And Then One Day Things Weren’t Quite So Fine

The Danish Girl (Tom Hooper, 2015)

And oddly, it was only later, that I pondered which one it is.

I mean, the film is clearly meant to be about Danish artist Einar Wegener, seen fingering dresses from early on in the film, forced (not entirely unwillingly it must be noted) to wear female clothes for his wife Gerda Gottlieb’s paintings and who begins to realise that he is really she, and begins a journey to becoming Lili Elbe.

Except, it’s not taken directly from Elbe’s own diary, but rather a 2000 novel by David Ebershoff, which plays hard and fast with the truth, apparently making Gerda Greta, an American. At least some of the facts get reinstated, as far as I can see. Not all, mind. Hans Axgil (art dealer and Einar’s childhood friend) and Henrik (artist and Lili’s friend) are not real people.

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Strangers on a Train Set

Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015)

This is a haunted film.

It’s based on a pseudonymous and groundbreaking 1950s novel by Patricia Highsmith — got but not read — who is better known for those queer crime thrillers Strangers on a Train (filmed by Hitchcock from a Chandler script) and the Ripley trilogy (filmed in various versions). Groundbreaking because — spoilers — it has a happy ending unlike the gay gothic ending of most other gay and lesbian novels of most of the twentieth century. The instinct is It Can’t End Well.

And the Chandler link and the gun one of them has points towards the noir version of the tale, more suitable for pulps, with the ordinary Jo seduced and ruined by the femme fatale. It Can’t End Well. And Haynes has made the pulpish Mildred Pierce for TV, which I really must watch.

And then there’s the best film by the Wachowski Siblings, Bound, the best lesbian gangster money-in-a-suitcase movie yet made.

But here we have the linked lives of working class shop girl Therese (Rooney Mara) with sort-of boyfriend and monied older woman Carol (Cate Blanchett) with disintegrating marriage. We begin towards the end, with an apparently parting assignation in a hotel bar, and Therese seeing Carol walking through the New York streets from the back of a car. This scene anticipates a similar car journey with the roles reversed.

Then we cut to their first meeting in the toy section of a department store — Carol wanting to buy a doll for her daughter, Therese suggesting a train set, and Carol inadvertently leaving her gloves behind creating an excuse to meet again.

And then I remember a decade or two years old reading about butch femme power dynamics.

Then we cut to their first meeting in the toy section of a department store — Carol wanting to buy a doll for her daughter, Therese suggesting a train set, and Carol deliberately leaving her gloves behind creating an excuse to meet again.

Hmm. I think it’s an accidental meeting but Therese is always already masculine and fancies Carol and Carol recognises a kindred spirit in her. The affair feels like it should be doomed given the clichés of narrative. Therese dreams of a career in photography, either as artist or journalist, although fails to name check any of the female photographers active in the fifties. Somehow it was a suitable job for a woman.

We’re spared the worst of it, but it is hinted that Carol has to go through some pretty severe therapy to cure her of her moral laxity (the l-word is not actually used), but desire will out in the end. I’ve not read the novel, so I’m not sure if the narrative stays with Therese or allows us into Carol’s world. I wonder if it would be better viewed from the outside of Carol’s life, but we get more Blanchett with the double focus.

If I’m honest, I suspect the film is a little too long, too leisurely and fetishising the 1950s detail. I miss the mischievousness of Haynes’s earlier Velvet Goldmine. But clearly Haynes has fought for twenty years to get this made and it is glorious in its performances and luxuriating in a Carter Burwell soundtrack.

Fifty Shades of Hamearis lucina

The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland, 2014)

Towards the start of the opening credits of The Duke of Burgundy, I spotted the name of executive producer Ben Wheatley. He directed the genre bending Kill List (2011), the rather baffling A Field in England (2013), a couple of episodes of NuWho and he’s working on High-Rise. I couldn’t help but see that there was an uncanny film at work — a hidden film. On the one hand, there’s the Peter Greenaway version, which would need a Michael Nyman score, more camera tracking and an organisational system (by genus of butterfly?). On the other hand there’s the horror film,  possibly sf. Clearly the credits sequence is meant to invoke 1970s low budget movies, a sexploitation or two, maybe even a hint at Hammer. In a recurring scenario — this film is so about its repetition — the camera pans along a crowd watching a talk on butterflies and moths and, among all the woman, there are a couple of shop dummies. Autons? Cheaper than  extras? A nod toward the artificiality of it all? Or do we have a body snatchers scenario and they’re all insects? As  Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) locates and opens a body-sized chest in the house, I wondered what horror we were to find in it. Later, briefly, there was an answer (as well as a longer answer).

So Evelyn (there’s an echo of Angela Carter there) arrives at a house, knocks and is admitted, being told off by Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) for being late and for sitting down without invitation (I confess my first thought was she had not been given permission — a Pavlovian training from my own childhood).  Evelyn is set to work, cleaning the study — a space full of dead butterflies and larvae — and doing the laundry. When, as is inevitable, she fails to please her mistress, she is punished, behind a closed bathroom door, and possibly by a method that the British government recently criminalised on streaming video. If the acting seems a little off — well, think of the acting and dubbing in Dario Argento films if you haven’t (as I haven’t) seen Jess Franco films, and the fact that it is All More Complicated than you think it is.

It is obviously less explicit than that other film, Fifty Shades of Grey (2015), for the most part at least, and we would do well to avoid falling into an old value judgement about pornography and erotica. Here’s Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian:

Peter Strickland’s new film, The Duke of Burgundy, is different: it is a labour of love, whereas Fifty Shades of Grey was a labour of money.

Whilst clearly a budget of some significance was thrown at the other film, it has made pots of money and the original texts were bestselling adaptations of bestselling novels, this rather begs a question about Sam Taylor-Johnson’s artistic intentions in making the film alongside all the other crew members and the cast. Strickland, presumably, didn’t get a fee? Srsly? Whilst clearly I wasn’t a fan of that better known film, it is very easy to be snide about materials that a large female audience has enjoyed.

Obviously there are ambiguities to navigate. I’m inclining to the sense that it’s an exaggeration of the kind of materialistic relationship that many straight women enter into in capitalist society and that it isn’t necessarily endorsing it. This is not quite the same as suggesting that it’s a dramatization of the kind of abusive relationship that too many women (read: any non-consenting abusive relationship) are in or that women have the freedom to choose their sexual activities even if these are masochistic in nature (and, indeed, that’s so none of my business). Whilst clearly we could say the words Internalised Misogyny, we have a novel by a female ur-writer transformed by a female novelist adapted by a female screen writer filmed by a female director. Compare, say, Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976), where a male novelist is adapted by a male screenwriter is filmed by a male director. It’s not my place to label, but which one seems more likely to be feminist? One of them is a female vision of (some) female fantasies and the other is a male vision of (some) female fantasies. The fact that both characters are female makes a difference.

So, whilst it has to be noted that the entire cast of The Duke of Burgundy appears to be female, Peter Strickland, director and screenwriter, is a bloke. The BDSM scenario may be a representation of female empowerment, but it’s a male vision.  Clearly the film passes the Bechdel Test, but that’s no guarantee it’s feminist. (I note, again, I have no authority to issue such a label.) At points I found myself pondering whether entomology is part of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) and the problem of a narrative in which the abuser has apparently been “seduced” by the victim. (“She made me do it.”)

I was particularly disturbed by the sequence when the camera zooms in on the darkened crotch of Cynthia and goes on an extended fantasy riff — in both the sexual and non-realist sense — before pulling back again. Is this, I wondered, a misogynist fear of what all those women get up to when men aren’t around? Perhaps not even women, but Insect Things? Where are all the men? Victims of preying mantises?

But the actors do what they do well, and it is beautifully shot and designed the hell out of — there’s a perfume credit, a long list of butterflies and very detailed annotations of the field recordings used in the film. It deserves to do well so that BFI and Film Four investment can be repaid. To say this is a better film than Fifty Shades, however, is probably not a useful judgement; I’m not even sure that I’d be more likely to rewatch it. I do want to seek out Katalin Varga (2006) and  Berberian Sound Studio  (2012) though.