I watched three movies via Hulu in the past few days from the free Criterion Collection list. I don’t watch movies as much as I should. I forget how wonderfully escapist they are. It’s like reading a short book or looking at so-so art but it is has a much more immediate impact in the way it affects the brain, emotions, ears, and eyes. While watching these films I was by myself. I feel like watching films by oneself changes the experience of the movie then if seen with another person. The presence of another person, even isolated in their own looking, changes how one looks. While watching these films, the roles that the female characters caught my attention (as it always does through my certified feminist eyeballs), and it is interesting to see how a story is pitched or pinned by the roles women play.
The first movie is À nos amours a 1983 French movie directed by Maurice Pialat whose center is Suzanne, played by Sandrine Bonnaire. Suzanne recently turned sixteen and the story first starts idyllic; there is a summer camp, there is boy Luc, with a tent near a road, there is a play. But things quickly feel dangerous in the sexual department by the gaze drawn on Suzanne by the camera, and even her brother’s remarks on how lovely she is in the sunlight with her womanly body mismatching her babyish face. The first instance of her detached promiscuity is with ‘the American’ in which he thanks her after coitus and she says “…it was free.” Her detachment is not of a cold hardened woman though, she cries when she returns back to camp out of frustration with herself and when she sees the American again and he pretends he does not know her, she analyzes it with her friend but without any angst. She returns home and her father, played by Maurice Pialat, admonishes her with a few slaps in the face when she wants to go out with her girlfriends and some boys on a date. You quickly realize that Suzanne has mastered the fake out of being a teenager on an innocent coming of age date. She dates/has sex with older men, some known to the family and they are interchangeable throughout the movie. The turning point is when her father decides to leave the family and he confides this in an overly adult conceptualized way with Suzanne who seems to understand all of it without hurt feelings. She is then left with her jilted, nervous mother and her overweight brother who try to control her promiscuities with screaming fits and hitting, slapping and throwing Suzanne about. The fight scenes are so awkwardly true to life it makes things feel as tense as it was imagined to be.
Suzanne is a lonely girl and she is honest and she speaks openly and concisely about her constant unhappiness and how being with a man is the only way to relieve it. There is a melancholy but not an obsessive self-reflexivity and drama. There is a lightness to her and to her way of expressing her deep condition and there is a beautiful sadness to all of it but in a very subtle, unsolvable way. The issues of her father are complex and he makes a scene when he returns at the end of the film during a family dinner party but it is clear that him and Suzanne have a bond that no one else will ever have. She is extremely young and her misadventures and escapism in the arms of a lover appear to be the destiny of her as she leaves her husband of a few months to fly to San Diego with the new paramour. Her youth is the thing that draws you into the film. There is such vulnerability in Bonnaire’s face as she plays the character but always a coy knowing smile as well. She reminds me of characters in Jean Rhy’s novels, before they become boozed, unkempt women out of their prime. Sensing that Suzanne is from the same linage as Rhy’s characters makes things even more melancholic.
Eraserhead from 1977 is written and directed by David Lynch and wow, whatever you do, don’t watch it for the first time at 12:30 at night. The movie’s central figure is Henry, played by Jack Nance, who has eccentric top-heavy hair, nervous blinky eyes and is a general nice guy with not much backbone. He lives in a small one-room apartment and his sexy hooded eyed, dark haired neighbor relays the message that Mary called and wanted to know if he was coming to at her parent’s house for dinner. He goes and Mary her mother and her father are very odd and things get bizarre even a miniature dancing, oozing chicken makes a showing at dinner, things will get very surreal indeed. It is revealed that Mary had a “baby” and so Mary and Henry go live in Henry’s apartment. Here you see the baby and it is shocking in its deformity, really inhuman, raw, animal, alien face.
Things get very odd. Mary can’t stand the baby’s crying and decides to leave. She is simpleton of sorts and returns to her parents. Henry is left alone and he starts having hallucinations through the grates of the broiler where there is a stage, very Lynchian in design, and it has a spot light and a white dolly faced women comes on stage. She has a curled up bob, and has giant chipmunk crusty cheeks and is all white. She makes little giggle coo noises and her eyes are wide with excitement. She shuffles around and things plop out of the sky, weird spermazoidal things that she proceeds to politely squish with her feet. Henry is in way over his head and he has this monster baby crying and sick that he has to take care of.
His sexy neighbor comes over and they have sex which turns into a primordial ooze pool. The sexy women can see the monster baby and the next time she sees Henry, she sees Henry with the monster baby head. More things get crazy, there are parallel story lines and in the end things get messy and goo filled with a scissor stab. In all this, Henry as the male as the sperm carrier is seen as the creator thus the one responsible for the monster baby. Mary is an unknowing producer of this, the sexy neighbor is the potential for sexual escape from this and the white-cheeked girl is the embrace of this. The types of women Lynch has in this film and throughout carry this weird ability to be keys, guides, and ways of escape.
Lastly, there is Kuroneko a 1968 Japanese film directed by Kaneto Shindo. The story opens with a small house near a field and then a gang of war worn samurai pop up from the tree line and drink greedily from the water trawl. They then enter the house and there is a mother, played by Nobuko Otowa and her daughter in law, Shige, played by Kiwako Taichi. The men grab food and then proceed to rape and kill both the mother and Shige. The house is burned when the gang of samurai are through and you see the charred remains of the house and the still bodies of the Mother and Shige. A black cat comes to the burned site and he sniffs and licks the two women. Next there is a well-dressed samurai on his horse and a beautiful white figure appears. She asks him to walk him to her home and there her mother greets them. It is clear that is the Mother and Shige but they are in finer clothes in a regal house and their faces are white and their eyebrow lines extended to the tops of their forehead. As the samurai drinks and then begins to grope the young women in white, the mother starts to do a dramatic elaborate series of movements and fog roles in the room. The sound of a cat is heard. The young woman is fooling around with the samurai and then she goes for his throat and kills him like a cat. This goes on with many more samurai and the leader of the samurai is called by the emperor and is told to get rid of this “ghost.”
The head samurai is introduced to a young soldier who killed a fierce and known warrior and in return he is made a samurai and is allowed to the have the name Gintoki of the Grove. Gintoki is ordered to find the ghost and before he does this he rides to his old village and house and sees that is burned. He asks an old villager and he says that he does not know what happened to his mother and wife.
Gintoki goes to the woods in search of the ghost and is greeted by the woman. You can tell that the woman recognizes him as there is sadness in her regular seduction. They go to the house and are greeted by the older women and Gintoki tries to ask then who they are as they remind him so much of his mother and wife who he tells the tale of how he is searching for them and does not know what happened. He leaves that night and the young women is beside herself in grief. He searches for them for a few nights and then finally after a few days the young women returns and they make love for seven nights.
After the seventh night she disappears and the older women says that the young woman doomed herself to hell for the seven nights of love with him. The old women cannot reveal who they are because of the vow they gave to the dark god and the vow they made was to stay in this supernatural form so they can kill all the samurai. Gintoki is bereft and knows that it was his wife and it is his mother. He returns to the samurai leader and says that the ghost is gone. The leader does not believe him and says he needs proof and that if he doesn’t give proof that he will kill him. Gintoki then meets his mother and in the wood sees her true cat like reflection in a puddle. He cuts her arm off which becomes the arm of a large black cat. He brings this back to the samurai leader and the leader is pleased.
As Gintoki is purifying himself before he meets the emperor with his deed, a women comes to the door saying she needs to assist in his purification. It is a diseased form of his mother but Gintoki is unable to perceive this. He makes it so that she has access to the hand and then with the hand in her mouth she escapes, him slashing at her with his sword. The end is him in a state of delirium.
There is so much going on in the ways of representing women as both victim, avenger, witch, virgin, and evil. The fact that all in the end are doomed is complex and very unwestern. The stylization of this film is really beautiful, especially the dance/ritual by the mother and all the scenes in the ghosts women’s house. The role of the black cat is particularly interesting as it a bad omen but it is also the protective animus for the wronged women. The theme of war and samurai’s power and abuse of that power is emphasized throughout the film but in a reflective way, the disabuse and powerlessness of women through all power structures is an interesting way to seek justice and vengeance, even if there are no winners in that act.