Feminéma's new La Jefita statuette for those women bosses of film

I know what you’re thinking: at last! An unabashedly subjective set of awards given by an anonymous blogger to her favorite women on and off screen — as a protest against a sexist and male-dominated film industry! Awards that feature a statuette based on genuine Cycladic art of the early Bronze Age! And now handily divided into two parts for ease of reading!

The raves are pouring in, from humans and spam-bots alike: “I’ve waited months for this handy list, and I can hardly wait to visit my video store.”

“Could you choose a few more obscure films, already?”

“I take excellent pleasure in reading articles with quality content material. This write-up is 1 such writing that I can appreciate. Maintain up the excellent function. 560942.”

Yup, it’s La Jefita time here at Themyscira/Paradise Island, where our crack team of snarky feminist film fans has been scouring our many lists of favorite films and great scenes to boil it all down to a carefully-calibrated list of winners. (Winners: contact us to receive your awards, which you must receive in person.)

First, a few bookkeeping points: Our one rule is that no single person or film could win in two separate categories, although a winner can receive an honorable mention in a different category. (This is why we choose categories like Best Role for a Veteran Actress Who Is Not Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep, which will be awarded during Part 2). We are good small-d democrats here at Feminéma — “spread the love around” is our guiding raison d’être.

A related note: we at Feminéma want to express our distress at the contrast between, on the one hand, the omnipresence of blonde white girls like Jessica Chastain, Chloë Moretz, and Elle Fanning — they’re great and all, but they’re everywhere — and the virtual invisibility of people of color in top-notch film. It is a central aspect of our feminism that we call for greater diversity in casting, directing, writing, and producing overall. We can only hope that 2012’s Best Director nominees might have non-white faces as well as women among them.

Finally, you’ll remember that our Best Actress La Jefita prize has already been awarded to Joyce McKinney of Errol Morris’s Tabloid. In mentioning this again, we fully intend to list our Honorable Mentions as soon as we’ve seen two more films.

And now, on to what you’ve all been waiting for!

Feminéma’s Film of the Year (Which Also Happens to Be a Female-Oriented Film):

Poetry, by Lee Chang-dong (Korea). I wrote extensively about this immediately after seeing it, so here I’ll only add two comments. First, this film has stuck with me, poking at my conscious mind, in the intervening months in a way that some of the year’s “big” films did not. Second, this was a terrific year for film, especially “important” films like The Tree of Life and Take Shelter that deal with the biggest of themes (existence, forgiveness, apocalypse…). I will argue that, even alongside those audacious films, Poetry deals with even more relevant matters — responsibility — and that given the state of our world, this is the film we need right now. It’s ostensibly a more quiet film, but will shake you to the core.

Go out of your way to see Poetry. Let its leisurely pace and surprising plot turns wash over you, and the sense of mutual responsibility grow. It’s truly one of the best film I’ve seen in years — and if the members of these Awards committees bothered to see more films with subtitles and non-white faces it’d outpace The Tree of Life and The Artist in prizes.

Most Feminist Period Drama that Avoids Anachronism:

A tricky category — it’s so hard to get the balance right. After much hemming and hawing, and after composing many pro and con lists, we have determined that only Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre can be the winner. Mia Wasikowska’s perfect portrayal of Jane was matched by a beautiful script by Moira Buffini that carefully uses Brontë’s own language to tell a tale that underlines how much Jane wants not just true love, but a true equality with Rochester. (Add to that the fact that the film fassbendered me to a bubbling mass of goo, and we have the perfect feminist period drama.)

Mmmm. Muttonchop sideburns.

Honorable Mentions: La Princesse de Montpensier by Bertrand Tavernier and Cracks by Jordan Scott (yes, Ridley Scott’s daughter). Sadly, there’s a lot of anachronism out there: even if I stretched the category to include miniseries, I just couldn’t nominate Downton Abbey, The Hour, or South Riding because of their overly idealistic portrayals of women’s rights; while as historically spot-on as Mildred Pierce was, it’s no feminist tale.

I still haven’t seen The Mysteries of Lisbon but will make a note during Part II of the La Jefitas if it deserves a prize, too.

Sexiest Scene in which a Woman Eats Food (aka the Tom Jones Prize):

Another tricky category. Because I don’t know whether you’ve noticed, when you get a typical actress into a scene in which she’s expected to eat, she instantly reveals how little she likes/is allowed to eat food. Every single time I see such a scene, I become hyper aware of the fact that she’s looking at that food thinking, “This is the ninth take of this scene, and there are 50 calories per bite. That means I’ve eaten 450 calories in the last two hours.” Most don’t eat at all onscreen; all those scenes at dinner tables consist of no one putting food in their mouths. Thus, when I see an actress devouring food with gusto, I feel an instant sexual charge.

Thus, the best I can do is Sara Forestier from The Names of Love (Le nom des gens), a film in which her character, Bahia, wears her all her many passions on her sleeve, eating among others. When, that is, she’s wearing clothes at all. One might complain that Bahia is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl On Steroids — in fact, a central concept in the film is that she’s such a good leftist that she sleeps with conservative men to convert them away from their fascistic politics. (What can I say? it works for me; I was ready for a supremely fluffy French comedy.) Even if the manic pixie trope sets your teeth on edge, you’ll find yourself drawn to Forestier. The film won’t win any feminist prizes from me, but I quite enjoyed it nevertheless and would watch her again in anything.

(A brief pause to remember last year’s winner with a big sigh: Tilda Swinton in I Am Love. Now that was sexy eating.) Sadly, there are no honorable mentions for this prize. But I’m watching carefully as we begin a new year of film.

Most Realistic Portrayal of Teen Girls (also known as: Shameless Plug of a Little-Known Great Film That Needs a La Jefita Award):

Claire Sloma and Amanda Bauer in The Myth of the American Sleepover. There’s something a bit magical about this film, which I’ve already written about at length — a film that up-ends the typical teen dramedy and makes some lovely points that I wish had seemed possible for me back in high school. I loved this film for its frontloading of real teen girls and the real situations they get themselves into; I loved it for that weird combination of leisureliness and urgency that infused real summer nights in high school; and I loved it that it didn’t devolve into a pregnancy melodrama or a story about cliques. And just look at Sloma’s face; it makes me want to cry.

After seeing it, you’ll wonder whether you’ve ever seen a film that showed teen girls like this. And you’ll join my Sloma fan club.

Best uncelebrated supporting-supporting actress in a comic role: 

Nina Arianda only has a few lines in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris as Carol, the insecure wife of Paul, the overbearing, pedantic professor (Michael Sheen), but she almost steals each one of those scenes. She struggles to please and to pronounce her French words properly. She fawns over Paul in a way that makes you realize quickly how futile it is — taking photos of him as he holds forth annoyingly, for example, in the scene below. I don’t know how many of you readers are also academics, but Sheen’s portrayal of that professor was hilariously, perfectly accurate — and Carol is just as recognizable a type, that younger woman who married her former professor a while back and is still trying to make it work. (Skin: crawls.)

Arianda also had nice, slightly larger parts in Win Win and Higher Ground, although nothing that let her express her gift for wit that she displayed in Midnight in Paris. Let’s hope that with these three 2011 films, Arianda is getting more attention — and that she’s got a good agent.

Most Depressingly Anti-Feminist Theme for Female-Oriented Film: Fairy Tales.

C’mon, people. I couldn’t bear to see Catherine Hardwicke’s vomit-inducing Red Riding Hood (highest rating on Feminéma’s Vomit-O-Meter® yet, and I only saw the trailer!). Nor did I see Julia Leigh’s poorly rated Sleeping Beauty, though I’m likely to see it sometime soon. I did see Catherine Breillat’s weak effort, The Sleeping Beauty — such a disappointment after I quite liked her Bluebeard (Le barbe bleue of 2009). I was also less impressed with Tangled than most critics.

I like fairy tales and think they offer all manner of feminist possibilities for retelling. (Why, I even tried to write one myself.) Problem is, they seem to offer anti-feminists just one more chance to trot out their enlightened sexism.  Filmmakers have not yet realized that fairy tales have become a site for critique rather than retrograde confirmation of sexism. (Please, read Malinda Lo’s Huntress or A. S. Byatt’s The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye.)

And this is only Part 1 of the La Jefitas! Stay tuned for the final roster of winners and honorable mentions — in such categories as:

  • 2011’s Most Feminist Film! (Such an important category that it might be divided into three categories for clarity, and because I’m having trouble choosing a single winner!)
  • Most Realistic Dialogue that Women Might Actually Say, and Which Passes the Bechdel Test!
  • Best Fight Scene in which a Woman Kicks a Man’s Ass!
  • Best Veteran Actress who is not Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep!
  • And Best Female-Directed Film! (This one is turning out to be a scorcher — can it be that I’ll divide this into separate categories, too?)

“Cracks” (2009)

25 July 2011

Thank you, thank you to Madeline for recommending I see Cracks, the debut feature by Jordan Scott (daughter of Ridley Scott) based on the novel by Sheila Kohler. If you took an unholy group of other films — say, Heavenly Creatures (1994), The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969), An Education (2009) and maybe even Fatal Attraction (1987) and Clueless (1995) and mixed them all in a salad bowl — you might have an inkling of what this psychological thriller seeks to achieve. Set in a gloomy, isolated English girls’ boarding school in the interwar years, this film thinks about what happens when a new student arrives cracks the surface calm. Old hierarchies are dislodged, and a teacher’s privileged position teeters to the point that she starts to crack. Do those cracks bring structures to the ground? Or do they, in Doris Lessing’s words, make “cracks where light could shine through at last”?

When we first meet anti-hero Di Radfield (Juno Temple), we know immediately from her piercing eyes that she’s fiercely competitive and intelligent and possessive. We also know that despite her lingering baby fat and unmanageable frizzy hair, she’s possessed of powerful desires — the “lustful thoughts” she admits to during confession. No wonder: she’s in a small rowboat, doing all the work with the oars while her languid teacher, Miss G (Eva Green) shows off that neat mannish outfit and models how one smokes a cigarette to sultry effect. Who wouldn’t desire such a woman? We quickly learn that although Di is the school’s master Mean Girl, the true Queen Bee is Miss G.

Of course she is. All her students are at “that awkward stage” and in various stages of clueless dumpiness, while Miss G waltzes in late to chapel, wears the best clothes, and spins tales of her exotic travels. Miss G has chosen a select group of Di and her friends to join the diving club, where she delivers her self-consciously provocative philosophies to those girls alone. “What is the most important thing in life?” she asks them. After several lame answers like “God” and “death” Di offers up “desire,” with her eyes burning for her luscious teacher. “Yes! You can achieve any thing you want,” Miss G pronounces, with approval to Di. “All you need is to desire it.” From statements like this one gets the sense that, well, Miss G is not altogether sane. Yet her madness appears in keeping with single-sex boarding school life where everyone knows their rank, their place, their scripts. It’s as if there’s no world beyond the walls of the school.

Until Fiamma (María Valverde) arrives, that is, possessed of an orange velvet coat, a pink swimsuit, an array of lovely trinkets and baubles for her bedside, and more worldliness than all the English schoolgirls put together. She’s a Spanish aristocrat, trundled off to this godforsaken school for vague reasons. She receives magical boxes full of strange cookies and wears a satin gown to bed. The headmistress (Sinéad Cusack) instructs Di to welcome Fiamma, but maddeningly the Spanish girl will not bow to Di’s social order. Suddenly, cracks appear in Di’s version of normal. Worst of all, Miss G falls under Fiamma’s spell, and suddenly Di is no longer her teacher’s favorite pupil. Fiamma even has more diving skill than everyone else.Turns out that Fiamma achieves that distance from the awful hothouse of the school because she’s actually traveled widely, read widely, and known interesting people. When Miss G sneaks in to read her confidential file, she learns that Fiamma earned her banishment to England because she nearly succumbed to a scandalous elopement with a commoner. In fact, the more this teacher pries open Fiamma’s glamor, the more we realize that Miss G has been Queen Bee at the school all her life — and that she has lied pathologically to the students about her travels and love affairs and adventures, lifting those tales from books. Who would know better how to impress a set of 15-year-olds than a woman who is still temperamentally 15? And what will such a woman do to win over that girl?

Cracks deals with power, sex, and same-sex desire in a school setting in a way that captures the bizarre dynamics of sex and learning better than any other film I’ve seen. We’ve seen girls falling for their male teachers and older men; this story, which focuses solely on women, seems fresh. Is it overheated? Well, of course. (Overheated is a primary mode of existence for 15-yr-old girls, after all.) The leads are terrific in their roles; and even if the story seems to barrel toward an inevitable conclusion, you’ll still be surprised by how it gets there.

I’m surprised this film got such limited release. I wouldn’t have known of it except for Madeline’s recommendation, and it took two years to get it on DVD in the US and available via Netflix. And this from a director who (presumably) has the power of the Ridley Scott family to help propel the film. What does a girl have to do to get a film into release?