52 films by women

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: Eve's Bayou

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By Andrea Thompson

Perception is everything, and “Eve's Bayou” is very aware of how the stories we tell our ourselves shape, and sometimes destroy, our lives. It seemed fitting that the first film I watched for Black History Month was also a delicately beautiful exploration of personal history.

It's no accident that many of the reviews and think pieces about “Eve's Bayou” also begin with the film's opening lines. They're thoughtful, insightful, and...startling, to say the least. “Memory is the selection of images, some elusive, other printed indelibly on the brain. The summer I killed my father, I was 10 years old.”

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How and why would such a thing occur? It first seems unlikely, or even unthinkable, as such developments often do. In their prosperous 1960s Louisiana Creole community, Eve's family stands out, in all the right ways. Her father Louis (Samuel L. Jackson) is a prominent, respected doctor, with a beautiful, loving wife Roz (Lynn Whitfield). Eve also has two other siblings, the teenage Cisely (Meagan Good), who is clearly her father's favored child, and a younger brother, Poe (Jake Smollett).

But the facade comes crashing down when Eve accidentally witnesses her father having sex with another woman. At first, it seems as if Louis is able to smooth things over, but things deteriorate as Eve discovers more evidence of Louis's constant unfaithfulness. Cisely refuses to believe any of it, leading to more conflict between the sisters and Cisely and Roz. This conflict becomes less surprising as we learn more about both mother and daughter. 14-year-old Cisely is eager to grow up and embrace her womanhood, and she is her elegant mother in miniature. She idolizes her father the way Roz once did.

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“When I first met Louis, I watched him set a boy's leg who had fallen out of a tree,” Roz muses. And I said to myself, here's a man who can fix things. He's a healer, he'll take care of me. So I leave my family, and I moved to this swamp, and I find out he's just a man.”

With such turbulence at home, Eve natually searches for a safe haven, which she finds with her aunt Mozelle (Debbi Morgan). Mozelle has the gift of sight, which allows her to see everyone's future but her own, with all three of the men she loved having died. Her abilities are unquestionably real, magic being a regular part of the film's unique setting. Not all of it is benevolent, and it is to the less benevolent forces that Eve turns to after Cisely reveals that Louis tried to molest her one night, deeply traumatizing her. Eve then turns to a local witch to put a fatal curse on her father, which she soon regrets and tries to undo. Less easy to reverse are the hints she drops to the husband of the woman Louis is seeing.

Even in the midst of a vibrant time for black cinema, “Eve's Bayou” stands out for its compassion, and the riveting performances that make the stories of people's lives, in which love, sex, violence, and death are constantly interwoven, far more than sheer melodrama. Debbi Morgan is the film's standout, with Mozelle revealing herself to be as passionate as she is vulnerable, particularly when a new man brings love into her life, and she fears that their marriage would be the death of him. Writer-director Kasi Lemmons has become primarily known for her work as an actress, and watching her feature film debut, it feels like a loss. Lemmons imbues her story with a strong sense of Southern Gothic, effortlessly fusing the town's history, which claimed to be founded by a freed slave named Eve and the man who freed her, to the family at the film's center, who are their descendants.

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The real tragedy of “Eve's Bayou” are Eve's realizations that the supposedly stalwart adults around her are just as frail and human as she is, especially her father, who has a different story about what happened between him and Cisely. He is no villain, merely a man with a deep need to be a hero, and to be seen as a hero to those around him, which ultimately proves his undoing. When our protectors, our trust, and even our memories, prove so unreliable, perhaps the only thing we can truly rely on is love, even if our loved ones are just as flawed and unsure as we are. The film ends with Cisely and Eve realizing that they may never truly know what happened, but they can nevertheless always find a kind of peace in the loving bond they share.

52 Films By Women: A New Leaf

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By Andrea Thompson

When I saw Elaine May's “The Heartbreak Kid,” possibly the greatest anti-romantic comedy of all time, May became one of my favorite filmmakers. When I watched May's “A New Leaf” at the suggestion of my friend Sydney, I became convinced May is a national treasure.

“A New Leaf” was made in 1971, a year prior to May's far more famous work, “The Heartbreak Kid.” In the latter, she directed. In the former, she directs, writes, and stars. “A New Leaf” is also a far darker, and funnier movie. The premise? After wealthy playboy Henry Graham (Walter Matthau) discovers he's spent all of his money and is now penniless, he decides to marry a wealthy woman. Then kill her and walk away with the money.

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May quickly establishes the meaningless, heartless world Henry resides in, where people care about possessions above all, and getting new ones as quickly as possible. It's just as quickly established that Henry isn't an outlier at all. He's lazy, uncaring, spends money on useless crap on the slightest whim, and that's just how he likes it. He has no ambitions to be anything else, and even if he did, he doesn't have the skills required to do anything practical or useful. It makes the scene with his accountant, who has the task of telling him he has exhausted his wealth, not only humorous, but delightful. May gives us even more reason to relish the jeopardy with overwrought, dramatic music as Henry imagines a life without all the opulence he's become accustomed to.

“A New Leaf” also puts a hilarious spin on the loyal butler trope. Henry's valet Harold (George Rose) stands by him, not out of loyalty, but because Henry is one of the only men left who would actually use his services, or as Harold puts it, to “keep alive traditions that were dead before you were born.” Yet Harold is the closest thing Henry has to a friend. He is the only one who knows what's going on (except for Henry's murderous intentions), and encourages his employer to fight for his right to remain among the idle rich.

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Henry's attempts to find a wife fail quite hilariously until he meets Henrietta, a botanist, at a tea party, who is played by Elaine May herself. In any other movie, their first moments together would be a meet-cute. She drops her glove, and her tea, in what would now be called adorkable. Henry comes to her rescue due to his discovery that Henrietta is both wealthy and without relatives. This not only causes Henrietta's to spill even more tea on their host Mrs. Cunliff's immaculate carpet, it inspires said host to call Henry a son of a bitch. Unfazed, Henry delivers one of the best retorts in cinematic history.

“You dare call me a son of a bitch?” Henry responds indignantly. “Madame, I have seen many examples of perversion in my time, but your erotic obsession with your carpet is probably the most grotesque, and certainly the most boring I have ever encountered. You ought to be scorned and pitied. Good day, Mrs. Cunliff.”

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“A New Leaf” doesn't cater to our expectations of the genre. This isn't a story about two ridiculously attractive people falling for each other in a series of outrageously comic adventures. Nor is Elaine May interested in making Henrietta relatable. Just how would a woman so shy, inept, and isolated actually live? May shows us, especially after Henry overcomes a few obstacles, such as the objections of Henrietta's lawyer, and manages to marry her. He discovers his wife's life is in complete disarray. The mansion she lives in is a mess. The people who work for her take shameless advantage of her. And the lawyer who seemed to have Henrietta's best interests at heart turns out to have been in on everything. Henry quickly straightens things out, and takes over the management of Henrietta's life and accounts, all so he can use it to his advantage after he disposes of her. In the process, he actually becomes quite a competent, knowledgeable person who learns some useful skills, almost without becoming aware of it.

Of course, his fondness for Henrietta grows, in a fashion similarly unknown to him. Henrietta truly does change him for the better and make him more responsible and competent, even if he does have to check Henrietta's clothes for crumbs and price tags before she leaves for work every morning. The most touching moment is when Henrietta discovers a new species of plant and names it after Henry, thus granting his wish for a kind of immortality. His realization that he loves his wife is sweet, but it's more an acceptance that nothing in his life will turn out as he's expected from now on. When they walk off into the sunset together, we too breathe a sigh of relief that the danger is past.

#52FilmsByWomen: Look Who's Talking (1989)

By Andrea Thompson

When a film critic who specializes in writing about women in pop culture wants to start the new year off right, what exactly does she do? In my case, she decides to take the 52 Films By Women pledge, wherein the pledgee commits to watching at least one film a week that was directed by a woman.

But what to watch first? To kick off such a big undertaking, I wanted to watch something I knew would be fun, yet not too familiar. So I did what I usually do when I want film recommendations, and asked the ladies of Film Twitter for ideas. I soon got a lot of great ones, one of the most popular being Amy Heckerling's 1995 smash hit “Clueless.” It's one of those results that's hardly any less welcome for being predictable, but I know that movie a little too well (if that's even possible). And so much has been written about it, there hardly seemed more to add, what with there being an oral history now.

But I remembered enjoying another, lesser-known film Heckerling made between two of her most iconic ones, the aforementioned “Clueless” and “Fast Times at Rdgemont High,” which was the 1989 comedy “Look Who's Talking.” It was about a woman named Mollie, played by Kirstie Alley, who gets pregnant and rejected by her married lover, then connects with smooth-talking cab driver James, played by John Travolta. Providing commentary throughout (from womb to roughly toddler age) is Mollie's son Mikey, voiced by Bruce Willis, who doesn't even try to sound like a kid. Yet Mikey still remains an adorably watchable presence, even if babies hardly have to do more than just look cute on-screen to hold our attention.

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The movie was successful enough to spawn two sequels, each of which failed to fully capture what made the original so damn fun. Yet the first still retains its charm, albeit in a rather predictable way. Mollie is the funny, deeply imperfect heroine who can't seem to see that the guy who's perfect for her has been right in front of her the whole time. She and James come together, are in danger of breaking apart, then finally unite at the end. The journey may be familiar, but it has a few more unique touches than we typically see even today.

For one, there's Mollie's job. Mollie doesn't have a job that's overly glamorous or demeaning. She doesn't work at a restaurant, in event planning, fashion, or even a shiny media workplace. So nope, no concerns about publishing, the state of TV, and thank god, no women's magazine that purports to be feminist while reinforcing the same old regressive messages. So what exactly does she do? She's an accountant, and her job is just that, a job she's good at that allows her to earn a good living. Moving up or finding another profession isn't a concern for her.

And Albert (George Segal), that married lover of hers? He's an executive who's not only married, he has kids. Wow. Even when Carrie cheated with Big in Sex in the City, there were no children involved. We never see the wife, but in a rather bold move, the movie does briefly show Albert with one of his kids, while Mollie is spying on him no less. Rather than this being a turning point wherein she contemplates how her actions might wreck this child's relationship with her father, Mollie chooses to dwell on how good Albert seems with his daughter. Such is the charm of Heckerling's script and Alley's comic chops that this moment manages to come off as funny rather than horrifying.

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Heckerling is able to pull this off (and more) mostly because her voice remains so strong throughout. It's very evident she wrote “Look Who's Talking” in addition to directing it. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say that a woman who knows what pregnancy is like had a large role in shaping this film. Unlike many movies today, which turn pregnancy symptoms into gross-out humor, the jokes in “Look Who's Talking” come from the woman's view of what's happening to her body, not a male writer trying to use humor to deal with his discomfort over how a pregnancy conflicts with everything a woman is supposed to be. When Alley gets morning sickness, she doesn't vomit on anyone. When she can't stop eating, it isn't viewed as disgusting. When her breasts become enlarged, rather than being used as fuel for schtick, it's humorous because she looks so unlike herself. The movie even briefly mentions postpartum depression and does kind of a good job making it funny.

But one of the most striking things about Look Who's Talking is its casual depiction of how men feel entitled to comment on how women live their lives. When she is on the way to the hospital and experiencing her first pains, people constantly instruct her about Lamaze breathing, and how much better it is for the baby rather than drugs. She is really the only one who takes her pain seriously. It reminded me of my mother's stories of giving birth to my sister, and how she had to grab the doctor by the collar in order to get pain-reducing meds. It leads to a very funny baby stoner scene. Just trust me, it works. There really was a time when people weren't quite so hysterical about baby health.

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However, what really makes the movie unique is Mollie's love interest. John Travolta's James is a cab driver who drives her to the hospital as she's going into labor. He escorts her in, so James is assumed to be the father and ends up witnessing Mikey's birth. It's one of the more unusual meet-cutes, and they only end up meeting again afterwards because they decide to use each other. Mollie leaves her purse in the taxi, and James uses her address to fraudulently establish residency so he can put his grandfather in a good care home. Mollie decides to allow this, but only if Travolta agrees to babysit Mikey, and their resulting scenes together become some of the film's highlights. James isn't exactly an unambitious slacker; he has dreams of becoming a pilot. But he's also a bit of a hustler who's developed a number of tricks to avoid paying for anything. In any other film, James would be the bad boy who keeps Mollie hooked and unable to see the dreamy rich guy who could give her the life romcoms dream of. But it's James who turns out to be the responsible one who Mikey ends up seeing as a father, while Albert is the uncaring womanizer who refuses to be there for either Mollie or Mikey.

Perhaps this lack of concern for time-honored tradition was the reason “Look Who's Talking” received such mixed reviews. Most of them seemed to focus on the opening scene of the talking sperm who all journey towards the egg in the conception scene. It's an early indicator that the movie doesn't intend to take the male ego, pregnancy, or sex that seriously. Sure, “Look Who's Talking” is predictable in many ways, but critics have lauded other movies with that quality if they were enjoyable, which this movie is. Most just didn't seem to find the screwball antics funny even if they did happen to enjoy the performances. But the main, unspoken reason for the lack of appreciation seemed to be Heckerling's complete lack of interest in soothing the male ego, and perhaps that's what so many male critics found frustrating. This is a comedy about a deeply imperfect woman finding her happy ending in a New York that comes off as livable. It's telling that none of the characters are artists, or trying to be. They're just living regular lives, and she made that funny and interesting.

When asked in 2012 about about the fact that “only 5% of movies are directed by women,” Heckerling responded, “It’s a disgusting industry. I don’t know what else to say. Especially now. I can’t stomach most of the movies about women. I just saw a movie last night. I don’t want to say the name – but again with the fucking wedding and the only time women say anything is about men.”

Yet Heckerling managed to make movies that took women and their concerns seriously. Now that the industry is, or seems to be, undergoing some radical changes, hopefully films like hers won't be considered a rarity for much longer.