Film Poll: A Most Monstrous Year for Women in Film

Cannibals, murderers, telekinetic tormenters, possible co-conspirators, belligerent winos, head-scratching kaiju, plotting partners — women were monsters in 2017. In the movies, at least. After years of calling for multidimensional and (gasp!) unlikable but sympathetic women in film, critics ate up these wicked women like so many poisoned mushrooms. RawColossal; ThelmaI, Tonya; The Lure; Lady Macbeth; Prevenge; The Beguiled; and even the Village Voice Film Poll winner Phantom Thread delivered enough feminine mania, psychosis, and body horror to fill a follow-up book to Barbara Creed’s 1993 essential text, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. That the movies have delivered this many complicated female characters in the same year is a blessing and an anomaly.

The concept of the monstrous-feminine has been defined by Creed and then loosely interpreted over the years as a female character who becomes a physical or psychological threat to the people around her — in other words, a dangerous woman. Sure, we’ve been gifted a few monstrous women onscreen every now and then. But 2017 felt unprecedented, as if the rage of women fed up by their continual subjugation had poured over onto the big screen, timed perfectly with the #MeToo moment and Harvey Weinstein’s public demise. Of course, these movies were in the works before the Weinstein news broke in October 2017. But any woman will tell you this has been a long time coming.

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This isn’t the first time women have risen up onscreen to channel real-life rage. The films of the 1990s gifted us with a host of monstrous-feminine vehicles that bottled female rage, from black comedies like To Die For, Jawbreaker, Serial Mom, Drop Dead Gorgeous, and Death Becomes Her to horror and action films, including The Craft, Species, Audition, Mimic, and The Long Kiss Goodnight. The decade began, in real life and on TV, with Anita Hill testifying before an all-male panel of senators about the sexual harassment she endured years earlier while working for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. For her trouble, she enjoyed a public assassination of her character, and Thomas was confirmed to his seat despite the protestations of women’s groups. But there were two upsides to the ugly incident: A record number of women were elected to congress the following year. And we got those great movies in the years to come, a decade that culminated in John Fawcett’s cult classic Ginger Snaps, released in 2000, in which a teenage girl turns into a kind of werewolf when she’s attacked by a dog after she gets her first period.

Over the past few years, monstrous women have been making a comeback on the big screen. In 2016, The Love Witch, Elle, The Girl on the Train, and The Neon Demon offered varying views of the monstrous-feminine. In 2014, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night gave us a bloodthirsty vampire woman, and Lucy, a merciless man-killing warrior bent on revenge. The year before that, Under the Skin depicted Scarlett Johansson as an alien in human skin luring Scottish men to their deaths, and in 2011, Hanna showed us a perfectly engineered killing machine in the form of an eleven-year-old girl, played by Saoirse Ronan (who won Best Lead Performance for Lady Bird in this year’s poll).

Many films of 2017 feel like a direct response to the hits women have collectively endured in the age of “men’s rights activists” and, of course, the president. Nacho Vigalondo’s dark sci-fi comedy Colossal vilifies the “nice guys” who expect women to open their hearts and legs to any man who does them a favor. When the film’s men reveal their inner monsters, it’s up to Anne Hathaway’s Gloria to fight fire with fire — or rather, robot with kaiju — and teach the bully a lesson. Similarly, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread empowers its female protagonist to match her male counterpart’s cruelty when she realizes the only way to keep her tempestuous man — and her sanity — is to chop up some poisoned mushrooms and feed him just enough to lay him out for a few days.

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But for the most ferocious depictions of female monstrosity, 2017’s women-written films can’t be beat. In Alice Birch’s screenplay for Lady Macbeth, young bride Katherine (Florence Pugh) transforms, over the course of the film, from a somewhat timid yet eager partner to a cold-blooded murderess in her own right. Pugh makes that transformation completely believable, and Birch gives it narrative justification: Katherine is locked away in a cold castle of a house and treated like a child, told when she can and cannot go to bed. But the dynamic between two women in opposition to each other really nudges this film to the top of the heap. Katherine’s maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) occupies the station below Katherine’s in the house, and is obedient where Katherine is wild. When Katherine misbehaves, pursuing an affair with a stable boy, Anna witnesses the infidelities. Katherine attempts to forge an alliance with a traumatized Anna — who is black — but the maid rejects her lady’s offer. At this point, Pugh’s relatively sympathetic white character becomes unsympathetically monstrous, and the psychological torture Katherine inflicts on Anna is painful to watch. The film’s message is clear: The freedom to lash out under oppressive circumstances is only afforded to women with a certain amount of privilege.

Julia Ducournau’s Raw (number five, Best First Feature) dissects a different kind of female relationship, that of bickering sisters. The older, Alex (Ella Rumpf), treats the younger, Justine (Garance Marillier), as her plaything, humiliating and hazing her at their French veterinarian school. In a post-screening interview I did with Ducournau, she told me she instructed Rumpf to imagine that Marillier was simply one of her possessions, “a pair of jeans,” and told her to move Marillier’s body around, toss it on the bed or chair, without regard for the other actor’s personal space or boundaries. Do the two women turn out to be cannibals who terrorize the men around them? Yes! But it is their deep familiarity and sisterhood that is somehow equal parts horrifying and heartwarming — rarely do we get to see the monstrous-feminine in opposition to itself.

More often than not, the monstrous-feminine figure is depicted as a direct threat to men, with the woman’s monstrosity manifesting in her reproductive organs. Creed made this argument in 1993, and Species — about a mutant woman on a murderous quest to become impregnated — came along in 1995, as if to prove her correct. But when a man is not the monstrous woman’s main conquest or target of torture, the anxiety of motherhood is usually irrelevant to the story: In the 1996 supernatural thriller The Craft, four outcast teenage girls find solace — and power — in witchcraft. Yet the anger that fuels their monstrosities stems from classism, racism, and ostracism, not their reproductive organs. Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya similarly explores the monstrous-feminine in relation to class, depicting figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) and her mother, LaVona (Allison Janney, number six, Best Supporting Performance), battling it out, physically and emotionally, on a daily basis in their bare-bones Oregon home — LaVona constantly reminding Tonya of the money she’s spent on her daughter’s pursuits. Would the two of them be so beastly to each other and the people around them if they’d had everything they needed?

One 2017 film in which the monstrous-feminine was directly related to a woman’s mothering felt revelatory in light of its female writer-director-star. Alice Lowe’s under-the-radar slasher Prevenge had a limited theatrical run before silently slipping away to the horror streaming service Shudder. I’m sure Creed would get a kick out of this one: Lowe — who was nearly eight months pregnant at the time of filming — plays a woman, Ruth, whose fetus instructs her to kill.

Lowe has publicly decried the concept of the “strong female character,” which she calls code for “boring woman.” She purposely made Ruth a radioactive ball of hormones who is tipped over the edge of sanity not just by her vengeful fetus, but also by the inane ways we infantilize pregnant women; in one scene, Ruth’s doctor coos, “Baby will tell you what to do.” Lowe twists that bit of pseudo-wisdom into a tale of loss and revenge and pokes fun at the old concepts of the monstrous-feminine.

Last year, Hollywood finally confronted the scourge of sexual harassment that has kept so many women in the film industry in a position of subservience and victimhood. The proliferation of the monstrous-feminine is a response to real-life inequality and injustice, and with no shortage of those to rail against, we might only be in the nascent stages of a long-term trend. In an op-ed for the New York Times, Salma Hayek called Weinstein “my monster.” I wouldn’t be surprised if Hayek’s next move was to match his monstrosity in film. Alas, justice in real life is far more elusive.


The Sofia Coppola Touch

We all have some idea of what the Sofia Coppola Style is like: dreamy, delicate, bathed in melancholy pop. But think of how different the plangent lyricism of The Virgin Suicides is from the digitized, fame-obsessed frenzy of The Bling Ring. Or the austere long takes of Somewhere from the gloriously colorful postpunk cacophony of Marie Antoinette.

The aesthetics are different, though each rendered with that impressionistic touch, somehow both buoyant and melancholy. Coppola’s films turn on the twin poles of solitude and solidarity. On one side, you’ve got the loners of Lost in Translation and Somewhere; on the other, the girl collectives of The Virgin Suicides and Bling Ring. But the boundaries blur: In Marie Antoinette, we see a lonely teen who’s been made queen of France find and build and lose her own little community.

Now Coppola has released what might be her most ambitious movie yet — a remake of the 1971 Don Siegel/Clint Eastwood film The Beguiled, adapted from Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel, A Painted Devil, in which a wounded Union soldier is sheltered by an isolated group of women in a Virginia girls seminary and slowly sows discord, sexual and otherwise. It’s a story with overtones of gothic horror, dripping with period detail. And, once again, the director has made it her own.

In The Beguiled, the loner and the collective collide: Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), understandably reluctant to be delivered either to prison or back to the battlefield, insinuates himself among these women, charming each in different ways — until they begin to resist. “He knows how to manipulate their weaknesses,” Coppola explains. Chief among his targets is the schoolteacher, Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), a repressed, retiring woman who begins to see in him the possibility of escape and a better life. But even the seminary’s rational, exacting headmistress, Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), isn’t impervious to this man’s charms.

McBurney’s seductions were handled rather bluntly in the atmospheric and somewhat hysterical 1971 film, which had Eastwood as a charismatic, lying sleazebag who, even as he lay nearly dying of a leg wound in the opening scene, found time to kiss the young girl who’d discovered him. (The film came out around the same time as the better-known Siegel/Eastwood collaboration Dirty Harry, and an entire cultural history of the United States could probably be written about how Eastwood’s scuzzy Sixties and Seventies antiheroes came to be blueprints for politicians in later years.)

It is interesting that the character of McBurney is somewhat more likable in the version of The Beguiled directed by a woman. Shouldn’t a feminist take on this material further indulge the male character’s villainy? Maybe not: The women of the 1971 Beguiled sometimes come off as weak, undone by their own need, as they fall for a man who is so clearly monstrous. “I wanted to see it from their view,” Coppola explains of her version. “You can see that he’s charming and understand why they get wrapped up in him. I want the audience to try to figure him out as the women do.”

Coppola is famously quiet and doesn’t like to analyze her work too much; she insists that much of what she does is intuitive. “There are all kinds of things that you do that you’re not totally aware of until stepping back,” she says. But don’t let the understated quality of her pictures, or her soft-spoken personality, deceive you into thinking that Coppola doesn’t know exactly what she’s doing. She’s been doing it for two decades, and she has produced one of the most expressive filmographies of any working American director.

When a director remakes a movie, they usually either completely love the original or feel it was missing something. Was either the case here?

I wouldn’t think to remake a classic film, but I feel like I was just doing it from a different point of view. I think The Beguiled is a classic in its genre for people that really know films — but a lot of people don’t know it, and it definitely has a very Seventies B-movie style. I wanted to go back to this story and retell it my way. And I felt like enough time had passed and my approach was so different that it could exist as a conversation with the other one — between the male and female point of view. I didn’t relate to how the Seventies film dealt with women’s sexuality, and I wanted to deal with that in a more relatable way.

Some people find the original really campy. I don’t know if it’s campy so much as just kind of…

Over the top!

Yeah. But you have a very light touch with this material.

I don’t ever want to be heavy-handed. The material is so melodramatic, or just dramatic — I didn’t want it to be full camp, but to still have humor and playfulness, and also connect with the more emotional side. So, a balance, just trying to find that tone….In life, you can have darkness and humor together, and I appreciate those contrasts. But I don’t really think too much about it; it’s just my sensibility.

What kind of inspirations did you draw on?

I always try to collect images with my art department — the photographer and the team that’s helping with the visuals — so we’re all on the same page. I also looked at other films: The Innocents with Deborah Kerr, and [Roman Polanski’s] Tess, for the natural photography. We looked at some scenes from Hitchcock for suspense. It’s a blur of stuff. I studied little images from some Italian films from the Sixties, Seventies. And [Polanski’s] Fearless Vampire Killers. I didn’t always revisit these; you just have references in your mind of things you’ve seen.

You seem fascinated by rituals. Virgin Suicides, Somewhere, Marie Antoinette — your characters, even when they’re loners, always find themselves at the center of different rituals.

I never thought about that, but it’s true. I could totally see that, now that you say it. There are so many rituals in life, and femininity is a lot about rituals.

So often your characters exist in groups. Is that something that you have to work with your actors on, to create that dynamic?

It’s just natural between girls and women. But definitely, with [The Beguiled], it was important. I had them spend some time together before we did the film. With the little girls, the students, they became friends and they hung out together on location. I wanted them to feel natural doing the things that women did at that time. They took sewing lessons and dance lessons or etiquette lessons. It helped them bond. You see that onscreen and feel like they have a familiarity.

When it comes to period detail, is there a point at which you have to step back and say, “OK, this is authentic enough, now I have to be freer and bring my sensibility to it”?

I always want it to be approachable, or naturalistic, in a way that you can connect with the characters. With the costumes, I decided that they shouldn’t wear their hoop skirts, because they’ve been working in the field — but also, it looks more like a silhouette that kids will relate to today. So that was a challenge: how to be authentic to the period, but also still relatable. And the dialogue, too: If we would change a line at the last minute, I’d think, “That has to sound like the period, but I also want it to sound naturalistic in a way that we can relate to as a modern audience.”

You’ve been criticized for cutting out the slave character.

The slave character was written in a really stereotypical way, and I didn’t want to make a movie about racial politics in the Civil War. So I decided just to focus on the women. When I went through the book I focused on the characters and sections I wanted to know more about and that I connected to. I left out the incest story, for example. I was very thoughtful about what I was going to include and not include. The process of adapting a book requires a lot of focus and thought on what you feel is at the core of the story you want to tell.

Some might say that by avoiding the character entirely, you’re helping to erase that aspect of history.

I thought it would be worse to make the stereotypical character and then not treat that story with respect, to just brush over it lightly. It’s too important. It’s another movie. I’m also trying to focus on the story about this group of women and this man. So to have a little side character I think would be disrespectful to that story….I thought a lot about it. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I’ll just snip that part out.” I just thought to do it in a light way without giving it respect would not be the right thing to do.

I’m intrigued by the way you use nature in the film. In the opening scene, the girl is picking mushrooms, and McBurney emerges from the mushrooms and the trees, like a force of nature. That’s in the Siegel as well, but I feel like you lean into that idea more.

These Southern ladies are so contained, and they’re cut off in their delicate world. So there’s this threat of nature, and the vines are growing in, and they’re going to take over the house soon. And the contrast of their inside, feminine world with the war and the brutal world outside.

You use sound interestingly to achieve that.

Oh, thank you. When I was writing the script, I thought a lot about that, because working with our sound designer Richard Beggs for so many years, he taught me to pay attention to those details, and I wanted that to be a key element. Because it’s so stark, and to keep the tension going, I wanted to really reflect a sense of the place with the cannons in the distance, and the sounds of nature.

In the first half, we hear the cannons in the distance. In the second half, we’ll see the outside of the house and hear the sounds of the domestic conflict coming from inside. So it’s as if the sound of warfare has infiltrated the house.

Oh, that’s interesting. I’m gonna use that! It wasn’t a conscious decision, but subconsciously it makes sense. I knew that I wanted the cannons to leave. The troops are moving on, so the women are really abandoned now. The war has moved on. But it’s true that then the war comes inside. There is more violence to the sound in that last section, and so it makes sense that it shifts. There’s a rhythm to the editing. But it’s intuitive; I’ve always tried to be open to what happens when you’re in the place, and not to plan it out too much. I never really plan out the shots until we’re there on the day with the actors and the setting, and then they rehearse. They’re going to have opinions about what feels natural to them, and then we figure out how to shoot it.

You’ve now made three films with Kirsten Dunst, all at different stages of her career. How has your relationship changed?

Knowing each other now for so long, we have a history and of course we have a shorthand. And when I met her she was a kid. And now, you know, she’s an adult woman, and she’s getting married, and so we relate to each other in a different way….As far as acting together, we always had a connection where she got me and I didn’t have to tell her that much. But on The Beguiled, more and more we can speak less. We have an understanding, a similar sensibility and sense of humor. There’s a trust there. I know that she’ll convey something in a way that I will like. But this was interesting to see her play so against type, which we haven’t done before. The character is so different from who she is. It was interesting to see her turn into this very other personality than what I know of her.