Women’s Visions: The Passion of Joan of Arc and Personal Shopper

It’d been years since I had seen The Passion of Joan of Arc; it was one of those early Criterions, checked out in the years after college, predictably enough after seeing Vivre Sa Vie. I was blown away, but for some reason, I didn’t revisit for a while. This isn’t unusual for me – it takes me years to want to revisit all but my very favorite films, where my husband could rewatch almost anything almost any time. But after the Review series finale last month, I began thinking about the ways that Forrest MacNeil function as a Joan of Arc-type figure – a total martyr to his beliefs, willing to ruin and even lose his life for the things he believes in. The thing he believes in is a stupid TV show about reviewing life experiences, and not the holy spirit, but the seed was planted.

I’m so glad I decided to rewatch with another decade under my belt. Renee Falconetti’s performance is one of the finest in all of film history – with not a single word, she conveys the brutality of the psychological – and physical – torture Joan is forced to endure at the hands of men who simply cannot believe that the word of God was revealed to a teenage girl. The bulging eyes, the trembling, everything about Falconetti’s expressive physicality reveal the depths of the betrayal Joan feels from the Church – the one institution she should be able to count on. No one in the film – except occasionally the monk played by Antonin Artaud – is a friendly figure for Joan; she is attacked and coerced and belittled at every turn. She tries to lie about her relationship with God – she wants to save herself from burning at the stake, after all – but when she tries, she is unable. She takes back her statement that would save her almost as soon as she has signed it. There’s no other way for Joan to live.

A very different kind of actress confronts a very different kind of ghost in Personal Shopper. Maureen (Kristen Stewart) has recently lost her twin brother Louis, who lived in Paris (in the most beautiful house ever, can I just say – between this and Things To Come, I need to figure out how to get in on that artistic French lifestyle). Maureen is staying in France to see if she can make an otherworldly connection with Louis, as they promised one another that whoever died first would contact the other from the great beyond. Maureen makes her living as a personal shopper to a wealthy celebrity; she spends her days at Chanel and Cartier, traveling from Paris to London and back just to pick up some dresses, and she spends many nights at Louis’ old house, trying to contact the spirit within before the new buyers will move in (again, how does one get a job as a French ghost hunter please tell me).

The disconnect between Maureen’s role in late capitalism and her belief (or non-belief, as she states several times that she’s not sure about the existence of ghosts) in the supernatural is a wide, intriguing gap, the kind most of us have to bridge in order to live. She is depressed, overwhelmed and misses her brother with her entire (damaged, quite literally) heart, and she’s willing to put up with the demands of her employer to speak with him one last time. Stewart’s best scenes are not connected to the mystery of Louis: when Maureen tries on her employer’s clothes, which is strictly forbidden, she reminds us about Kristen Stewart The Movie Star, all nervous gestures in beautiful clothes. I had not really been a fan of Stewart before this film – I started to get her in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, but Personal Shopper really brought her quiet, seemingly affectless acting home for me. Miriam Bale said it best in The Hollywood Reporter: “whether she’s dressed up or down, boldly flirting or retreating into herself, she’s always the same casual, androgynous-glamorous force of nature.”

Kristen Stewart is Renee Falconetti’s polar opposite: while Falconetti, bound by the restrictions of silent film, turns her face into a book from which you can read her innermost pain, Stewart chooses her silence, and uses quiet, deliberate moments to telegraph her grief and anguish.

Both Joan and Maureen see things that the rest of us cannot. Both women are guided by their faith, their belief in something bigger than themselves, and both women are punished for it. Violence enacted by men is a part of their lives – Joan’s execution at the stake is brutal, and incredibly hard to watch; Maureen enters her employer’s home to drop off some jewelry and finds her brutally murdered, a tense scene in which Maureen is not sure if she will be next. Maureen isn’t physically punished for her beliefs, but, like Joan, she is abandoned in her faith: Louis’ wife has moved on to a new lover (which is rich and gracefully portrayed), and Maureen’s own partner encourages her to leave Paris and come live with him.

In Personal Shopper‘s final scene, Maureen is alone in a boardinghouse in Oman, waiting for her boyfriend and his friends to return from an outing. She senses that Louis’ ghost has followed her, that she will never be rid of it until she figures out what he wants. But as she asks the ghost questions – and it slams a glass to the ground to get Maureen’s attention – she has an epiphany. “Is it just me?” she asks the empty room, without an answer. That is the question both women have at the core of their being, and both films have at their centers.

 

Note: This first appeared on my TinyLetter, Double Feature Preacher.

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Yeah But Seriously, Fuck The Neon Demon

(CW: Talk of rape and strong anti-woman violence; spoilers for The Neon Demon)

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On Friday, Jezebel’s Bobby Finger posted a piece on Nicolas Winding Refn’s new film The Neon Demon titled, straightforwardly enough, Fuck The Neon Demon. After watching the movie Thursday night, I am here to say: fuck The Neon Demon, indeed. The Neon Demon is one of the most condescending, woman-hating, moralistic, yet intrinsically shallow films I’ve ever seen. It’s Refn trying his very, very hardest to be a Bad Boy With A Message. It’s exhausting, and it’s terrible.

From the very first shot of the film – Elle Fanning’s Jessie draped on a couch, blood pouring from a cut on her neck – we understand exactly what the message of the entire rest of the film will be. What’s the difference between real violence and performative violence? Well, a lot, but the film refuses to acknowledge its own real violence – I’ll get to that. Isn’t fashion actually violence against women? Well, maybe, but the film doesn’t care to actually engage in any intellectual arguments. After Jessie’s photoshoot, she meets Ruby (Jena Malone, trying her goddamn best), a makeup artist who positions herself as Jessie’s new best gal pal – Jessie is 16, new in L.A., without her parents, and living in a seedy Pasadena motel managed by Keanu Reeves. There’s a nondescript Boy, who is nice and might love her, but once Jessie realizes she is Pretty, she doesn’t need him anymore.

There are also other models, including Sarah (Abbey Lee, who I loved as a model and now love as an actress), but they’re not as Pretty and don’t have The Thing that Jessie, apparently, despite not having any personality to speak of, has in spades. Seriously, it’s like The Room – everyone keeps talking about how Lisa is the most beautiful, wonderful woman in the world, leaving the entire audience wondering, “….Her?” No offense to Elle Fanning, who is very good given the almost nothing she gets to do in the film, but Jessie is this Symbol of Prettiness and Womanhood, floating around in Forever 21 dresses while her model rivals wear revealing clothes and lots of makeup, a mere cypher of womanhood, a not-a-girl-not-yet-a-woman who is crowned the new It Girl for literally no reason. Perhaps this is Refn’s point – a not-subtle joke about how models might actually be boring – but then it’s just unnecessarily cruel to Jessie. Not that Refn cares about being cruel to his female characters – for all its grandstanding about how narcissistic the fashion industry, and those engaged in it, are, The Neon Demon comes down hardest on Gigi (Bella Heathcoate), a model who – gasp – has had plastic surgery on her face. Gigi is portrayed as uniformly stupid, selfish, and “unnaturally” beautiful, which, given the intense unnatural, neon beauty that makes up the film’s (admittedly often gorgeous) photography, you’d think Refn would be interested in. Nope – instead, Gigi is paraded in front of onlookers while a designer talks about how much more beautiful Jessie is because she’s natural. Got it.

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After Jessie’s inevitable triumph at a fashion show (where she makes out with herself in the mirror of a neon triangle temple – get it, models are narcissists), she has a maybe-dream where Keanu breaks into her motel room and forces her to fellate a knife (remember folks, she’s supposed to be 16 years old), then another maybe-it-happens-maybe-it-doesn’t scene where he goes next door and rapes a 13-year-old runaway, possibly killing her: “That real Lolita shit,” he calls it. Gross. Wouldn’t it be great if Jessie killed him? Nah, she calls Ruby and runs over to her place, a huge, inexplicable mansion, where, after showering, Ruby also tries to rape her, stopping only when Jessie kicks her off the bed entirely. So much for girl power, huh. Oh, then because she can’t have sex with Jessie, Ruby goes to her day job at a mortuary and has sex with a blonde corpse instead. This is so stupid it’s barely worth discussing – the crosscuts between Ruby humping a dead body and Jessie sorta-kinda masturbating on Ruby’s couch are so dumb and literal yet clearly are supposed to represent something meaningful.

Ruby is so pissed that Jessie won’t sleep with her, and her friends Sarah and Gigi are so pissed that Jessie is a better model than them, that they finally decide to kill her. This comes right after a monologue by Jessie about how other women are dying to be her (ok I’m not sure if this movie is actually that on the nose, but it’s close), because she’s just so goddamn gorgeous. She’s only murdered once she has come into herself as a sexual being, a beautiful woman who has agency in her life to use that beauty.

The scene where the three women pursue Jessie through the shadowy mansion is actually not bad – a nice homage to 80s Italo-horror. They push her into an empty pool, and then….the next scene is Ruby in a bathtub full of blood, and Sarah and Gigi washing the blood off of each other, filmed through what I can only describe as “leer-cam.” This is supposed to be Ruby’s lesbian gaze, as she watches her friends showering (ugh), but it’s so clearly a creepy male gaze that it’s almost not watchable. Here’s where The Neon Demon really lost me: in its excitement to show so much performative, sexy violence, it completely chickens out on showing any real violence. Ruby, Sarah, and Gigi kill and eat Jessie, but we don’t get to see a single minute of it. Maybe it wasn’t sexy – maybe it was disgusting, and thus not worth showing? These women are only ever watched with the male gaze, so that makes sense. But showing the women, in camaraderie, slaughtering and eating their enemy would have been a statement much stronger than anything in the film. Refn wants to show that these women (all women??) are vicious, but backs away from the one thing that would have driven his point home. These women making a terrible, yet conscious and determined, choice wasn’t worth showing.

(A personal note: Refn couldn’t have made the women witches? Or Satan worshippers? Or something interesting? There’s a potentially interesting scene after the murder where Malone lays on the wooden floor, naked in the moonlight, blood gushing out of her – but as with anything remotely intriguing in the film, Refn backs away from it as soon as possible, never to return to it.)

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In the film’s final scene, Sarah and Gigi are at a photoshoot – they’re making it to the top! Gigi, however, doesn’t have as strong a stomach – literally and metaphorically, because that’s the kind of film this is – as Sarah, and freaks out in the middle of the shoot, hides in the bathroom, vomits up blood and a whole eyeball, and disembowels herself with a scissors. Sarah calmly picks the eyeball up from the ground and pops it in her mouth – again, it could have been a really pointed, unforgettable image to have her chew and swallow the eyeball, but instead, it’s in her mouth and then gone in the next shot. The movie ends.

This is a film that apparently decries the shallowness of the fashion industry, but is among the loudest, yet shallowest movies I’ve ever seen. It’s the cinematic equivalent of that idiot you nkow who has the worst opinions, yet needs to yell about them at every given opportunity. Every gorgeous image is accompanied by the thud of terrible dialogue, or meaningless action. I don’t care about a film having a plot, or likeable characters, but this film has nothing. I realize almost every criticism I level against the film here can be met with the unassailable argument, “But that’s the point.” Maybe it is (though I don’t think all – even many – of these things were done on purpose). But then, my question is: why? Why even make this faux-deep misogynistic morality picture that has such contempt for every single character? It’s beautiful, but as my husband pointed out, it’s beautiful like a fancy car commercial. It’s beauty in the service of nothing.

Refn is more interested in his own “brand” than in making a good film – the “NWR” logo on the opening credits make sure you know just who the auteur is here. Reading his interviews on this press junket make me realize that it’s probably not just the film that is shallow and misogynistic, but Refn himself. Fuck The Neon Demon. Fuck Nicolas Winding Refn. Oh, and definitely fuck that “For Liv” (Refn’s wife) dedication that ends the movie.

I leave you with this quote, from Finger’s aforementioned article, and I would like to request that the final sentence be carved on my tombstone, for people to read for eternity.

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mixtape time vol 3: UNDER COVER

Everyone loves the time-honored tradition of cover songs! Here are some tunes that female musicians took and made their own:

  1. Thee Headcoatees – Swallow My Pride (The Ramones)
  2. Neo Boys – I’m Free (The Rolling Stones)
  3. Britta Phillips – Drive (The Cars)
  4. Angel Olson – Attics of My Life (Grateful Dead)
  5. Kaki King – Close To Me (The Cure)
  6. Pharmakon – Bang Bang (Nancy Sinatra)
  7. Mr Little Jeans – The Suburbs (Arcade Fire)
  8. Mirah – Lion Tamer (Old Time Relijun)
  9. Dog Party – Los Angeles (X)
  10. Mapei – Baby It’s You (The Shirelles)

READING LIST: May 16

As spring finally blossoms, there’s still lots to read! So while you’re spending precious little time inside, here’s what you should check out.

#52FilmsByWomen in 2016

A little belatedly, in mid-January I decided to challenge myself to watch 52 films directed by women in 2016: since I talk the talk, this year I am walking the walk and pushing myself to greater gender equality in my viewing choices! I’m a little behind as of right now, but I’m confident I’ll succeed. Here’s what I’ve been watching so far!

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1. The Girl (Márta Mészáros, 1968)

The Girl is the story of a twenty-something orphan in communist Hungary who is on a quest to find her parents. Her journey leads her from Prague, where she works in a factor, to rural Hungary, where a woman who may or may not actually be her mother takes her in for a weekend. Like many New Wave films, the through plot is secondary to the action, and the characterization: Erzsi attends dances, flirts with men, and wanders around. The first Hungarian feature film directed by a woman, The Girl is a beautiful little snapshot into another time and place.

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2. Rich Hill (Tracy Droz Tragos & Andrew Droz Palermo, 2014)

Rich Hill is named for the tiny Missouri city in which it takes place: the film follows three young Rich Hill men at the brink of adulthood as they navigate life in their small town. But the film isn’t a celebration of traditional small town life; these boys all face heavy problems, like trouble at school (that leads to incarceration for some), jailed parents, and no prospects for the future. But the film treats its subjects with absolute empathy, and it’s a painful little peek into the human condition.

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3. Treeless Mountain (So Yong Kim, 2008)

I generally don’t like films centered on children – although I love kids (I do!), children in movies are usually too precocious to bear, or just plain non-starters. Treeless Mountain is the exception that proves the rule. The film is about two young sisters, Jin and Bin, whose mother is no longer able to care for them in Seoul, so they must move to rural South Korea to live with their alcoholic aunt. The film is told completely from the girls’ point of view – there’s not  scene that they are not in. I was impressed with how well the film captured what it’s like to be a child (the audience isn’t given any information the girls don’t have, though we’re able to understand subtext that they are not), that confusing, wonderful time when anything is possible. From making friends with a disabled neighbor, to starting their own “business” selling charred crickets as a snack, to the final third that left me on the verge of tears the entire time, Treeless Mountain is a sweet, beguiling look at childhood.

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4. 6 Years (Hannah Fidell, 2015)

I liked Hannah Fidell’s debut film A Teacher, and I think Taissa Farmiga is one of the most talented young actresses today (she even made American Horror Story worth watching), so I was excited to catch 6 Years (streaming on Netflix US). Unfortunately, it’s a vapid story about vapid people. Farmiga and Ben Rosenfield (channeling Penn Badgeley on Gossip Girl, yuck) play college students – he just graduated, she with another year – who have been together for the titular 6 years, whose relationship runs into some incredibly predictable roadblocks. Seriously, anyone who thought they were The Most In Love With Someone as a teenager will see where this is going – maybe it’s for a younger audience who won’t just yell “You deserve so much better, girl!!!!!” at the screen the entire time. Lindsay Burdge, who was so great in A Teacher, is the bright spot of the film as a sexy older lady – someone give her a better project, please.

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5. Three Versions of Myself as Queen (Anna Biller, 1994)

Anna Biller is a genius at taking tired tropes and rewriting them for her own feminist purposes, and she does this three times in this inventive, hilarious short film. The first version is Biller as an Indian queen, tired of her mundane life, cheered up by her entourage of brightly colored female friends doing a dance number. In the second version, Biller is literally a queen bee, waiting for a new hive until her worker bees find the perfect, pink home. The third version, and my favorite, starts at a Russ Meyer-esque shindig, where everyone is mod-ly dressed and jamming to some tunes. Soon, the men all become obsessed with Biller, and turn into literal dogs, and a hero comes to save her. At the end (spoiler alert?), though, she realizes that her witch powers are greater than any male hero’s, crowns herself queen, and walks away from the scene to her castle in the sky. This is feminist praxis in action.

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6. Butterfly (Shirley & Wendy Clarke, 1967)

Mother-daughter team Shirley and Wendy Clark collaborated on this very short, very colorful experimental short, which juxtaposes lullabies with the sounds of machine gun fire to protest the Vietnam War. The film is scratched, bleached, and hand-painted to create a disorienting statement on mothers and the anti-war movement. I would absolutely love to see more mother-daughter collaborations!

mixtape time vol 2: Late Nights & Early Mornings

Being a near-ancient 31 years old tomorrow, I don’t really have late nights or early mornings anymore – I’m solidly a “sleep 10 hours every day” type person. But there’s lots of beautiful music about the end of the night, and the beginning of the morning! Here’s the tracklist for this mix, and a Spotify link below:

  1. Foxes – Night Owls Early Birds
  2. Hannah Diamond – Every Night
  3. Carly Rae Jepsen – Making the Most of the Night
  4. Got a Girl – Friday Night
  5. Suzi Analogue – Late Nite
  6. Low Roar – In the Morning
  7. La Luz – Morning High
  8. Little Boots – Better in the Morning
  9. Teen Daze – Morning World
  10. Meg Myers – The Morning After

Bette Davis and Colonial Singapore: The Letter (1940)

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William Wyler’s 1940 film The Letter opens with the remarkable image of Bette Davis storming out of a plantation home, gun in hand, felling an unseen man. Well, we do see him, but not until he is a corpse on the ground, and Davis has shot him more times than needed to make sure he’s down. Davis is illuminated from the light inside the house, film noir shadows dancing across her face (in what turns out to be a recurring image); she doesn’t seem pained, more surprised at what she’s done.

From the very start, then, The Letter is a different kind of film noir: made early in the genre’s life, the film focuses on Davis’ Leslie Crosbie, the unsatisfied wife of a British rubber plantation owner in Singapore. She’s not a femme fatale in the noir sense, even though she quite literally is. She’s simply an unhappy woman who kills Geoff Hammond, a colleague of her husband’s; she claims that he came over and forced himself upon her, and she only did what any woman would have in her place. Of course, her story falls apart over the course of the film, but we get the sense from the very beginning that Leslie – and her husband, friends, and even lawyer – knows she’s above local law as a British citizen in a colonized country.

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That cozy solidarity that the white characters share is shattered by Hammond’s unnamed wife, a woman of indeterminate Asian ethnicity who lives in the Chinese part of town. Though the casting of Mrs. Hammond is unfortunately whitewashed – Danish Minnesotan Gale Sondergaard plays the role – the role itself is a fascinating one. Mrs. Hammond is a shadowy figure who holds Leslie’s entire fate in her hands; she is in possession of the titular letter, which Leslie wrote to Mr. Hammond, inviting him over for a tryst since her husband was away. Through back channels, she lets Leslie’s lawyer know she is in possession of the letter, and will give it back to her for a considerable sum of money. Mrs. Hammond pushes Leslie’s idea of her own white privilege to the extreme – she convinces her straight-and-narrow lawyer to pay the blackmail fee, sure that she won’t get caught if she can only get her hands on that letter.

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Leslie and Mrs. Hammond have only one scene together, but it’s a doozy. After summoning Leslie to her home to present her with the blackmail money in person – the ways in which Hammond forces Leslie to use her status to continue breaking the law are really remarkable! – Mrs. Hammond, who does not speak English, forces Leslie to wait in her atelier, appears from behind a beaded curtain, then requests, through an interpreter, that Leslie take off the lace shawl she has covering her head. The juxtaposition of the two women – murderer and victim, wife and widow, privileged and not, light and dark – is beautiful, and the most effective image in the film.

Upon receiving the blackmail money, Hammond drops the letter to the floor, forcing Leslie to bend over to pick it up: one last act of defiance to the society that keeps her a second-class citizen. With the letter, the only piece of evidence, in her possession, Leslie easily beats the murder charge with her self-defense story. But while she has escaped legal punishment, she constantly continues punishing herself, insisting that she loved Mr. Hammond, even as her husband, faced with the truth, decides to forgive her.

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The ending, though, serves both to martyr Leslie and give Mrs. Hammond the final victory. After her marriage falls apart at a party in her honor, Leslie tearfully wanders out into the garden, where Mrs. Hammond and her employee lay in wait. Suddenly, Leslie understands this is it, and as a look of acceptance falls over her face, Mrs. Hammond stabs her with a gilded Chinese knife. Leslie, belle of the ball, dies in the gutter outside her home. This seems both unfair to Leslie (as Davis plays her, at least, she’s not entirely hate-able, and even evokes pity) and perfect irony. Wyler’s insistence in having it both ways left me a bit cold, but for 1940, The Letter is a fascinating look at Western colonialism intertwined with affairs of the heart.