TOBY WOOLLASTON looks to the magic of cinema to shed some light on the murky waters of gender and sexuality.
In my previous article, I examined some of the year’s films that have told stories of a racist America, and postulated that perhaps 2017 has signalled a shift in whose stories are being told in cinema. Here, I will expand on that to examine sexuality and gender, a touchy topic fraught with pitfalls and a multitude of differing opinions. Thankfully, we have cinema to place us in unimaginable situations and align us with people we never thought we’d have so much empathy for.
Take a look at some of the protagonists that have graced our screens this year: a black youth in the gang-lands of Florida (Moonlight), a young farmer in the mud and filth of a Yorkshire farm (God’s Own Country), three Palestinian flatmates in Tel Aviv (In Between), and a 19-century woman stifled by her loveless marriage (Lady Macbeth) – all protagonists from vastly different settings who struggle to come to terms with their sexuality and gendered roles. The ability of cinema to open up our ‘empathetic glands’ is a testament to its persuasive power and consciously or not, every film displays a stance on sexuality through the very representation of their characters.
What follows is a brief examination of two of the above releases that have willfully examined women’s agency within a male-dominated society.
While I was at a screener for the superb Lady Macbeth, one small throwaway line stood out. “I’m thick skinned” – a seemingly innocuous opening statement from Lady Macbeth’s protagonist – spoke volumes about thee film’s central character, Katherine (played by Florence Pugh) and its exploration of liberation within an oppressive marriage.
As the title suggests, Lady Macbeth is a thematic reworking of the character from Shakespeare’s famous Scottish play, although some might see more similarities with Charlize Theron’s character in Patti Jenkin’s 2003 thriller Monster. I certainly did. This is a black widow story and Katherine is a femme fatale in the truest sense. Its investigation into a corrupt feminine power within an oppressive marital system renders the film dark and brooding, and at times quite brutal… but it’s thrilling to behold.
Katherine is a chattel, bought, as her husband says, “along with a piece of land not fit enough for a cow to graze upon.” He, along with his grumpy father (played by the wonderfully earthy Christopher Fairbank), keeps her under their strict set of rules. Indeed, there is very little joy here. When Katherine strikes up an amorous relationship with a farm hand, things don’t go down too well. It is one of those films where everyone is a nasty piece of work, except for the poor housemaid Anna (Naomi Ackie), who finds herself in the middle of the hostilities and acts as the film’s only form of moral compass.
The film unquestionably casts a shadow over femininity with a film noir sensibility that suggests a male fear of the non-subservient woman. But what the film also appears to be telling us is that oppression corrupts and that the actions of Katherine are brought about indirectly by a regime of male oppression.
Thematically similar to Lady Macbeth was a small Palestinian film called In Between. Again, the film had a line that spoke volumes about its central concern. When Leila (played by Mouna Hawa) finds herself in a romantic relationship, she can’t contain herself, exclaiming: “I haven’t felt my heart in such a long time”. Here, such sentiments take on a more desperate meaning than if it were said by Jennifer Aniston in a Peyton Reed romcom.
Hungarian born director Maysaloun Hamoud both directed and wrote In Between, a title that succinctly sums up the predicament of its three central characters; that is, how they are caught in the middle of the treacherous waters of cultural difference that impact their agency as liberated women. The film tells the story of three Palestinian flatmates living in Tel Aviv. Leila (Mouna Hawa) and Salma (Sana Jammelieh) are liberal Palestinian women by comparison to most around them. Their struggle to act true to themselves within a framework of a conservative patriarchal society is ever-present in their periphery. When Noor (Shaden Kanboura), a conservative Muslim, moves in it highlights their cultural differences but also their commonality as women. All three women find themselves in separate romantic relationships that challenge issues of sexuality, identity and liberation.
The film wastes no time in stating its stance on gender politics: in the opening scene, Noor waxes her legs as her mother proffers sage advice on how to please her future husband. The film reaches an uncomfortable turning point with a brutal (as if there is any other kind) rape scene (viewer discretion advised), the aftermath being an incredibly raw and emotional sequence of events that cut to the bone. It’s a sequence that highlights Hamoud’s ability as an evocative storyteller, a skill on par with The Salesman’s Asghar Farhadi.
In Between’s meta concerns also highlight how the representation of women and their agency onscreen is something to be cherished and nurtured. Its impact on cinema’s worldview is something that demands well-considered attention rather than the apathy of your average Hollywood flick.
Compare In Between to Taylor Sheridan’s latest release, Wind River, which is a perfectly serviceable thriller in its own right, but somewhat misses the mark with the gender representation of its main protagonist. Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is a slight and seemingly inexperienced young FBI agent, who conspicuously doesn’t belong among her male counterparts, Lambert and his wind-beaten companions. Despite Banner’s senior position, her character too easily falls into the clichéd role of the abject female and it appears that she cannot survive without the help of her male companion. Unfortunately, her character never conquers this imbalance, much to the detriment of the story’s gender concerns. Banner represents a missed opportunity that contemporaries such as Silence Of The Lambs’ Clarice Starling (to which Wind River owes a great deal) comfortably navigates.
Unfortunately, films such as Lady Macbeth and In Between (and other fine examples from this year, such as the aforementioned Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country and Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight) are not heavily patronised by the cinema-going public. The perception might be that these are agenda-based films, with the masses instead opting for the easy entertainment value of the latest blockbuster. Despite this, there is some nutritional value to be had from your average Hollywood blockbuster if you know how to see past the marketing hype. The glossy sci-fi blockbuster Blade Runner 2049 had more meat on it than its marketing department suggested, and you had to see the film to understand that it wasn’t just an impressive sensory experience but also a well-considered story about an oppressed group’s struggle for agency. The Planet Of The Apes trilogy and Wonder Woman also fall into this category, and there are plenty more if you dig deep enough.
So, if you feel like you’ve been drowning in superheroes and popcorn this year, then all is not lost. 2017 has brought its movie-going public some fine films on topics that are important to us all as a society. Hopefully, ccinema will continue to fight the good fight and eternally bang its head against the brick wall of ignorance, lest we let the rot of complacency and apathy set in.