TORONTO: WOMEN IN CHAINS
I heard a woman complaining in the women’s bathroom after Trishna. “But she just did what he said for two hours! It was like looking at a sphinx.” Later that day I found myself staring into the eyes of a thirteen-year-old Russia girl named Nadya as she dutifully trudged across the floor, on display in front of a group of Japanese fashion designers, close to paralyzed with alienation and helplessness.
The latest by Michael Winterbottom, Trishna follows Freido Pinto as a very poor oldest daughter of a rural Indian family in an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Victorian novel Tess D’Aubervilles. When a rich, British-educated galavanting young Indian man named Jay (a “playboy or operator type,” in the parlance of Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress) sees her dancing with other hotel staff, he follows her home, asking her about her life, her prospects. She offers no visible regret or deeper expectations for her life than staying with her family and helping them all get by. Bewitched, he sets her up with a job a resort hotel that her father owns — the money he offers makes it impossible for her to say no, though we don’t really know if she wants to go or not. Pinto maintains a close-to-unreadable stoicism throughout almost all of the film. But “want” is irrelevant when you have financial needs like hers, and only as she is exposed to Jay’s monied life does she even begin to contemplate what she might “want” to do with her life. Even that contemplation is muted, however, with the men in her life happy to speak for her to outsiders or fill in the blanks with their own words when she faces the choices they offer with silence. It’s never quite clear if she’s Jay’s servant, his girlfriend, his mistress or his fiancee — in one blissful moment, it seems like it could be the latter, and in that moment of joy she reveals to him the bitter choice she had to make to abort his baby many months prior. His arms are wrapped around her when she tells him, and as he begins to process this idea, the same embrace turns from love to menace. Month by month, Jay carefully strips away any sense of worth he had given her, demoting her to personal waitress and finally to sex slave. And she just does what he says, barely betraying any emotion until the last ten minutes of the film, when finally she snaps.
Present-day Siberia may not have a caste system per se, but David Redmon and Ashley Sabin’s Girl Model makes clear the similar stoicism required of a beautiful woman from a poor family. At just thirteen, Nadya is chosen from a lineup of 200 skinny girls to go to Tokyo by herself, under contract to a modeling agency. She arrives knowing neither English or Japanese, and no one is there to pick her up at the airport and take her to the closet-like apartment that she will share with another 13-year old Russian girl (although that girls’ parents have sent her with a credit card, and she quickly eats her way to weight gain and out of her contract.) A lot of people are making money off these girls, but, unbeknownst to the models themselves, they are quickly being burdened by debt. Unable to even figure out the phone system to call her mother, Nadya’s dream quickly turns into a nightmare. Her caretakers are candid in their callousness, from the scout who found her — herself a former model with a tortured relationship to the business – to the girl’s new Japanese agent, who sort of shrugs away any sense of guilt when asked direct questions about his responsibility to the girls. With her family back home relying on the money that she fails to earn, Nadya finally returns home, falling into her parents arms, weeping… and is promptly sent back to Asia.
Two films, two stories of women pushed around by men. Mia Hansen-Love’s Goodbye, First Love is another one – girl adrift in an ocean of her own secrets, almost willfully passive to change the course of her life, desperate for a man to come along and tell her what to do. Olivia Coleman’s character in Paddy Constantine’s fantastic Tyrannosaur fights her way out of an abusive relationship, but it’s her long-worn passivity that is her primary character trait when we meet her; Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet hinges on a young, adventurous young woman’s emotional and physical withdrawal from her boyfriend after a traumatic event in the mountains, where her reaction to having done nothing in a crisis is to go even further with her underlying passivity and shut down completely. Even Christophe Honore’s film Beloved, in which Ludivigne Sagnier and Catherine Deneuve play the younger/older versions of a hyper-sexual part-time prostitute mother and Chiara Mastrioianni is the character’s equally promiscuous, love-starved daughter, features its ladies weeping outside the door of a philandering husband and hiding behind corners when the two men they’re sleeping with begin to fight over them.
The silliest thing I’ve heard someone say about Goodbye, First Love was: “I liked it and everything but the story was really weak — seen it before.” Seen what before… a love story? Me… too…. This one concerns a slightly melodramatic, somewhat needy teenage girl in Paris who is destroyed when her high-school boyfriend leaves to explore South America for a year, and who, over the next decade, despite new relationships and a burgeoning career, just can’t shake her undying devotion to that first guy. When he turns up again, she reverts back to the yearning, sighing, demanding teenager that she still is inside. The point of a film as sensitive and beautiful as Goodbye, First Love is the pleasure of being given a chance to remember and connect with the intangible hopes and shames within ourselves; the film gives us the breathing room to do so – in other words, it’s not the plot, it’s the feelings. I find that sometimes, especially in sales-driven environments like Toronto, people tend to ignore that pleasure. Maybe they don’t like it to begin with.
Does this barrel of movies about women who can’t seem to fight for themselves mean that there’s a misogynistic tendency running through the films at Toronto? Personally, I think it means the opposite, because plot doesn’t equal meaning. A film isn’t portraying women in a positive light just because she triumphs at the end; every romantic comedy where the single, career-minded girl learns to let loose and love her man properly dispels that notion. By dramatizing their female characters’ anguish, these films are making plain the walls around them that often stay invisible. Their stories might be frustrating to watch, but think about how frustrating they must be to live.