One of the strangest things about our very strange era is the pushback against women—not infrequently from women—approximately half a century after the mostly triumphant peak of second-wave feminism. Yes, the ERA never passed, and other roadblocks were slow to move. Still, things were vastly different by the mid-’70s than they had been just a decade earlier.
Now we have leaders who’ve never known most of the traditional doors to be closed to them solely on the basis of gender … yet many use the term “feminism” as a pejorative with which they wouldn’t be caught dead associating. Men get way too many sympathetic shoulders to cry on when they complain it’s not like the good old days, when it was supposedly women’s sworn duty to serve them. Abortion rights—which, let us remember, most Americans want to protect—are being successfully reduced or eradicated in much of the US.
And when just last week, a famous leering lout was convicted of sexual assault, and the very next day a major network gifted him a primetime platform on which to deride his victim and spout any other venom that came to mind, to an alleged “town hall” audience of cheering acolytes. It’s not so difficult to imagine a not-too-distant future in which not only abortion but birth control is illegal, and sex crimes against women no longer really “a thing” because laws, police departments, and judges are no longer inclined or required to take such complaints seriously.
A number of films arriving this week—both new and old—provide food for thought on the general subject of women, their bodies, and autonomy between the two—something it’s depressing to realize is receding on many fronts in the 21st century.
Offering perhaps the most applicable commentary on where we seem to be headed is The Starling Girl, which opens at the AMC Kabuki in SF on Fri/19. We first meet 17-year-old Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen) as she performs with other girls in her rural Kentucky church’s “Holy Grace Dance Troupe,” all clad in virginal long white dresses. The effect could hardly be more chaste, or worshipful. Yet such is the nature of this particular fundamentalist culture that moments after, a fellow congregant “helpfully” corrects (and humiliates) Jem by pointing out that her bra is faintly visible beneath her gown. The horror, the horror.
Dance is just about the only outlet our heroine has for creativity, or any self-expression at all in this rigidly “traditional,” very patriarchal community. Never mind that her mother (Wrenn Schmidt) is the real “boss” of the household, spitefully enforcing punitive codes of conduct, pretending that ex-“secular musician” dad (Jimmi Simpson) isn’t the family’s weakest link.
It takes very little to be considered out of line here—even chewing gum seems to be some kind of insult to The Lord. It’s mom who pushes Jem into “courtship” with a boy (Austin Abrams) who couldn’t be less interested, apparently believing the cure for her eldest daughter’s independent streak is getting her married and pregnant asap.
But Jem detects a kindred soul in youth pastor Owen (Lewis Pullman), who’s just returned from a missionary sojourn in Puerto Rico. He’s got a wife, though they don’t seem to be getting along any better than the senior Starlings. He’s very cute, Jem fast develops a crush, and he doesn’t seem to mind at all. We soon guess that the consequences will be disastrous. Nonetheless, it’s striking how those consequences almost entirely fall upon Jem—because this is the sort of Christianity in which anything to do with sex is, of course, the sinful female’s fault.
Writer-director Laurel Parmet’s first feature has a fairly simple story to tell, and while one appreciates the nuances of character and pacing, perhaps they did not require the full two hours taken up here. Still, this well-acted movie has a lot to say about American quasi-religious morality (and hypocrisy) at present, while refusing to caricature the community or indulge in overt editorializing. These people aren’t monsters. Then again, they aren’t God, either, and it’s more than reasonable for someone like Jem to decide that they do not necessarily know what is best for her.
War has historically been pretty much a “man’s job,” with women’s roles primarily limited to collateral damage—a dynamic that turns out not to have changed much in Maksym Nakonnechnyi’s own directorial debut Butterfly Vision. This despite the fact that heroine Lilya (Rita Burkovska) is a military professional, a 29-year-old aerial reconnaissance expert, which in her 21st-century case means being in charge of drone surveillance. When we meet her, she is being returned to Ukrainian forces in a prisoner exchange after being held captive by Russian-allied forces for 10 weeks or so.
Her arrival is a media event, as well as a highly emotional reunion for family members. Lilya herself seems indifferent, or maybe uncomfortable, her inner state revealed only by chainsmoking. It is when she discovers she’s two months’ pregnant that she—and we—begin to confront what she’s been through.
The horrors of her experience are glimpsed just briefly, in flashbacks that invade her memory (and the screen) like pixel-glitching video malfunctions. But we get the idea: She was raped, tortured, saw others killed, and her trials were sadistically “shared” by captors with loved ones at home, via video links and such. This has in turn traumatized husband Tokha (Lyubomyr Valivots), a fellow soldier who in the raging machismo of his response proves useless at helping heal her trauma.
Reminiscent at times of everything from The Accused to Zero Dark Thirty, this movie is like Lilya herself—it maintains a surface detachment because facing what’s underneath would be unbearable. It’s not the greatest movie ever about PTSD, or even about the war in Ukraine. But its tough-minded, empathetic integrity always feels authentic. Butterfly Vision begins streaming on Mubi this Wed/17.
While the protagonists in the films above have their bodily autonomy wrested from them in different ways, other screen events this week run a gamut in terms of viewing commodified female sexuality—whether as badge of self-determined pride or “brand of shame.” The latter more or less applies to Joseph Losey’s baroque 1968 Secret Ceremony, a 35mm staff pick at the Roxie this Sun/21. Then the most famous woman in the world, Elizabeth Taylor plays Leonora, an aging London prostitute who happens to meet the bizarre child-woman Cenci (Mia Farrow, fresh off Rosemary’s Baby), who mistakes her for her own late mother.
As Leonora has lost a child herself, the perverse parental relationship that develops makes a sort of sense. It’s also sort of a windfall, since Cenci’s palatial home is a big lifestyle upgrade for her new “mummy.” But then a snake gets introduced to this play-acting Eden: Robert Mitchum as an American stepfather with decidedly unwholesome intentions. This stylized, lurid psychodrama may feign to pity or condemn the “depths” to which Leonora has fallen—you might argue Taylor’s performance constitutes a worse offense—but notably, she emerges as by far the most morally upright character here … relatively speaking. Farrow and Mitchum, in their very different styles, give little master classes in conveying poisoned psychologies.
Mostly dismissed as a grotesque indulgence at the time, that movie is better regarded now. On the other hand, Gigi a decade earlier won all nine of the Oscars it was up for (a roster that, oddly, included no acting nominations), but … well, times change. We can still enjoy the Collette novella it’s based on, as well as her other writings reflecting the more libertine sides of fin de siecle Paris life. But there’s something queasier about this Eisenhower-era screen sanitization of a story in which a young girl is being groomed—yes, the term really applies this time—for a career as a courtesan, rendered in all the plummy splendor that MGM, Lerner & Loewe (fresh off the eerily similar My Fair Lady), director Vincent Minnelli, costumier Cecil Beaton, Cinemascope, and Eastmancolor could devise.
Leslie Caron is the title figure (whom Audrey Hepburn had played onstage), a “child” being variously indulged and instructed by “aunties” until the day she is old enough to be “introduced into society” as some rich man’s plaything. (Eva Gabor plays a successful adult practitioner of that role.) She amuses Louis Jourdan’s fabulously rich, bored playboy, who tells her minders “I have a better time with this outrageous brat of yours than any woman in Paris.”
Well of course he does—Gigi is spontaneous and uncalculating, her company fun precisely because there is no gamesmanship of sexual tension. When that changes (because she grows up, rather abruptly), the hitherto charming movie begins to galumph a bit, manufacturing coyly evasive reasons to keep the two apart before arriving at the inevitable solution: Why, he’ll marry her! Never mind that Hollywood logic scarcely applies to the 1900 Parisian demi-monde.
Gigi, which gets revived this Wed/17-Thu/18 at SF’s Vogue, is so elegantly sumptuous-looking and full of expert players (not least Maurice Chevalier as old roue and Harmione Gingold as old flame) that you may scarcely notice such contrivance. It was the last musical from MGM’s famed Arthur Freed unit to be a success—even predecessors An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain, and The Band Wagon had failed to keep the genre from steadily losing popularity in the 1950s. (Blame television.)
There are no production numbers here per se, the songs all being snugly integrated into the story, even if only “The Night They Invented Champagne” still fizzes. (Considerably harder to stomach now is Chevalier’s smirk-a-thon “Thank Heaven For Little Girls.”) Presumably playing a girl of 14 or so, Caron was in fact pushing 30 at the time. But the film gets away with her gamine act by allowing absolutely no younger (or “respectable”) women anywhere near the camera. Yes, Gigi is from another world—and while there’s still some perfume in the bottle, we might be glad that world is gone. 20 years later, when Brooke Shields’ virginal Pretty Baby was put on auction, it was already controversial enough without anybody bursting into toe-tapping song.
Much more evolved perspectives on the alleged oldest profession will be on tap this Fri/19 through next Sunday, May 28, at the 12th San Francisco Sex Worker Film & Arts Festival. As the monicker suggests, this annual event (which skipped last year due to COVID-related issues) features a mix of screenings, live performances, and other activities. There will be tributes to the late great local activist Carol Leigh a.k.a. Scarlot Harlot at both the Roxie in SF and New Parkway in Oakland, plus happenings at additional area venues. For more info, go here.