Saluting the season’s fascinating female characters (and the actresses who play them)

ScreenerBlog

To judge by Emma Stone’s absurd Oscar win for Best Actress, Hollywood still can’t resist the throwback character she played: a young, determined performer who comes to La La Land to make it and faces professional/personal struggle at every turn. Who cares?

Yes, it’s a valentine to Hollywood and all that, but how can Stone’s performance or her onscreen alter-ego be compared to Isabelle Huppert’s Michelle, the rapist-infatuated protagonist in Elle, or Ruth Negga’s Mildred, the real-life civil-rights activist Mildred Loving, in Loving?

The total snubbing of 20th Century Women’s Annette Bening, tackling one of the most complex mom personalities on film, was a further irritant. Overlooking Tilda Swinton as an unlikely rock star in A Bigger Splash was senseless, too.

Nonetheless, these characters made it to the screen and whatever the nominating committee’s oversights, it was a banner year for unexpected female roles.

Consider Natalie Portman’s daring take on Jackie Kennedy in Jackie. She took quite a risk in presenting a cold, calculating, self-aware First Lady in the days and months following President Kennedy’s assassination. At the same time Portman captured—without ever resorting to imitation—Jackie’s studied and simultaneously innate gentility.

Hidden Figures was remarkable just for recounting the virtually unknown story of three math mavens at NASA in the early 1960s, who happened to be African-American women. Talk about gender and racial identity politics rolled into one. It was also a highly entertaining movie, so much so that at times the women’s real struggles lost impact. (It’ll be curious to see how Emily Dickinson is handled in A Quiet Passion, starring Cynthia Nixon and slated for release April 14).

Christine, yet another biopic, worked very well despite the many obstacles it faced, not least avoiding sensationalism that’s inherent in the material. Forty-three years ago, 29-year-old Christine Chubbuck, a TV reporter in Sarasota, Florida, blew her brains out on live television, anticipating—some say informing—the iconic scene in Paddy Chayefsky’s satiric Network (1976) with Peter Finch’s anchorman Howard Beale assassinated on air in front of an audience of millions.

The real-life Chubbuck, at least as she’s drawn in Antonio Campos’ layered biopic, is devoured by psychological demons, though it’s never made clear precisely what’s wrong with her. That information is not known but would serve no purpose anyway, short of reducing a complex character into a case study. As it is, that’s a potential danger throughout.

But Christine never morphs into a reenactment of psychopathology, thanks to Campos’ skillful direction, and especially Rebecca Hall’s rounded interpretation of an intelligent young woman who is unable to navigate her world and desperately aspires to cover meatier stories (instead of strawberry festivals ) that could lead off the news.

Her beleaguered editor Michael (Tracy Letts, giving another top-notch performance) admits she’s the most intelligent reporter on the team, but given the station’s lousy ratings, he needs blood and gore. “If it bleeds, it leads,” he states. That aside, he doesn’t think she’s ready to cover heavy-duty news. Let’s remember it’s the ’70s and the fact that she’s a woman doesn’t help.

The era is evoked on many fronts, including a snippet from the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” opening as Mary tosses her hat into the air while the iconic song plays in the background. It’s an optimistic emblem for the successful woman journalist in a newly liberated society. “You’re gonna make it after all.”

But Christine isn’t. The stakes are raised when station owner Bob Anderson (John Cullum) surfaces, hoping to pluck Sarasota talent for his operation in the much larger Baltimore market. Desperately attempting to catch Anderson’s attention, Christine hurls herself into as many projects as possible and fails at every turn.

Fueled by rage and jealousy, she stomps around the city tracking down any gruesome event that will earn her (and it does) that allusive shot at a lead-in story. She also acquires a gun.

Christine takes her place at the anchor desk and as the camera rolls, she withdraws her gun and shoots herself in the head. It’s a stunning act of self-loathing and defiance. The subtext is clear enough: “You want blood, I’ll give you blood.” If it were not a true story, the scene would feel contrived. Fiction has to be plausible. Life doesn’t.

For whatever reasons, and it may simply be coincidence, Christine Chubbuck is a hot topic now. Even before Christine opened, Kate Plays Christine, a meta-documentary about a film actress preparing to play Chubbuck, was released.

Robert Greene’s self-referential and ham-fisted picture used the subject as a springboard to show how unknowable any person is; the blurred lines between acting and life; and the intrinsically exploitive nature of the material (that he exploits unabashedly and without apology).

***

A striking trend was the absence of backstories that try to account for female characters who are singlemindedly ambitious, and not necessarily searching for love either. In fact, it’s of little interest to them.

John Madden’s Miss Sloane is an extreme example. So is the whole amoral D.C. netherworld world she inhabits, awash in slick Machiavellian lobbyists, not to mention their congressional partners and/or lackeys. Men and women are on equal footing when it comes to careerism and corruption.

Despite its preposterous twists and turns, Miss Sloane is an engaging film featuring a virtually unprecedented female type on screen. Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) is a high-powered, obsessively determined-to-win-at-all-costs lobbyist in stiletto heels and bright red lipstick that brings to mind blood. She pops pills to ward off the effects of long-term insomnia and with neither time nor desire for personal relationships, she still needs sex (lots of it) and employs Forde (Jake Lacy), a country-bumpkin stud, to service her with no strings attached.

Sloane is employed by one of Washington’s top-drawer lobbying firms, and cuts moral corners with no compunction. Jetting a senator to an exotic island nation for a vacation and dubbing it a “research trip” is S.O.P.

Indeed, it’s business as usual for Sloane until a slimy NRA champion wants to hire her to persuade women that guns are a good thing. Sloane laughs crudely at the very notion of working for him and unexpectedly proclaims that she too is in favor of gun control. Her assertion comes out of nowhere and it’s never clear if she’s in earnest or if it’s some kind of ploy.

Either way, she refuses the assignment, quits her job and lands a gig at a “boutique” firm (a euphemism for a failed operation run by “hippies in suits,” she has said earlier) that has its sights set on passing a law requiring tougher background checks for those who want to purchase weaponry.

To score that elusive legislative victory, Sloane collaborates with felons and together they install surveillance tools in the offices of her adversaries in order to anticipate their moves and devise countermeasures to quash them. It’s the strategy of the successful lobbyist, explains Sloane, who is masterful at staging and packaging events for the media who unknowingly become her pawn. For her, ethics is synonymous with ineffectuality.

So where’s this woman coming from? There’s no indication she suffered childhood abuse or sexual trauma. She is who she is and that’s refreshing. Still, not knowing what makes her tick is puzzling. Would that lack of personal biography be an issue if Sloane were a man? Perhaps we’re not as evolved as we might like.

Here’s another caveat: She is unremittingly abrasive and when she demonstrates compassion, it feels tacked on. That’s the fault of the writer and director, not Chastain, who pulls off the conniving integrity-free lobbyist brilliantly. But after a point she becomes grating. Once again, the sticky question rears its ugly little head. Is she difficult to watch because she’s a strident woman? Not necessarily, but (gulp) it doesn’t help. Sorry.

Eyes on the prize executive Ines (Sandra Huller), who works for an unscrupulous multinational corporation in Toni Erdmann, is more palatable in style than Sloane but equally zealous in her professional goals and wholly indifferent to the hundreds, maybe thousands, of jobs that will be lost wherever her company sets up shop. Global capitalism is not warm and fuzzy.

On the personal front, Ines is unruffled by the demeaning sexual acts she performs with a colleague who might conceivably help her career and accepts (with just a slight wince) an executive’s request that she accompany his trophy wife on a shopping spree. She’s developed an impenetrable wall of defense punctuated by her polished veneer and ever-present cellphone. When her boss wonders if she is a feminist, she crisply replies, “I wouldn’t be working for you if I were.”

The German-language comedy directed by Maren Ade is set in Romania, and the European scene may in part account for some of the attitudes and relationships depicted here that do not exist in Miss Sloane, whose title character is essentially isolated. By contrast, Ines has a complex bond with her shaggy, prankster father (Peter Simonischek), which forms the core of this amusing and oddly disturbing film. Hints of mortality are never far from the surface either.

A superannuated part-time music teacher with a shock of unkempt white hair and a weight problem, Ines’ father Winfried entertains himself by shocking others with his bizarre improvisations and wild disguises—from implanting joke-store buck teeth in his mouth to painting his face like a skeleton as if drawn by a child. He also enjoys plopping himself down on whoopee cushions in the most refined settings. His antics aside, he cares for an incapacitated mother and terminally ill beloved dog, both of whom die.

Do his entertainments express loneliness and boredom? Or is he making a larger existential point about seizing the day and smelling the roses? Probably both and it’s a familiar theme, though in this instance it’s the hippie dad teaching his careerist daughter a life lesson.

Troubled by her joyless existence and sterile ambitions, he intrudes upon her in Bucharest, where she is traveling shark-filled corporate waters. In an effort to jar her into wakefulness, he morphs into an even weirder persona, “Toni Erdmann,” who sports a stringy, greasy black wig and shiny suits as add-ons to the hideous teeth. He mingles with her friends and colleagues, who pretend to accept his new identity and claim that he is a freelance consultant and/or coach, two meaningless professions that typify Ines’ world. His mockery drives the point home.

The viewer’s sympathies shift. Initially it’s easy to dismiss him as an invasive jerk who exists in a time warp, and that whatever her tunnel vision, Ines’ ambitions certainly make more sense than anything Dad can offer. In fact, she’s an understandable rebuke to his anarchic counterculture views. But as the film evolves, it’s no longer that obvious a conclusion.

Though it drags a bit and loses credibility—even within the parameters of a fantastical narrative—the acting is superb and in the end the comic, sad and wonderfully absurd rapprochement between the two protagonists shows them to be wounded warriors, but survivors despite it all—she more so than he.

***

The new ambitious female onscreen may have her rough patches, but she’s no victim on the job or at home, assuming she has a home life at all. Diary of a Mad Housewife, A Woman Under the Influence or An Unmarried Woman no longer have much currency onscreen.

Nathalie (played by the always brilliant Isabelle Huppert) is dumped for a younger woman by her long-term husband in Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come, and basically takes it in her stride. She can cope just fine.

As Michele Leblanc in Paul Verhoeven’s controversial Elle, Huppert brings coping to a whole new level. The film celebrates female empowerment on the cutting edge while marrying it with film noir, black comedy, domestic comedy and satire. Idiosyncratic genre blending is alive and well. One critic dubbed it a comedy of manners about rape.

Those incongruous threads give the film an added layer of color (and pretension), but at its core it’s about a fifty-something woman who is violently raped by a ski-masked stranger, is aroused even as she viciously assaults him in defense, tracks him down and ultimately falls in love with him (and he with her).

Based on Philippe Djian’s novel Oh… and scripted by David Birke, Elle is retro in its views—e.g., women dig being raped—though gussied up as a work of transgression. To the degree that it’s not politically correct (not initially anyway), perhaps it is inflammatory.

The Dutch auteur-provocateur Verhoeven loves riling up his audience by playing it from all sides. Remember Basic Instinct and his vampy campy cult classic (so bad that it’s good) Showgirls, where he straddled the fence between lurid and liberated, misogynistic and feminist, mocking and embracing? He did it again—indeed, raising the bar—with Elle, his first feature in four years and his only French-speaking film.

And he tapped the perfect star in Huppert, who inhabits the kinky victim-predator (shades of her stint in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher) with elegance, steely resolve and a hint of insanity.

Divorced and the mother of an adult son, Michèle is a top executive at a high-earning pornographic videogame company in Paris. Yep, she’s a player in and beneficiary of a culture that objectifies women.

Far more subversive from a feminist’s perspective is her matter-of-fact response following the rape. Michèle washes away her blood as if it’s nothing more than menstruation and meets her friends at an upper-crust restaurant for dinner, where she casually mentions that she was raped. Whether they’re embarrassed or disbelieving—or maybe it’s just French sophistication—they have no response, short of one acquaintance awkwardly suggesting they wait a few moments before popping the champagne bottle’s cork.

It’s all very cosmopolitan as Michèle goes about her multi-tasking life at work, at home and with assorted significant others including an ex-hubby (Charles Berling); her current lover (Christian Berkel); her ne’er-do-well son (Jonas Bloquet); and her aging mom (Judith Magre), who plans to marry a boy-toy gigolo who’s clearly after her money.

Michèle is humiliated by her mother’s fatuous behavior and taken aback by her son’s willful stupidity, especially when he refuses to admit that his girlfriend’s baby is not his, even though it’s black. The farcical elements are amusing while derailing from the central story and simultaneously trivializing the rape by placing it in a lighthearted “Life goes on” context. Hey, it’s French.

And like any Frenchwoman, Michèle can “manage.” She doles out checks to her mother and son in addition to handling a bevy of inadequate men, short of the rapist for whom she has ambivalent feelings. A repeat offender, he returns to the scene of the crime on several occasions, breaking into her house (that she has not protected) and replaying the rape scene that has already become a kind of agreed-upon ritual between the two of them.

Still, he is an anonymous figure and that’s menacing. Michèle suspects everyone—from her boyfriend to her ex to a neighbor (Laurent Lafitte). And check this out: The neighbor’s wife collects statuettes of iconic Christian figures while he creates a Nativity scene in their backyard for the Christmas season. The religious backdrop works as a contrast to the profane events that have transpired, while none too subtly pointing an accusing finger at the Catholic Church that has set the stage for a culture of sexual abuse and duplicity.

When Michèle finally unmasks her attacker, their intimacy and bond intensify. So do their sadomasochistic games. He concedes he is otherwise impotent and she’s unabashedly into rough sex, which is just fine until Verhoeven abruptly turns the story into a feminist revenge narrative that comes out of nowhere. Worse, the female characters draw together in a rush of sisterhood (in one instance with lesbian overtones) that is equally unprepared for. Was this the politically correct antidote to Fifty Shades of Grey?

Still, Elle is groundbreaking in its own way. It is also enjoyable (at moments enraging), and you leave the theatre with something to talk about. How often can you say that?

***

Women bearing children without husbands is the new normal. For many female protagonists, it’s a choice—e.g., Rebecca Miller’s indie comedy Maggie’s Plan. The more traditional single moms—those who are widowed and divorced—have been around forever.

Still, Dorothea Fields, (Annette Bening) and the two women she brings onboard to play supplemental moms to her son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), are outside the box in 20th Century Women, at first glance a misleadingly annoying movie.

There’s its grandiose title (never a good sign) and its trendy definition of family based on tenuous connections among lost souls passing through. Blood kinship and its alleged ties is yesterday’s news.

Not much happens, it’s episodic in its telling, and it’s a memory play with family photos interspersed throughout to bolster the truth of the story. It’s also recounted through the distorting lens of time, recollection and creative license. But contrary to expectation, the film’s framework is forgiving, even seductive.

Like Beginners, writer-director Mike Mills’ account of his closeted father coming out late in life, in 20th Century Women Mills pays tribute to his uncommon mother and his equally off-the-beaten-path upbringing during his teenage years in Santa Barbara.

It’s 1979 and divorced Dorothea and Jamie live in a rundown 1905 mansion that she is slowly renovating while renting out rooms to boarders of the most marginalized ilk. There’s the sexy, world-weary handyman (Billy Crudup) and Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a photographer who is shooting the minutiae of her life as a testimony to her existence and has fashioned her hair to resemble David Bowie.

When Jamie injurers himself in a rollerblade accident, Dorothea decides she cannot handle him alone and asks Abbie and next-door neighbor Julie (Elle Fanning) to help her out. A few years older than Jamie, Julie frequently cuddles with him in bed but refuses to have sexual relations with him despite his raging hormones and his ongoing requests for a little action.

Abbie and Julie are fond of Jamie and do the best they can, but their bond with him is ultimately site-specific and transient. Both women are metaphorically homeless. Loss is an underlying theme throughout.

Dorothea’s motivations are hard to read and all the more riveting for it. She’s seems to buy into the view that “it takes a village to raise a child” and while there’s no evidence she’s a feminist, she’s clearly acquainted with its tenets and engages two women instead of a man to help co-parent and fill in the gap created by Jamie’s absent father.

Dorothea is of her era, which Mills makes vivid through Jimmy Carter sound bites, Talking Heads music, and scenes set in dungeon-like dives that constituted nightlife for the young and restless, Southern California-style.

But Bening’s Dorothea is also distanced—perhaps alienated—from her time and place, even as she strives to enjoy the new music, dance and hotspots. At heart she loves Casablanca and the sentiments expressed in “dancing cheek to cheek.” She’s a romantic and a control freak; non-judgmental about other people’s lifestyles but uptight about her own; guarded but also a risk-taker, playing the stock market and chain-smoking compulsively.   

It’s hard to imagine that a more layered character—performed with greater subtlety—will hit the screen in the foreseeable future.

***

Still, some eye-catching new films are rolling out and hopefully they will prove as thought-provoking in their treatment of women. Horror flick Raw, with its depiction of a female veterinary student who develops cannibalistic tastes, doesn’t sound too promising. Neither does Personal Shopper, featuring Kristen Stewart (reinvented from her Twilight Saga days) as a grieving sister who boasts supernatural powers.

Sofia Coppola’s Beguiled, centering on young girls tending to a wounded Civil War soldier, might provide an unexpected spin on those 19th-century caregivers; same for Novitiate, which explores a young nun’s crisis of faith in the early 1960s during the era of Vatican II. Ingrid Goes West peeks into the dark world of a digital guru and the woman who’s drawn to her. That has potential.

Two films that don’t yet have American distributors but seem to have potential include the already controversial Where Hands Touch, about a biracial woman falling in love with a Nazi during World War II, and Disobedience, focusing on a not “kosher” relationship between two Orthodox Jewish women in one of the most insular and patriarchal subcultures.

And then there’s Lady Macbeth (earning kudos for its star Florence Pugh), reimagined from a feminist perspective and updated to the Elizabethan era. It’s certainly not for Shakespeare purists, but the film may be fascinating in its own right. Or it may be totally foolish.

The jury is out on all of them, not least the much-anticipated Wonder Woman. But let’s be grateful. At least no musicals along the lines of La La Land with its archaic ingénue are anywhere on the horizon. On second thought, there is Beauty and the Beast.