sweeps up everything in its path. When it was shown at the Toronto Festival, the film was given a standing ovation.

 

The story is told in flashback by Antonia (a superb performance from Willeke  van Ammelrooy), remembering her past on what she has decided is to be the last day of her life; and also by a narrator who only at the end reveals herself to be Antonia’s great-granddaughter, Sarah. The point of view is important, for, whereas at the beginning  it is said of their community that “ men’s noise rode roughshod over {a woman’s] silence”, the women  will gradually be given a voice; will insist on making themselves heard; and will  assume power over their own lives and, crucially, their own sexuality. When Antonia and her daughter Danielle  (Els Dottermans) have first returned to Antonia’s home village just after the war to attend to her dying mother and take over the family farm, they have walked past a wall which has the sign ‘Welcome To Our Liberators’ scrawled over it. It no doubt refers to the Allied soldiers who have liberated the village after the war, but, in retrospect, it will apply equally to Antonia and Danielle, who will go some way towards liberating the community from its chauvinism, prejudice and conformity.

 

Over a number of years Antonia’s farm will become a kind of benevolent matriarchy, a haven for the misfits and the maltreated of the village.  These include the retarded Deedee (Marina de Graaf), who, in an early scene reminiscent of Thomas Hardy, has been offered up for sale by her brutish father. When she is being sexually abused in a barn by her brother, Pitte, Danielle leaps to her defence by impaling Pitte with a pitchfork and taking her back to the farm. Deedee will bond with Loony Lips, who has been taken under her wing by Antonia when he is being persecuted by the sons of  Farmer Bas (Jan Decleir), a relative newcomer to the village (he has only been there twenty years). Bas will be impressed by Antonia’s humanity and courage and will propose marriage. ‘The sons need a mother,’ he says. ‘But I don’t need your sons,’ says Antonia, who will refuse his offer but will later enter into a relationship with him of deep mutual affection. In the meantime, the growing Danielle decides she wants a baby. ‘And what about a husband to go with it?’ asks Antonia. ‘I don’t think so,’ she replies. Danielle will have a daughter, Therese (Veerle van Overloop), who will turn out to be a mathematical genius. Danielle herself will become a gifted painter and fall in love at first sight with Therese’s teacher, a moment signalled when Danielle, who has always had a vivid imagination,   immediately transforms her in her mind’s eye into a vision of Botticelli’s Venus.

 

And so it goes on. A friend, who has helped Antonia find a suitable young man to father Danielle’s child, turns up at the farm and immediately falls for a curate,  who has just left the church because he found it too constricting for his innate sense of happiness; and together they will produce twelve children. If all this sounds impossibly idyllic, one should add that the film is not blind to the darker sides of life. Although a kindly and much loved tutor to Antonia’s offspring, the hermit Crooked Finger (Mil Seghers) can never shake himself free from his conviction of the fundamental cruelty and futility of existence, and he will commit suicide. Loony Lips will die in an accident and Deedeee will be inconsolable, until reminded that ‘life wants to live’ and she must carry on. In the most disturbing section of the film, Deedee’s contemptible brother, Pitte returns to the village and, in retaliation for Danielle’s attack on him all those years before, pays her back by raping (offscreen) her daughter, Therese. All out for revenge, Antonia will arm herself with a shotgun, but, on confronting the rapist, she curses rather than kills him, saying that killing is not in her nature. Women give life, not take it; to do the latter would be fighting a monster like him with the very weapons they deplore. Curiously, though, the curse  casts its spell. Later that night, Pitte is to be beaten up by the sons of Farmer Bas; and when he returns home, he is murdered by his brother, who has always hated him.

 

The fulfilment of Antonia’s curse seems like an element in a fairy-tale, and is an example of the film’s narrative and stylistic fluidity. Although grounded mainly in earthy naturalism, paying particular attention to collective enterprise and the women’s domestic labour on the farm, the film also has whimsical flights of fantasy and surrealism. Antonia’s mother sits up in her coffin to sing ‘My Blue Heaven’ at her own funeral ; a statue of Mary suddenly smiles; a stone angel uses its wing to clobber an unholy priest who has refused the last rites to a man who sheltered Jews during the war. This rich stew of disparate elements- magical realism, bucolic revelry, Europeanised gloom- was not to everyone’s taste; and even an admirer of the film like Robin Wood thought that the film’s Utopian fantasy, ‘miraculously exempt from the incursions of corporate capitalism’ was inconsistent with other details of the film, such as the fact that this village, which seems removed from most of the trappings of modern civilisation, is nevertheless situated in close proximity to a large modern university. ‘We need empowering utopian fantasies,’ he wrote, but added that ‘they must take into account the conditions within which we actually today exist and struggle, for how can we strive to reach a utopia in which it is impossible to believe?’ (Wood: 316-17) However, it is possible to take the film as essentially as a folk-tale or matriarchal fable with, in the words of a Sight and Sound review (May, 1997: 59) “all the magic of a Chagall painting.” Certainly the film is less concerned with social realism and evolution  than with the eternal life-cycle of birth and death. This is  nicely conveyed in the circling camera movement as Therese’s new-born baby girl is handed from villager to villager in an act of communal blessing; and also suggested in the narrator’s summation that ‘as this long chronicle draws to a conclusion, nothing has ended.’

 

Since Antonia’s Line, Gorris has moved from filming her own original screenplays and tended to specialise more in heavyweight literary adaptations. She crafted a fine cinematic interpretation of Virginia Woolf’s feminist classic, Mrs Dalloway (1997), starring Vanessa Redgrave; and an interesting version of Vladimir Nabokov’s The Luzhin Project (2000), with John Turturro and Emily Watson. With Emily Watson again, she also made a compelling adaptation of Eugenia Ginzburg’s harrowing but ultimately heroic personal memoir as a literary professor in the Stalinist era sentenced to ten years hard labour in Siberia, Within the Whirlwind (2009), which has had only a limited worldwide release. Recently she has directed a television mini-series about the life of Rembrandt. Antonia’s Line remains her biggest international success thus far, with audiences relishing its warm vitality, lusty femininity and gutsy resilience in the face of patriarchal prejudice and pressure, though, in my view, Robin Wood is right in suggesting  that A Question of Silence still stands as ‘her finest achievement to date’ (Wood: 317)  In that film, the women’s laughter in the courtroom that concludes the trial, undermining the confidence and certainty of arrogant male authority, is as liberating as  Ibsen’s notorious and resonant slammed door that concludes A Doll’s House. A Question of Suilence alone will ensure that Gorris remains a permanent icon of feminist film at its most powerful,  provocative and pertinent.

 


Suggested Reading

 

Pam Cook             ‘Review: Broken Mirrors,’ Monthly Film Bulletin,

          April, 1985,p.114.

Maggie Humm      ‘Author/Auteur: Feminist Literary Theory and Feminist

         Film’ in Feminism and Film, Edinburgh University Press,1999, pp.90-111.

Barbara Koenig Quart  Women Directors: The Emergence of a New Cinema,

          New York: Praeger, 1988.

Neil Sinyard            ‘A Question of Gorris’, Dutch Crossing, Winter,1997,

          pp.100-116.

Tom Tunney and

Geoffrey McNab      ‘Review: Antonia’s Line’, Sight and Sound, May, 1997,p.59.

Robin Wood              Sexual Politics and Narrative Film, Columbia University Press,

         1998, pp.315-17.