Girls on Film: Questioning Single Motherhood and Examining the Sad Life of Marilyn Monroe

Girls on Film: Questioning Single Motherhood and Examining the Sad Life of Marilyn Monroe

Sep 20, 2012

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.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Note: Below is our final female-centric Toronto International Film Festival dispatch. Please visit our official TIFF page for all festival coverage, and our Girls on Film page to read more.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

After the mess of Amelia, director Mira Nair returns with The Reluctant Fundamentalist, an intriguing adaptation of Mohsin Hamid's bestselling novel. Fear battles fact as an American journalist (Liev Schreiber) talks to a presumed fundamentalist, Changez (Riz Ahmed). The former hopes to get information about a recently abducted professor while the latter simply wants to relay his story. Changez was an Ivy League grad quickly rising up the business ranks in Manhattan when 9/11 changed his life. In one instant he was no longer a businessman, but a potential terrorist – continually detained without cause, increasingly alienated from his coworkers and girlfriend (Kate Hudson). Bit by bit he was pushed out, until he came back to Pakistan to rebuild his life.

Though it's a straightforward thriller, the film also plays with expectation and assumption, which is at the heart of the plot – how human reaction can eradicate rationale. The obvious focus is the experience of those under scrutiny, regardless of fact, but the real heart to the film is this battle of heart and mind. Nair plays with reactions, the audience continually manipulated between trusting and questioning Changez, as well as the journalist interviewing him. As every little piece of evidence distinctly changes the truth of the situation, the viewer is forced to confront their own assumptions, and just how wrong they often are.

Love, Marilyn

Love, Marilyn

Oscar-nominated documentary director Liz Garbus has a great premise for her latest film – gathering a slew of talented actors like Glenn Close, Paul Giamatti and Evan Rachel Wood to perform Marilyn Monroe's private journals and correspondences. Reality intermingles with drama as a new side to the Hollywood icon is revealed. Garbus edits together the actors' performances with interviews, photographs and stock footage, outlining Monroe's inner motivations and whimsy from her early days, through her work and marriages, and up to the final moments before death. The starlet fades away as a shrewd, but troubled, woman emerges – one who carefully manufactured her image right down to how she moved her body (after researching a text on the human body).

Sadly, however, it's a conceit only half utilized. The dynamic approach begs for an artistic eye – talents performing in dynamic locations with classic lighting... perhaps even shot on grainy, color-popping film to complement the footage of the star. Instead, the camera battles for the attention, rarely content with staying still and letting the actor act. It zooms in and out, moving left and right as actors play in front of a screen where portrait studio backdrops, spindly trees, and more rest behind them. Instead of being intimate re-creations from talented professionals, they often become bobbing heads floating on the screen. Fortunately, the mystery and intrigue within Monroe's story and her own words is enough to engage and entertain, even if the result doesn't fully life up to its potential.

Hannah Arendt Still

Hannah Arendt

In her latest biography, Margarethe von Trotta introduces the world to Hannah Arendt through the Adolf Eichmann trial. When he was captured and brought to Israel after his war crimes in World War II, the political theorist pitched a story to the New Yorker and headed out to cover the trial, eager to see justice. When she arrived, however, she was faced with an awkward reality. He wasn't the evil mastermind she imagined, which led her to philosophize about the "banality of evil" – an infamous theory that lost her many friends and admirers.

Von Trotta uses this as our entry point to the thinker, offering a film whose engagement rests in its subject, not its cinematic delivery. The filmmaker merges real footage of the trial with her account to good effect, but the story gets somewhat bogged in interpersonal minutia until Arendt's thinking becomes secondary to her interpersonal relationships. There is simply too much to cover to give anything its full resonance, from her alleged affair with Heidegger to the background of the world she lived in – this is a documentary that will appeal most to those familiar with her, not fresh eyes to the story. Nevertheless, German actress Barbara Sukowa blends into her role; and as Mary McCarthy, Janet McTeer often steals scenes with her magnetic charisma and fervent support (she was a famous novelist and sister to late actor Kevin McCarthy).

First Comes Love still

First Comes Love

Nina Davenport's latest documentary is an interesting thing – a film that's unflinchingly honest and compelling, while equally frustrating to the point of exasperation. For women, it's a double-edged sword – a woman baring all to reveal her quest to be a mother, a highly female story, and a woman who does so in a terribly flawed way. Instead of simply an account of becoming a single mother, First Comes Love becomes an exercise in self-obsession, entitlement and haphazard planning of one woman.

The aspects that would make for a truly compelling look into single motherhood – logistical planning about how she will pull this off and what she'll need – are generally ignored. The result – the sperm donor grows frustrated with his involvement (which was never clearly defined, to the point that they never discuss what he will be called until late in the game), the friend and birth partner has to attend couple's counselling, friends keep her house clean, the boyfriend fixes things, and the father (who is against the idea) is guilted for not financially helping out. The avoidance of details casts an unfortunate pallor on the film, framing her quest not so much as a study in single motherhood as a question against it.

Short Cuts Canada

Though TIFF is an international collection of films, their Short Cuts Canada program offers up a mix of emerging short filmmakers each year. 2012's selection runs the gamut from explorations of French Surrealism to everyday traffic jams, and also includes a number of notable shorts from female filmmakers you'll want to track down, including:

Faillir, Sophie Dupuis – A taboo tale about a university frosh who confronts the increasing sexual tension between her and her brother, Dupuis handles the story honestly and respectfully.

Safe Room, Elizabeth Lazebnik – This brief short is a compelling look into a safe room in Israel during the Gulf War, as a young girl attempts to give her gas mask to her dog.

The Worst Day Ever, Sophie Jarvis – Bad days are put into perspective in this fun short when little Bernard wakes up and has the literal worst day ever – one that includes bodily injury, isolation and death.


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