Enabling Women at the Montreal World Film Festival

in 32nd Montreal World Film Festival

by Peter Keough

Film festivals often provide a glimpse into the world’s state of social justice and human rights, not the least being the relationship between men and women. Such is the case in this year’s Montreal World Film Festival, and the outlook isn’t auspicious. Only two female directors are represented among the twenty feature films in competition. Perhaps more dismaying, many of the women depicted in the films tend to be willing doormats and enablers for boorish men to whom they have inexplicably devoted themselves. As for the men; their attitude can be summarized in a phrase: women – you can’t live with them, and you can’t live a life of self-destructiveness and bestial behaviour without them.            

The aptly titled “Animal Heart” (“Couer Animal”) by Swiss director Séverine Cornamusaz, one of the two women directors in the competition, is a case in point. Paul, a dairy farmer toiling away robotically on his spread atop a lonely Alp, treats his cows better than his wife, Rosine. At least the former get a little tenderness. His wife nonetheless stoically endures his insensitivity, his silence, his lack of affection, his utter disregard for health, comfort and well-being, his draconian bossiness and the occasional, impromptu, joyless rutting in the mire of the milking shed. Until, that is, Eusebio, a jolly rogue of a migrant Spanish hired hand, shows up. That brightens up Rosine’s day, but also awakens in Paul a new emotion: violent jealousy.        

In another backwoods and isolated homestead, this time somewhere in Appalachia during the Great Depression, a similar drama unfolds. In American Independent director Asiel Norton’s debut feature “Redland” a girl takes a shine to a neighbor boy, arousing Pa’s displeasure. Since the family is starving, he invites the boy to join him and his son to go off on a  “Deliverance”–like hunting expedition. Meanwhile, back home, the girl languishes in bed, indulging in sexual reveries about the boy – and about Pa – while stroking a chicken. Maybe it’s an homage to “Pink Flamingos.”                      

As in “Redland,” many of the films draw from the ancient dynamics of family relationships, going back at least to Greek Tragedy, for their depiction of male-subjugated women. A boy’s best friend is his mom, after all, as in “I’m Glad That My Mother Is Alive” (“Je suis heureux que ma mère soit vivante”) from veteran French director Claude Miller and his son Nathan. Here a mother, after being brutally abused by her son, takes on all blame for his actions when he’s brought to trial. And in Polish director Mariusz Grzegorzek’s stagy and hysterical “I Am Yours” (“Jestem twoj”) mom goes a step further by actually abetting her lumpen son in crimes ranging from extortion to kidnapping as the pair try to claim the son’s child by a neurotic rich woman.              

Ties of blood, however, can’t explain the self-sabotaging and deluded dedication to worthless men in some of the films. At times you just want to shake these women and scream: “wake up!”            

Take, for example, Rahel in Swiss director Micha Lewinsky’s charming and conventional (I can see Renée Zellweger toplining a Touchstone remake) “Will You Marry Us?” (“Die Standesbeamtin”). She seems a modern, well-adjusted woman with everything going for her: a nice husband, a child, a rewarding job marrying couples at the Town Hall. But then her husband cheats on her and her old flame Ben, now a famous rock musician, comes to town, his movie star fiancée in tow. Sparks fly again between them, but Ben perversely asks Rahel to perform his wedding ceremony to the other woman. In an infuriating act of masochistic self-sacrifice, Rahel agrees.            

Even more mindboggling is the longsuffering subservience of the heroine in Japanese director Kichitano Negishi’s melancholy “Villon’s Wife” (“Viyon no tsuma”), based on an autobiographical story by Osamu Dasai. In post-war Japan a drunken writer drinks, debauches, makes repeated suicide attempts, and squanders all their money, leaving his lovely and loyal wife and his infant son in the lurch. When the wastrel robs a pub, the wife agrees to work off the debt so the owners won’t press charges. Serving customers grants her a newfound confidence, but she can’t shake the parasitic hold of her husband, who not only cheats on her and steals her money but also uses her as a muse for his writing. But the wife seems to rejoice in her role, sacrificing herself like a self-flagellating saint.            

Not all the women in these films buy into this image. In Spanish director Francisco Avizanda’s “Forever Waiting” (“Hoy no se fia, manana si”) a beautiful young woman caught up in the murderous politics of Franco’s Spain endures male abuse in order to treacherously turn the tables on her oppressors. And surprisingly, the most liberated woman appears in a film from Iran, which recently hasn’t been much of a bastion for civil rights. In Mohsen Amiryoussefi’s madcap, surreal satire “Fire Keepers” (“Atashkar”) the wife of the burly foreman at a steel mill is fed up after bearing him three daughters and insists he get a vasectomy. She doesn’t care that he wants a son, or that his fellow workers might question his authority and masculinity, or even that the ghost of her husband’s father has been haunting him, “Hamlet” style, chiding his wimpiness and showing him the place in hell reserved for sinners such as himself. A less enabling woman can hardly be imagined; not only does she refuse to accept her role as breeder, but she literally cuts to the root of patriarchal power. Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, Iranian censors have banned the film.

Peter Keough