Film's new fall guy: women
May 29, 2009
By Peter Howell
Lars von Trier's sex horror film Antichrist won an "anti-prize" at the closing of the Cannes Film Festival last weekend for being "the most misogynistic movie" at the fest.
Right sentiment, wrong movie. Despite its scenes of graphic mutilation, including one where star Charlotte Gainsbourg lops off her clitoris with a pair of rusty scissors, Antichrist was actually less hostile to women than many other high-profile pictures at Cannes.
The ecumenical jury, a non-official panel of Christian filmmakers and critics who judge films by their spiritual values, awarded the dubious "anti-prize." Their unprecedented slapdown was denounced as "a ridiculous decision that borders on a call for censorship" by festival chief Thierry Frémaux, who had the last laugh when the official Cannes jury gave Gainsbourg its Best Actress award.
Frémaux's outrage is understandable, and would be shared by most filmmakers, critics and movie buffs. A festival rightly celebrates innovation in form and idea, and it's the proper place to see films that might be at odds with mainstream values.
But change does seem to be occurring at an accelerated pace, as films with explicit sex, violence and degradation become more the norm than the exception, especially regarding the depiction of women.
It's too easy to dismiss the ecumenical jury as uptight Bible thumpers. The spiritual seekers were onto something, even if their lances were aimed at the wrong target. Antichrist is in many respects a conventional "B" horror film about demonic possession. Gainsbourg's character is researching the medieval persecution of women as witches; she falls prey to supernatural dark forces, not mortal male evil.
The fact is that misogyny – hatred of women – was insidious in the official selection at Cannes this year, both in the competition and programs like Un Certain Regard. It was rare to find a movie where the central female wasn't playing a whore, a nut case, a victim or all three, most often as the result of male treachery. This included Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon, the winner of this year's Palme d'Or.
Anti-woman animus is most viscerally in evidence in Kinatay, an appalling drama by Filipino director Brillante Mendoza that shows the kidnap, rape, torture, murder and dismemberment of a prostitute in excruciating real time by indifferent males. None of the gory details are spared (the title is Tagalog for "slaughter), a dedication that controversially won Mendoza the festival's prize for Best Director.
Enter the Void by Gaspar Noé sets acrobatic standards for female debasement in its risible and raunchy ghost saga. Paz de la Huerta plays a Tokyo stripper named Linda who is haunted by the spirit of her recently murdered brother, Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), a junkie with incestuous urges. Linda is used as a sexual plaything by both men and women throughout this nearly three-hour-long slog, which culminates with an act of illicit male penetration viewed from inside the vagina.
Haneke's The White Ribbon expertly continues the Austrian helmer's cynical and unsparing view of humanity, but women are especially fraught this time.
The movie is set in a remote German village on the cusp of World War I, a crucible of nascent fascism where the village elders variously commit incest with their daughters, physically and emotionally abuse their spouses and lovers, and generally treat women like chattel.
The hermetic misogyny of The White Ribbon finds a modern parallel in Yorgos Lanthimos's Dogtooth, the winner of the Un Certain Regard top prize. It's a fascinating but harrowing exercise in social engineering in which a sociopath father keeps his wife and children imprisoned within their garden home, shut off from the world and its many temptations.
The only person from the outside who comes to the home is the father's female co-worker, paid to sexually service the teenage son. No attention is paid to the hormonal urges of the elder daughter, who is beaten by her father when she begins to question his authority.
Even those filmmakers who normally feature strong and lustful women had trouble finding their feminine side at Cannes this year. Pedro Almodóvar's Broken Embraces stars frequent muse Penélope Cruz in various guises as four of the most stereotypical of female characters: secretary, hooker, actress and mistress. Had Almodóvar worked in a Madonna role for Cruz as well, he'd have covered the misogynistic map; it's a far cry from the lustful character Cruz played in his earlier Volver.
But all this hostility toward woman isn't just the work of misguided male filmmakers. The most anti-woman image at Cannes this year, because it was so gratuitous, is the opening of Isabel Coixet's Map of the Sounds of Tokyo, a ludicrous time-waster about a morose woman (Babel's Rinko Kikuchi) who works as a fish cutter but moonlights as a hit-woman.
Coixet shows us a group of Japanese businessman sitting around tables, leering and laughing as they eat sushi off the torsos of naked women who lie before them. This racist and sexist scene adds nothing to the plot and seems to have been filmed for its shock value alone.
It's not usual to have films like this at festivals, but it was unusual to have so many of them competing for the Palme. This isn't the fault of the Cannes selectors, who choose films by directorial reputation more than by subject matter. But it does suggest that many prominent filmmakers have slipped into a moral abyss where the debasement of women isn't a concern, or worse, is deliberately used to titillate critics and festival programmers, who are mostly male.
When pressed to explain themselves, filmmakers typically claim to be responding to mystical forces and not at all to audience sensibilities.
Mendoza defends the extreme nature of Kinatay by calling it a realistic horror film where "it makes it a different kind of dimension" if the viewer is fully immersed in the carnage. He told a Cannes press conference that similar murders and mutilations are a fact of life in the Philippines. "This really exists; this is not just entertainment."
Von Trier has been called misogynistic before, most famously by Nicole Kidman, star of his earlier Palme contender Dogville. He offers a complicated and contradictory defence in his production notes to Antichrist:
"I don't think women or their sexuality is evil, but it is frightening ... I provoke myself, too, you know. My mother was a dyed-in-the-wool women's libber. I'm pretty open about gender equality. I just don't think it'll ever really happen."
And what about the women themselves? Actresses seem strangely complicit about accepting roles that are harrowing at best and dehumanizing at worst.
Maria Isabel Lopez, who plays the tortured and murdered prostitute in Kinatay, is a former model and Miss Philippines winner who knows all about living in a male world. At the Kinatay press conference, she strongly defended her right to be in the film.
"When I do a movie for Brillante, it doesn't matter if I'm a former Miss Philippines. I'm there as a character ... I'm old enough to do roles like this, and having a title has nothing to do with this film."
Gainsbourg was equally acquiescent to her director at the Antichrist presser: "I think I was ready for anything. ... One simply had to follow the guidance given by Lars. ... It was quite an experience, very intense. Not a lot of talking. Something that I won't live again that soon, and I knew that."
The women on the female-dominated Cannes jury didn't have a problem, either. For the first time at Cannes, there were more women than men on the Palme panel, five females to four males. Yet they didn't flinch from honouring films that in many cases presented women in ignoble circumstances.
Which suggests that the situation isn't likely to change anytime soon. On the contrary, such extreme behaviour is more likely to seep into the mainstream.
Cultural standards this year alone have shifted noticeably. The mainstream action blockbuster Watchmen had a fully nude male character and the romantic comedy Away We Go, coming soon to a multiplex near you, opens with a scene of cunnilingus that leaves little to the imagination.
In this context, singling out Antichrist for being misogynistic seems not only narrow-minded but also downright unfair.