“Bait” closely resembles “The Clancy Kid” in that it is another story about the gender dynamics of Barrett’s fictional Irish town. In Glanbeigh, the young women are fierce and exotic creatures while the young men are so devoid of agency that they seem as though they could turn into furniture at any moment.
In both stories, a hopeless young local moves into the orbit of an impossibly glamorous local girl who brings something resembling happiness into his life only for it to be snatched away. Incapable either of grasping why the relationship came to an end or finding a replacement source of happiness, the young men fall into a pit of nostalgic self-loathing that prevents any and all forward motion. They simply cannot get over letting such gorgeous and exotic creatures slip through their fingers.
This is not just problematic, it is also profoundly unhealthy and the fact that all the men keep falling into the same hideous trap is a comment both upon the fucked up nature of the town’s male inhabitants and the fucked up nature of the town. If “The Clancy Kid” is a broad introduction to the pathological sexism of Glanbeigh then “Bait” is a look at the ugly masculinity that fuels it.
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And so ends the trilogy of films that began the career of Celine Sciamma… Like many French directors, Sciamma began her career by considering childhood and young adulthood. Her debut feature Water Lillies tells of a young girl who falls head-over-heels in love with an older girl who, despite being flattered by the attention and eager to return the flirtation, is more interested in boys. Set amidst the sun-drenched modernism of suburban France, Water Lillies captures attention both thorough its minimalist stylings and its willingness to embrace the fluidity of human sexuality. Sciamma’s second film Tomboy is no less thematically ambitious. Set against a very similar background of summertime and concrete, the film follows a young person who uses the opportunity presented by a new town and a new group of friends to establish a male identity. While this identity is inevitably shut down by a mother who forces Laure to apologise for ‘passing herself off’ as Mikael, the film ends on an upbeat note by suggesting that friendship and even love can reach across the abyss of gender binaries. Sciamma’s third film finds her returning to sunshine and concrete as well as to questions of female identity but it also shows her ambition as a filmmaker as Girlhood addresses not only gender but race and social class as well.
I usually only mention stuff like film names and DVD covers when complaining about the film industry’s pathetic attempts to jump on band-wagons and market art house films as action movies. However, the decision to release Bande de Filles (literally ‘Gang of Girls’) under the English-language title Girlhood was an absolute stroke of genius… aside from the fact that the French word ‘bande’ carries significantly less racist baggage than the English word ‘gang’, renaming Bande de Filles as Girlhood sets up a natural dialogue between this small French film and Richard Linklater’s hugely-visible and over-rated Boyhood. In fact, the dialogue between the two films is what inspired me to review them both in the same week.
Despite an effort to slipstream the marketing spend of Boyhood’s awards campaign, Girlhood is actually a very different prospect: While Linklater’s film spans over a decade, Sciamma’s covers little more than a year in the life of a young black woman growing up in the suburbs of Paris. Where Linklater’s film sprawls over 160 minutes with neither character arcs nor themes to provide structure, Girlhood seems to cram all the questions of youth into a perfectly-formed 116 minutes. It would be both easy and accurate to state that Girlhood is merely a better made and more interesting film than Boyhood but doing so would do a grave injustice to Sciamma’s talent as Girlhood is an absolutely sensational film in its own right. This is what real cinema is all about.
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The title of Kim Longinotto’s documentary Divorce Iranian Style appears to be a tip of the hat to Pietro Germi’s Divorce Italian Style, an award-winning comedy from a time when being in a language other than English was no barrier to success at the Oscars. Germi’s film concerns an Italian nobleman who, despite having fallen out of love with his wife, is unable to get a divorce under the Italian legal system. Desperate for a way out, he concocts a plan to manipulate his wife into having an affair so that he can burst in on the lovers, kill his wife and then escape with a slap on the wrist after claiming that it was a crime of passion. While the outcome of the nobleman’s scheming is neither here nor there, the film suggests that people will always find a way to liberate themselves from an un-loved spouse… even when the legal system makes divorce a practical impossibility.
Longinotto’s Divorce Iranian Style is shot almost entirely inside one of Teheran’s family courts where Islamic judges known as Qadi preside over divorce proceedings that heavily favour the husband and the institution of marriage. However, despite the presence of horrendous structural inequalities, Longinotto’s subjects fight for their emancipation using any and all tactics at their disposal.
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Back in the early 1980s, Chigusa Nagayo and Lioness Asuka formed a professional wrestling tag-team known as The Crush Girls. Part of the second generation of Japanese professional wrestlers, the Crush Girls proved so impossibly popular that they changed the face of professional women’s wrestling and raised the bar for female wrestlers all over the world. Despite their immense popularity, the Crush Girls split up in 1989 when they reached the then-mandatory retirement age of 27. Six years later, Chigusa Nagayo came out of retirement to found Gaea Japan, an entirely new wrestling promotion in which she would also play out a long-standing grudge with her one-time partner Lioness Asuka. Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams’ Gaea Girls is a documentary filmed in and around the training facilities of Gaea Japan that looks at how aspiring female wrestlers cope not only with the traditionally male-dominated world of professional wrestling but also with Chigusa Nagayo’s ideas about parenting.
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FilmJuice have my review of Lars von Trier’s Palme D’Or-winning tragedy Breaking the Waves.
Breaking the Waves tells of a rather innocent young woman from an isolated Scottish religious community who decides to marry a man who is employed on one of the local oil rigs. At first, the couple (played by Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgaard) seem perfectly matched as their sex life is nothing short of epic. So profound is the young woman’s passion for her husband that when he has to go back to the oil rig to work, she pines terribly. In fact, she pines so much that she prays for God to return her husband to her side. God appears to answer the young woman’s prayers when a hideous industrial accident paralyses her husband. Unfortunately, because the couple’s relationship is almost exclusively physical, the husband’s inability to have sex with his wife comes to represent a failure of their love and so he encourages her to have sex with other men.
Breaking the Waves is a film about faith. Bess uses her faith in God as a template for her relationship with Jan and because her relationship with God is one of blind, unquestioning and passionate submission, she does not have it in her to deny her heavily-medicated husband when he begins making perverse requests. Bess’s faith in God and Jan is so pronounced that when Jan’s condition deteriorates, she believes that it is because of her lack of faith and so she begins to seek out increasingly violent and degrading men with whom to have sex. The end of the film is gut-wrenching because it proves that Bess was right all along but it also leaves you wondering what kind of God/Husband would demand such blind and self-destructive obedience from those they claim to love?
I very much enjoyed Breaking the Waves and — incredibly rarely for me — I actually teared up at the end of it but my enjoyment of the film in no way diminishes the fact that I regard it as somewhat problematic.
We would all like to believe that art house film provides a viable alternative to the generic and politically dubious output of Hollywood but the truth is that European art film has its own set of well-rehearsed and problematic narratives. Narratives favoured simply by virtue of the fact that most of the people making European art house films come from a particular gender, a particular class and a particular ethnicity. One of the more oppressively ugly stock narratives in art house film involves a beautiful and engaging young woman who winds up getting beaten, humiliated, raped and forced into sex work so that the pathos of her downfall may help the director point an accusing finger at the horrors of the world. Breaking the Waves uses this narrative as does Robert Bresson’s Mouchette, Bigas Lunas’ The Ages of Lulu and it also resurfaces (albeit in a more critical and self-aware form) in films like Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari and Francois Ozon’s Jeune et Jolie. How many times do we have to revisit this narrative before people start to realise that it’s rather long in the tooth? How frequently do you see a film in which a man’s descent into sex work mirrors their existential collapse? How many films are there in which a female character sees the horror of the world and responds by becoming a cold-eyed murderer or ruthless business woman? As I say in my review, Breaking the Waves is a brilliantly made and deeply affecting film but the reason it works so well is that there have been literally dozens of films made using the exact same storyline.
Having re-watched Antichrist since watching Breaking the Waves, I am struck by how many of von Trier’s works seem to walk the line between casual prejudice and critical self-analysis. Indeed, many critics of Antichrist accused it of being profoundly misogynistic as the plot revolves around a woman who goes insane after internalising some misogynistic texts she had been studying as part of a PhD. I certainly agree that Antichrist (much like Breaking the Waves) is in dialogue with a western tradition of misogynistic attitudes towards women but both films make it quite clear that misogyny enters the world of the film through the actions of patriarchal men who coerce their wives into acting out misogynistic life scripts (the deranged screeching harpy in Antichrist and the saintly victim in Breaking the Waves).
It is always tempting to invoke authorial intent in order to collapse the wave function and deposit von Trier’s work on one side or another of the fence but what keeps me returning to his work is precisely this ambiguity, his recognition that horrible attitudes lie buried just below the surface and that it is often incredibly difficult to work out whether one is doing the right thing or perpetuating blind privilege and prejudice. I have long been of the opinion that the art house film scene needs a groundswell of popular feminist criticism to challenge the out-dated attitudes and tropes that are blindly reproduced in film after film but I genuinely have no idea what the social justice movement would make of a filmmaker like von Trier.
“The astonishing thing is not that some people steal or that others occasionally go out on strike, but rather that all those who are starving do not steal as a regular practice, and all those who are exploited are not continually out on strike: after centuries of exploitation, why do people still tolerate being humiliated and enslaved, to such a point, indeed, that they actually want humiliation and slavery not only for others but for themselves?”
So wrote the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich in his book on the psycho-sexual attractions of authoritarianism The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933). Nowhere is this question more salient than in considering man’s oppression of women. Indeed, the question is not why would a woman cut off her partner’s penis and throw it out the window of a speeding car but rather why it is not a daily occurrence. A partial answer can be found in the concept of Kyriarchy. ‘Kyriarchy’ is a neologism coined by the Harvard theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. This concept, designed to clear some of the clutter from the road to clarity, reflects the fact that society is far more complex than a simple dichotomy of power between men and women. In truth, society is structured by an ever-changing swarm of inequalities that reflects the dynamic nature of our civilisation. Yes, a man may well have an easier time rising to the top than a woman but at the same time a lesbian woman may well have an easier time of it than a trans man and a black man may lead a harder life than an asian woman while a one-legged Baha’i woman may find doors opening to her that have previously been shut in the face of a HIV+ Catholic. Humanity’s inhumanity to Humanity takes myriad forms. We are ruled not by a Patriarchal father but by a Kyriarchal lord and the shape of that lord is forever changing.
The dynamic nature of human oppression goes some way to explaining the extent to which women can be complicit in the oppression of other women. This is a theme that cuts right to the heart of Debra Granik’s cinematic adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s novel Winter’s Bone (2006). Set in the Ozark mountains, the film tells the story of a seventeen year-old girl as she navigates the terrifying network of hatreds, fears and obligations that holds together her impoverished rural community.
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*Please Note – This Piece is Full of Spoilers*
There are ideas that seem to be of a certain place and time. Call them icons, if you will. One of the most powerful icons of the early to mid twentieth century is the femme fatale. Born of a cultural climate where gender was not divorced from sex and where women were expected to be virginal and submissive, femme fatales rejected this essentialist vision of gender by being sexually aggressive, socially independent and more than willing to use their sexual wiles to render men subservient to their own desires and goals. Decades after the arrival of the contraceptive pill and miles down the road towards sexual equality, you could be forgiven for thinking that a society such as ours has outgrown the need for bold cinematic challenges to our understandings of gender. Indeed, nowadays the femme fatale seems like little more than an anachronism; as out of place in the modern world as a cockney spiv might be in pre-Credit Crunch London. However, even the most liberal of societies falls into lazy thought patterns, habits of conception that need to be re-examined lest they go stale, rot and become oppressive dogma. Swedish Vampire film Let The Right One In (2008) is a film that rides out not only against popular theories of gender, but also against the commonly held belief that children are innocent, pliable creatures who need to be protected from adults. It does so by rejuvenating and reinventing that most iconoclastic of icons, the femme fatale.
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