This is one of the year’s best films.
Friday night at Ebertfest, “Elle” illuminates the Virginia Theatre’s screen. The complex and active character of Michele, brought to life by Isabelle Huppert, is being forcefully assaulted and raped. Again. I hear a few “oh my gods” under the breaths of fellow viewers. I see someone turn their head down in my periphery; they can’t watch it for the second, no, third time? I’ve lost count. I gasp as her assailant bashes her head against a concrete basement wall. We are all cringing. Rape is uncomfortable, euphemistically, and spectating Michele’s assault does not make the topic of female sexuality any more welcoming.
But in other scenes, she is not the passive receiver of violence. She is the instigator of her sexual well-being. And the amalgamation of films screened at Ebertfest represented other female characters in similar scenes (a lot of the times they’re in the dark, mind you). And it happened again, and again. Female sexuality is bursting from its clandestine conversations, and demanding our attention. The subject tests our capacity for empathetic relationships with these women and their evident sexual characteristics. It tests our compassion and forgiveness. Even the older films seemed to have gained a stronger resonance on the subject since their debut, echoing the social and political issues of our current climate. Some of these films shamed and punished women for their bodies. Others empowered female characters through their sexuality.
Films coax us closer to understanding the experiences of others. One experience that gets some screen time (but not much talk time) is the oppression of women and their sexual dimension. “Flower” director Max Winkler said to IndieWire: “I think it’s irresponsible to say men can’t make good movies about women or that women can’t make good movies about men. The more we can place each other inside of each other’s narratives, the better.” He understands the gray area, how to backtrack the male gaze, and I appreciate this tremendously. But I also think that we are living in a time where a female-led discussion of female sexuality is needed more than ever.
And females were a part of the discussions following the films at Ebertfest. But there was a universal reluctance to seriously talk about these aspects of the film. Even in a conversation with a peer who has seen “The Handmaiden,” I found myself incapable of bringing up the beauty of the love scenes without a comedic tone, to which she changed the subject to something else she appreciated about the film. Something easier to talk about. Sexuality is not often enough given consideration in post-screening discussions or otherwise. The one time that I can 100% confirm sexuality was discussed was after “Hysteria,” where it would have been silly not to talk about it.
So, let’s venture into the hot, blush-inducing scenes of female sexuality that had audiences at the Virginia Theatre at this year’s Ebertfest squirming in their seats. Let’s talk about sex.
In “Hair,” a film about a military-destined Midwestern man called Claude (John Savage) who galavants with a goony hippie squad in 1960s New York City, free love is in full swing with benevolent consequences. The two presiding women in this film are Sheila (Beverly D’Angelo) and Jeannie (Annie Golden), who are on completely different ends of the spectrum in terms of social class. But, both women are positive representations of female sexuality.
In one scene, Sheila uses her attractiveness to seducing a military captain in order to steal his uniform and car, in a frolicsome but carefully considered effort to “rescue” Claude from his military base. She empowers herself. She conflates her sexuality with her cleverness, and we like her all the more for it. It flips the dominant narrative of men having determining rights to a woman’s body. The consequences of her sexuality are decided by her.
Jeannie’s character touched on the notion of “women’s intuition” when it came to her pregnancy, and “knowing” that she was with child. At the same time, she was unknowing about the identity of the child’s father. And Jeannie was totally cool with it. This was unsettling for Hud’s fiancee (Cheryl Barnes), who exemplified women judging other women’s sexual ventures (casually known as slut shaming). Hud’s fiancee says to Jeannie “If a woman carries a child, don’t you think she should know who the father is?” to which Jeannie replies in affirmation, “I admit I have this dilemma. But it will be resolved real soon. It’s not like a big crisis or anything.” We react empathetically towards Jeannie. Partly because audiences inherently dislike anyone who disagrees with our protagonists, but also because we are comforted by Jeannie’s response.
The precedents set by “Hair” are less under the thumb of man than in the film “Hysteria.” Taking place in the late 1800s, there is vibrant oppression of women’s voices, denial of their sexual pleasure, and stigmatization of their feelings. Our current culture is still imbued with these symptoms.
Wexler says the film is about “Denial in the face of overwhelming truth.” “Hysteria” is a staggering example of how female sexuality is still a male subject. Of course, when discussing gender, you cannot talk about one without the other. The outcome of the film is the intervention that benefits the female body, while simultaneously lessening the workload of men. Charlotte Dalrymple (Maggie Gyllanhaal) embodies the qualities in a woman that a man of that era (and some of our modern era) would fear, then write her off as having “hysteria.” She is everything that the men in the film do not understand women are capable of being. It frustrates them. In “Hysteria,” a woman’s tongue-in-cheek “treatment” is completed by the literal hands of Dr. Jonathan Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce). Following one woman’s treatment, she inquires “Same time tomorrow?” to which Dalrymple replies “Moderation in all things.” He is policing her body, in a removed and antipathetic way.
Dalrymple and his newfound apprentice Dr. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) take a similar attitude towards the female orgasm, as a sort of scientific mystery with undeserved authority. The two deny the evident pleasure a woman gets from the “treatment” with straight faces. At one point, the idea of a woman having rights to her own body is compared to the idea of human flight. It is only after Charlotte educates Mortimer, who has the capability of convincing other men, that women’s capacities can be greater than white dresses and anxieties.
But what of the women in cinema whose sexualities are deemed seductive guiles? The femme fatale Bertha-Marie (Lya di Putti) in “Variete” was struck with these accusations. She is the female part of a trifecta of trapeze performers. The other two, her husband (Emil Jannings) and the star, Artinelli (Warwick Ward). Artinelli invites Bertha-Marie into his room with sexual conquest overtones, and I think audiences could veraciously infer she is against the prospect of an affair. He becomes the male homewrecker. She becomes a war-zone of male power. And her relevance to the story boils down to becoming a signifier for the male others. She is a silent image. This narrative is dangerous.
“The Handmaiden,” my personal favorite of the festival, is a film that turns female sexuality from a male war-zone into female prosperity. It’s a rare film in many capacities, one being that the lesbian lovers do not die in the end (see: “Cell Block H," ” “Northern Exposure,” “Smallville,” etc). I cherished it. There is so much to unpack from this film in terms of sexuality. The Japanese erotica shunga readings performed by Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) were potent in exposing the male gaze. The love scenes were arresting. It turned female sexuality on its head, empowering Hideko and her handmaiden Sooki (Kim Tae-ri), who, very literally, destroys the male occupancy of her and her Lady’s lives. The high point was Sooki whipping deep magenta paint across the treasured shunga scrolls, now gutted and defaced.
The film is a nonstop balancing act with high stakes. The audience reaps satisfaction one grain of rice at a time. Hideko’s body suspends off the ground several times, a frozen constituent of her male jailers. The balancing never ends. Even in the cinematography, the two women’s bodies repeatedly balance and mirror each other’s within the frame. Sure, there is a manipulation of visual pleasure at work here, but there is also severe integrity, especially in the final iteration of their sex, where their intimacy is revealed in the faces and their eyes. There is compassion. There is forgiveness. And it is only towards one another. The other male characters feel the fierceness of the revenge they had coming to them, and the satisfaction turns into a buffet.
Another revenge tale is that of “Elle.” The film begins in the middle of a rape. She doesn’t call the police, she calls for sushi takeout. Her circumstance, as we come to learn, makes her reluctance to call law enforcement understandable, but her decision is one that many women make. The identity of the rapist shocks us further, as it enacts the idea that rapists can be everyday people.
Michele refuses victimization. She understands the objectifying thrills of looking. With binoculars in tow, she becomes a female peeping Tom to her supple married neighbor, Patrick (Laurent Lafitte), and pleasures herself at the sight. Michele becomes the active and Patrick becomes the passive. She empowers herself with this typically male act, as Charlotte Dalrymple does. An affair she has with her best friend’s husband is on her terms: if the sex happens, when the sex happens, how the sex goes, and when the affair ends. Michele’s character is more difficult to empathize with though. She rolls with the punches, brooms up the mess, and keeps charging forward.
In the conclusions of both “Elle” and “The Handmaiden,” I noticed something different. It feels new. “Elle’”s is more subdued compared to “The Handmaiden,” but both arrive at the ending of two women open-endedly deciding to live their lives together after facing trauma inflicted by men. One is undoubtedly more romantic than the other, but even when Michele and Anna lay familiarly in bed together after the Christmas party, they share a tender kiss. Perhaps screenwriters are moving towards transcending the heteronormative “they lived happily ever after.” Perhaps, the future is slowly becoming more female.
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