WHERE HAVE ALL THE STRONG WOMEN GONE, PART DEUX (TO EUROPE APPARENTLY)


Everyone complains about the roles written for women, but no one’s doing anything about it. Well, that’s not totally true since three movies with strong female characters have opened in the last couple of months, but you might not know it based on the attention and box office given to such movies as The Ugly Truth and The Proposal.

Seraphine is the lovely, lyrical and based on a true story film about an obscure painter in the early 1900’s (at least obscure to American audiences), a lower class working woman who does cleaning and laundry but paints in her free time because she received a message from her guardian angel to do so. She does the usual artist stuff: she talks to trees (though fortunately, not like Clint Eastwood in Paint Your Wagon); makes much of her own paint from various liquids, like chicken blood, that she steals because she doesn’t have enough money to buy them; goes without food to purchase her supplies; and stays up all night singing and making awful noises while painting, driving her landlord to distraction. She’s also out of step. The art world is changing, but new forms like impressionism are still finding it difficult to gain a foothold, so Seraphine is ridiculed by her bourgeois employee for her somewhat fanciful interpretation of the natural world she sees around her. But Seraphine doesn’t care; like the Blues Brothers she’s on a mission from God. Then into her life stumbles a gay German art critic in town for his health (this is where the plot diverges from the one with Jake and Elwood). The critic accidentally discovers one of her paintings and starts representing her, but first WWI gets in the way (don’t you hate it when that happens) and then the stock market crashes in 1929 (damn you, Herbert Hoover). She then slowly loses her mind and spends the end of her life in a mental institution. Seraphine is played by the magnificent Yalonde Moreau who has already received a slew of acting awards, including the Cesar, in one of those performances in which the actress totally disappears into her role. The screenplay, perhaps as beautiful as Seraphine’s paintings, is by Marc Abdelnour and the director Martin Provost.

If one saw the previews to The Girl From Monaco, one would think it one of those delightfully quirky French comedies that often graces our shores. One couldn’t be more wrong. Though there is humor in it, it’s actually a rather serious story about a lawyer who becomes so obsessed by an ambitious weather girl who likes to manipulate and use men that the lawyer is in danger of losing a very important murder case (I don’t remember Perry Mason ever having this problem, but this is France after all). It’s a perfectly enjoyable movie, nothing great, but not boring. Its main strength is the femme fatale character played by Louise Bourgoin. There is just something about her that makes one believe that she could get a man to do anything she wanted, even if he fully well knows it means his own destruction. She’s one of those people who will sleep with you, then have sex with someone in the next room knowing that the next time she asks you to do something, you will. What can one do but kill her, which is what the lawyer does (or manipulates someone into doing, much like he himself was manipulated). The script, by Benoit Graffin (who also worked on the fun Priceless and the wonderful Apres vous) and director Anne Fontaine, is enjoyable enough, but it stumbles when it comes to the court case itself. The strategy of the lawyer played by Fabrice Luchini is never very clear and he makes speeches and cross examines witnesses in ways that would drive Jack McCoy to distraction). In the end, his defense seems to be that someone’s mother has the right to kill a man if the man is her son’s lover and threatens to expose the son’s homosexuality to the world. It’s hard to say what to make of such a homophobic attitude; what’s even more horrifying is the writer has the jury find the mother not guilty on this basis. Though I enjoyed the movie well enough, I left feeling that I and the director and writer lived in a very different moral world.

Lorna’s Silence is the latest film from the Dardenne brothers (Jean-Pierre and Luc), two of my favorite filmmakers in the world. They’ve already graced us with such possible masterpieces as Rosetta, La promesse, The Son, L’enfant. Lorna, played with quiet intensity by Arta Dobroshi, is an Albanian immigrant who, for money, agrees to a sham marriage to Claudy, a drug addict, arranged by mobster Fabio so that she can become a Belgian citizen. To fulfill her Faustian bargain, she would then help or allow Fabio to kill Claudy, so she could then, for more money, marry a Russian immigrant so he can become a citizen. Her goal is to open a snack shop with her immigrant boyfriend. It’s a pretty neat little scam, until Lorna develops a conscious, helps Claudy get off the drugs and tries to just divorce him rather than kill him. It doesn’t work; Claudy is killed without her knowledge. But by then, she has had sex with Claudy and thinks she is pregnant by him and has to find a way to survive since she’s put a kibosh on the new marriage and Fabio now wants his pound of flesh in the death of Lorna. As in all of the Dardenne films, this is about someone who has to make a momentous moral choice and the suspense is often as great or greater than whether James Bond will stop Dr. No. I do think this film does make a slight misstep by making Lorna’s pregnancy an hysterical one; there doesn’t seem to be a satisfying point to this. But just because it may not be as good as their other ones doesn’t mean the film isn’t better than most others.

But the question does become, why can Europe make films with exciting and strong female characters like this, but the U.S. can’t? Is it the way European films are financed, so that directors and writers there can make films that don’t have to make the massive profits they do here? Is it because the audiences in Europe are more open to movies about women? Is it because there are more writers and directors there who are simply interested in making films with women as central characters and they don’t feel the need to degrade them all the time? I wish I knew.

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