The women in these feminist films have power, but they’re more complex than fatale.
* * *
In the ultra-buoyant realms of badass, the femme fatale is equal to any man. Love-child of popular culture and World War II, she asked no one’s permission to be born – suddenly on the late-night city block she was there. Among her avatars, Ida Lupino (They Drive by Night, 1940) and Barbara Stanwyck (Double Indemnity, 1944) seem now to hover clear of their rivals. But providing a baseline for this brief look at feminist cinema, I’d like to make a case for the claims on our noir attention of Ann Sheridan, especially in Woman on the Run (1950).
Sheridan had already done more than merely appear with Lupino in They Drive by Night. In everything they did, both women displayed a keen sense of opportunity to reshape “their” male-dominated industry – in front of and behind the camera. With men leaving theatres of entertainment for theatres of war, a door to greater equality was opening; but for the real women pushing through, the problem – then as now – was the need to be much tougher than any fictional femme fatale.
Woman on the Run – a 75-minute filler conserved and restored by UCLA and available now on DVD – bears witness in every frame to a fully developed passion for a genre already, perhaps, past its highest if not its lowest points. From the bonus sections it’s fascinating to learn of the film’s early struggle for attention; but it’s the unresolved social ambivalences within the movie – especially concerning gender roles – that still seem so fresh and provocative.
Sheridan plays a jaded wife married to a less than brilliantly successful artist. And it’s these casual stereotypes that unravel in the course of the film, revealing not just a tale of dark deeds and shady customers, snappily scripted and edited though it is, but a terse, multilayered account of a marriage under strain. Indeed, it appears that Rembrandt – their inevitably little dog – is all this alienated couple has in common.
The action opens with a murder victim and an unidentified killer. When the police get there, the only witness is a dog walker. “I suppose so,” he says, when asked if he’s a married man. This irritates the no-nonsense detective; and now we have a plot that not only sparks the usual whodunit clichés but seems bent on blurring everything we thought we knew about one of our most cherished institutions.
Apart from excellently nuanced acting, Sheridan put much of her own time and money into the project; but having taken the film to New York after a good run in California, she soon hit problems. The fact that the married woman of the story had so little time for her husband bothered distributors – so much so they point-blank refused screenings, insisting that audiences would assume the unsympathetic wife was a prostitute. So here’s a stark mid-20-century version of the feminist struggle: stand by your man or be considered a whore. For any attractive young woman without visible male support, the choice is – or in the New York of 1950 was – entirely yours.
* * *
Suffragette was released in October 2015 to mixed reviews. One hopes this wasn’t a response to the anti-domestic-violence demo at the premiere. In fact, cuts to social welfare for female victims of domestic abuse continue to be worrying, because – at the risk of understating things – the activists are right: the battle isn’t over.
Meanwhile, even sympathetic critics have felt the film is marred by a sense of its own “worthiness.” And while admitting this was the kind of disappointment I secretly feared, I now wonder what film these critics actually saw: the one that dragged me willy-nilly into as much emotional intensity as I could handle; or a film that merely droned on about bad things happening to women and acts of sacrifice on their part that would set the world instantly to rights.
On the latter point, it’s clear from the film’s ending that the struggle really does continue all across the world. But for my part, I was grateful that the women behind the project – principally director Sarah Gavron and writer Abi Morgan – didn’t have to wait for a world war and a handy bit of male absenteeism before seizing their chance.
I was particularly impressed by the decision not to overemphasise Meryl Streep’s role as Emmeline Pankhurst. Indeed, the famously generous American actress strove to make sure her name wasn’t plastered all over the credits for a part that was, after all, deliberately minimised in favour of less-well-known colleagues, in particular Carey Mulligan as the young laundress, Maud Watts.
I also admire this movie because British cinema all too seldom draws persuasive portraits of life at the bottom of the pile. On the other hand, the fantasy that we all secretly stand to inherit a very nice country pile is as British an urban myth as they come, one to which we’ve steadfastly clung since Jane Austen’s time. In fact, the real Austen, like most women of her class, was forbidden to seek paid employment and, short of a lucrative marriage – which of course she never made – was expected to stay “genteel” – that is, entirely dependent on her male relatives. All of which – while not making her one of Ken Loach’s Poor Cows – left Austen herself quite some distance away from the cosseted world of Pride and Prejudice.
Suffragette, meanwhile, hauls us out of smug post-Georgian sensibilities and relocates us in a pretty terrible place, where even sensitive husbands are under pressure not just to dissuade wives from political activism but to do so with a “good beating.” Making a horribly relevant connection, in Woman on the Run our world-weary detective – his chief witness having gone into hiding – asks Sheridan’s uncooperative character, “Didn’t he ever beat you?” It’s meant sardonically rather than literally, and – not that this improves matters – the implied criticism is levelled against a supine husband as well as a less than totally devoted wife.
If this is hard to digest, there’s a sour note in the film title itself: as we’ve just seen, it’s the man who’s the fugitive, convinced he’ll be murdered despite the promised witness protection programme. Maybe “Woman on the Run” sounds racier; in any case no dockful of critics was expected to turn up and condemn a little B movie for its missing ha’porth of tar.
Speaking of seaworthiness, when we tack back to HMS Suffragette, I think we find a vessel that will stand the test of time. Its finely carpentered historical accuracy, for example, though the bane of cost-conscious producers, here only adds to a gripping drama. Not “slow” or “worthy,” then, but a film whose brilliantly paced storytelling allows us to feel the desperate need of the suffragettes to be noticed at all. This is because we also see and feel how publicity of any kind is systematically being denied them: police and their spies, press lords and politicians, do all they can to scare and brutalise them, above all, trying to keep stories of more noteworthy “atrocities” – like the blowing up of post boxes – out of the news.
It was this official tactic of blanking out suffragette activities that led to the climactic incident at Epsom Race Course on Derby Day. The idea wasn’t so much that Emily Davison should die when the king’s horse ran her down – albeit this was the most likely outcome – but that any big incident connected to the monarchy couldn’t simply be screened out of public awareness. With early filmmakers present, it famously became the sort of screened-in moment that all involved in the struggle had for so long fought, helping to change history in a way that few other martyrdoms ever have – either before or since.
* * *
Easily the most shocking moment in Mustang – perhaps the most shocking in any of the films reviewed here – also concerns a young woman’s suicide. But it is so sudden, so indirectly shown, and preceded by so much conformist pressure from older “guardians” it actually feels like murder.
Set in rural northern Turkey in the present day, this 2015 film from Deniz Gamze Ergüven also offers no false assurances about women’s place in the world. Yet, however clear the director is about obstacles to equality, she’s not afraid to emphasize the social factors that work for women. Above all we see from close range the support that women – particularly sisters – can offer each other. There’s provocative daring as well as progressive analysis here, too. Perhaps most provoking is the scene where one teenage sister tells another that she doesn’t worry about pregnancy: she just lets her boyfriend put “it” up her arse.
But faced with forced marriage, as already mentioned, one of the sisters shoots herself; and from then on we know this isn’t a tale of orphans teaching each other the tricks of managed motherhood. On the contrary, we see that the “inevitability” of ultra-conservative oppression is precisely what needs challenging. We see this most of all through the eyes of young Lale (Günes Sensoy), who is determined to avoid her sister’s fate by running away. She plans to do this with Nur, the closest of her sisters, but first she must get help from Yasir, a local truck driver.
Yasir’s unselfish character contrasts strongly with the predatory uncle Erol; and though we welcome the hint that men can be supportive of women without the expectation of sexual rewards, in Erol we have a numbing reminder that a “pastoral” role is the one most often chosen by child molesters. (Although the offenders are priests removed from the community, in The Club from Pablo Larrain, Chile 2015, the subject is tackled with unrelenting visceral energy, evoking an almost unwatchable mixture of empathy and disgust.)
For Deniz Ergüven, an over-controlling, door-slamming older generation – male and female – are locked in a prison of their own self-ignorance: the film opens with a group of teenage boys and girls larking about in the shallow waters of a sun-kissed beach; and before we know it, an older woman, clearly acting out of a perceived sense of “responsibility,” crashes the party and sparks a whole series of crises and confrontations.
But this is not a fatalistic tragedy. We’re always being encouraged to think along with Lale that – live or die – things can’t go on like this. Yet, if everything is a social construct and the worst angels of our nature can be retrained, why do we never get to see a “nice” older person? True, Yasir the truck driver – from a teenager’s point of view at least – isn’t young; and he finally does most to help Lale and Nur reach their young female teacher in Istanbul. The knife-edge riskiness of their great escape is extremely gripping. Most realistic of all, though, is the moment of Lale’s meeting with her teacher: implicitly, modern education offers women hope for the future. But we’re permitted only the tiniest glimpse of the greeting in a shadowy hallway between teacher and student: so, rather than any sense of bright victory over former evils, we’re left feeling that this is just the start of an important new struggle.
* * *
Under the Shadow (2016) is written and directed by Iranian-born Babak Anvari. Another feminist piece, it’s as deeply felt as the others and as professionally poised. But, to my double surprise, it’s by a man and it’s a debut. Make that a triple, because the British input in this production qualifies it, technically at least, as a British movie.
Patriotic fervour aside, here we have as heady a mixture of genres – historical-tragical, feminist-political, medieval folk-horror – as Hamlet’s boring uncle Polonius could ever have dreamed of. More seriously, there are also constant hints of a somehow unnecessary but nonetheless completely pervasive madness: Tehran (courtesy of the West) constantly bombed by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq; a young mother, because of some perceived subversion of Islam, refused permission to complete her medical studies; craziest of all, we see a young marriage where, with no great rhyme or reason, everything conspires to separate husband and wife in increasingly mutually exclusive compartments.
In the husband’s mind, meanwhile, there is only one thought – to get his little daughter out of Tehran into his mother’s house in the country. Though he’s completed his own medical training and is freely pursuing his work, his wife’s wish to do the same is seen as a dangerous obsession. Since viewing the film, I’ve been reminded by an Iranian friend that, for decades, women have provided something like 60 percent of Iran’s doctors. Unlike old colonial powers like Britain, Iran can’t simply call on a ready supply of male graduates from Asia. So trained intelligent Iranian women are, in fact, much needed. Though there’s no direct reference to this in Anvari’s film, it does, I think, inform his – and eventually our – underlying sense of a self-defeating irrationality when ayatollahs insist on banning “irreligious” females like Shideh (Narges Rashidi). Her real crime was, of course, to have indulged in freedom of thought during a time when Iranians wanted to move from monarchy, not to a rigid and airless theocracy, but to a more egalitarian society.
All the turbulence of the revolution in Iran did indeed open doors, though less frequently to greater social equality than to age-old terrors. In Under the Shadow we soon find ourselves with Shideh encountering the djinns among whose powers is the ability to possess the soul of their victims. But first they must take possession of some object, however small – a child’s doll, say – before accomplishing the real purpose of abducting a human child.
The sheer terrifying madness of all this is felt, if anything, more acutely when – as in the other films reviewed – we’re constantly encouraged, one way or another, to doubt the inevitability of evil. It’s as though, at least some of the time, human beings – male and female – are only waiting for permission to be as calm, rational, and caring as they already are! A feminism that brings us closer to this kind of awareness deserves, I think, as much attention as we can give. And as much simple gratitude.
* * *
All images, unless otherwise noted, are freely available screenshots from the films.