Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.
Christmas might be the most wonderful time of the year, but it isn’t always the most women friendly. As we discussed last year, the holiday might be the time of home and family, but it’s also a boys’ club on-screen. For every Susan Walker finding a miracle on 34th Street, there are mounds of boys delighting in St. Nick. Even this year’s Rise of the Guardians reminds children of magic while framing the charming affair mostly through the eyes of young boys and male guardians.
But for all the male-skewed holiday entertainment, things are a bit different for this year’s Christmas release schedule. Women are infused into almost every facet of filmmaking over the next few weeks – good and bad – from the directorial wonder of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, to the musical doom of Anne Hathaway’s Fantine. In two weeks we’re offered screens full of women young and old, from wealth and poverty, white and black, across the globe. Judd Apatow lets his daughters steal the stage in This Is 40 while Emmanuelle Riva faces cinematic death in Amour, and more family-friendly films like Parental Guidance and The Guilt Trip give Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand more time on the screen.
It’s not a perfect whirlwind – it would, most importantly, be so lovely to see more racial diversity in these releases – but it’s a decent Christmas gift from Hollywood – a release schedule with no shortage of female-infused entertainment to choose from. Without further ado, here’s a femme-centric rundown of 2012’s holiday season.
THE WEEK OF DECEMBER 21
Zero Dark Thirty
The Hurt Locker was a game changer – Kathryn Bigelow crafted a compelling look at men at war, one successful enough to win her the Best Director trophy at the Oscars (the first woman in history to do so). Returning with Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow improves on her Locker formula while creating one of the best and most compelling female characters of the year – Jessica Chastain’s Maya.
Bigelow takes us through the hunt for Osama bin Laden, from the highly controversial moments of torture to the tense moments of smart thinking that led Navy S.E.A.L.s to kill the infamous terrorist. This is a heroine without qualifiers, the professional without a wild romantic streak, quirkiness or other troublesome trait that usually mars our toughest leading ladies. Bigelow offers us the full package – a compelling and well-crafted thriller that continues to wow critics, and a female lead with purpose and skilled conviction. Maya is a revelation, one that allows people to be people without strict expectation, one that frees the viewer from a barrage of alienating gender tropes.
This Is 40
Pete and Debbie weren’t the most enlightened couples to grace Judd Apatow’s work. In Knocked Up, they were the classic, stereotypical pair – the easygoing guy and the suspicious shrew. He searched for a moment to himself, and she searched for the indiscretions she was sure he was having. In This Is 40, there is no cheating paranoia, but even more marital dysfunction.
Instead of playing as the highly personal and comedic piece Apatow intended, his latest is a parade of dysfunction so thorough that our notions of happy endings begin to change. Pete and Debbie are a couple lacking any ability to communicate or connect, unless they take a vacation from their lives and regress into immaturity. Their personal inadequacies are matched by their professional incompetence, as both of their businesses struggle to survive their poor management. With their marriage and jobs on the line, we should be rooting for romantic and financial success, but divorce and bankruptcy begin to seem like their best option.
As two highly dysfunctional characters, neither Pete nor Debbie reveal a big gender divide. That is left for costar Megan Fox whose sexualization in Transformers seems subtle compared to her treatment in This Is 40. There are prolonged conversations about her sexiness, whether she wears underwear, how her breasts hang and feel, and how sexually adventurous she is. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Fox is juxtaposed with the film’s best female characters – Pete and Debbie’s daughters, played by Apatow’s own children. The dynamics between the sisters is instantly recognizable, and if the shoddy personal and professional aspects of the film were washed away to let the young women shine, Apatow would truly have a personal and resonating comedy.
Michael Haneke’s latest sees the director’s trademark harshness traded for some greater sentimentality – the hard twists of life revealed through a story dedicated to love. This is a romance not about all that happily ever after idealism, but rather the challenges of the end, as one loving couple face the darker trials of old age and failing health. Eighty-five-year-old French actress Emmanuelle Riva plays Anne, a woman whose late-life ease abruptly ends when she suffers a stroke. The ailment tests her notions of life and happiness as well as that of her husband Georges’ (Jean-Louis Trintignant).
It’s a meaty and compelling story, one that’s a refreshing contrast to the usual onslaught of youthful features. It is, however, also a film that understands the struggle with age much more than its female protagonists (Anne and her frustrated daughter, played by Isabelle Huppert). It works in the frame of a husband watching his wife’s life drift away, while leaving the female experience of this death at arm’s length. It’s fascinating, but distant.
Having yet to catch this feature, I direct you to Allison Willmore’s excellent review, which discusses the film, its aspects of survival and melodrama, the questions of race it provokes (both in its treatment of the tsunami and how it changed the nationality of the real people that inspired the story), and Naomi Watts’ “deeply believable” acting.
On the Road
This is a movie about men being manly on the road. It’s long and meandering peppered with stunning views of the wintry road Dean and Sal travel. Like the source material, the women have little to do, save following these men around and tending to their whim, which is unfortunate since each presents an interesting view into the world, especially Amy Adams’ Jane and Kristen Stewart’s Marylou. Their brief screen time offers a nice break from the status quo.
Also out: Jack Reacher, The Guilt Trip, Not Fade Away
THE WEEK OF DECEMBER 28
Quentin Tarantino has offered up many grisly tales of women facing down death with snappy quips. In Django Unchained, we get exactly one – Kerry Washington’s Broomhilda. She is the damsel in distress – the woman that fancy-pantsed Django and King Schultz must free. Washington is great in the role, but we don’t get to see much more than the many ways she suffers.
What’s peculiar, however, is the female cameos who get nothing to do. It begins with Amber Tamblyn, who peeks out a window when Django comes to a dusty town. She appears, she disappears, and is never seen again. She says nothing in a cameo so minimal that it seems like she must get something to do, at some point. When an obviously female masked tracker appears later, it almost seems like it’s that same window girl, who might lend a hand as the fight for Broomhilda gets hairy. But she’s not. The new eyes belong to Zoe Bell, stuntwoman and generally kick-ass Tarantino alum. She gets slightly more screen time, looking through a collection of stereoscopic images, but like Tamblyn, this is it. Both kick-ass real-life women are nothing more than little Easter eggs for the trained eye, outside Tarantino’s world of action and catchy banter.
There is not much for Frances McDormand to do in Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land either, but the skilled actress does a lot with little. This is the story of a man (Matt Damon) whose professional and personal ethics are challenged when he tries to sell an ailing town on the wonders of natural gas while struggling against wary townsfolk and an outspoken environmentalist (John Krasinski). McDormand is his partner, offering insight and levity as needed on his hero’s quest.
Though a marginal player in this story, McDormand’s Sue is a frankly refreshing characterization of the female professional. Sue doesn’t fall victim to any of Hollywood’s usual tropes. She flirts with a sexy local, but doesn’t let the flirtation become anything more and cloud her judgment. She is a mother with feelings, but doesn’t let her motherhood guide her work. She’s smart, clever and secure in her position – right and wrong. Instead of playing the female romantic, she’s the sensible friend to Damon’s idealism, the voice of reason to his increasingly muddied world of professional demands and ethical concerns.
After a miserable and music-free adaptation in the ‘90s, Jean Valjean returns in the beloved hands of Hugh Jackman. And though he manages to entertain, Tom Hooper’s film belongs to the women, who offer the power needed to survive this look at 19th-century France. Samantha Barks, Amanda Seyfried and young Isabelle Allen slide into their roles fluidly, though even then, they are no match for Anne Hathaway. This is the blessing and curse of the film.
Hathaway’s Fantine is beautiful – her voice falling in and out of power through each belted line, carefully toeing the line the production struggled to set between perfectly coiffed music and the broken voice of pain. But it’s so powerful that nothing – not even Hugh Jackman – can keep up. The mix of Fantine’s terrible downfall and Hathaway’s skilled performance leave a wake of loss and absence that mars the continuation of Valjean and Cosette’s story. Nevertheless, it’s something to behold.
Also out: Parental Guidance, West of Memphis