Feminine meltdowns in cinema: a case study

By Kor O’Connell – Modern Languages student at the University of Tuscia - Italy
Edited by Elena Gebhard-Social and Political Student at the University of York

JULY 10, 2021
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“A woman scorned”.

 

Frankly, it’s an antiquated expression, yet to this day it conjures a variety of images and storylines. Though some hail from a distant past, many are quite contemporary. For western sensibilities, Medea would have to be the archetypal vision of a woman on the edge of a mental breakdown, pushed to the brink of sanity, committing the unthinkable. A jump into the 16th century gives us Ophelia, more diaphanous, literally self-effacing, dancing her way to a suicidal grave. The macabre image of her corpse floating in the river was then appropriated by the pre-Raphaelites in the 19th century, proving there was a flourishing market for voyeuristic portrayals of feminine self-destruction.

Picasso's 'Weeping Woman'

Indeed, the 19th century featured a boom of stories which centred around “women on the edge”. The popular medium of melodramatic operas proved to be a perfect avenue for doomed heroines with a penchant for deranged antics. The closer women got to female emancipation, it would seem, the more willing male authors became to portray them as unhinged and emotional. Though these portrayals were indeed steps toward the deeper characterisation of women in media, they still lacked a fair bit of dignity. Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” truly exemplifies the issue. Its titular character’s actions and thought patterns are probed in great depth by the author, yet her true id seems to elude everyone, including her creator. Instead of being fascinated by this elusiveness, Flaubert seems frustrated by it. In turn, he frustrates the reader with her flippant shenanigans, as if to say “Look at this poor, daft woman! Behold this product of an idiotic society!”. The key word here is reductive, an unfortunate connotation that none of Bovary’s adaptations have ever been able to shake. Especially the cinematic ones. Cinema in particular has never lacked for female voices. Ever since its inception, some of the art’s greatest innovators have been women (look up Lois Weber, for instance).

Their success and recognition, however, is an entirely different matter. Though recent years have shed more light on female filmmakers, there is still a long way to go in terms of representation. Thus, for many decades, the “woman scorned” has been left in the hands of male auteurs, who seem more than willing to showcase her wiles on the big screen. Portrayals of women coping with mental illness and intense malaise abound in what is called “auteurist cinema”. These films demonstrate varying degrees of sympathy toward their subjects: Wilder gave us the unforgettable Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard” (1950), who completely stole the film in the capable hands of Gloria Swanson. With bulging eyes and gritted teeth, she loomed as a monster of Hollywood’s own creation. Less towering were the disenfranchised beauties of films such as “A streetcar named desire” (1951) and the later “A woman under the influence” (1974). Both Kazan and Cassavetes ultimately characterised these women as damaged by-products of tormented lives, clinging to flawed, unremarkable men for comfort. The root of their malady is never fully elucidated.

This apparent mystery of feminine madness is exemplified in Polanski’s seminal “Repulsion” (1965). The film is wise enough to not even try and explain its main character’s insanity. It lets Catherine Deneuve’s truly unnerving presence speak for itself.

Though one might argue that these films have given us some amazing performances from talented actresses, one can never shake that hint of misogyny lurking in the background. For one, most of these films feature the protagonists murdering men (spoiler alert). These acts are often connected to the characters’ innate misandry, as though their mental well-being is entirely dependent on how they feel about men. This point of view is a rather obvious reflection of male insecurities, reminiscent of the “crazy bitch” stereotype we’ve heard time and time again.

Pauline Kael noted how many of these auteurs seemed to revel in their own bravado and artistry, never taking the time to humanise their characters. Indeed, even recent exemplars of the sub-genre lack the profundity necessary to unpack heady topics like mental illness. Despite its visual splendour and dynamic performances, even the critically acclaimed “Black Swan” (2008) never scratched much further than skin deep when it came to Nina’s mental state.

Hence, the need for female voices on the subject. This necessity isn’t a case of Buzzfeed level feminism, to be clear. It represents a viable way of advancing the medium. There is validity in directors and artists drawing from their own personal experiences as women to produce deeper, more nuanced works. A multitude of perspectives is welcomed in all forms of art and storytelling: why should cinema be any different? And indeed, “women scorned” are making a comeback.

This time, however, they’re being told by women themselves.

 

There have been three high profile examples in the past few years: “Saint Maud” (2019), “Shiva Baby” (2020) and “Censor” (2021). “Saint Maud” is probably the most familiarly structured of the three. Not to say it’s a simplistic film: there’s a lot going on here, both visually and thematically, but it goes from A to B in a very straight-forward manner, with all the stripped-down gravitas of a myth, or a fairy tale. The titular Maud is a hospice nurse. Her name, as we later find out, isn’t actually Maud but Katie. The reasons for this change in identity aren’t clear but seem to be linked to a tragic accident from her past. She’s assigned to take care of a dying dancer named Amanda. This premise is fraught with dramatic possibilities: Amanda, debauched, disillusioned and godless, seems to take a liking to Maud, a liking which goes beyond mere friendship. Maud is devoutly Catholic, and is torn between her faith, her professional obligations, and her burgeoning sexuality. What transpires, however, isn’t another run-of-the-mill, forbidden lesbian romance. Maud is slowly but surely descending into a religious frenzy, exacerbated by recurring, ecstatic seizures which distort her sense of reality. Guilt, catholic shame, repressed sexuality, all compound into a spectacular explosion of religious depravity which wraps the film up with gleeful nihilism. Though a plot like this might seem just as voyeuristic as the examples mentioned above, director Rose Glass manages to elicit a bit of sympathy from the audience. Even in her darkest, most violent moments, Maud always seems lost and pathetic, just beyond redemption, which is an interesting dynamic for a monster. The film straddles that line as well, flittering between magical realism and outright nastiness, which will either leave you shaking your head or completely elated.

 

Saint Maud makes no pretence of being more than a shocker, but the fact that the film is such a love it or hate it experience speaks volumes of its hidden depths. Another multifaceted joint came in the form of this year’s “Censor”.

Similarly, our main character is also a strait-laced, repressed red head dealing with a traumatic past. The film’s setting is what brands it as unique from the onset. We’re at the height of the “Video Nasties” phenomenon when Thatcher’s conservative government scapegoated cheap horror films as the root cause of all evils. Enid, our “heroine”, is a part of the board working to censor said horror films by editing them or banning them entirely. She is a young woman of great conviction, her ideals moulded by the regressive society she’s steeped in. Her belief is that cleansing the media of horror and filth will affect the world in turn. The effect ends up being quite the contrary, as the films she’s forced to consume end up affecting her. She becomes convinced that the girl in a film she watches is her sister, who disappeared when they were both children. Her parents, preppy do-gooders in the mould of the 80’s nuclear family, would rather she forget about the whole ordeal. Why can’t she just be normal? The film features a flurry of styles throughout its runtime, with some spot-on cinematography by Annika Summerson. A grimy, seedy tint of green inhabits the earlier scenes, which proceed at a sluggish pace, indicating the grinding doldrum of Enid’s work. As reality begins to escape her and her conspiracy theories surrounding her sister spiral out of control, the film’s lighting strays toward garish reds and blues, like a Giallo movie of that era. The nastiness is possessing this kitchen sink drama and distorting it, with the movie losing its marbles alongside its protagonist. A delightful easter egg: look out for a change of aspect ratio around the third act.

Niamh Algar is compelling as Enid, portraying her with a combination of sympathetic frustration and frenzied fanaticism. In this, her performance is quite similar to that of Morfydd Clark in Saint Maud, and the two actresses even share similar pallid, elven features and long manes of red hair. Where the two character’s studies differ is in the fact that the 2021 film turns out to be, more than anything, a satire. The film delves far deeper than Saint Maud into the sociological implications of its protagonist’s predicament, with scenes of workplace harassment, considerations on the value of censorship, and the obliviousness of conservative mindsets. Despite some excesses, director Prano Bailey-Bond demonstrates a lot of subtlety in her trippy bouts of satirisation.   

 

Finally, if you want to experience true queasiness and unease, forget religious zealotry and Maggie Thatcher. “Shiva Baby” will make you feel like bolting for the exit. The last time I felt this uncomfortable watching a film was probably during Sia’s disastrous “Music” (2020). Here, however, the discomfort is intentional. Indeed, everything about this film is intentional. Highly calculated.

This movie is, without a doubt, a masterclass in tonal tightrope. It takes a massive risk by simply accosting two contrasting ideas: sex farce meets psychological horror. The result is so hilarious, disturbing, and utterly memorable, I had to pause the film various times to collect myself. This is the feature debut of director Emma Seligman, though you wouldn’t think so just by watching it. All the narrative elements mesh with stilted fluidity and grotesque grace. The film conjures quite a few oxymorons since it thrives on unbearable contrasts and dualities. The main character herself embodies this tension.

Danielle (Rachel Sennott) feels like a failure. Practically a college dropout, she’s a closeted bisexual, a sugar-baby by day and a babysitter by night. On top of this, the pressure from her traditional Jewish family encroaches on her every thought and gesture. One can sense the weight of expectation crushing her like a vice. As it turns out, Danielle has many vices. A serial liar and a moocher, she depends on donations from her many older suitors. Her parents pay for the rest. As the film starts, she’s finishing up a quicky with one of her daddies, Max (Danny DeFerrari), a “well-to-do” scumbag who pays her under pretext of “contributing to your education”. The rest of the film takes place at a shiva, a traditional Jewish wake, for a distant relative of Danielle’s who has passed away.

And thus, the film truly hits its stride: a constant sense of dread and suspense takes hold. The frames become punishingly claustrophobic as Danielle is hounded by nosy, vulgar family members. Her conversations with them, though funny, feel tense and threatening. A storm is brewing. The score swells and titters as Danielle catches sight of her ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon), who represents a lot of what she wishes to be: organised, academic, beloved, on her way to law school. Another person to feel at odds with. Things are only complicated further by the arrival of, lo and behold, her sugar daddy Max, along with his gentile wife and their shrieking baby. Danielle’s unease turns into a spiral. We are witnessing a full-blown meltdown, up close and personal. I wouldn’t dare spoil the denouement, not because anything exceptional happens, but because the surprise and symbolic impact of the events that unfold are priceless. Suffice to say it all culminates with an image of despair and self-flagellation that ascends to levels of farcical martyrdom.

The film’s soundtrack, composed by Ariel Marx, does a great deal of heavy lifting in setting the tone. All jittery strings and harsh percussions, it keeps the movie feeling tense and itchy, and contrasts humorously with the host of colourful characters that crowd the screen. The tightly wound script is matched in spades by some wonderful performances, none more than Rachel Sennott, who fills practically every frame of the movie. Her eyes seem both wild and spent, and her mannerisms feel like a cross between a petulant teenager and a frazzled neurotic. Though Danielle’s character is patently irresponsible and immature, Sennott imbues her performance with so much frustration and frailty that you can’t help but sympathise with her. She’s the product of a toxic system, and she’s just looking for a way out.

The film communicates so much poignant information to the audience just through its framing and tone. The pressure exerted on young women to perform and excel, the expectations imposed on their bodies by traditional mindsets, the insecurities stemming from being queer and closeted. What we have here is a traumatic coming-of-age parable. For most of us, growing up seems awkward and painful in the moment, yet often appears funny in retrospect. Through her film’s utterly unique tone, Seligman wisely suggests that the truth lies somewhere between hilarity and carnage. And the result is wildly entertaining.