An article on the BFI website (well, I say article: it’s more of a list, really) is our inspiration for this episode (well, I say “inspiration”, but “is our episode”, really). The article listed six films that deal with masculinity in some form (occasionally along with chauvinism and patriarchy), but that were made by female directors. And as we’d only seen one of the six (or thought we had), we thought it might be interesting.
We’ll begin in the era of classic film noir, with a film directed by a woman so relatively alone in her field that meetings of the Director’s Guild of America would be brought to order by saying, “welcome gentlemen and Miss Lupino”; move onto a director doing something for the first time in six decades; consider just having to kill a lot of people as a Canadian takes on American materialism; and spend a good chunk of our time in France, where female directors have been more successful at making their mark over the years. And hopefully along the way we’ll find something interesting to say about it all, and with any luck inspire you to check out at least some of the titles.
We start things off in 1953, with Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker, which is about, and this will shock you, a hitch hiker. William Talman’s Emmett Myers is rampaging his way across the south west of North America, murdering and stealing from those unfortunate enough to stop and pick him up.
His latest victims are two American fishermen, who travelled down to Baja California for a holiday that’s about to go very sour. Edmond O’Brien’s Roy Collins and Frank Lovejoy’s Gilbert Bowen soon find themselves on the wrong end of Myers’ revolver, forced to drive him back to the USA while staying one step ahead of the law which has started a manhunt on both sides of the border.
Narratively I don’t think there’s all that much else to tell you about The Hitch-Hiker – it sets up its premise quickly and efficiently and gets on with showing the effects of this stressful situation on Collins and Bowen, who understandably grow increasingly frayed over the course of the piece with the ever present threat of imminent death from the unstable Myers looming over them.
Just as well it’s efficient, as 70 minutes is not a great deal of time to do anything with, let alone show the effects of this psychological nightmare while also interspersing enough of the, to be honest, perfunctory, look at the police chase to give a bit of a time pressure to proceedings, but it works pretty well, with O’Brien and Lovejoy getting quite convincingly increasingly rattled as the tension increases.
I’m not quite so convinced by William Talman’s turn, although that’s perhaps more due to a lack of material to do much with – I don’t need or want any further character motivation or development from him, but he’s still played just a little too close to moustache twirling for a movie that’s otherwise doing a great job of believable actions and reactions.
It’s a taut crime drama that doesn’t outstay its welcome, and while it’s not life changing cinema it’s an enjoyable 70 minutes that’s worth catching up with.
1982’s Losing Ground is important simply by existing, being the first feature-length drama to be directed by a black American woman (Kathleen Collins) since the 1920s. And if that wasn’t an egregious enough length of time, the film itself was largely ignored until the director’s daughter restored it in 2015 and it gained interest in academic circles.
The partly autobiographical film is a slice of life of a philosophy professor, Sara (Seret Scott), and her artist husband, Victor (Bill Gunn). Despite being an a successful academic and educator, the film’s opening sees Sara being regarded, and measured, by many of her students, and even her own mother, in relation to her husband.
Victor has just had one of his landscapes bought by a museum, and this legitimacy prompts him to explore other aspects of his art. To this end, he wants to spend the summer upstate in a rented home to use as a studio, though Sara is quite reluctant as she wants to stay in New York to work on her thesis about religious ecstasy.
Following his muse (there’s a good euphemism), Victor becomes interested in the largely Puerto Rican female inhabitants of the town, distancing himself from Sara, and eventually driving her back to the city, where she decides to take up the offer of one of her former students to act in his art film. This leads her, eventually, to cheat on Victor, physically and emotionally, while he’s doing the same to her, though each unknown to the other.
Things don’t begin promisingly, with a horrible saxophone score suggesting insipid eighties sitcom or daytime drama (of the many cultural crimes of the eighties, the preponderance of the saxophone may be at the very top of the charge sheet), before cutting to a wide-eyed reaction shot right out of a comedy sketch from one of the students in Sara’s class. Sara, by the way, is dressed in the most ridiculously over the top “old academic woman” garb you can imagine, in an attempt to make the transformation into the sexy dancer she portrays in her student’s film in the latter part seem more pronounced. It’s so on the nose, and so ham-fisted, that the only things missing are a chain for the overly large glasses she wears and her arrival on the film set in a pair of leather trousers to the beats of “You’re the One That I Want”.
Victor’s decision about where the couple will spend their summer certainly demonstrates his arrogance and general belief that his work takes precedence, and that Sara’s, because she is a woman, is of secondary importance, but his lack of consideration for the paucity of libraries in the vicinity of the rental home simply is not the monstrously selfish act the film relies on it being: the thing about books is that they’re remarkably portable, and most libraries let you take out more than one at a time.
Much of this is compounded by a cast of variable quality, with only Bill Gunn and Duane Jones really feeling like accomplished performers: while your mileage may vary, I found Seret Scott to be rather poor, though much of the rest I put down to budget and, perhaps, a smaller available talent pool. Duane Jones does first appear in a hat and cape, though, and this is clearly awesome, and ameliorates some of the other pain points.
Those shortcomings really frustrate me, as there absolutely is solid material in there. While not electrifying, the dialogue is very natural and believable, with a real veracity to, for example, the niggly little barbs traded between Sara and Victor. Victor’s belief in the primacy of his own career, and his resentment at Sara’s intrusion into art, his field, is also something that has been played out in thousands of relationships. This may even have been an important film, too, showing as it does a representation of black middle-class intelligentsia. Had it been seen. But it wasn’t seen, meaning that its post-2015 rebirth renders it merely a curiosity, and unfortunately, Losing Ground is just too dull and unremarkable for me to care about, and I really, really struggle to see where the rave reviews are coming from.
Claire Denis’ 1999 Good Work is of course capitalising on the immense success of the 1998 Jean-Claude Van Damme classic Legionnaire, which inspired a rash of imitators and a surge in interest in the legendary French Foreign Legion.
Here we are focussed on Denis Lavant’s Galoup, second in command to Michel Subor’s Commander Bruno Forestier in a squad stationed in Djibouti. While his commander is seemingly well regarded and liked by and friendly with everyone in the squad, including Galoup, the same does not seem to hold for Galoup.
Is that because of some character flaw in Galoup, or just a by-product of Galoup being the hard taskmaster and disciplinarian that is deemed essential to building the esprit de corps in the troops? After all, he seems to get on perfectly well with his local girlfriend. We are invited to ponder this, but the framing of this being set as Galoup’s recollections on a trip back to Paris for court martial hints at the answer.
Indeed, things come to a head when the personable, beautiful young Gilles Sentain, played by Grégoire Colin, is posted to the unit, with a mysterious past it seems that Sentain would rather be left hidden. Which would not seem all that uncommon for the Foreign Legion – see aforementioned 1998 Jean-Claude Van Damme classic Legionnaire – but Galoup cannot let this go and becomes obsessed with destroying Sentain, which will ultimately lead to Galoup’s downfall.
I am, of course, nothing if not a ball of contradictions and hypocrisy, so while I’m sure there’s ample evidence of me really disliking minimalist films that do not explicitly stake out what a character is thinking when they go off on their journey – unlike the 1998 Jean-Claude Van Damme classic Legionnaire – here I quite like not being able to fully get into Galoup’s head, and not entirely trusting the things that he’s saying that purports to explain himself. Those looks he gives a topless Sentain surely have a longing to them that’s in no way connected to uncovering the truth, just plain ol’ uncovering, right?
It’s a languidly paced film, which rather suits the baking sun and the rising tension as Galoup goes off the rails in the low-key way we’ve become accustomed to over the restrained 90 minute running time, and I suppose there’s a case to be made that there’s not, strictly speaking, a lot happening narratively to fill those 90 minutes. Thankfully it’s filled instead with some breathtaking visuals and a tremendous character performance from Denis Lavant, who manages to remain captivating and mysterious throughout.
I’ve not seen a lot of Claire Denis body of work, but I’ll have to rectify that going forward, and for those in a similar situation Beau Travail gets my recommendation. Unlike the 1998 Jean-Claude Van Damme classic Legionnaire, which is, in reality, a bit crap.
In 2000, Lionsgate Films released this, American Psycho, Mary Harron’s most-accomplished film. I think her undisputed masterpiece, a film so gory most people probably don’t listen to the satire, but they should, because it’s not just about the excesses of the eighties and the worshipping of material goods, it’s also a statement about the bankruptcy of our culture itself. Hey, Scott! Try getting…
What a disaster we narrowly avoided: Mary Harron’s blackly comic horror satire of toxic masculinity could have starred Leonardo DiCaprio and been directed by Oliver Stone, with Stone desiring to excise all of the satire from Harron’s script. Yikes. Fortunately, Canadian director Harron finally persuaded Lionsgate to let her make American Psycho, with her original choice of leading man, Christian Bale, as Patrick Bateman. Harron, due to being a woman, and not simply due to not being Oliver Stone, brings a take on Bret Easton Ellis’s vapid, narcissistic protagonist considerably less-enamoured of him than many male directors might be, very possibly because, working in the film industry, she’s dealt with more than a few Batemans in her time.
Bateman, the titular psycho, tells us in voiceover that there is an idea of a Patrick Bateman but that, in any real sense, he doesn’t exist. He’s not an individual; he’s an identikit, interchangeable Wall Street douchebag, regularly confused with any of a hundred other indistinguishable, Italian-couture-wearing, business card-fetishizing, image-obsessed, narcissistic wastes of space. He derives all of his self-worth from the opinions of others, notably his mergers and acquisitions peers who, when they aren’t measuring their little paper dick metaphors are trying to one-up each other with who can obtain the most desirable dinner reservations.
What does seem to set him apart is his penchant for casual (and sometimes more formally-attired) murder, describing it as the only thing that makes him feel, having taken the idea of the cutthroat business world a little too literally. After offing one of his peers, Jared Leto’s Paul Allen, Bateman is visited by Willem Dafoe’s private detective, investigating the disappearance of Allen, and thus begins a downward spiral in which Bateman’s bloodlust becomes ever more extreme and his carefully manicured appearance begins to crack.
American Psycho, while it has considerably more substance than its main character, isn’t the deepest of films, but it remains, twenty years later, hugely entertaining, and Christian Bale’s performance compelling and committed, managing to convince both in psychopathy and peevishness (and, amusingly, is based on an interview Bale saw of Tom Cruise on Letterman, in which Cruise transmitted “intense friendliness with nothing behind the eyes”).
Its satire may not be the most biting or intellectual, but it’s still timely, and the film is also regularly very funny. And we at Fuds on Film in particular will always be grateful to it for bringing us our pub quiz team name, Paul Allen’s Business Card, and our potential band name, Cat Adapter. Now while Scott has his say I’m just going to try getting a reservation at Dorsia…
Sofia Coppola was riding high off the critical successes of The Virgin Suicides and especially Lost In Translation, but I think it’s fair to say that Marie Antoinette was at best divisive, perhaps more accurately panned, on its release back in 2K6, and while my ear is not close to the ground for this sort of thing I don’t think there’s been a great deal of clamouring for a reappraisal in space coronayear 2K20. But as I was put off entirely by its reception first time around, let’s see what a fresh pair of eyes on the situation can see.
Unsurprisingly enough, this is a tale of Kirsten Dunst’s Marie Antoinette, the young archduchess of Austria that was betrothed at the age of 14 to Jason Schwartzman’s Louis-Auguste, heir apparent to the French throne and ultimately King Louis XVI, once Rip Torn’s Louis XV pops his clogs. Yes, that Rip Torn. No, I didn’t think so either.
While I’m sure there were some examples in antiquity of a queen being the power behind the throne, even disregarding the more obvious cases of being the power on the throne, there appears to be little evidence that Marie’s talents lay in that direction, expected more to be a symbol of cementing relations between Austria and France, and delivering a heir to the throne.
And despite some iconoclastic filmmaking choices, Marie Antoinette The Film does not seek to deviate much from the accepted events of Marie Antoinette The Historical Figure, but is much more concerned with the pressure placed on her shoulders to consummate the marriage, a cementing of relations both personal and political, with the Dauphin, despite his seeming indifference or reluctance, and also the relationship with the French courts and public, both broadly going from warm to awful as her profligate spending puts an increasing hurt on the public purse.
There’s a line I stumbled across on Rotten Tomatoes from The Independent’s Antony Quinn “Marie Antoinette is about confinement in a gilded cage, and, perversely or not, shows itself far more interested in the cage than in the prisoner.” – which is a great line, but I think entirely incorrect. Sure, it’s not a film shying away from the ridiculous opulence that Marie finds herself in, but her embrace of that as a coping mechanism is surely one of the driving character points of the film, and indeed a part of the public relations mis-steps that ultimately led to her final one foot height reduction procedure (or more accurately, one head). Although the war thing probably didn’t help either.
I think this was perhaps the time of peak Kirsten Dunst, and frankly I’m a little bummed that she’s either chosen to or been forced to take a bit of a back seat throughout the 2010s, because I think she’s doing a great job of bringing humanity and vulnerability to the character while at the same time trying to keep up the facade of royal infallibility. Where the character development, and indeed the film, suffers a bit is that due to eighteenth century logistical constraints there’s a bunch of infodumps and ultimatums delivered by mail and voiceover that would have been, dramatically speaking, better if could be done face to face.
But that would, I suppose, be taking too much of a liberty with the truth of Marie’s life, to which this hews quite close. Sure, there’s some contemporary music thrown at the audience to indicate mood at times, but it’s not like it’s diegetic or anything, so I’m surprised to film myself okay with it. It ties in to the sense of fun that pervades a good deal of Marie Antoinette. If, however, you’re looking for a real in-depth look at her character, this doesn’t deliver it. It’s a bit too coy and mysterious, perhaps borrowing a little too closely from Lost In Translation‘s playbook, which I can see some finding frustration.
Ultimately it’s more of an artist’s abstract impression of Marie’s personality than it is a recounting of her entire life, and I think I’m largely on board with that. There’s plenty of histories available for the facts and numbers, but as a broad encapsulation of her feelings this is hard to argue with. I can see why it’s divisive, but overall I rather enjoyed Marie Antoinette even if at parts it’s veering dangerously close to the sugary confections it so loving portrays.
Céline Sciamma’s Tomboy follows one summer in the life of a 10-year-old child (Zoé Héran), who has just moved to a new home, along with dad, mum, little sister and soon to arrive baby brother. Venturing out to play with the other local children, this newcomer is introduced by just-met neighbour Lisa as “Mickaël, the new boy from building C”. This introduction might surprise the family at home, however, who know Mickaël as Laure, their eldest daughter.
As Mickaël, Laure is able to join in the games of football from which Lisa is excluded, and is determined to pass as male amongst their new friends, even going so far as creating an appropriate protuberance in the swimming suit area. Eventually Laure’s younger sister, Jeanne (Malonn Lévana), discovers the dual-identity, but in sibling solidarity plays along. As the summer progresses, Mickaël and Lisa’s friendship progresses to that of childhood… romance may be the best word, but awkward questions arise about the absence of Mickaël’s name on the new school class lists, and the problems of the end of the summer begin to loom large.
Mickaël’s identity as Laure is discovered, to the shock of Lisa and Laure’s mother in particular, though I won’t reveal how. In perhaps the most crushing scene of the film, Laure’s mother says that “I’m not even sad”, as if that would have been an acceptable response to discovering something so important about her child.
Tomboy is a beautiful, gentle, warm and tender film, with an excellent performance from Zoé Héran, and natural, simple and believable interactions between the children. The situations could be read in many ways: Mickaël/Laure’s kiss with Lisa may be a sign of attraction to women, or it may be seen simply as a measure of success at playing male. Mickaël could be a transgender boy, or could be a girl just trying something out, or perhaps something else. Perhaps even the characters don’t know. It’s ambiguous, and therein lies its genius. It’s a very rewarding watch.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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