Film review: Transgressing women make good cinema
By LILY HUDSON
How did women transgress on screen in 2014?
Jenny Slate refused to feel guilty or haunted about her abortion in Gillian Robespierre’s likable indie The Obvious Child.
Scarlett Johansson turned the predator-prey tables on some very unfortunate Scottish men in Jonathan Glazer’s austere, unnerving Under the Skin.
And the less said about Melissa McCarthy’s Tammy, the better, but you do have to admire her determination to buck comedy’s entrenched gender stereotypes.
In movie circles, 2014 will likely be remembered as the year that Guardians of the Galaxy’s frat-lite humor dominated the multiplex, while the arthouse crowd was captivated by Richard Linklater’s a-young-man-comes-of-age tale Boyhood.But it was also the year of a pair of films that confronted taboos about women.
In some ways the two features couldn’t be more different. One was a box office behemoth, the other a foreign indie that seems to have barely made a blip. But they had one thing in common: a riveting female protagonist who behaves very badly. Actually, make that two things in common: both films were both adapted from controversial novels penned by women. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl was the summer page-turner of 2012, and Wetlands, the 2008 debut of Charlotte Roche.
It’s little known here, but the release of Roche’s novel caused a sensation in her native Germany, and its inventive mix of gross-out imagery and family drama steadily scaled the international bestseller list. The German title, Feuchtgebiete, translates to “wetlands,” or, more literally, “damp areas“—get the picture? The German language film adaptation was directed by David Wnendt, who proves with a pulsing score and frenetic pace that the legacy of Run Lola Run is alive and well in Deutschland.
Its uninhibited teenage protagonist Helen Memel (27-year-old Carla Juri, playing a decade younger) radiates cool-girl effortlessness, with a skateboard, a tight body and a sunny smile. She also has some unorthodox ideas about personal hygiene which elicit reactions ranging from “Fine, if that’s what you’re into,” to “No no no no no, absolutely not.” (In one scene, she and a girl friend swap tampons in a bathroom stall—revolting, to be sure, but also awfully creative.) Her disinterest in conventional cleanliness eventually leads to the infection that puts her in the hospital, where the majority of the story unfolds.
Wetlands’ focus on the grotesquerie of the body is relentless: emesis, menses, episiotomies, hemorrhoids, intimate shaving accidents and self-inflicted flesh wounds all figure into the plot. Cleverly contrasting Helen’s sprightly, sexy persona with some seriously off-putting dirty girl behavior, plus a level of viscera obsession that would make David Cronenberg proud, it brings the ridiculousness of body anxiety to the forefront through the lens of young woman who is wholly unashamed by the many fluids and functions of her body.
Helen is nonchalant not only about her bodily functions, but about her thriving libido, her bisexuality and the tangle of emotional baggage that follows her from her tumultuous family. Her greatest triumph as a protagonist is that she accepts even the aspects of herself that are heavily damaged. As grimace-inducing as her infractions against propriety might be, they go unpunished and ultimately work in her favor: her insouciance attracts a toothsome male nurse and she is cheering into the wind by the film’s feel-good finale.
The crimes of Gone Girl’s protagonist are more, well, criminal. (NOTE: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE PLOT OF GONE GIRL) Titular girl Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike, with a hard-won American accent) aims to frame her unfaithful husband for her own murder, thereby capturing the Queen in the long, toxic game of their marriage. Gillian Flynn adapted her own novel for the screen, and her screenplay skewers the pursuit of a perfect marriage as the ultimate status symbol, as well as the reductive cultural roles allocated to women. Ruthless, crafty Amy takes skillful advantage of a society that sees women like herself – young, white, attractive, upper-class – as especially innocent and poignant victims. Using the media as kindling, she roasts her husband over the flame of public opinion to suit her own vindictive goals. (The film is also a deft portrayal of the phenomenon of Missing White Woman Syndrome.)
Gone Girl trafficks shamelessly in time-worn Black Widow/Femme Fatale tropes about wrathful women who lie, manipulate and use sex as a weapon to get what they want. Yet it still manages to come out on top, feeling postmodern and multifaceted, more than just a regressive bunny boiler. Perhaps it’s because the volatile yet supremely image-conscious Amy resembles nothing so much as a female Patrick Bateman, the yuppie-from-hell who hacked his way through American Psycho. Amy and Patrick are both extreme type-A nutjobs with empathy vacuums where their eyes should be. Gone Girl shares American Psycho’s glib approach to ultra-violent mayhem, as well as its entitled, soulless anti-hero. Both films end up as far-fetched but stirring satirical allegories for the moral disfigurement that afflicts those who believe they actually deserve to have everything they want.
Gone Girl also evokes the spirit of revenge films like Teeth or Hard Candy, in which women who seem at first glance soft and vulnerable lash out in bouts of bloody retribution. These are genre films of pure catharsis, a gratifying counterbalance to the notion that women are less inclined to rage or violence. Flynn has been vocal in interviews about disputing the idea of women as inherently more kind, selfless or caring than men. For her, feminism is not a cheerleading program to help women strive towards their best selves, but an initiative to see women counted as fully-fledged, fallible human beings alongside men.
Both Wetlands and Gone Girl underscore the feminist value of fictional women who don’t just reveal the ugliest parts of themselves, but revel in them. And it’s satisfying to see female characters express a wide range of human experience on screen, be they flawed, gross, unbalanced or self-contradictory. Films like these create space for viewers to acknowledge and consider the shadowy parts of ourselves, the parts we may not love, that smell bad or drip blood – or the selfish, cruel parts that would like to see someone who hurts us get hurt in return.
Flynn’s reign of feminist-inflected thrillers continues with an upcoming 2015 adaptation of her novel Dark Places, which promises even more brutality and intrigue helmed by a stunning blonde (Charlize Theron takes the lead, with Christina Hendricks and Chloë Grace Moretz also in the mix).
Now that Wetlands has tackled dirtiness and Gone Girl has taken its swipe at moral evil, what taboo subjects about female behavior are left for the intrepid filmmaker to explore? The cinematic climate seems so right for a film adaptation of Alissa Nutting’s polarizing 2013 novel Tampa, about a fetching middle school teacher who is also a confirmed sex predator. I’d love to peek at a casting sheet for that production.
Lily Hudson is a writer living in Portland, OR