52 Films By Women: Paris Is Burning (1990)



By Andrea Thompson

It's often remarked that great art comes from pain. Nowadays there's sort of an addendum, in that said pain is often co-opted by the those in power. This was already well underway by the time Jennie Livingston's documentary “Paris Is Burning” was released in 1990, which follows New York's drag scene in the 1980s, and the many peole who made it what it was.

Past tense is key here. By this time, voguing had become mainstream, with a prime example being Madonna's Vogue video that year. There's always going to be some sense of melancholy to any snapshot of the New York that existed in the 80s and 90s, fictional or otherwise. At least we have “Paris Is Burning” as a chronicle of this vibrant community, which mostly consists of LGBT people of color, and who have only barely been represented in mainstream cinema. Or for that matter, even acknowledged for their cultural contributions.

The first words spoken are from one of the film's subjects, who says, “I remember my dad used to say, 'You have three strikes against you in this world. Every black man has two, just that they're black, and they're a male. But you're black, and you're a male, and you're gay. You're gonna have a hard fucking time.' And he said, 'If you're gonna do this, you're gonna have to be stronger than you ever imagined.'”

The rest of the film is how various people in this cope with the truth behind these words in this particular time and place, which is a conversation that is also only beginning to be acknowledged (and more often than not, denied) by the mainstream. And the balls, which many have dismissed as spectacle, are an important part of life for many. Taking place in shabby rooms, they mostly consist of people of color cheering on those who walk, showing off the fabulousness of their outfits...or in some cases, their lack of them.

While many of the people on camera don't delve into too much detail about their backgrounds, stories of their vulnerability are rampant. Many of them ran away to New York City in search of a home, while others were thrown out by homophobic and transphobic families. The balls are where they can be with those who share their identity, passions, and interests. They can feel okay about being who they are, and they can also aspire to be who they want to be.

Those who have such hobbies are generally natural performers with the personalities to match. But time and again,, they are shown just how little place their ambitions have in America, especially in the 80s, where practically every form of media depicted white people as emblems of the ideal life, whether it was middle class or the more opulent one that was aspired to more and more as Wall Street became a force unto itself.

It's hardly surprising that such an ambitious exploration of race, class, gender, and sexuality provoked controversy, which continues to this day. Director Jennie Livingston was able to capture so much of this world partly because she is a queer woman herself, but her detractors probably have a point when they state that her whiteness held her back. That said, while many of the people in the film have met ends both triumphant and tragic, Livingston has only made shorts since, and has only recently began developing another film. “Paris Is Burning” may have gone to win many awards, and even perhaps help change how documentaries are nominated for Academy Awards, but Livingston herself never became a prolific filmmaker. (If you really want the ultimate rundown of the film and everyone in it, check out out.com's ultimate viewing guide.)

Yet for all its flaws, the conversations “Paris Is Burning” raises continue to be relevant. “All minorities know it's a white America,” Pepper LaBeija person mused. “Any other nationality not of a white set knows this and accepts this till the day they day die. That is everybody's dream and ambition as a minority - to live and look as well as a white person.” One of the images used during this statement is a cover of Forbes magazine. One of the smiling men on that cover is Donald Trump.

52 Films By Women: Near Dark (1987)



By Andrea Thompson

“Near Dark” is a creative kind of genre fusion that absolutely works, but also tends to be unprofitable if it's not released at the right time. Even if 1987 looked like the right year for Kathryn Bigelow's now cult film, it just wasn't familiar enough for audiences to get behind at the time, resulting in a very familiar situation: positive reviews, but not much returns at the box office.

The neo-western “Near Dark” was part of a number of serious vampire films in the 1980s. “The Lost Boys,” “Fright Night,” “Once Bitten,” “Vampire Hunter D,” and “The Hunger” are all just a small sampling of the large proliferation of films that revolved around the undead. And while the smash hit “Interview with the Vampire” wouldn't be made until 1994, the book it was based on had hit shelves in 1976, followed by “The Vampire Lestat” in 1985 and “The Queen of the Damned” in 1988 to a very appreciative audience.

“Near Dark” flips many of the genre staples from the start. The first and most obvious is it is not a young woman who is victimized by a vampire's bite, but a young man. Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar) is the quintessential good ol' small town boy. Hell, he even lives on a farm with his father Loy (Tim Thomerson) and sister Sarah (Marcie Leeds). One night, he meets a beautiful drifter named Mae (Jenny Wright) and gets bitten by her. He heads back home, but begins burning up in the sun. Just before he returns to the farm where he lives, the vampires Mae runs with pull up in an RV and kidnap him. During the rest of the film, Caleb is engaged in a battle for his soul. His nature now requires that he kill people to survive. “The night has its price,” Mae tells him soberly.



Once Caleb resigns himself to staying with his kidnappers for survival purposes, the movie gets into territory that was probably too uncomfortable for audiences. Colton's struggle to live without killing is constant, and there's genuine suspense as to whether he'll kill or not. Even when he refuses, with Mae giving him blood from her wrist in lieu of killing, there's no guarantee he'll stay on a non-lethal path, not just due to his thirst for blood, but the other vampires, who insist that he kill to prove himself.

It's not just Caleb's struggle, which is all too recognizable, that probably made audiences uncomfortable. It's the vampires themselves, which also include Bill Paxton as the most psychotic of them, and Joshua John Miller as Homer, a vampire child who is actually decades old. They quickly become the other protagonists of the story along with Caleb, and they're mostly unrepentant monsters, killing the evil and the innocent alike, and bear more resemblance to the truckers in “Alien” (directed by James Cameron, whom Bigelow was married to from 1989 to 1991) than our most iconic bloodsuckers. These are blue collar vampires, with no aristocratic bearing whatsoever. For the most part, they became vampires by accident rather than being carefully chosen by a darkly handsome psychopath.

Nor are they particularly smart. Their leader, Jesse (Lance Henriksen), is charismatic, but it's hard to imagine these idiots surviving in a non-digital age, and it's also chilling to see just how easy it was for people to disappear before that age hit. This is a group of vampires who just decide to walk into a bar and kill everyone there in the most sadistic ways possible, and are nearly killed – by the police of all things. These guys may have superhuman abilities, but humans still pose a major threat since they're unable to get far enough away from the crime scene before daylight. Humans also manage to put up a credible threat later in the film's final battle.

Over thirty years later, “Near Dark” is still one of the best vampire or horror movies ever made, even if the word vampire is never uttered. Bigelow herself went on to make other films that became even bigger pop culture staples. “Near Dark” isn't just a melding of genres, it combines many of the topics Bigelow became famous for: machismo and women who are making their own lonely way in a male world. Films like “Point Break” and “The Hurt Locker” are examples of the former, while “Zero Dark Thirty” is the latter. Mae bonds with Caleb because of the loneliness and isolation inherent in her life. While she is equal to the men in her lethal family, they are clearly the ones who rule. The film was also a subversive look at the politics of the Reagan Era, which villainized the poor to make the public more comfortable with the continuing erosion of their safety net.

In their own way, the vampires of “Near Dark” are a kind of found family that embrace the very values Reagan was espousing with their loyalty and devotion to each other. But in spite of their strength, they face a constant struggle for survival, and are constantly dependent on others for it. They're essentially a struggling white working class family who mostly gets away inflicting pain and death, mainly because people who being taught that other groups were responsible for such vicious crimes. It feels even more relevant now in our current age, which makes the happy ending even more of a relief. It may be a bit too unrealistic even for a vampire movie, but with hope in ever shorter supply, the possibility of a new, better day after such horror feels like a much needed ray of hope that doesn't burn, but heals.

52 Films By Women: The Love Witch (2016)

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By Andrea Thompson

I don't normally write about films I've already reviewed, but there is so much to say and notice about “The Love Witch.” There are many hands that make a film, and I'm generally somewhat hesitant to hand all the credit to one person. In this case though, I'm willing to say that the brilliant way “The Love Witch” is able to provide all the lush aesthetics associated with the most romantic love and deconstruct them at the same time is probably due to Anna Biller. She not only wrote and directed, she's credited on IMDB for the music, film editing, production design, art direction, set decoration, and costume design. This also led me to a rather interesting fun fact: cinematographer M. David Mullen also worked on “Jennifer's Body,” “United States of Tara,” “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” and the pilot of “The Good Wife.”

The movie follows modern day witch Elaine (Samantha Robinson), though you'd hardly know this was the modern world due to its aesthetic, which channels the sexploitation thrillers of the 60s and 70s through Biller's feminist gaze. Elaine has come to a small California town to start over after the death of her ex-husband Jerry (Stephen Wozniak). Though from the smirk on her face when she muses about “poor Jerry,” she may have had more to do with his demise than the police were able to prove.



There's also an impossibly beautiful fragility to Elaine that doesn't make it hard for us to sympathize with her. When she muses about the nervous breakdown she suffered after Jerry left her, it's intercut with memories of very patriarchal-looking witchcraft rituals. And if Elaine wasn't enough to mesmerize, wait till you see her apartment in a Victorian home, which is a fantastically over-the-top tribute to witchcraft. There to greet her is Trish (Laura Waddell), a somewhat prim but warm British woman who befriends Elaine. Or at least thinks she does. Their conversation at the Victorian Tea Room, one of the most beautifully rendered spaces in a film full of them, reveals that Elaine is a woman who is obsessed with love. She isn't about to let anything get in the way of it, much less friendship. When Trish tells Elaine, “You sound like you've been brainwashed by the patriarchy!” she doesn't know the half of it.

As much as Elaine builds her life around men, she doesn't seem to think very highly of them. She routinely describes men as fragile and easily cowed, especially when women assert themselves. “Men are like children,” Elaine tells Trish laughingly. “They're very easy to please as long as we give them what they want.” According to Elaine, you have to give a man his fantasy, and she is determined to do. It's just that in return she expects men to give them hers and satisfy her endless, obsessive desire for love. It doesn't end well for the unfortunate men who happen to cross her path. Drawing them to her is easy, but when her charms (literal and otherwise) cause them to become vulnerable and needy themselves, it repulses her.

As director Anna Biller remarked, Elaine is a character who has been driven mad simply by being a woman. The expectations have crushed her, and she hasn't surmounted them so much as learned to thrive within them, thus reaping the rewards by faithfully recreating herself in the male image and become their ultimate fantasy object. There is a deep rage within her at the disconnect between men who are unable to respect neither the women they are attracted to, or seem to be attracted to those they regard as intelligent. Both Jerry and her father denigrated Elaine's abilities, her mind, and body, with Jerry only showing an interest in her and her pleasure once she lost weight and was considered worthy of love and attention.



Small wonder, then, that Elaine loses her mind when the man she's put the most faith in, who has played the role of her knight in shining armor, is immune to her charms. Movies about witches are nearly always an examination of female power, and just because a movie examines this with a cast made up mostly of women does not mean it is feminist or even feminine. Biller herself put it pretty well in her blog when she wrote that in order to be feminist, “a movie has to have the express purpose of educating its audience about social inequality between men and women (and, I would argue, not take pleasure in the voyeuristic degradation or destruction of women).” It's also noteworthy that “The Love Witch” passes the Bechdel Test, even if it's not by much. This movie's existence and the acclaim it earned also signifies something else about the greater freedom women have to express themselves. Women seem to feel less of a need to emulate the values, and especially the gaze, of men in order to succeed. Femininity is something women can embrace without feeling degraded, and “The Love Witch” is a promising sign that such a gaze can be as progressive as a more “traditional” one.

Anna Biller will continuing this theme in her upcoming film, which is inspired by the dark fairy tale Bluebeard, wherein a woman finds she is married to a murderous monster. Of course it'll be from a female perspective and be inspired by retro woman in peril films of the 30s-60s. If that sounds tantalizing, check out more on her blog here.

52 Films By Women: Wonder Woman (2017)

By Andrea Thompson

Since Film Girl Film will be helping to host a 70mm screening of “Wonder Woman” for International Women's Day, it seems only fitting that today's column would be about the 2017 film adaptation, which against all odds, did the character justice.

Wonder Woman is an amazing character, but let's face it, it's hard to do a character with a magic lasso justice. And DC Comics didn't exactly have a record of doing right by their other iconic heroes on the big screen. Wonder Woman herself has undergone many changes, which is to be expected from a character who's been around since 1941, but she's mostly remained a strong, capable Amazon warrior of compassion who is devoted to equality for all, especially for women.

This has made Wonder Woman controversial from the start, especially since her creator William Marston never hid the fact that he wanted his hero to stand for a new kind of woman, one who would make an ideal leader, and not only stand against oppression, but against prudery. Marston himself was involved in a polyamorous relationship with his wife and another woman. There was even a film around this time that delved into this relationship and how it affected Wonder Woman's creation, “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women.



So it makes sense that the 2017 film would also court controversy. It languished in development for years, beginning in 1996, with everyone from Ivan Reitman to Joss Whedon attached to the project. Such a long beginning generally doesn't bode well for a movie's chances, but the movie would become a critical and commercial success, topping many best of 2017 lists, and is also considered one of the best superhero movies ever made, with much of the credit due to Gal Gadot's incredible performance as the lead.

We meet first see Wonder Woman when she's still Diana, a young child on her utopian island Themyscira, populated solely by Amazon women. After some resistance from her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), she is also trained to be a warrior, which she embraces and excels at. After she completes her training as an adult, she learns of the brutal World War I conflict raging in the outside world when American pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash lands on the island. Feeling a strong sense of duty, she decides to leave the island and try to end the war, which she believes the god Ares to be responsible for.

What works about this movie is the fact that we see a rare fusion of the actor and the role. Gadot doesn't just play Wonder Woman, she becomes her, much in the way that we associate Chris Evans with Captain America and Robert Downey Jr. with Iron Man. Similarly, we get to see her journey, and watch her come into her own. Crucially, we also get to see this from her perspective, not from Trevor's which is what Whedon's script originally intended. On that note, Pine also does great work as the man who is essentially not only Wonder Woman's guide to the greater world, but to men in general. He is the first man she meets, and of course he becomes her love interest, one that is respectful of her and has to inform her about how his world works without coming off as mansplaining to the audience. He gets the kind of treatment that all superhero love interests should receive.

Wonder Woman's journey in the film is also deeply engrossing without the usual ingredients that seem required to make heroes, especially women, interesting. Diana is not conflicted about her goals, which are to end war and make the world a better place without forgetting about the civilians who are caught in the middle. This concern is what led to the iconic No Man's Land scene, wherein Diana puts on her superhero garb and steps out onto the battlefield to save the civilians on the other side, despite being warned of the dangers, both to herself and the mission, by Trevor. Director Patty Jenkins had to fight for this scene, and it's hard to imagine the movie having the impact it did without it. I myself was in awe throughout this scene, and have only remained in awe since. To this day, whenever I don't want to do something I know I need to get done, or I have a task that seems impossible, I put this scene on for motivation.

When Diana does become conflicted, it's for a heartbreaking reason. She has so much faith in people that she honestly believes that killing one villain will lead mankind on the road to peace. Her decision to continue the fight even though she becomes aware of the darkness at the core of humanity is genuinely inspiring, especially since it incorporates the stories of the people around her, who are often treated as less than.

While this film was undeniable success, there were those who not only found it too feminist, but not feminist enough. Wonder Woman herself was also criticized for her costume, which some found undermined the feminist message, or thought the movie objectified her. Then there were some of the ridiculous reactions to the women-only screenings, which some men were dumb enough to argue were discriminatory. Makes sense then that they apparently some of the best reactions to the film.

For myself, I find it deeply saddening that how a woman looks or dresses still takes precedence over her actions and any other admirable qualities she may have, even for other women. I myself can think of no better way to celebrate International Women's Day than a screening of a film that wholeheartedly embraces what Wonder Woman has come to stand for, namely, compassion, and the dedication to fighting injustice in whatever form it may take.

Women's History Month in Milwaukee: Wonder Woman in 70mm, Female Entrepreneurs, and #GirlBoss Films

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By Andrea Thompson

March is Women’s History Month, and Milwaukee is having some great events to celebrate!

First, Film Girl Film is teaming up with No Studios and Milwaukee Film to host a 70mm screening of “Wonder Woman” at the Oriental Theatre on March 8 at 6:30 pm for International Women’s Day! More info on our events page, mkefilm.org, or click the link here. Hope to see you there!

Next week March 3-8 is also Women’s Entrepreneurship Week Milwaukee, which is a series of events for women to network, collaborate, and learn new skills in various locations across Milwaukee. And they’re all FREE. Learn more and see the schedule here.

Last, but definitely not least,the Iron Horse Hotel is hosting a #GirlBoss Film Series, which will celebrate kickass ladies on-screen and in Milwaukee! Every Monday night from 6-9 pm, there will be a free film along with a pre-show Q&A with an appropriately badass Milwaukee woman. Food and drink specials will also be available the entire time. The schedule is below:

  • Monday, March 4: OnMilwaukee.com Senior Writer/Editorial Manager Molly Snyder introduces “RBG”

  • Monday, March 11: Bid Manager at North Ave/Fond du Lac Marketplace Robin Reese introduces “Hidden Figures”

  • Monday, March 18: Media personality Elizabeth Kay of 99.1 The Mix and WISN 12 introduces “Thelma & Louise”

  • Monday, March 25: Lottie Royten of Lottie Lillian Photography introduces “9 to 5”

52 Films By Women: Bride & Prejudice



By Andrea Thompson

Last week I delved into one of the darker, more bloody species of film to include a romantic storyline, in part so I could fully explore an adaptation of one of the most well-known, romantic, love stories ever: the 2004 musical “Bride & Prejudice,” based, of course, on Jane Austen's “Pride and Prejudice.”

The movie itself is a joy, an example of the universal appeal of love stories across cultures and borders. Granted, the family has four daughters rather than five since it eliminates Kitty, but thanks to director and co-writer Gurinder Chadha, “Bride & Prejudice” mostly comes across as intended, which is as much a tribute Bollywood musicals as it is to Austen. Adaptations of Austen's work that take place in modern times can be a tough sell, mostly because the social forces that played such a huge part in the lives of her characters are either entirely absent or just not as resonant.

Chadha solves much of that problem by setting the film in a modern, yet still somewhat rural India, where there's still apparently a great deal of community involvement in marriage, and which is also still considered a necessary part of a person's life. There's even a song that partially explains why, mostly in how local businesses greatly profit from any big (expensive) wedding that comes to town. In such an environment, it's pretty feasible and believable for weddings to be substituted for balls, which allows “Bride and Prejudice” to more smoothly incorporate much of the novel's events while giving us some truly catchy, energetic songs.

While many (including her fans) often see Austen's writing as little more than harmless romantic fluff, Chadha doesn't forget just how much of Austen's novels were satires, with a whole lot of commentary on the class system of her day. Chadha smartly, if more blatantly, incorporates much of this spirit into the movie by having our two would-be lovers William Darcy (Martin Henderson) and Lalita (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) butt heads on Darcy's condescending American view of India. When he calls arranged marriages backward, she points out that its modern incarnation is more like a global dating service. When Darcy talks about building a 5-star hotel, Lalita speaks of the phenomenon of people who want to come to India without having to deal with the people who live there, and calls him an imperialist. When Darcy protests that's he's American, Lalita responds, “Exactly.”

Lalita may be literally half a world away from the rural England of the beloved Lizzie Bennet, but she's very recognizable. The same can't be said for Martin Henderson's Darcy. Henderson is just one of those leading men the film industry tries to make happen every now and then when it forgets that you need a charismatic presence far more than good looks in films that depend on the appeal and chemistry of its leads. Compare that to Johnny Wickham (Daniel Gillies), who in this version is a seemingly laid back, open-minded world traveler. Also abtastic. Who wouldn't swoon over this guy? I mean...



Identity is also a big thing in “Bride & Prejudice,” which acknowledges the Indian diaspora, especially of those who leave and forget where they came from, with the Indian-British barrister Balraj (Naveen Andrews), aka Bingley, telling his very Westernized sister Kiran (Indira Varma, who played Ellaria Sand on “Game of Thrones”), not to be “such a coconut.” Not that the movie dislikes modernism of course. Part of the reason Kholi (Nitin Ganatra), its version of Mr. Collins, is so unsuitable isn't just because his success in America has made him lose touch with his roots. He's also a misogynist who shakes his head over the outspoken, career-oriented women in America, some whom are...lesbians! Ganatra manages to make this guy hilariously unappealing though, rather than just unappealing. Plus, he provokes Lalita's most impressive zinger when he talks about how India is too corrupt when she fires back, “What do you think your U.S. was like after 60 years of independence? They were all killing each other over slavery and blindly searching for gold.”

That said, this cosmopolitan emphasis is where the film deflates somewhat once the sisters leave India for London and LA. Appropriately enough, it's in LA where Lalita and Darcy start to connect and fall in love, albeit in a more rushed way, although we do get the song “Take Me To Love,” sung by everything a gospel choir, a mariachi band, and lifeguards. Trust me, it works. Even if you don't know the story, you know there's a fallout coming, in this case when Lalita finds out that Darcy is behind Balraj's sudden, abrupt departure from her sister Jaya (Namrata Shirodkar) and rejects him. Also, (Alexis Bledel's appearance as Darcy's sister Georgie is far too brief!) But the two make up pretty quickly in London, when Lakhi runs off with Wickham. Sure, it's rather hurried, but we also get to watch a dramatic confrontation in a theater where a similarly dramatic Bollywood movie is playing. After that, the movie quickly arrives at its happy ending back in India, which sees a double wedding between Balraj and Jaya, and naturally, Lalita and Darcy in a traditional Indian wedding. It's certainly ends up being a very chaste on-screen romance, since Lalita and Darcy never even kiss, even when they marry.

Nevermind. The musical numbers are fun, the whole cast seems like they're having a blast, and Lalita is always a heroine worth rooting for, even during the few times the movie doesn't do her justice. The fact that Chadha managed to incorporate so many issues about the continuing evolution of the modern India without “Bride & Prejudice” feeling preachy or overstuffed is remarkable. So if you want a different, fun, deeply recognizable kind of love story with a lot on its mind for your Valentine's Day viewing, you could do far worse.

52 Films By Women: In the Cut (2003)



By Andrea Thompson

Seeing as how Valentine's Day is next week, I thought I'd devote this week's column to my more cynical side before I went all-out romantic for the holiday. So why not Jane Campion's 2003 film “In The Cut,” an erotic thriller that is also a kind of anti-love story? If that sounds hard to pin down, that's because it is, and critics seemed mostly unimpressed by it when it first came out. But “In the Cut” seems to be among a cadre of films directed by women in the early to mid-2000s, such as “Jennifer's Body” and “27 Dresses,” that are being rediscovered and reconsidered in light of our current times.

That said, “In the Cut” is also best appreciated as a product of its very specific time. As the film opens on a drab vision of NYC, the song Que Sera Sera plays, a seemingly cheerful number that's all about how unknowable our future is. It's certainly a concept that a city still reeling from the trauma and paranoia of 9/11 could relate to. Appropriately, the film's version of New York is steeped in shadow, and becomes increasingly as fractured as the unraveling mindset of its heroine Frannie Avery (Meg Ryan in a role originally written for Nicole Kidman, who is one of the film’s producers), a university professor.



Frannie is the kind of complex, conflicted woman that's still all too rare on-screen, and Meg Ryan throws her all into this role with relish. Saying that she plays against the adorable type she became known for is putting it mildly. One of the first things she does is accidentally stumble across a faceless man getting a blow job from an equally faceless woman. Campion makes us feel as uncomfortable and voyeuristic as Frannie with a close up of the woman's mouth, with a clear view of the guy's member, making me realize I was probably watching the unrated director's cut.

Things only get more uncomfortable for Frannie from there. It's soon pretty clear that the men around her, a diverse set who vary in age and race, nevertheless share an entitled mindset, demanding that Frannie cater to their expectations, romantic or otherwise. A student walks out when she, his teacher, has the gall to criticize his writing. An ex (played by Kevin Bacon) is openly stalking her and shows up in her apartment unannounced and uninvited when she comes home, all while expecting her to give him the relationship he thinks she's obligated to. “Did the fact that we slept together twice mean nothing to you?” he demands in an angry voice message.

In such a misogynistic, painfully familiar environment, the gruesome murder investigation she becomes entangled with soon seems little more than an extreme version of everyday life, with the casually demeaning language the men around her use to describe the women in their lives, to the outright violence that includes a severed limb being found in Frannie's garden. This bloody discovery is how she meets Detective Malloy (Mark Ruffalo, in probably his sexiest on-screen role), who becomes interested in her after he stops by her apartment to ask if she knows anything about the murder that took place so close to home.



Frannie is simultaneously fearful and fascinated by him as well, especially when she notices he has the same tattoo as the man she saw receiving oral in the bar, which she learns may have been the prelude to the murder. As the movie progresses, it's easy to see why many were turned off rather than on. Erotic thrillers are often a form of escapism, where the heat between two beautiful people, at least one of whom is typically very well-off, simmers until it explodes in a heat of passion. Women's sexuality becomes something of a sword and a shield, sometimes being used to manipulate a man, or explored by one who is suitably masculine, and thus swoonworthy. But “In the Cut” is more of a reflection of the real world, where women's sexuality is dangerous primarily because of how men react to it.

The story of her parents' courtship, and how it has affected her relationships, both with the men in her life and her half sister, is partly a reflection of this. Campion tells the story of how Frannie's parents met and fell in love through a giddily exaggerated, idealized romantic lens, only to bring it tumbling back to their grittier present by detailing its end, and how their father went on to fall hard again for someone else and marry about four times. This has led Frannie to become more reticent, while her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) embraces recklessness, what with her obsession with a married doctor and her residency above a strip club, which doubles as a skewed lens of how women are typically perceived. Pauline's eventual fate is one of the only facets of the film which is disappointingly predictable.

Another film would have Ruffalo's Malloy as the kind of exception, a dream boat amidst the crudity Frannie encounters. But there's a reason why Frannie is drawn to him even as she grows increasingly fearful of him. Ruffalo expertly plays Malloy as equal parts menacing and tender, often crude and only swoonworthy during the passionate, yet gentle love scenes. Meg Ryan may bare all, but it is Ruffalo who is more objectified, but not idealized, as he is able to bring Frannie pleasure in a way that allows her to experience a new kind of eroticism for her. As Frannie's world crumbles, Campion immerses us so well inside her unstable, grieving mental state we empathize with rather than condemn her increasingly idiotic decisions, which of course leads her straight into the killer's clutches.

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When that killer finally is revealed, he doesn't so much give an explanation for his actions as the feelings which drive him. By that point, we don't need the reasons, and that's probably the real reason why so many people were uncomfortable with this film. “In the Cut” so ultimately horrific is Campion's implicit suggestion that we don't need to look too far for the reasons why so many men feel entitled to kill women. We just need to look around us. At least there's cold comfort in the fact that Frannie is at least able to save herself and find her way back into Malloy's arms, who at last is able to give her a (temporary?) sense of safety.

52 Films By Women: Losing Ground (1982)



By Andrea Thompson

“Losing Ground” is one of those great, recently rediscovered gems where phrases like “ahead of its time” and “underappreciated” are routinely tossed around. And why not? It makes a familiar story feel fresh and new by employing techniques that seemed to go mostly unused in mainstream films until relatively recently. For the few who have seen this film, there's another word it routinely brings to mind: unfair. It's quite accurate. If “Losing Ground” had been made by a white male director, there's a very good chance it would have launched a long and promising career. It's hard to imagine any other reason why both the movie and the director remained mostly unknown than the fact that said director Kathleen Collins was both black and female. When “Losing Ground” was released in 1982, it was one of the first films to be directed by a black woman, and it would remain Collins's only full-length feature when she died of breast cancer in 1988 at the age of 46.

Collins wrote and directed the semiautobiographical “Losing Ground,” which is both a portrait of a rocky marriage and a woman who is awakening to her own potential for pleasure. Much like Collins, Sara (Seret Scott) is a university professor who is adored by her students. Despite her prim exterior, they refer to her as passionate, even if she herself seems anything but when the film begins. A male student hits on her, possibly a female student, and both mention that her husband is lucky to have her.

Music & Literature

Music & Literature

Not that Victor (Bill Gunn, director of “Ganja & Hess”), a successful painter, seems much aware of his luck. When one of his paintings is bought by a museum, he chooses to celebrate by renting a house in the country, much to Sara's annoyance, who had planned to spend the summer in the city researching estatic experiences. Victor used to be an abstract painter, but once he goes up to the house in the country, he decides to eschew purity and begin painting people, especially the women. One of them, Celia (Maritz Rivera), becomes his model, and soon his lover.

This is clearly a familiar pattern to Sara, who is getting nowhere with her research. She is used to seeing other people in ecstasy, and feeling the pain of not being able to experience that for herself. The rush she gets when she writes and researches her way into the knowledge that she's correct is the closest she's gotten. But it's a cold form of ecstasy, and she knows it. In a conversation with her mother Leila (Billie Allen), a passionate actress, she asks her, “How can someone like you produce a child who thinks so very, very, much?”

For the first half of the movie, Sara's intellectual ruminations are the basis for the film's developments. In the second half, she agrees to act in a film one of her students is making, and that is when passion takes center stage. For Sara, acting is another form of research, a chance to experience the pleasure her mother and her husband experience so effortlessly. Small wonder Leila and her husband get along. Unlike other movies where the mother dislikes her daughter's clearly philandering husband, Leila was unaware of Victor's affairs (though she doesn't seem surprised), and enjoys spending time with him. They are kindred spirits.

The movie is of course eerily reminiscent of Sara's life, and Duke (Duane Jones), the man who plays her partner, is immediately attracted to her. Collins, however, refuses to let their relationship become a refuge. It is merely a kind of escape, and another commentary on the creative process. They may have chemistry and heartfelt conversations, since Duke is of a more intellectual bent like her, but his mindset is pretty familiar. Duke openly states that he doesn't want to be accountable to anyone. Throughout, they are beholden to the director, who is shouting directions in the background, telling Duke to walk, pick Sara up, and finally, passionately kiss her.

Nevertheless, Sara finds a kind of freedom in acting. In the film, she directly faces down the woman vying for the affections of her partner, angrily glaring and staring her down. The confrontation is heightened for the most dramatic effect, with passionate jazz music playing as the two women square off. In the absurdity which has become her real life marriage, when Victor brings home his new lover Celia, Sara politely shakes her hand and offers her something to drink. Her husband then openly displays his fascination with her while Sara is sitting right next to him. At least on camera there's more dignity, as well as the freedom to fight, even if she knows she'll lose.

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One of the more fascinating aspects of the film is how “Losing Ground” suggests that the beauty of their natural surroundings in their country retreat encourages Victor's cruelty. Unlike other films, which often depict nature as a place of refuge where people can be more free and honest, “Losing Ground” theorizes that people who are fascinated by nature become more cruel, vulgar, and deceptive. It is not this beautiful setting - which so often seem to encourage passionate affairs - that allows Sara to finally blossom. During a break in filming, she comes home transformed, her hair down, in a red, vibrant shirt and flowing white skirt, leaving her husband Victor stunned, and immediately jealous of Duke. By the time he tries to reach out to her, the damage has been done.

Victor returns to the city just in time to see the end of the film. Sara's character is now a highly sexualized scorned woman out for revenge on the man who betrayed her. When she shoots Dukes character, Victor flinches, and shame overcomes him as he is finally forced to face the effect of his actions on his wife, with little hope that he can ever be forgiven or forgotten. The ending leaves it somewhat open, but the fate of Collins's own marriage seven years prior leaves little doubt to how this will turn out.

Needless to say, portraits of a black middle class with so little stereotyping, especially one directed by a black woman, are still rare. In spite of its very real accomplishments, “Losing Ground” was nearly forgotten. That it wasn't seem to be mostly due to the efforts of Collins's daughter, Nina Collins, who has worked to bring her mother's life and work to a new generation hungry for new types of stories. And in light of recent Oscar nominations that prove many of the great films women make still go somewhat unrecognized, both the work and audience support is still much needed.