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?)

There is a strange distance to our view of the characters in Bertrand Tavernier’s La Princesse de Montpensier. One can’t help but be caught up in this 16th-century tale because it might well be the most gorgeous thing you’ve ever seen — the costumes alone took my breath away, but the visions of battle, the castles, the village exteriors, the “Arabian” costume ball, all convey true wonder and pleasure. Yet the film can’t quite persuade us to love either of the two primary characters — and as a result, one finishes the film with an odd coldness. Did I love watching this beautiful film? Absolutely. Did I care for the characters? Not especially. How is that possible, given the narrative of a strong female lead with a tale of love and jealousy and the horrors of early modern marriages?

The most likely protagonist should have been the Comte de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson, above, and yes please!). Chabannes is a Huguenot (Protestant) and has chosen to fight against the Catholics during the French Wars of Religion. But almost as soon as the film opens we find him a member of a Huguenot raiding party, killing by accident a pregnant woman. Appalled by his action, he gives up the sword and swears never to fight again — to return to his life as a scholar and teacher. His former pupil, the Prince de Montpensier (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet), welcomes him back as a counselor and friend.

But before we get much attached to Chabannes, we meet the beautiful heiress Marie (Mélanie Thierry), who’s letting her handsomely scarred cousin, Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel) nuzzle her neck and feel her up a bit. It’s clear it’s been going on for a while and that they expect to marry. Yet due to a political realignment of power by their fathers, Marie gets married off instead to Montpensier, whom she’s never met before.

They break this news to her in a terrific set of scenes. Marie stands in a doorway, watching de Guise at one end of a courtyard being counseled by a relative; she turns around and watches Montpensier learn of this news and turn to look at her with his signature cautiousness. de Guise turns and marches past her to challenge, aggressively, the smaller Montpensier. Later, as her future husband listens from a hallway, her father breaks the news to her:

Father: You will yield! You must! I order you! I will host les Guises tonight. You will consent before they go, or everything will wobble. This marriage suits me — you will yield, or enter a convent.

Marie: I will go. [Her father slaps her]

Father: I’ve tamed worse than you! Les Guises leave tomorrow and you’ll forget all this! Yield! You must! I’m your father! It’s your duty to obey! [He raises a hand to punch her, but her mother intervenes.]

Mother, warning him: My friend. [Later, alone with Marie.]

Mother: Control yourself, proud child. And submit. I know you are intelligent. Youth makes you defiant. Your feelings for de Guise are too conspicuous. Control them, and let reason guide you. Think what marriage to that dreamer Mayenne would lead to, bringing you near the one who desires you, and to whom you’re drawn. Sooner or later you would both yield to temptation and no good would ensue.

Marry Montpensier. He’s an ordinary brute with no reputation yet, either good or bad. Daughter, love is the most awkward of things; I thank heaven every day your father and I have been spared such trouble. Submit.

Given the drama of such a scene, you’d think by now that Marie would be our heroine, but the film doesn’t really encourage us to go there. Her compliance with her parents’ wishes — her submission — is so complete and absolute that she becomes cold, inscrutable, and so much so that she’s unsympathetic. We almost believe her dispassionate statements about duty and obedience. She has been schooled too well by her mother: she spares herself the trouble of love for her husband, or for anyone else. For more than half the film she hardly speaks a true thought or emotion.

Now, Montpensier is a perfectly nice man — not brutish at all, and perfectly willing to obey his father’s wishes — even though he knows of Marie’s total indifference and that the marriage will destroy his friendship with his cousin de Guise. He and Marie survive the horrors of the “wedding night,” in which her virginity is confirmed by her blood on the sheets and her cry of pain, audible to the women who sit in the room during the act.

But because he knows of Marie’s prior attachment to de Guise, the Prince quickly becomes a jealous husband. Marie is so beautiful that he can’t help falling in love with his wife, and tries in vain to seek confirmation that she might grow to feel the same way. Always standing with his head slightly cowed to her, Montpensier finds himself begging for signs of her growing attachment to him. One almost thinks that perhaps he is the film’s protagonist.

Except that Montpensier quickly gets dispatched to fight in the War, leaving her home with Chabannes to be educated in music, poetry, science, and all the fine arts that will make her an ornament at the court of Versailles eventually, a jewel for her husband to show off. She proves an eager student, working long hours to learn to write as well as understand the great poets. Soon Chabannes falls in love with her too.

But why?? We haven’t really grown to like her very much and, although we can see both her beauty and that she has funneled her desires into a quest for knowledge (always worthy!), she still seems cold and emotionless. When the drool-worthy Chabannes pronounces his love, I simply thought, “Really?” C’mon Tavernier, you can do better.

And so we proceed as the film unfolds a soap opera-worthy tale of various men throwing themselves at Marie. Don’t get me wrong: the beauty of the film, the clothes, and the characters make this eminently watchable. Yet by the time the curtain closes, one has the feeling that we’ll forget everything that happened to the characters, that there is no hero, no moral, and no underlying message. We have not grown to despise with all our heart the early modern practice of using women as sexual pawns in men’s power struggles. We do not denounce a vain woman’s stubborn wish to act on her sexual desires despite her lack of power to do so freely.

We mostly feel sad that she was born beautiful, because it makes men fight over her; we wish she had been ordinary-looking and modest. And we wish Tavernier had had a clearer plan with this film rather than to just make it look so good. (And yet I can guarantee that if Marie’s teal-colored dress ever comes up for sale, I am whipping out whatever one of my credit cards has a really high credit limit.) Reasons to watch this film: 1) Lambert Wilson (mmmm), and 2) great visuals. Otherwise: I’m left strangely unmoved. I should have fallen in love with someone in this film; I’m left feeling meh. Sigh.