Film

Four New Films With Female Characters That Make Me Want To Set The Cinema On Fire

Tom Hanks is the star of two action movies out right now. His female co-stars are Girl Sidekick and Wife On Phone.

As a young woman, a writer, a critic, and a film junkie, I’m constantly searching for films featuring somebody like me. Despite my relative youth and my whiteness, the search is rarely successful. Hollywood is broken in the way it represents women and allows them to work in its industry, and in recent years, the extent of that brokenness has become a near-constant point of discussion.

But as a critic who regularly attends a whole range of film festivals beyond the multiplex, I’ve begun to notice how flat, how uniform and how un-interesting female characters can be in non-mainstream cinema too. Across all manner of genres, national industries and modes of working, I see a lot of girlfriends, a lot of wives, a lot of seductresses in cinema, but not many films that try to come to terms with what it’s like to simply be a woman in the world. I want movies that show a woman’s perspective from a woman’s perspective that speak to me as a woman.

Women-centric, -directed, and -written films remain as rare as ever. When the aesthetic possibilities, themes and perspectives of a whole art-form are delimited to one gender, cinema culture suffers as a whole. Film criticism is an incredibly male-dominated profession too. As Meryl Streep pointed out to great furore last year, the material we are all reading about films is rarely from a female, let alone a feminist perspective. In Meryl’s words: “The word isn’t ‘disheartening,’ it’s ‘infuriating.’”

So! Here are four films in current release that made me as a 29-year-old woman want to set the cinema on fire! And one bonus non-fucked film that didn’t.

The Girl on the Train, dir. Tate Taylor

In the wake of the success of David Fincher’s crazy-sexy-woman film Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train is the latest in a stream of blockbusters adapted from bestselling literary thrillers, aimed at women and centred on female characters who are at the limit of the gender-based roles circumscribing their lives. In this engaging version of the genre, Emily Blunt plays Rachel, a key witness in a missing girl case. The first twist is that Rachel is an alcoholic, which makes her a very unreliable witness and protagonist, and the second is that she’s linked personally to the crime, and therefore implicated.

Writer Anne Helen Peterson has called these crime-mysteries ‘female rage’ films, and I think she’s right. They’re really interesting for their aspirations and their limitations, and for the fact that Hollywood is finally acknowledging female viewers as a market worth making films for. In Girl on the Train, the instigator of Rachel’s alcoholism is her rage at the identity as an ex-wife and failed mother: she can’t move on with her life, nor has she created a new identity for herself.

Blunt gives a terribly sad, honest performance that cuts to the sense of despair that many women feel about failing their ‘feminine’ duties and not being loved by men in the complete, all-consuming way they always longed for. It’s funny to see these themes get the Hollywood treatment, visually: the women in this film appear poreless and lit from within, even when slurring and staggering around public transport and muddy forests. But the most deep-cut contradiction of The Girl on the Train is that it continues to solely define its women by the very identities that it purports to question: all the women are variously delineated as wives, nannies and mistresses — only ever in relation to the blokes, or in this case, bloke (steelcut-eyebrowed Justin Theroux).

Neon Demon, dir. Nicholas Winding Refn

Famously colour-blind, Nicholas Winding Refn has staked his reputation as a filmmaker in creating slow-building, slightly kitsch arthouse dramas using his own vivid visual language based around bold, saturated colours. This time he has chosen the Los Angeles modelling industry as the locale for a spin on the horror genre, in which women prey upon women as their jealousy turns to madness then to homicide.

The modelling trade could indeed be seen as a form of horror, but I suspect the real reason for Refn’s choice is that he has seen an opportunity to make style the substance of his film. Although Refn is indeed a deeply unique filmmaker on an aesthetic level, in terms of character, theme and genre he is deeply derivative. For instance, his protagonist, played by Elle Fanning, is a 16-year-old virgin perpetually costumed in near-white, and his main antagonist a sexy, deceptive lesbian killer. There’s no real innovation here. The Neon Demon is rich with striking visuals, but I can’t help but think a surface-level satire of the beauty industry has given Refn the excuse to lovingly craft a glossy arthouse pervefest for straight dudes.

Inferno, dir. Ron Howard

An adaptation of the latest Da Vinci Code book autopilot-directed by Ron Howard might seem like a pretty easy target in a discussion about women’s representation on-screen. But Inferno was popular enough to take $50 million on its opening weekend, and the prevalence of films like this in the mainstream is still so strong and so dire, it’s important to discuss.

This is the third film in the art-history mystery-chase series, which sees Tom Hanks as the middle-aged, linen-shirted Professor Robert Langdon thrown into scenarios where he must debunk obscure clues — this time hinging on Dante’s Inferno — to save the world. He is frankly pretty hopeless at anything except unshuffling anagrams, and regularly enlists the help of a Girl Sidekick. First time ’round it was Audrey Tatou, this time it’s Felicity Jones, as a doctor called Sienna.

Clark is kind of like a sensible Bond Girl, or a female version of Batman’s Robin: she is first introduced as the type of emergency department doctor who wears stylish wedges, then developed as a person who can run fast while looking serious and jumping into cars in said wedges. Her characterisation is then really fleshed out as a woman who is stylish yet practical, matter-of-fact and deeply admiring of Langdon. In the narrative, she exists to serve him, whether that involves emitting a companionable “hmpgh!” at his throwaway jokes, showing him how to use Google, or just talking him through his revelations and expository nonsense (Langdon: “What if…” Sienna: “What if what?!”). Although she basically runs the show and is the truly deserving protagonist, Langdon is the star, and the film’s main twist revolves around rearranging the roles of the only two female characters, who both serve as sidekicks.

Hanks’ performance could generously be described as contractually obliged, and the film as a whole as a theatrically-released telemovie. Weirdly enough, Clark is the new star of the Star Wars reboot, whose last instalment subverted the very archetype of the Girl Sidekick by giving the right-hander role to a rather pathetic but loveable guy. But the Girl Sidekick cliche remains common enough, especially in the action genre: think of Shailene Woodley in the recent Snowden, and any number of Emily Blunt’s role over the years (Edge of Tomorrow, The Adjustment Bureau).

Sully, dir. Clint Eastwood

Another vehicle for Tom Hanks! Look, I think he’s awesome, and this film is one of my favourite mainstream releases this year. In his classic and efficient directing style, Clint Eastwood has turned the story of how Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landed a passenger plane in the Hudson River from one of individual skill to a grand American myth of patriotism in the face of bureaucracy and big government. We are shown the crash twice, and both perspectives are so involving and the action sequences so gloriously staged and shot, that the first time I shuddered and the second time I almost vomited from nerves.

In his winter years, Eastwood has become a masterful craftsperson, and Sully is a manipulative piece of propaganda cinema for its director’s form of macho American libertarianism. I honestly love the film, as much as I disagree with its politics. I think I love it because I disagree so vehemently with its politics — the extent of Eastwood’s mastery over cinematic form got me on board despite the chasm of my ideological differences.

But not enough critics have commented on the wholesome, devoted character of Lorrie Sullenberger, played by Laura Linney. Lorrie appears in just four scenes, literally all on the phone to her husband, counselling him through the media and investigation ordeals that followed the emergency landing. Like many women on-screen, Lorrie exists only to humanise the male protagonist and is conceptualised only in terms of her proximity to that man. She appears to have no motivations or character psychology of her own. Linney unsurprisingly aces the role, which reminded me of how often Hollywood gets away with drawing a woman as broadly and archetypally as possible in the script and letting an expert actress fill in the gaps in her performance to make the cliche real.

To me, it’s fascinating to track the careers of Hanks and Linney. Though they’re both incredibly intelligent, convincing and lauded performers, Hanks is permitted the ‘fuck yeah’ leading and action hero roles into his 60s. Meanwhile, Linney has been relegated to these types of Wife On The Phone roles for years. By way of contrast, think back to her turn in The Truman Show, the maniacal zeal with which she sold her husband “Mococoa drink” in the film set of her own home. It’s a real shame to see the woman who made the role of Meryl Burbank so much more than a wife reduced to playing such bland Hollywood templates.

Bonus round! La Belle Saison, dir. Catherine Corsini

Okay, now for a non-fucked film! In La Belle Saison, director Catherine Corsini brings the conventions of indie cinema to bear on a lesbian romance, and therein lies its limitations and its innovation.

Like Todd Haynes’ Carol, Corsini is careful to ensure that sexuality is not the only factor dividing the central couple: in this case, humble farm-girl Delphine and gender-studies lecturer Carole are divided by their backgrounds in rural and urban France. The film is also a period piece: setting her love story in the 1970s, allows Corsini to drench her viewers in the heady setting of the second wave of feminism in the streets of Paris, fleshing out the film’s queer themes with related but separate ideas about women’s liberation.

La Belle Saison is far from groundbreaking, but perhaps that’s where its newness lies: in simply bringing queer women’s concerns into mainstream arthouse filmmaking. Basically it’s just a nice, sweet, romance about two women. From the film’s viewpoint of the 1970s, it seems astonishing that a film like this — that merely treats its female protagonists exactly the same it would a straight couple in a standard indie drama and defines them beyond their sexuality — remains so rare today.

Lauren Carroll Harris has been published in Guardian Australia, Metro and Meanjin. She tweets from @LCarrollHarris.