Summer 2017: Female lust and purposeful pop culture

Two auteur-laden films gave “strong female characters” a tangible sense of enjoyment and satisfaction in a blockbuster-heavy Summer.

Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled was met with controversy before viewers even sunk their teeth into it. The director’s decision to omit Mattie, an enslaved black woman, from the original story was questioned, ridiculed and disagreed with. But that’s a dispute for another day.

Song to Song saw a very limited UK release after winning over audiences in its festival run at SXSW. Director Terrence Malick had some explaining to do after Knight of Cups almost asked to be mocked, and wide audiences remained to be convinced of the director’s lasting credibility.

The febrile, airy female character has stood as a recurring accessory in indie movies, adding raspy sentimentality or just further anchoring that physical elegance of the art film. Whiny, unimportant and inconsequential – there hasn’t been much room for the “strong female character” in independent cinema. The mainstream consumer asked and the mainstream consumer got, Wonder Woman is leading the way for female role models. But it seems that star status is seeing its merit and the delicate female token is finally one worth watching in the art film.

The Beguiled feels like an anecdotal experience. Sharp humour and measured style create a picture dripping in sexual tension, highly entertaining. The 50-year mature story doesn’t feel dated despite its setting. It’s like you’ve wandered into one of your most vivid nightmares but in another language. Very much the product of your own imagination, but totally disorienting in its execution.

Set in the Civil War, a somewhat desolate all-female boarding school welcomes in an injured soldier. In a steamy yet prim microcosm, lust and danger arise as the women discover the almost alien being (Colin Farrell, here) and sexual tensions bubble.

What makes the dated setting irrelevant is the sheer weight of stardom attached to this film. Sofia Coppola has developed her own fervent fanbase, as a pillar for independent female filmmakers and the healthy life of the art film in a, at times, homogeneous Hollywood. The Virgin Suicides is forever quotable, The Bling Ring gave Emma Watson a post-Potter push. Coppola is resurrecting stories and marrying popular iconography with really beautiful independent filmmaking.

But she’s not alone in making The Beguiled a successful vessel of female talent. While Farrell must be commended for most definitely his least annoying performance to date, the real stars are the ladies. It comes as no surprise that Nicole Kidman commands attention with every Southern twang, but Elle Fanning is fascinating as the lust-driven teenager with slippery lips.

These electric performances of old-fashioned characters breathe life into The Beguiled. Not quite life-changing but thoroughly entertaining, the tangible lust of the film’s fierce females raises the bar of this year’s crop.

It’s easy to be exasperated with Song to Song before it even begins. Not shying away from Malick’s backlog of existential crises, it’s a film with a point to prove. But after the seeming self-parody of pretension that was Knight of Cups, there is room for a lot of love in the new movie.

A love triangle set against the Austin, Texas music scene is how the film sells itself. Ryan Gosling at his finest bashful self and Michael Fassbender in a  Shame worthy performance are the impressive male leads. But it is the female ensemble, led by Rooney Mara closely followed by a bleach blonde Natalie Portman, that gives Song to Song its soul.

I struggle with Rooney Mara in lead roles – her gentle aura slips through the cracks and I forget that she has a character. Pan, Carol and Lion left me cold. But somehow Terrence Malick seems to have found his muse. Here, she leads the film and takes the wandering camera from shot to shot, always holding a loose hand on the story. There is a coherence with Terrence Malick’s wider filmography in Song to Song, in giving little importance to linear narratives or intricate character quirks. Instead, the story is shown in fragments, here bursts of lust, music and possession. It is in this context that, finally, Rooney Mara as a lead actually works.

The raspy existential voiceovers accompany pop culture melancholia, from Iggy Pop and Patti Smith’s cameos, to Lykke Li’s commendable appearance and her mournful soundtrack. Mara is both object and subject of emotional angst and a very real yearning for tenderness, flitting between Gosling and Fassbender and twirling in the muslin curtains of Malick’s world.

The brief screen time from Cate Blanchett is also noteworthy. No stranger to the art film, interestingly the balance is flipped with Carol co-star Mara, as here there is no tangible hierarchy. The film’s tone lends itself to an impersonal ensemble of impactful performances, void of narrative specificity but gorged in life-affirming emotion from its stars.

I can’t describe Song to Song better than Christopher Hooton did for the Independent: “If you know the feeling of needing to cry but not being able to, you will probably enjoy submerging yourself in this film which is just saturated with that feeling.” It’s a feeling that grows the more you think about the film, and one that many films have tried and failed to achieve in the past. Song to Song is a film that leaves you with empty spaces and gaps of feeling, comforting and heartbreaking in turn. The film’s heavy pop culture framework is crafted so carefully that it gives the reality that Terrence Malick had been lacking.

In music, muses and (e)motion then, it looks like the art film is giving the meandering female lead a presence and a purpose.

Originally published on Into the Fold

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