Every woman has a story, and that of the beautiful and brilliant Gong Li (Raise the Red Lantern, Memoirs of a Geisha) fascinates. This is one of the many video portraits developed by the AOL MAKERS series:
I was up last night until three AM. Reading. Reading in that way you do when a book grabs hold of you and won’t let you go. I have another forty pages of Asa Larsson’s The Second Deadly Sin, about a series of remote murders past and present that appeared to begin with the discovery of a bone in a bear’s belly and an unrelated sexually-tinged murder of an easy grandmother. I have another forty pages because I finally put the book aside, saving the end like ice cream for later.
Last night, as my husband slept and my Russian Blue Valentino flopped at my feet, snorkling and snoring, I folded a page. It had nothing to do with murder. Two Swedish women sat across from each other at a table, one an investigating prosecutor in her thirties, Rebecka, on unofficial business and the other, Maja, a sixty-something silver-haired beauty apparently nursing her terminally ill mother. Surrounded by silence, Maja talks about being an old woman but feeling like a child inside.
I remember my own grandmother, Eva, in her eighties pulling the flesh on her arm and letting it slowly fall back. It lacked elasticity. She looked at me and said: I don’t feel old, but look at that.
And, so, in the middle of this investigation — bears, death by pitchfork, suicide — one relatively older woman appears to open up to a younger one, Both fictional women, we discover, share mommy-abandonment issues. And the older one, Maja, says to the younger one, Rebecka, the protagonist, that inside Maja is still a little girl that wants something from her dying mother before she goes.
Rebecka simply asks, “What?”
[Related: Why David Tennant slays ‘The Escape Artist’]
And, in the quiet, in that moment, I wonder what I would want my own mother to say, finally, to set me free. Or if, through writing, I have already largely set myself free and anything that she could say would be anticlimactic.Maja, with her thousands of silver braids, sexy at sixty, then says this:
“Oh, nothing much. ‘I’m sorry,’ perhaps. Or that she loves me and is proud of me. Or maybe: ‘I understand that it wasn’t so easy for you.’ You know. It’s so ironic. she left me and moved away when I was twelve years old because she had found a man who said: ‘No children.” God, but I pleaded and promised that I wouldn’t cause any trouble. But she…”
It is the middle of the night at my house, and these women are discussing the difference between what they want from their personal ties, family ties, and what they hope for. They sit around a table in a remote country house surrounded by a buffering snow. They slip and slide in an intimate discussion that moves to love, general and specific, past and present. They sit in silence, comfortably and the section ends with the narration: “Dead women, mothers, grandmothers — all of them sat down on the empty chairs around the table.”
[Related: Kenneth Branagh on ‘Wallander’]
And, then, after a section break within the chapter, writer Larsson drops in a little wedge of plot that is absolutely chilling. It’s as if she was lulling you to sleep with emotional depth, with the way we live in the tangles of our heads and hearts, at cross purposes, looking backwards, living forwards. Even our most intimate relations are strangers in some way — we do not know the voiceover that runs in their minds. My mother does not know me. How can I claim to really know my daughter as an individual separate from me?
This is where Larsson leaves me at three in the morning. And this is why I read good Scandinavian mystery fiction.While the whodunit and why forces us forward, the mystery of identity and the way that the past imprints the present deepen our understanding of the human condition.
(note: I have migrated my column from AMC Filmcritic.com to Yahoo! Movies where I’m Contributing Editor)
Fact: Men directed all 22 films in competition for the Palme d’Or at the 65th Cannes International Film Festival. Fact: The only woman to win that coveted prize was Jane Campion for “The Piano” in 1993 — and that was a joint victory. Cannes, we’ve got a problem — and when I say “we,” I mean women and men who love film.
Four weeks ago, I first raised this controversy in my column “Thelma Adams on Reel Women” at AMC Filmcritic.com, a site that has since folded. At that time, I wrote, “I love David Cronenberg, whose ‘Cosmopolis’ has been welcomed into the competition and who headed the Cannes jury in 1999. I was a champion of his cerebral period drama ‘A Dangerous Method,’ which had a terrific star turn by Keira Knightley. But, really, not a single film by a woman? I’m just gobsmacked.”
Now that I’ve migrated my column to Yahoo! Movies, the world’s most viewed movie site, I want to expand the debate for our larger audience. In Cannes, where the festival opened last Thursday and will run through Sunday, the quotes on the gender controversy have been surprisingly subdued from the country that decapitated Marie Antoinette as part of its revolution.
The head of the boys’ club: The Boys Are All Right
Festival Artistic Director Thierry Fremaux explained: “I don’t select films because the film is directed by a man, a woman, white, black, young, an old man. … It wouldn’t be very nice to select a film because the film is not good but it is directed by a woman.” Fremaux lacks the self-awareness that his lock-hold on selecting the films may impact which movies get rewarded and which get tossed back. In every society, the gatekeepers determine the definition of quality.
The female director on the jury: Could it be Stockholm syndrome?
As the sole female director on the nine-person competition jury, British filmmaker Andrea Arnold (“Fish Tank”) got to field the “woman question.” While she decried the “pity” of gender inequality, she told a Cannes press conference, “I would absolutely hate it if my film got selected because I was a woman. I would only want my film to be selected for the right reasons and not out of charity because I’m female.” What she was doing, having achieved her spot in the inner circle (congrats!), was echoing Fremaux’s sentiment about the evils of “positive discrimination.”
The academic apologist: The glass is half-full
Columbia University professor and Cannes fixture Annette Insdorf took a wait-and-see approach: “For me, the question is less ‘How many women filmmakers are selected?’ than ‘Do the films illuminate female experience?'” After mentioning such Cannes projects as Marion Cotillard (“Rust and Bone”), Kristen Stewart (“On the Road”), and Jessica Chastain (“Lawless”), Insdorf continued: “It may turn out that the ‘female auteur’ presence in Cannes this year is the prolific international actress.” Having already seen Chastain in “Lawless,” a strong, well-made testosterone-driven film that showcases Tom Hardy and Shia LaBeouf, I can say that Chastain plays a runaway dancehall girl with a heart of gold. She’s great, but really, Annette, I’m not pinning any hopes on this role as a gender game changer.
[Related: Cannes’ buzziest movies]
Meanwhile, there has been an outcry from the French feminist group La Barbe (translation: The Beard), which published a satirical letter in the French newspaper Le Monde. The letter and attached petition accused the festival of sexism while joking, “Is it not enough for them [women] to aspire to be mistress of ceremonies someday during the festival’s opening night?” Clearly not, as La Barbe members in bright beards continue to protest on the Cannes red carpet.
Melissa Silverstein of Women and Hollywood took a more straightforward approach in the e-petition she drafted (and which I signed). In part, it stated: “We call for Cannes, and other film festivals worldwide to commit to transparency and equality in the selection process of these films. We judge films as human beings, shaped by our own perspectives and experiences. It is vital, therefore, that there be equality and diversity at the point of selection.” In pushing for transparency in the decision-making process, Silverstein’s petition strikes at the heart of the issue: the gatekeepers.
The point is not to assign quotas for women in film — to present films by women because they are by women. The underlying problem is: Why are women so drastically underrepresented among filmmakers, jurors, and entrants? Why do women with a record of success as filmmakers find it so hard to get projects produced, while men, even after significant failures, can still get the green light for their next projects? If there is nothing “special” about women filmmakers and writers, then there should be nothing “special” about either their presence OR their absence.
Unfortunately, it’s their absence that is special.
Again, the answer is not quotas for women. It avoids addressing the real problem. The answer is that, given the absence of any normal distribution in their selection process, the programmers, the selection committees, the gatekeepers are biased, not for quality or talent — since we all agree there’s a pretty good chance that that’s not gender-specific — but on gender.
If we all agree that quality and talent are not gender-specific, and the results of the gatekeepers’ selections is so gender-specific, then it must be the gatekeepers themselves who are at fault. They can’t see past the sex. Lacking any therapeutic insight into their problem, they should be removed and replaced by those who can, in fact, make judgments on talent and quality — and leave gender issues to those situations when gender selection matters. Like “birthin’ babies,” or finding a date.