Feminist cinema is harmful to the art of film — and to feminism.
Recent years have seen a burgeoning of feminist cinema: films that not only concentrate on the experiences of female protagonists, but tackle the social status of women and their collective struggles throughout history. Having observed this shift in contemporary filmmaking long enough, I want to make a case against this trendy sub-genre of committed art.
On several occasions, the celebrated Frankfurt School philosopher Theodor Adorno made a compelling argument that art must be exclusively concerned with the problems of art. “As Schoenberg said, one paints a painting, not what it represents”. According to him, art must reflect reality but still be, first and foremost, concerned with the problems of form. We can adopt the following interpretation of Adorno’s seemingly simple postulate: a film must always be concerned with whether it works as a film.
Partisanship will always tame form. Advocacy will always tame drama.
At the same time, that cinema must be concerned with form does not deny its potential to be about politics, if it wishes to be so. However, it should try to not supplant itself as a work of art with a pre-determined, pre-fabricated political message, for partisanship will always tame form, and advocacy will always tame drama. A film must be free from partisanship or advocacy, because if it isn’t, it means that the filmmaker favoured a message over complex characters, visual expression, or compelling storytelling. The challenge of all films is not to trespass this fine line, as crossing it will transform them into political films. The challenge of some films is to not go from being about politics into being political. Those that have done so are what Adorno would call committed. Feminist cinema serves a good cause. Yet it does so by sacrificing its own artistic merit.
II Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) is one such film. Set in the late 18th century, Heloise (Adèle Haenel), a young aristocrat, and Marianne (Noémie Merlant), an artist who is commissioned to paint her portrait, engage in slow-paced, terse dialogues, oft amidst mesmerising maritime landscapes of an unnamed French island off the coast of Brittany. Sciamma’s Portrait is a quasi-historical, quasi-magical depiction of an unfolding affair between the two women, who may share the same gender but certainly not the same class. A woman of the gentry, Heloise lives in cloistered conditions in dreadful anticipation of her arranged marriage to a Milanese nobleman whom she has never met. Marianne is a for-hire painter and art teacher, whose relative freedom bewilders Heloise, even if marred by her having to sign paintings with a male version of her name and prohibition to depict male nude figures.
The interplay between study, knowledge, and intimacy is at the heart of the film, in which a short-lasting affair unfolds between the painter and her subject. At first, Marianne studies Heloise’s face, her manners and expressions in secret. Later, having admitted that she has been hired to paint her pre-marital portrait by Heloise’s countess mother (Valeria Golino), Marianne begins to openly explore her subject, paving way for their more intimate study of each other. As Heloise approves of the second portrait of herself, deeming it more truthful to the subject, Marianne has an explanation for this: “Perhaps because I know you better [now]”.
As the artist behind the film, Sciamma invites her viewer to intimately study her characters and their transformation — or at least it seems so in the beginning of the film. Ultimately, potential reflection on the complexities of the two characters’ experiences is overshadowed by a simplistic, on-the-nose premeditated message — oppression is bad, free love is good — underscored by the visibly calculated visual and narrative choices. On the one hand, deliberately static shots and rigid compositions serve a purpose: it is a visual allusion to the social limitations imposed on female lives in 18th-century France. The deliberateness with which dialogue and plot choices are made, on the other hand, betrays the promise to study Heloise and Marianne in favour of delivering a political message. There is little to no space for accident, a slip of the tongue, a thoughtless crack in the rigidly tailored dialogues between the two women, weakening the dramatic plausibility of the complexity of either the characters or their relationship. Marianne and Heloise seem to only discuss conspicuously hand-picked issues at stake for modern Western women: abortion, necessity of marriage, freedom of choice, including the choice to take one’s life. Unconvincing as 18th century women, they explore the burning questions of 21st century feminism with little perturbation, raising the question of why the film takes place in the 1700s at all. Dressed in 18th-century attires, Sciamma’s characters are but vehicles for contemporary feminist ideas.
Adorno notes that in one of their conversations Bertolt Brecht “once calmly wrote that when he was not deceiving himself, the theatre was more important to him than any changes in the world it might promote”. Portrait is an example of the opposite tendency. In addition to comprising of carefully devised dialogues, heavily inflected with gender politics, Portrait also refuses to study its characters any further than as women, rendering gender a limit rather than a potentiality for a study of human condition. Tomris Laffly of RogertEbert.com probably wouldn’t agree with this. She notes that in the “patriarchy-defying themes of Portrait” a sense of sisterhood is being “slowly built”. Laffly must be referring to the events in the second half of the film, wherein Heloise prepares dinner for the three women while the maid embroiders a piece of fabric. Standing just behind the maid, Marianne looks closely at the fine embroidery and gently caresses her shoulder. The three women spend the evening in intimate conversations. Later, the maid confides to Marianne and Heloise that she hasn’t had her period in a while, and the two women decide on how to help her get an abortion. In response to Laffly’s generally positive commentary, it is worth stressing that Sciamma omits any class difference amongst the three women — a member of the gentry, a for-hire painter, and a maid — in favour of a forged sisterhood. Although Portrait is far from classical realism, and makes no promise of factual plausibility, it does make a promise of dramatic plausibility, which is undermined by the forging of a serene bond between the three women of drastically different class backgrounds.
Stressing one aspect of their identity — gender — while obscuring other micro-factors that render a character three-dimensional and complex, Sciamma abandons dramatic complexity in favour of feminist partisanship. Portrait is a strong example of the argument that committed art cannot, or can rarely be, of artistic merit, for in it, advocacy will always supplant the initial promise that a film was making.
III Promising Young Woman
A buzzing title of the 2021 awards season, the BAFTA-winner for Best Original Screenplay and Outstanding British Film, a four-time-nominee for Golden Globes and five-time-nominee for the Academy Awards, Promising Young Woman (2020) is a prime example of how political messaging is harmful to art. Written and directed by Emerald Fennell, it’s set in an unnamed small town in the US. Its protagonist, Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan), was an acknowledgedly bright medical student before dropping out of university to take care of her friend Nina Fisher, a campus rape victim. Following Nina’s suicide, Cassie dedicates her entire existence to the path of vengeance. Contrary to what one may expect, she has no intention of bloodshed. Instead, her goal is to intimidate.
Despite its aesthetic playfulness and at times grotesque humour, PYW advertises self-proclaimed seriousness towards its indeed serious subject — sexual violence. This seriousness — not to be confused with sombreness — is swiftly abandoned as Fennell clumsily inventorises a broad spectrum of traumatic female experiences in this wannabe-bombshell of a film. Fennell depicts women being silenced (Nina and Cassie), suffering the traumatic consequences of sexual assault (Nina) and the suicide of one’s child (Nina’s mother, Mrs. Fisher), briefly indicating the gravity or subject and subsequently glossing over detail and dramatic complexity.
PYW’s great achievement is its capacity to evoke rage, unease, and discomfort in its viewer, similar to that of Lars von Trier’s and Michael Haneke’s films. As Cassie pretends to be intoxicated enough to pass out, a “nice guy” character type — each time a different one — would use the opportunity to offer his help and attempt an assault, only to find out that she is in fact dead sober. The source of viewer’s instant rush of satisfaction is manifold: the failed crime, the successful exposure of the potential criminal and, most importantly, his having to face his own vile intention. Fennell baits the female viewer with on-screen revenge for each of her experiences of inappropriate touching, sleazy comments, unwanted compliments, faux-niceness, or outright sexual aggression. The brief satisfaction quickly transforms into embarrassment as Cassie “admonishes assaulters with the tone of a disappointed school teacher”, in the words of Ayesha A. Siddiqi. That this primitive narrative trope manages to evoke a sense of profound anger points to the fact that, albeit momentarily, it succeeds in its intention. It hits the nerve. And then there is the rest of the film — about an hour and a half of it.
PYW doesn’t shun clear-cut statements: men are mostly predators, everyone else is complicit, and one must be ready to go out on a limb to achieve any sort of justice in the rigged world of patriarchy. That Fennell supplants nuance with glossy agitprop is not the only issue at stake. Too close to home for a parable and too doctrinal for realism, it’s towards the end that PYW transforms from an, albeit messy, campaign for a good cause into a dangerous faux-feminist propaganda piece. The revenge story of PYW teaches its viewer a dubious moral lesson, becoming a vivid illustration of what Adorno claimed several decades ago, namely, that advocacy must be the least of cinema’s concerns.
Although it’s a revenge thriller, PYW makes too much of a promise to take its subject seriously to afford messing around with its message, which is what it does in its final part. In it, Mulligan’s character appears in a kitschy rainbow wig to the violin cover of Britney Spears’ hit song, bringing the depth of the film to that of Toxic’s very own music video. Having previously failed to prove Al’s guilt, Cassie, supposedly unrecognisable in her stripper-gone-Joker make-up, arranges to stay alone with him in the upstairs bedroom of the cabin. As she provokes confrontation, she also already knows what would happen next: Al smothers her with a pillow. Cassie’s decision is disturbingly premeditated and designed to prompt Al’s long-overdue arrest, this time on the account of two charges. PYW sees a character die to avenge, rendering Fennell’s story a quasi-pagan parable that flirts with romanticisation of human sacrifice. It is unclear whether the film’s ultimate message is that, at last, justice is served, albeit with casualties (which is cynical) or that justice is never to be done as it requires sacrifices one must not be asked to make (which is bitter). Either lesson does more damage than good to the contemporary feminist agenda. Worse than that, it renders PYW a bad film.
IV Against Apoliticism. Against Political Art
Walter Benjamin recalls a conversation with Brecht, in which the latter allegedly said: “I often imagine being interrogated by a tribunal. ‘Now tell us, Mr. Brecht, are you really in earnest?’ I would have to admit that no, I’m not completely in earnest. I think too much about artistic problems, you know, about what is good for the theatre, to be completely in earnest”. Brecht is worried that caring too much about artistic problems takes away from his fight for a good cause. I only wish Fennell had those worries. For a politically active filmmaker, there may indeed be a concern that if one chooses art as a means for social change, then, maybe, art is of more importance to them than social change. However, that should not be a worry, for criticism of committed art is not a token of apoliticism. On the contrary, it is based on the belief that, amongst other potentialities, art can contribute to a social cause by telling a story well, penetrating the viewer’s psyche, and making them care deeply. Paradoxically, it takes avoiding making political statements to make a good political film and, instead, thinking about artistic problems. Had Fennell shown more interest in dramatic depth rather than sensationalism, we would have been spared the embarrassment of a faux-feminist agitprop and — maybe — acquired a shred of understanding of a complex female experience. Which was the whole point, was it not?
Art can contribute to a social cause by telling a story well.
If the currency of Sciamma’s Portrait is clarity, PYW fails to sustain narrative and tonal consistency, rendering itself propaganda for an obscure conviction about feminism. Bleeding smugness, PYW lectures its viewer in the same way Cassie lectures her potential abusers: unconvincingly, tackily, and with no clear motivation. If Portrait is a case in point that when executed with tonal and narrative consistency, committed art is, at best, dramatically weak, PYW proves that when committed art sacrifices genuine reflection on reality in exchange for a concocted virtue-signalling story, it can go as far astray as making dubious statements. Ultimately, filmmaking whose objective is to provide answers is a zero-sum game: neither the artist gains artistic credit, nor the viewer fathoms meaning from the fabricated on-screen narrative.
There are two recent films that took the opportunity to spotlight complexity of female experiences — with a vengeance. One of them is Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiographical The Souvenir (2019). It depicts the relationship between a young filmmaker, struggling to localise her creative self within her privileged existence, and an older man, who is equally entrancing and disturbing. In this slowly unfolding drama, courting gradually transforms into a sexual relationship, and, as if on a drip, manipulation seeps into it. The Souvenir is as delicate as it is alarming: its protagonist falls victim to confusing dependence with affection, turning a blind eye to the dark side of her lover’s persona. By no means is Hogg offering a relatable portrait: after all, Julie is a financially secure film student in a toxic relationship with a heroin addict. Nevertheless, as a multifaceted portrait of a character, befuddled by the magnetic presence of Anthony, manoeuvring between the search for her creative voice and a craving for his approval, The Souvenir leaves a sharp mark on its viewer. It is about (female) voice; (female) class; (female) helplessness in the face of affection; and certainly about the female longing for approval by a man whose authority is a birthright.
While The Souvenir is set in the early ’80s, Beanpole (2019), co-written and directed by the wunderkind of Russian cinema Kantemir Balagov, takes place in the post-siege Leningrad. It follows Iya, an anti-aircrafter discharged from service due to shell-shock. Strikingly tall and somewhat lumbersome, and with a luminous Botticelli face, she is a nurse at a hospital where war survivors try to adapt to the arduous life in the time of peace. The film focuses on two female characters: Iya and Masha, whose path of war took her to Berlin — as a victor — and back to Leningrad — as a casualty.
As in Portrait and PYW, in Balagov’s complex cinematic world women are also in the spotlight. But the viewer also witnesses soldiers suffering from PTSD, and medics facing an illegal euthanasia dilemma, amongst other narrative offshoots. This multi-layered narrative — as if seen through a stereoscope — does long-overdue justice to the women of the War, which is, ironically, called “The Great War for Fatherland” in Russian. Beanpole works as a film because it sticks to its promise of studying complex characters and relationships while also demonstrating daring visual experimentation. (The long shot of Masha twirling in a green dress is a prime example of Balagov’s preoccupation with artistic problems and of the boldness of his creative choices.)
Beanpole’s overarching aim feels grander than the feminist agenda alone: it is to point to the margins of official history, highjacked from the people to serve ideological objectives. It seems that Balagov’s agenda is not to make a feminist film; it is to shine light on these blind spots. Balagov prioritises rigorous study of his subjects over conveying an easily decipherable message, which results in a painstaking examination of the female condition. Beanpole is a nuanced portrait of the female experience, in which failed motherhood, post-war trauma, class inferiority, and barrenness are in the admix. Essentially a non-partisan film, that is not an agitprop for contemporary feminist agenda, Beanpole does more for representation of women on screen than a feminist film can afford to do.
The history of cinema has seen a century of male domination over the film industry: male directors spotlighting diverse male experiences, or portraying women from the perspective of men. That Sciamma speaks of the female gaze as the central aspect of her oeuvre only stresses that, sadly, the male gaze often remains a starting point, against which one must react. At times, contemporary feminist film is too preoccupied with a payback for this historical injustice, more so than with the art of filmmaking. In her interview to Vulture, Fennell made a surprising remark: “Revenge and vengeance aren’t good things”. At last, I agree. — Masha Egieva