Review: Summer 1993

Out now in UK cinemas.

DIRCarla Simón. StarringLaia Artigas, Paula Robles, Bruna Cusí, David Verdaguer.

Akin to Celine Sciamma’s Tomboy or Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s What Maisie Knew in which a precocious, perhaps conflicted child is experiencing emotions beyond comprehension, Carla Simón’s microscopic directorial debut is a sensitive, delicate and captivating rarity.

An autobiographical slice of life, a summer in 1993 to be exact, fleshed from photographs and memories and feeling, it has the mood and tempo of something deeply personal, alive with a tactility and vibrancy that permeate even the smallest of moments.

Simón’s own childhood experiences are transposed onto Frida (Laia Artigas), a curly-haired 6-year-old we are introduced to in the midst of upheaval. The apartment in Barcelona in which she lives is being packed up and along with her dolls, she is being shipped off to stay with family in the rural outskirts of Catalan. Why?

Frida’s mother recently died from AIDs-related pneumonia, a fact which is never explicitly stated but becomes slowly apparent from the doctor’s visits Frida is required to attend and from the standoffish attitude of a fellow parent when Frida falls and grazes her knee in the playground.

Drama and solemnity exists at the film’s fringes: in fraught adult conversations behind closed windows, or across dinner tables as children play beneath them, but in locating her perspective firmly with Frida, Simón creates something all the more affecting.

Her aunt Marga (Bruna Cusí) and uncle Esteve (David Verdaguer) are young parents with a toddler of their own, who live a seemingly carefree and bohemian existence. But even their easy-going acceptance of Frida can’t paper over the cracks that begin to surface. Frida is acting out, a response that’s to be expected in her circumstances, but for reasons that perhaps she can’t even articulate. What’s more, she’s not used to having a younger ‘sister’. Anna (Paula Robles) already adores her, but Frida is used to having her own way and being the centre of attention and the affection Anna receives from her parents can’t help but highlight the neglect that has hitherto characterised Frida’s upbringing.

Tension emerges from ordinary situations – a lettuce-picking rivalry, a bad hair day, small jealousies, a juvenile prank gone wrong and differences of parenting opinions, but never to the extent that it feels overwrought or melodramatic. This is life lived during adversity. For all the strain, there is still the joy of bathtimes and fireworks and dancing and ice lollies. It’s a summer that seethes with occasional stress, but the presence of a caring and nurturing family equally soothes. Frida is well-loved and the warmth that emanates from watching these relationships deepen is the film’s sustenance.

Meandering and melancholic though it may be, frequently letting moments play out in real time, Simón’s restraint is the film’s beating heart. Histrionics are largely absent, except for one painfully real tantrum that Frida throws after her grandparents visit. Death is clearly on the poor child’s mind as she pesters Marga not to get sick, but mostly the grieving process is glimpsed in Frida’s somewhat devious childhood games and glowering.

The child posturing as adult is always a strange and strangely somber thing to behold. Behaviours absorbed and copied, without realisation of the weight they perhaps carry or the meaning behind them. At one point Frida is lounging in the garden, face daubed with make-up, and proceeds to order Anna around, alternatively selecting thing from a ‘menu’ for her to fetch or complaining about ‘being too tired to play’. These are words no doubt extracted from Frida’s own life, formerly directed at her, and now reissued in poignant playfulness. It is heartbreaking to watch. The insouciance with which they’re uttered completely ignorant to the situation in which they might have first been spoken.

Films that rely on the performances of their child actors are difficult to pull off. How does anyone so young comprehend and then convey such complex emotion? And yet Simón has found, and nurtured, perfection from her two young stars.

Arguably it is beyond performance, they are just playing make-believe, as children are want to, and onto them we impose our interpretations of, and reflections on the film. That’s the world this film exists in, a transcendent space beyond staging or editing or narrative. Cut from the same cloth as Andrea Arnold’s American Honey although distinctly less explosive. Wrought from memory and given meaning by how close to the bone you feel Simón must be cutting.

But Frida is imbued with a prickly tenacity, and wide-eyed vulnerability by Laia Artigas, whilst Paula Robles as the adorable and incredibly capable Anna, is just as spirited and sparkling. Despite the age difference the two of them have a natural chemistry, and their relationship manages to encompass the difficulty of Frida suddenly having to assume responsibility for a younger sibling – a level of maturity she is not prepared for – and Anna’s own acceptance of a new family member, undeniably bringing divided attention with it.

Simón’s writing and direction display a soulful command over her own life, this is a past she has clearly reconciled with. It never feels like a naval-gazing nostalgia trip, but merely a raw meditation on the complexities of illness, loss and family.

On a technical level it effervesces with authenticity, the camera captures the Catalonian countryside in its sun-dappled splendour, while the sound design seems to emphasise outdoor elements – flowing water, thunder, mosquitoes – as if to express the power that external forces wield over us.

And then, there is the final scene. Unexpected and fierce and full of such emotion I found myself mirroring the central character and bursting into hot, spontaneous tears. Watching a child who perhaps doesn’t comprehend the sadness she might later feel, the deep sense of loss that will stay with her until adulthood, until she feels compelled to make a film about that very loss. Only that she cannot quell her sobbing, and after weeks of stoicism, if occasional tantrum-throwing, the grief has bubbled over and into being.

Summer 1993 is wise and wistful, filled with as much warmth as woe and as with Call Me By Your Name or Our Little Sister you just feel glad to live in this cinematic world for an hour or so. Seek it out.

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Why I Write | A Manifesto

I haven’t been writing much lately. Strike that. I have been writing. Emails. Tweets. Shopping lists. My job in social media requires that I write about 1500 words of content a day – I fire out aphorisms and axioms, trade in puns and something passing for wit, and publish reams of writing for an audience of over a million people with the click of a return key.

But it’s anonymous, and though not meaningless, it’s weightless when compared with the long-form, lyrical and lasting type of writing to which I aspire. It doesn’t carry the gravitas I crave, or the recognition that bylines and names on book spines bring with them.

Creatively, I feel spent. I’ve barely strung a sentence together in months. Good intentions have become best-laid plans and projects undertaken sit unfinished and gathering whatever the digital equivalent of dust is.

So this a reminder of why I write. Why I want to write. What I seek when I write. What I hope to accomplish with it.

The writing stalemate has occurred because I have found and erected barriers. I have found the time, but not known where to begin. I have perpetuated deceptions that writing ought to be devoured and digested and dissected or commissioned and requested to be completed. That writing without a purpose, or an endgame isn’t writing at all.

So this manifesto is an indulgence. It’s just for me. It’s going to be unapologetic and an unforgivable exercise in navel-gazing. And perhaps because I’m publishing it on my blog and promoting it on social media, it’s self-defeating and hypocritical.

But right now, in this moment, I’m writing it to write again. I’m writing it for me. 

***

For a few months now, I’ve been looking for permission and payment, rather than revelling in the process and pleasure of writing. I have been pitching and peddling. Squeezing ideas into captivating titles and condensing the sheer wilderness of writing – its limitlessness, go-anywhere-ness, its John-Cusack-holding-a-boombox-atop-his-head-say-anything-ness – into a cage, a count and the conciliation of contribution. And I have taken rejections as an excuse not to.

They’re not letting me. I don’t have anything to write.

That has put pin in pen many times.

But writing doesn’t always have to be a contribution. It shouldn’t have to make up a larger tapestry, or a thematic exploration. It can be an expression of a fleeting thought. It can exist in the here and now and be just because.

It’s thrilling to see words you have written accepted and published by someone else. You’ve been admitted to a club, you have a surpassed a gatekeeper. You are good enough. This time. I write for acceptance and accomplishment and attention. Sometimes. I write because I can. Because I can do it well. And people say so. But people also say no, so it can’t be the only reason. Writing exists well before its destination, so you have to find a reason to go on that journey.

***

I write because I think. I write to exist. Because it matters to me, perhaps more than it should, to be remembered. I write because sometimes it pours out of me like hot coffee from a cafetiere and because in those moments I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing.

Writing is both salve and chasm.

In this wearisome and whelming age, writing is curative. It is a slowing down and pausing to think. It’s the breath you take between each stroke swam.

I was reading an article in The Times written by Laura Freeman on literature as meditation. She writes,

We live in a mindful age where meditation is promised as the cure to all our Insta-ills….The problem is not that we are exhausted by a rushing world. Many of us are under-stimulated by days spent poring over emails and Excel, and then over-stimulated by nights full of twittering screens. What we lack isn’t silence, it’s sustenance. Something for starved imaginations to feast on.”

To read good writing is a joy unparalleled. It is an Eden. A quieting of aches and afflictions. A broadening of mind. A burrow of warmth and safety. A sublime expanse of scenery from the comfort of a sofa. It’s shaking your head in astonishment and nodding in agreement.  

I write to be that good. To give back what I’ve taken.

I write because writers are my heroes. (Call that a God-complex or ‘big dick energy’ but it’s the truth). I write because its my aspiration to be an inspiration.

I write because on the invite list to my fantasy dinner party there would be Joan Didion, Rebecca Solnit, Naomi Klein, Toni Morrison, Jonathan Franzen, Annie Proulx, Maggie Nelson, Richard Yates, Sarah Manguso, Nora Ephron, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Simone De Beauvoir, Daniel Woodrell, Claudia Rankine, Sarah Moss.

I write to be invited to fantasy dinner parties.

I write to be seen and heard.

My writing says, in between all its jammed in adjectives and compound sentences,  I am here, I am alive.

***

But within writing lies the possibility to be misunderstood. To be heard and not listened to. To be seen, but ill-framed. To be judged. And harshly so. To be rendered more invisible by having written in the first place. Writing can create a fissure, a cleft, a canyon. It can put colour to an idea, but if you think something is blue and someone else reads it as green, writing can be divisive.

There is beauty in that. Writing is chromatic and contradictory and if we all saw things the same way wouldn’t life be boring? Etc etc.

But there is risk in writing. It’s like saying I love you for the first time. It’s a feeling inside of you that needs to come out, that only in verbalising and iterating and claiming can it feel true and only in the saying of it can you expect reciprocation. Silent I love yous are always regretted. There is joy in being declarative and decisive. Only then can you hear the words I feel that too. I think that too. I love you too. And yet…

And yet and yet and yet and yet

This is a chorus that threatens to drown out many dreams. In between every verse of victory, in doing something you feel proud of, there is this.

And yet, it could go wrong. And yet, they might not feel the same.

The I love you can linger in the air, unreturned and the silence of being unloved in that moment is bruising, deafening, squalid.

Writing that is misread feels the same.

In many academic essays I had the phrase I’m not sure what you are trying to say here scrawled in red next to a brutally dense and ambitious paragraph that contained so much but probably said very little. And yet every time I saw it I felt sick. I felt like crying.

I write for clarity. And I had been ambiguous. Or at least, and I often felt this at university, I had expressed something in the way I wanted to, but not in the way it was meant to be written. Meant as in according to marking guidelines and academic architecture. Rubrics and frameworks and and fretworks I had failed to exist within and comply with.

There is a profile in The New York Times that recently came out, written by Taffy Brodesser-Akner on the frankly, phenomenal Jonathan Franzen.

“He’d been surprised at how some of those essays were received in the world…Had they even read the work? Had they fact-checked? Ultimately, it didn’t matter. He had to look at those essays again. A writer doesn’t write to be misunderstood.

And yet how does one respond? Those incidents, which have come to number many, had begun to precede him more loudly than his proudest contributions to the world: his novels, which number five….people don’t seem to understand him or his good intentions — that she can’t figure out when exactly they all turned on him. “

Writing can skate a thin line. Writing is both salve and chasm.

***

I write to give purpose and structure to a day. To put reins on an imagination that has only ever known how to run wild. It soothes the sensation that a wordless day, albeit a lived one, is a wasted day.

“How was your day?”, my housemate (and so much more, this label is a callous précis of her true function to my sanity) always remembers to ask.

“Good. I got some writing done” comes the all too scarce reply.

But that’s my definition of good. Of productive. Of fulfilling. I am content with a day that produces a handful of sentences, a cluster of prose that contains within in it the power to placate. I write to humour myself. To be able to tell myself I did something honest and worthwhile. Whether it becomes that remains to be seen.

My writing is a work in a progress. Just as I am. But it’s the only construction I want to devote myself to (right now). It is my Sagrada Família.

I write to learn. I write to self-improve.

Therein lies the issue with writing – it’s a lonely pursuit. And a selfish one. You can write to be read and you can write for an audience – therein lies its nobility and magnanimity – but its presumptive to be writing that way.

I currently do not have the privilege (though I possess a lot of others) of assuming that my work will be read, so to write for those reasons is futile.

I write for myself. I have to.

And so it’s self-centred. An exercise in narcissism. I spend hours a day forming thoughts and thinking they’re special enough to be documented. What a life the writer’s life is! You lock yourself away, retreat, scarper from family suppers and make excuses not attend social gatherings because you have to write. And it’s a discipline. To commit to it is to turn down other adventures and pleasures. To devote yourself to you and the words you want to say. You can’t be a writer without having written something.

This is a quandary that plagues me. I can’t call myself a writer. Perhaps I should. But it feels disingenuous.

What have you written? People would ask.

I wouldn’t be able to name something they had read. So although I don’t write to be read, you have to be read to be a writer. At least that’s how it feels. Those are the rules of the game.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t write to be writer. That’s the ambition. But in the meantime, whilst it doesn’t compel a salary and serves only as a side-hustle, I write to tell stories. In order to live. I write to live my best life.

***

I write because it’s my jam. And bread and butter (though we established not in the monetary meaning; it brings all the insides together.) It’s chicken soup in the miserable midst of a cold or a cup of tea on the top of a snow-capped mountain. It’s the first robin spotted on the cusp of winter. It’s a pair of jeans that slide on like a dream and caress your hips but don’t gape at the waist. It’s getting a text back you’ve been pining for. It’s a new kitten. It’s blowing out candles on a birthday cake to the symphony of gathered friends commemorating you. It’s feeling the sun on your back as if thawing your spine. It’s falling asleep in a park and having nowhere to be. It’s waking up in the morning to absence of alarm. It’s a bowling strike. It’s a penalty scored. It’s a home run. It’s an impetuous, top-of-your-lungs-windows-down-sing-song in the car. It’s the first lick of an ice cream, the smoothness a surprise for your tongue. It’s making the last train home, panting with irrepressible relief that your legs had the strength to see you through. It’s the cat with the hearts in his eyes emoji. It’s a gifted book with a note written on the first page.

It’s being told I love you too.

It is nourishment and reprieve. It is both palliative and restorative.

I write because it’s hard and they say anything worth doing is.

I write because it makes me happy.

***

“I write to give my life a form, a narrative, a chronology; and, for good measure, I seal loose ends with cadenced prose and add glitter where I know things were quite lusterless. I write to reach out to the real world, though I know that I write to stay away from a world that is still too real and never as provisional or ambivalent as I’d like it to be.”

55772ac69399217d87faa2de3222ae39.jpg– André Aciman, The New York Times

“Writing is finally a series of permissions you give yourself to be expressive in certain ways. To invent. To leap. To fly. To fall. To find your own characteristic way of narrating and insisting; that is, to find your own inner freedom. “

– Susan Sontag, The New York Times

“In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind.

– Joan Didion, The New York Times

“Groping through the dark is, in large part, what writing consists of anyway. Working through and feeling around the shadows of an idea. Getting pricked. Cursing purity. Threshing out. Scuffing up and peeling away. Feral rearranging. Letting form ferment. Letting form pass through you…Writing is losing focus and winning it back, only to lose it once more. Hanging on despite the nausea of producing nothing good by noon, despite the Sisyphean task of arriving at a conclusion that pleases.”

– Durga Chew-Bose, Too Much and Not the Mood

Review: 120 BPM (Beats per Minute)

120 BPM (Beats per Minute) plays like an exercise in memory more than it does pedagogy, pulsating with the vividness and vigour of lived experience. Upon learning that writer-director Robin Campillo was a “rank and file member of ACT UP Paris” throughout the 90s, the activist group whose enterprises the film documents, you can understand why.

“There tends to be a collective amnesia” surrounding the attitudes, negligence and obstruction that the AIDS community faced, “homophobia was the standard”, Campillo remarks in the film’s production notes. His third outing as a director operates as a shot of stimulation to the synapses, a sharp jolt of remembrance that the fight for rights was laborious and contentious, marked by many more losses than wins.

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Based on the model initiated by ACT UP New York, which was formed in 1987 and defines itself as “a diverse, non-partisan group of individuals united in anger and committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis”, the audience are inducted to the Parisian division alongside 4 of its newest members. The last to be introduced, Nathan (Arnaud Valois), is the closest we get to a protagonist in what is a diverse, non-partisan group of individuals united in anger, anguish and urgency. One of the most vocal and rule-breaking members, Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), who captures ours as well as Nathan’s attention, is who we’ll come to care about most.

What becomes immediately apparent in the lecture hall where ACT UP has its weekly meetings is the plurality of voices that have a stake in the movement. Moments after a demonstration has taken an unplanned direction, Sophie (Adèle Haenel), Sean and several others debate whether the violence of their actions will be condemned. The matter isn’t resolved, its merely aired and you sense for all their common ground, this is also a coalition of disparate individuals with their own agendas.  

Indeed, as we return to this venue many times throughout the film, a series of different issues are given visibility. It’s not just young, white, cis, gay men that are affected, but gay women, men of colour, trans women, a woman whose child was infected by a blood transfusion, and as a result there are many different experiences and perspectives to incorporate. It’s a credit to Campillo that one voice is never favoured. Their conversations – though sometimes heated and always lively –  weave in the many concerns and conflicts that face the AIDS community and how difficult it is to organise effective and sustained militancy.

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There are several moments of punctuation that serve as reminder of the personal cost that fuels this political action. Whilst the scientific language around AIDS is left largely unexplained, mirroring the medical unfamiliarity the general public and indeed sufferers had during the epidemic, and were often left to their own device to obtain, something that is raised time and time again is the CD4 count of HIV-positive (poz) members. Below 200 and the diagnosis is full-blown AIDS. The lower the count, the worse the fate. As meetings and marches continue, there’s relative stagnation in terms of tangible treatment progress and the drug company’s willingness to be transparent about the results of their trials. Sean’s repeated statement of his declining CD4 count is a stark and quantitative expression of how imperative change is, and how slow it is to come.  

What this also does is reframe the epidemic as a medical crisis, where it had previously being stigmatised and politicised, or mounted as the predicament for the ostracised gay community as opposed to society as whole. Campillo is upfront about maligning the two treatment options available to poz’s at the time, and the injurious medical trials that only the “desperate” would subject themselves to. More than just a snapshot of the past, it’s a necessary reconfiguration of history. And perhaps because it’s still such a recent history – it feels strange to call its a period-piece when the characters all have clothes and hairstyles and vernaculars that would slot rights into a contemporary context – there’s something all the more powerful to its telling.

For all the intimacies explored, Campillo is aware that this story belong to its collective, to the nuances and intensity of his characters (to which he is astutely attuned). His brilliant ensemble cast more than deliver that sense of immediacy, and the spectrum of their experience.

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Equally important is the depiction of its sufferers as more than their suffering. After each major protest – at pharmaceutical labs, schools and gay pride marches, where issues such as treatment, prevention, awareness, morale and stigma are addressed – the group descends upon a nightclub to sweat away their stresses. It’s an emphatic reminder of the youth and vitality of ACT UP’s members, as well as those most affected, and infected by AIDS at large. Indeed, one particularly intimate moment recalls Sean’s loss of virginity and the encounter which transmitted the disease at the age of 16. Later, these dance club scenes, at which Sean is a coquettish, careening and central presence, become all the more poignant for his absence as his body, and the state, continues to fail him.

And yet it’s not all doom and gloom. Paradoxically, the group are seen to dance, cheerlead, kiss, cavort and copulate in innumerable scenes. There is none of the skittishness or sterility surrounding homosexuality that has plagued previous depictions of the AIDS crisis (particularly mainstream American outputs), and Campillo’s film is well-served by a particularly French sensibility to prioritise sensuality. The central romantic relationship that develops alongside the group’s demonstrations and debates brims with vim and desire, defiant in the face of a debilitating disease. It’s also touchingly sensitive to the various strains through which HIV manifests, and as Sean reveals ailments such as Kaposi’s sarcoma (a type of cancer that externalises itself in purplish skin lesions) and mouth thrush, Nathan’s want and need for him never declines.

What’s more, there are comedic moments flecked throughout.  An awkward revolving door that somewhat subdues the impact of a pharmaceutical building being stormed; an over-zealous throwing of a pouch containing fake blood (used to smear and splatter across the walls/faces of perpetrators) that subsequently douses one of its members; the ridicule of lacklustre slogans being suggested at meetings. A cornucopia of emotions are explored, from grief to gaiety and back again.

As with sexuality, Robin Campillo also doesn’t shy away from death and the final handful of scenes are at once notable and devastating for the visibility of a dead body. It’s not ushered away or shrouded in a blanket, rather it remains in the bedroom next door as the group gathers and discusses how best to proceed. Another life might be over, but the struggle is unequivocally not.  

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Ultimately Campillo’s film is a living, breathing, writhing embodiment of ACT UP’s slogan ‘Silence = Death (Mort)’. From the clicking of its members in concord and the rising indignation of those speaking up to the foghorn sound that indicates a demonstration and the house music that pulsates throughout, this is invigorating and confrontational cinema at its most enlivening and eye-opening.

The Second Coming: Why women filmmakers struggle to get their second features made

N.B. This is a raw, unedited and extended version of an essay originally published in Another Gaze.

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The main point of contention in the much-deliberated issue of gender representation across the cinematic landscape isn’t the existence of the woman director. Certainly, they constitute a paltry percentage of the filmmaking enterprise – in 2016, just 7% of the top 250 films were directed by a woman – (I take umbrage with ‘top’ and the fact that our economic measurement of a film’s success is a gendered and patriarchal system, not designed to serve the female population. More on which later) – nevertheless, they are there. Behold: Varda and DuVernay, Coppola and Campion, Reichardt and Ramsay, Scherfig and Shelton, Holland and Hansen-Løve. (I’ve excluded their first names à la Hitchcock, Spielberg and Scorsese, with the same ritualistic reverence we use to refer to male directors).

The central issue is that their visibility and ascendancy continues to be hampered by outmoded systems of thought surrounding the capabilities of women directors and the commercial viability of the films they create. This is most apparent when said woman director is cultivating her second film: the time between her debut and sophomore films is recurrently longer, and one assumes more onerous, than that of her male directing counterparts.

When looking at the dramatic feature programming of recent Sundance Film Festivals, it becomes clear that this is down to more than just coincidence. It’s an insidious bias that threatens to derail female filmmakers that have already had to fight hard enough to have their voices heard. A nerve-centre for new talent, Sundance is continually above the industry standard when it comes to programming and premiering the work of women directors. In reference to the 2018 edition of the festival, a recent blog post of theirs reported

‘Of the 122 feature films premiering at Sundance, 37% are directed by women, markedly ahead of the mainstream industry.’

Notably, this figure is still below gender parity. Despite its progressive ethos, Sundance is indicative of a wider industry trend that requires women directors to prove themselves innumerably before gaining the same level of trust and opportunities bestowed upon their male peers. Women consistently have to fight harder to have their second feature made, even following an initial success. Men are less likely to suffer this fate.

Colin Trevorrow, whose debut feature Safety Not Guaranteed premiered at Sundance in 2012, went on to direct the $1.67 billion grossing Jurassic World a mere three years laterand Marc Webb, who premiered 500 Days of Summer at the 2009 Sundance Festival and three years later was helming the $758 million grossing The Amazing Spider-Man, are the poster boys for this proclivity. This rarely happens to women. The closest comparison is to Patty Jenkins whose record-breaking Wonder Woman took the world by storm last year.But her feature debut was in 2003, nearly a decade and a half earlier, with Monster. In fact, last year The Hollywood Reporter published a statistic, as discovered by USC Annenberg’s Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative, that 80% of women directors made just 1 film in 10 years.

Spotlighting two directors who experienced enormous acclaim at this year’s Sundance; Sara Colangelo with The Kindergarten Teacher and Desiree Akhavan with The Miseducation of Cameron Post, it becomes startlingly transparent how deep-seated and many-tentacled our bias towards women is.

***

Little Accidents tells the story of a coal mining town and the secrets it harbours. Written and directed by Sara Colangelo (another trend: women directors are far more likely to have penned the material they direct in what is perhaps a circumnavigation of sparser employment opportunities), this sombre, slow-burning drama (shot by recent Oscar nominee Rachel Morrison) opened at Sundance 2014 to hype galore. Coverage in Vanity Fair, The New York Times, Variety, IndieWire, Paste Magazine and The Hollywood Reporter followed, with the latter even predicting that her “compelling debut bodes very well for Colangelo”. Yet, a second feature did not materialise. Another filmmaker that had their directorial debut premier at Sundance in 2014 was Damian Chazelle, who name is undoubtedly more familiar. After Whiplash, he near-conquered the Oscars with La La Land, where he scooped Best Director, though memorably not Best Picture, and is currently filming a biopic about Neil Armstrong. One could surmise that Chazelle is more talented and thus more deserving of the opportunities he’s been given. But this isn’t a fluke: it’s an archetype.

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In the 2014 US Dramatic Competition program, there were twelve male directors to four women directors. Of the women directors who debuted films, Maya Forbes with Infinitely Polar Bear, Mona Fastvold with The Sleepwalker, and Kate Barker-Froyland with Song One, only Forbes has gone on to direct her second feature, a little-known comedy called The Polka King. But Jeff Baena, who debuted Life After Beth, has since gone on to direct Joshy and The Little Hours, whilst Joe Swanberg, whose Happy Christmas was his follow-up to the mumblecore sensation Drinking Buddies, has gone on to direct Digging For Fire, Win It All and the Netflix series Easy. And of course, I’ve mentioned what happened to Damian Chazelle.

***

The New York Times published an article in 2017 exploring the aftermath of Sundance for its hotly-tipped directorial darlings, not all of whom can score headline-making distribution deals and Oscar buzz, and who instead face an employment wasteland. Sara Colangelo is one of the directors featured in the piece, in which the ratio of women to men is 2:1. Describing the struggle that is finding continuous work in the film industry, Colangelo reveals she has since directed corporate videos, and after Little Accidents picked up an Indie Spirit nomination for Best First Screenplay, landed “a few writer-for-hire jobs, polishing other people’s work”. Colangelo remarks that she saw many other Sundance alumni advance, the majority of whom were men.

It could be that the genre and terrain of Colangelo’s Little Accidents is what stalled the continuation of her career. At times relentlessly downbeat, though always tender, it tackles poverty, tragedy and hopelessness in Rust Belt America. The same kind of gothic, gloomy Americana that pulsated throughout Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone (who coincidentally returned to Sundance 2018 with Leave No Trace, after an eight-year hiatus) and doesn’t usually tend to draw crowds. However, when men tackle this topic it doesn’t appear to be a barrier to future employment. Scott Cooper, director of Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace, both solemn and sensitive in their depictions of small-town America, has gone on to direct Black Mass and the recently released Hostiles. David Lowery beguiled Sundance with his slow-burn outlaw drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints in 2013. By 2016 he was directing the multi-million dollar family film Pete’s Dragon, and in 2017 he returned with the critically-acclaimed A Ghost Story. He’s recently finished production on his next feature, starring the founder of Sundance himself, Robert Redford, and is attached to direct Disney’s live-action remake of Peter Pan. His quiet, gritty, backwater drama didn’t stymie his success at all.

Is it that women experience genre, as well as gender bias? In daring to enter a forbidden realm of bruised masculinity, dangerous machinery and economic austerity, Colangelo took on a traditionally male subject matter. In a 2016 British Film Institute study on ‘Genre and Classification’, box office revenues were broken down by genre to classify which are the most popular. Of the 16 defined genres, action, animation and sci-fi elicited the most revenue, and in 14 of the categories the top performing titles were directed by men. Typically films about superheroes, wars, riots, conflict, sporting legends, scientific exploration, historical events and biographical dramas are the terrain of male directors (making this year’s Mudbound and Detroit all the more special), whilst women are confined to more emotional, internal narratives. In making a gothic-crime-drama-thriller hybrid, Sara Colangelo deviated from the industry’s expectations of what a woman-directed film looks like, and thus made herself and her film hard to categorise.

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Categorisation is also an issue that affected Desiree Akhavan, writer, director and star of 2015’s Appropriate Behaviour (which premiered the same year as Little Accidents in Sundance’s ‘Next’ strand)and the US Grand Jury Prize-winning The Miseducation of Cameron Post, at this year’s Sundance. Even though Appropriate Behaviour is a dramedy exploring female sexuality and identity, and therefore well within the sphere of suitable material for a woman director, the reception of Akhavan’s film can be seen as indicative of a tendency to situate women in relation to other women filmmakers, to compare and label them, instating something like a ‘one at a time’ rule. Appropriate Behaviour offers a candid portrait of sex and relationships and following Akhavan’s guest-role in Girls, the press repeatedly referred to her as “the next Lena Dunham”.

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Speaking in conversation with BAFTA after the film’s release, Akhavan affirmed “No one ever looks at Alex Ross Perry and says ‘Oh look, another Noah Baumbach’.” Men are allowed to be unicorns, whereas women are seen as copycats, simulacra of women directors past. If her second feature were to bear a passing resemblance to something else currently in development by another woman director who is also making raunchy comedies, you can imagine the blowback. Yet there’s barely an eyelid bat when Bennett Miller and Douglas McGrath make Capote biopics within a year of each other. Last year an article in IndieWire proclaimed that Akhavan avoided “the second-film slump” by charting her own path and turning down the conventional, sub-par parodies that Hollywood were sending her. She admits,

“I could have made a second feature much earlier, it just would have sucked and I wouldn’t have made a third one…I was being sent scripts that were really big-budget, shittier versions of the film I had already made.”

The problem with this type of thinking is that it perpetuates the idea that Hollywood isn’t for women: that the only way to achieve cinematic success is to chisel a new path to it. This is not a requirement for male directors. It recalls the way we tell women to avert predatory glances and behaviours, without reproaching the patriarchy and its structures for producing this type of behaviour in the first place. It puts the onus on those with less power to force the hands of those with it.

***

Getting your first feature made is hard enough: it requires persistence, persuasiveness, and a production company willing to take you on. But women directors must repeatedly jump through the ‘first feature’ hurdle, whereas for male directors one directorial outing is enough to bolster the confidence and secure the funding of financiers and executive producers.

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When production companies are looking for writers and directors to champion, they’re taking a chance on somebody that they must prove to financiers and investors to be worthwhile. The project must be quantified. And in order to do that, they look at a person’s credits and often, how much money their films recouped at the box office. Women, statistically more likely to direct lower budget films, are immediately disadvantaged by this fiscally-focused operation. Consequently, women directors are suggested for fewer projects. When they come to make their films the same pattern is repeated in the securing of distribution: once again a team of buyers and marketers assess whether the film will make them any money. A research study published by the Sundance Institute in 2015 outlined that movies with a woman director (70.2%) were more likely than movies with a male director (56.9%) to be distributed by Independent companies with fewer financial resources and lower industry clout. Conversely, male-directed films (43.1%) were more likely than woman-directed films (29.8%) to receive distribution from a Studio Specialty/Mini Major company. These latter companies have deeper pockets and greater reach. And so the vicious circle of invisibility continues.

This point is made illustratively and defiantly by Brit Marling, herself a Sundance alumni, in an essay for The Atlantic on ‘Weinstein and the Economics of Consent’. It comes down to this: “Men hold most of the world’s wealth” and that results in women seeking approval and finance from predominantly male gatekeepers who inherently believe woman-directed pictures don’t make money and are therefore a gamble, a risk, a no-go.

Sara Colangelo’s The Kindergarten Teacher has no less than 47 people credited as executive, associate or co-producers, demonstrative of the technical and financial Tetris required for this project to come together. And more often than not, woman-directed projects are born of women producers, who make it their life’s work to advocate and spotlight underrepresented voices. Celine Rattray who is one of the producers of The Kindergarten Teacher, has also produced Maggie Betts’ Novitiate, Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are Alright, and executive produced Andrea Arnold’s American Honey. And whilst there are more women producers than directors working today, (of the top 100 grossing films of 2017 women represented 8% of directors and 24% of producers), the percentage is still significantly below equivalence. If directors are relying on their support and sanction for employment, the trickle-down effect is clear.

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Stephen Follows published a comprehensive report of gender inequality in the UK film industry in 2016, and concluded that gender imbalance is primarily due to an unconscious bias. There’s a detrimental expectation that woman-directed films will underperform, both in terms of popularity and profitability. Oscar-winning actress Anne Hathaway recently admitted her own unconscious bias against director Lone Scherfig on the set of One Day. In Vanity Fair she confessed:

“I am to this day scared that the reason I didn’t trust her the way I trust other directors is because she’s a woman….I’m so scared that I treated her with internalized misogyny…or I was resisting her on some level.”

It’s not just Anne. As a culture with a critical eye, we seem to focus on a woman’s shortcomings and consider them definitive, in a way that we don’t when it comes to assessing a man’s work. Alice Lowe, the director/writer/actress behind last year’s Prevenge, hypothesised in a conversation with Another Gaze, that “people are waiting for women directors to slip up. Whereas when a male director makes a dud it’s like, ‘Oh well, I’m really excited about what he’s going to do next!’” Society has conditioned us to believe that women do not belong behind the camera and the undoing of this harmful stereotype is still in its embryonic stages.

The pressure on women directors is intense and I am just as guilty of harbouring this double-standard. Upon hearing the results of the Sundance awards, I felt relieved. Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post won the US Grand Jury Prize, whilst Sara Colangelo took home the Directing Award. These women had prevailed! They had proved themselves once more! It was a glimmer of hope, a signal that their careers might stretch far beyond a second feature. Perhaps even a third or fourth or fifth! Men are allowed to be mediocre, but in order to succeed women have to be consistently brilliant. And because of this ludicrous expectation, whenever a woman’s debut feature doesn’t top every best film list, or triumph in the ratings, or get nominated for Best Director at the Oscars (à la Greta Gerwig – although one is wholly deserved), the clamour and endorsement around her subsides. We think very little of the fact that we might not hear from her again for another five years, and that something about that inequity isn’t deeply, deeply wrong.

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Remakes are popular subjects for filmmaking because there is a precedent for their success. Women filmmakers are still in the process of creating their precedents. Historically and economically they are at a disadvantage, and a risk-averse industry doesn’t tend to put their eggs in a basket woven out of new or ‘untested’ material. And then, even when they have been tested, their success is deemed a fluke, unlikely to be repeated, unable to be counted upon. Ultimately, women directors need representation, legitimacy and capitalisation. The longer the industry lauds their debuts without creating a structure or framework that sustains their employment, the longer it will continue to fail at redressing the gender imbalance. Creating new conventions that make women filmmakers a fixed part of the industry, not anomalies, tokens, or precariously mounted emblems of a change to come, is the key to establishing a cinema of equality.

Top 17 Films Of 2017

#17. Landline

#16. Wind River

#15. The Florida Project

#14. I Am Not Your Negro

#13. Kedi

#12. The Work

#11. The Happiest Day In The Life Of Olli Maki

#10. Beach Rats

DIR. Eliza Hittman. Starring: Harris Dickinson, Madeline Weinstein, Kate Hodge

A moody and soulful portrait of teenage sexuality, world’s away from the lavish sultriness of Call Me By Your Name, and yet just as vital in its depiction of the tempestuous waters of adolescence. Set in the machismo world of Brooklyn, a young man (British newcomer Dickinson) grapples with urges of a more prohibited nature one somnolent summer. Whilst the plot might seem similar to and outdone by Moonlight, the gauzy, grainy visuals and penetrating sense of melancholy and menace will have you gripped from the off, and leave you haunted.

#9. I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore

DIR. Macon Blair. Starring: Melanie Lynskey, Elijah Wood

This under-hyped Netflix release from Macon Blair (best known for his bug-eyed and blunderingly brutal performance in Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin) was a winning combination of suspense, absurdity and snakes. Like 40s era screwball comedy mashed up with the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple.

#8. A Ghost Story

DIR. David Lowery. Starring: Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck

 

David Lowery serves up big metaphysical themes and existential plight in this intimate and melancholic tale of love lost too soon. With its mesmeric cinematography (shot in a 1:33 ratio), muted performances and entrancing soundtrack, this is pensive, lyrical, plaintive and audacious cinema.

#7. Good Time

DIR. Josh & Benny Safdie. Starring: Robert Pattinson, Benny Safdie, Jennifer Jason Leigh

Robert Pattinson transforms as a twitchy criminal on-the-run in this heady, propulsive, bad-feeling-brewing thriller from the Safdie brothers that keeps the unexpected twists coming whilst never losing its sense of pathos and heart.

#6. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

DIR. Martin McDonagh. Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell

Has Frances McDormand ever not been good? Irrespective of your opinion, she’s abrasively brilliant in Martin McDonagh’s third and best feature as a short-tempered small-town mother squaring up to the hapless authorities that have yet to convict her daughter’s murderer. With a raft of idiosyncratic characters (Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell and Peter Dinklage among them) of varying moral dubiety and common sense, it is by turns tragic, brutal and uproariously funny (if you like your comedy carbon black). Also makes a case for Caleb Landry-Jones as 2017’s MVP (see also The Florida Project and Get Out).

#5. Raw

DIR. Julia Ducournau. Starring: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella

A potent coming-of-ager that depicts its female protagonist’s burgeoning hungers with such an unwavering, carnal intensity that you might mistake your desire to look away for distaste. But savour the subtext and there’s a lot to feast upon.

#4. God Own’s Country

DIR. Francis Lee. Starring: Josh O’Connor, Alec Secareanu, Gemma Jones

A salty, muddy, bloody and extremely sexy love story set on a Yorkshire farm. Inevitably its been compared to Brokeback Mountain, but this is less anguished than Ang Lee’s decades-sprawling affair. The love between these young farmer Johnny and Romanian farm hand Gheorghe is allowed its moments of tenderness, domesticity and hope.

#3. The Handmaiden

DIR. Park Chan-wook. Starring: Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo, Kim Min-hee

Spell-binding to behold, this labyrinthine erotic thriller is a return to form for South Korean director Park Chan-wook.  One third of the way through this triptych structured maze of desire, deceit and despotism, a twist announced itself so gobsmackingly and so brilliantly, I was literally shunted to the edge of my seat, where I remained for the next two thirds of the film. Rarely is a film so long, so tightly-coiled and exacting in its execution. A work of artistic genius.

#2. Lady Bird

DIR. Greta Gerwig. Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracey Letts, Lucas Hedges

Greta Gerwig has made a film as kind-hearted, insightful, hilarious and offbeat as the woman herself. Lady Bird might announce herself on screen with the wallop of body hitting road as she exits her mother’s car in transit to escape a heated conversation, but this is a quieter and more astute film than this initial, almost slapstick moment suggests. It’s uproariously funny and wickedly wry, poignantly wise in ways that Lady Bird just isn’t yet and about the pains of growing up and fleeing the nest, it gets so much so very right. (The moment after Lady Bird loses her virginity is of particular, and spectacular sagacity).

#1. Call Me By Your Name

DIR. Luca Guadagnino. Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg

An undulating, irrepressibly romantic film that brought heat and jouissance to a bleak midwinter reality. I was swept up by the sunshine, soaring music and sensitivity to the ecstasy and turmoil of young love. As gorgeous to look at as it is to experience. Chalamet is a big discovery for Hollywood, long may they give him roles as peachy as Elio. Full review here.

Everything I Watched In 2017

Ok, so not everything. Like most millennials I’m prone to hyperbole and a click-bait headline. These are all the drama/fictional shows I consumed – hence why I haven’t included Blue Planet II, The Great British Bake-Off or Strictly Come Dancing and the hours of SNL sketches and US chat show interviews enjoyed on YouTube.

And before you ask about my priorities, yes I still need to see Season 2 of The Crown and Godless and Season 2 of Search Party and no I don’t care for Twin Peaks (I’ll eat my words later when I become obsessed). I never fell foul to the Doctor Foster hype and have a dozen other things on my ‘To-Watch’ list that I’ll get around to eventually (Black Mirror, Born To Kill, the rest of Halt and Catch Fire. Hell maybe I’ll eventually finish The Sopranos and Breaking Bad whilst I am it).

Other things to note: I gave up on Fargo and Rellik this year after the first two episodes, and also lost interest in This Is Us (too much schmaltz for me). I watched the first episode of Ozark and Mindhunter respectively, but found them too dour and have been intending to resume watching The Americans  for over a year, but alas the TV shows below are the only ones I found time for.

The stars denote my favourites!

 

  1. Search Party | Channel 4 (Season 1) 
  2. Girls | HBO (Season 6)
  3. Big Little Lies | HBO (Season 1) ★
  4. Love | Netflix (Season 2)
  5. Broadchurch | ITV (Season 3)
  6. I Love Dick | Amazon Prime (Season 1) ★
  7. Orange Is The New Black | Netflix (Season 5)
  8. House of Cards | Netflix (Season 5)
  9. Paula | BBC
  10. The Handmaid’s Tale | Hulu (Season 1) 
  11. Glow | Netflix (Season 1)
  12. Master of None | Netflix (Season 1 & 2) ★
  13. The Leftovers | HBO (Season 1 & 2)
  14. Game Of Thrones | HBO (Season 7)
  15. Top of the Lake: China Girl | BBC 2
  16. Insecure | HBO (Season 1 & 2) ★
  17. Atlanta | FX (Season 1) 
  18. Trust Me | ITV
  19. Strike: Cuckoo’s Calling | BBC
  20. Room 104 | HBO (Season 1)
  21. Riviera | Sky Atlantic (Season 1)
  22. The Deuce | HBO (Season 1) 
  23. Transparent | Amazon Prime (Season 4)
  24. Liar | ITV (Season 1)
  25. Tin Star | Sky Atlantic (Season 1)
  26. Halt and Catch Fire | AMC/Amazon Prime (Season 1-2) ★
  27. The Child In Time | BBC One
  28. Stranger Things | Netflix (Season 2)
  29. Peaky Blinders | BBC 2 (Season 2-4) 
  30. The Girlfriend Experience | Amazon Prime (Season 2)
  31. Babylon Berlin | Sky Atlantic (Season 1)
  32. The Trip to Spain | Sky Atlantic
  33. Easy | Netflix (Season 2) ★
  34. Howard’s End | BBC One
  35. Witnesses: A Frozen Death | BBC 4
  36. Feud | FX

      

 

All The Rage | How angry women powered cinema in 2017

Originally published in Little White Lies.

Fists clenched. Nostrils flared. Foreheads beaded with sweat. This image accurately describes any number of female characters in a year where angry women were ubiquitous and just as likely to appall as to appease. The murderous woman is cinema’s ultimate rebel in that she flouts the expectation that a female character should be likeable. In 2017 we’ve witnessed a number of women raging against their societal or bodily constraints. For Alice Lowe, director, writer and star of Prevenge, this means turning “the fear of violence against my own body outside of myself.”

Externalised malevolence is also at the heart of Lady Macbeth (written by Alice Birch). Married off to the sullen son of a wealthy mine owner, Katherine (Florence Pugh) is quickly initiated into the abrasive existence of 19th century wedlock. As her father-in-law intimidatingly instructs, she must perform her wifely duties “with rigour”. The film’s opening scenes unflinchingly detail this. Her skin is scrubbed raw, her hair brushed as though she were a doll unable to feel every violent wrench. She endures the torture of being hemmed in by a corset, and then forced to undress to the tune of her husband’s command.

Katherine’s response is to undergo a tyrannical transformation, in which her sensuality and venom ruptures that bodice and all its connotations of gentility. A later image of her, scrambling to bury evidence – dress bloodied and muddied, rifle in hand – is antithetical to the virginal veiled creature we meet in the opening shot. And yet these murderesses are never masculinised. The poster for Prevenge showed Alice Lowe’s Ruth standing side-on in a flowing red dress, her tousled brown hair resting on her shoulders, rejecting the muscular athleticism of action heroes such as Ellen Ripley or Katniss Everdeen. With one hand on her stomach, the other clutching a knife, she is at once life-giver and slayer.

Her ambivalence towards her impending motherhood is manifested in a Machiavellian killing spree and her deadly bump (personified via a sweet, infantile voiceover) is a potent obstacle to the flattening out or glossing over of what it means to be a woman. Though the blood is a comedic hue, Prevenge doesn’t sterilise the savage. “Is she dangerous?” asks Ruth, before slaying her first victim with a knife sliced across his throat. His last word is a resounding “yes”.

The notion of a woman’s weapon of choice being poison is embedded in our culture. Physical violence is deemed untenable with a woman’s ‘diminutive stature’ and ‘weak stomach’. That Katherine graduates from fouling her first victim with mushrooms, to bludgeoning her husband on their bedroom floor and exerting herself with the abominable and labour intensive task of suffocating a young boy, destabilises this stereotype.

Likewise, in Catfight two old college friends, embittered by entitled middle-class angst, engage in a series of fistfights. Ashley (Anne Heche) is an artist seeking the approval of a male dealer. Her canvases seethe with chaotic, gender-politicised rage that he suspects unsuitable for exhibition. It’s too “shocking” and “vulgar”. Veronica (Sandra Oh) is a housewife whose husband advises she back off the booze for his important business event. Amid cocktail party chatter, Veronica and Ashley’s verbal jousting escalates to profanity and finally full-blown physical aggression, replete with jaw-smackingly good sound effects.

The bloodied teeth, grunting and choppy camerawork make it look like The Bourne Identity for the yummy mummy crowd. And just when you think exhaustion has crippled them, the pummelling prevails. An outpouring of repressed fury, Veronica and Ashley’s fight becomes a rejection of men curtailing their pleasures and passions, labelling it excessive or embarrassing. Here female violence is depicted in all its ugly, undiluted glory. Every punch thrown and wound inflicted is a rallying cry for the reconstruction of femininity reverberates.

Rage is the only way for these women to impose their will, as their arguments and opinions are consistently met with violence and humiliation. Katherine finds herself stripped or slapped when declaring a preference for the “fresh air”, or contending that her sexual appetite is nothing “to be ashamed of”. That she makes the latter proclamation behind the columned and cage-like bannister of a staircase becomes a visual indication of her imprisonment.

Similarly silenced is Beatriz (Salma Hayek), the titular protagonist in Beatriz at Dinner. She’s a holistic healer and masseuse, reluctantly invited to dine with a rich client and their guests. However, the film’s composition depicts her difficulty in being seen and heard. Beatriz lurks at the periphery of each frame, traipsing behind Connie Britton’s host and her gaggle of guests, or hovering at the edge of conversations to the extent that real-estate mogul Doug (a Trumpian John Lithgow) mistakes her for a caterer.

In a scene of sudden apoplexy, Beatriz’s spiritual stoicism splinters and she commands attention. The camera flits between the dominant conversationalists (read: rich, white guests) as they prattle on about holiday plans. Beatriz is always framed in isolation, her face a picture of indignant stillness. “Hunting is all about patience,” says Doug, regaling the room with his poaching anecdote. After seeing photographic evidence, Beatriz’s takes a stand, emphatically voicing her repugnance and throwing Doug’s phone against a wall. The room turns to look at her, as if to acknowledge her presence for the first time.

It’s worth noting that white female rage is often associated with transcendence or triumph. With her final act of wickedness complete, Lady Macbeth’s Katherine sits on a faded ochre chaise lounge, front and centre of the frame and finally free of subjection. For Katherine’s maid Anna (Naomi Ackie), a woman of colour, her own rage against the helplessness of her situation – seen to be taken out on the kneading of dough or the scrubbing of her ward’s skin – manifests itself in muteness. Her status does not afford her the deviousness required to escape. Likewise, Beatriz’s final act of violence can only be imagined and her fantasy of retribution, in all its bloodthirsty fury, is just that.

Female rage at its core is anarchic. It’s a snarling and sparkling riposte to centuries of imposed subjectivity and silence. And for women watching in the audience? Such characters provide some much-needed catharsis. Seeing temper replace timidity, or passion override passivity, is a far more accurate representation of our emotions, particularly in the current social climate. As Rose McGowan, a vocal crusader in the sexual assault case against Harvey Weinstein told Dazed, “a lot of people are benefitting off us being quiet.” So why not make like the women in these movies (albeit without the murder) and embrace the rage that’s burning within?