Ten Women Towards Autonomy By Michel Euvrard

in 8th Bratislava International Film Festival

by Michel Euvrard

Several of the 19 films in competition at the 8th International film festival Bratislava featured strong, dominant female characters; adolescent, young or mature, their courage and stamina enabled them, in difficult circumstances, to retain their sanity and dignity, or even to change, grow, find themselves and face what lay ahead.

Yet some are given, mostly in the films directed by men, fairly traditional roles: in Amat Escalante’s Blood (Sangre) from Mexico Blanca (Laura Saldania), who claims to love her middle-aged husband, and prepares his lunch pail like a dutiful wife, expects in return efficient sexual service. “I am getting horny”, she tells him in a flat straight-forward way, and their subsequent lovemaking is filmed likewise as is their dull daily work at the ministry and the workshop, as well as is later his unloading his daughter’s dead body at the city’s garbage dump!

In El Amarillo (The Yellow) by Sergio Martin Mazza, Gabriela (Gabriella Moyano) sings in a bistro in the boondocks of Argentina. Her sultry songs cast a spell on a traveler who ingratiates himself with the older woman who owns the pub, and becomes factotum during the day and emcee at night in exchange for room and board, and the opportunity to approach Gabriela. In this rather amateurish film, Gabriella Moyano is at once an earthy creature and remote seductress fallen woman and mythical siren.

In the German Ping Pong by Matthias Luthardt, young Paul invites himself to his aunt Anna’s during the summer holidays; while her older husband is away on business, she succumbs to Paul’s adolescent lust and initiates him sexually. In the other German film, Longing (Sehnsucht) by Valeska Grisebach, Marcus, a young craftsman and volunteer fireman, to all appearances happily married to Ella, goes away to a firemen’s training week-end and wakes up in the bed of Rosa, a waitress at their hotel. Marcus then tries to break with Rosa, but they are both invincibly drawn to each other. This is not presented as a conventional infidelity but as a situation which could stabilize with mutual acceptance, as happens — briefly — in Agnès Varda’s Le Bonheur. But the social context and the realistic style adopted by Grisebach precludes such a utopian development.

In novelist Santiago Amigorena’s first film as director, A Few Days in September (Quelques jours en septembre, France), a subverted spy thriller, Juliette Binoche, more often cast as a romantic mystery woman, plays an ex-secret agent. Thinner, bespectacled, competent, decisive, hard, handy with a gun, she resumes active duty to help an American colleague (Nicolas Cazale) and chaperones him, his French daughter (Sarah Forestier), adopted American son (Tom Riley) on an unexplained mission that takes them from Paris to Venice, in the course of which they are exposed to the assassination attempts of a psychotic killer (John Turturro). Conceived, as its title suggests, in the aftermath of the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center, A Few Days in September certainly does not measure up to that event, but entertains as a pleasantly improbable, disconcerting, rather self conscious adventure.

In the Polish film Retrieval (Z Odzysku) by Slawomir Fabicki, Katya, an illegal Ukrainian immigrant, in flight from a brutal husband, is the mistress of the protagonist, Wojtek, nineteen. She too appears in the conventional role of sexual initiator, but she is also the mother of a twelve-year-old boy whom she cannot send to school. She works as a cleaning woman. She hates to see Wojtek take on several rough jobs to help her, fight clandestine boxing matches, become a bouncer in a night club for a mafia entrepreneur and beat up his delinquent debtors. She feels that the more Woktek fights for a better life for her and her child the more he falls downwards morally. Caught in the same moral dilemma as him, she resolves to go back to Ukraine. Wojtek then breaks with his mafia boss and resumes the job on a pig farm his grandfather had found for him, and Katya stays. Wojtek’s and Katya’s love affair takes place against the stark grey, violent background of the small mining town whose mines have almost all closed.

It is in the same kind of somber Polish mining town in the German film Molly’s Way by Emily Atef that Molly arrives by train from Ireland in search of Marcin, with whom she has spent a day and a night; about him she knew only that he lives in Walbrzych and “works in coal”, and the reason she is so desperately looking for him is that as a result of the night spent with him, she’s pregnant. The irony and drama of the situation is that Molly being a nurse, one would expert her to know how to protect herself, but she is also an Irish Catholic. Birth control and abortion are out of the question. Molly’s search for Marcin takes several weeks, so she runs out of money, and finds work cleaning the rooms of her hotel, which is used by prostitutes whose friend she becomes. Molly finally finds Marcin, a coal miner who shares a room in a miners’ hostel. After the surprise and joy of reunion and lovemaking, Molly realizes that Marcin is not going to offer to marry her, nor does he see himself as a father. She leaves Walbrzych quietly and with dignity. She has, one feels, tested her capacity to weather grief and loss and is prepared to face what lies ahead. Shy and determined, present in every sequence, Mairead Mckinley gives a luminous interpretation as Molly and almost single handedly (there are other good performances by the hotel proprietress, some of the girls, Marcin) carries the film on her (solid) shoulders.

Fresh Air (Friss Levegö), Agnes Kocsis’s first feature (Hungary), tells the parallel stories of a mother and adolescent daughter who hardly communicate. Viola (Isabella Hegyi), a handsome woman in her early forties, works as a toilet attendant at a railway station and her daughter Angela is ashamed of her. Angela is studying to be a fashion designer. Their respective routines at work are depicted in minute detail as in a documentary. At home, the only thing they do together is watch mutely their favorite TV series. Viola is a habitué of dancing salons, seeking a man she can love and share her life with, as yet without success. Angela is friends with a school mate all dressed in pink, more frivolous and emancipated than her. She starts a tentative relationship with a young man who comes to repair a sewing machine in the classroom where she’s working alone. But Viola’s obsessive cleaning of the toilets, sampling of air fresheners and washing herself can be seen as a means of keeping her self respect, her going to dance salons as giving her dull life a meaning. While Viola successfully maintains her humanity, Angela, through her tentative relationship with the young man and her aborted hitchhiking expedition, can be seen to grow, to open up to the outside world, to try her wings. In the repetitive descriptions of their lives, Kocsis inserts moments of escape, of repose for Viola, of poetic clowning with Angela and her friends in the open spaces at the city’s outskirts, a breath of fresh air.

Not only under the grey skies and heavy social climate of Central Europe, but also in sunny Brazil is it not easy for young women to make a life for themselves: in Suely in the Sky (O Ceu De Suely) by Karim Ainouz, 21-year-old Hermila is returning with her baby son to her small town after two years in Sao Paulo. Until her husband joins her, she lives at her grandmother’s and works at various menial jobs. Time passes and she slowly comes to acknowledge that her husband will not come. She spends time with her old girlfriends, one of them a semi-prostitute, she dances, drinks, starts an affair. But she sees no future for herself in that small place and is determined to go back to a big city. Under the name of Suely, she sells tickets for a lottery. The prize is “a night in paradise” with her. This provocation causes a scandal and her grandmother’s anger and leaves her no option but to leave the town. Hermila Guedes was awarded the best actress prize for the role of Hermila — Suely; girlish, voluptuous, radiant, she sails through the film with unsullied grace, safeguarding her humanity, paying the price for her indiscretion and leaving the scene of her “crime” with dignity.

In striking contrast to these films, the French film My Son (Mon fils à moi) by Martial Fougeron features Nathalie Baye in a role antithetical to her usual ones of pleasant, sympathetic plucky young women, as the repressed, frustrated, possessive, over-protective, incestuous, ultimately monstrous petit bourgeois mother of a 12-year-old boy Julien. Fougeron presents, without any distance, a clinical case of a dysfunctional family: the father, an overworked university lecturer (Olivier Gourmet in a subdued role which does not utilize his usual energy, determination and moral weight) has abdicated his parental responsibility, blinded himself to his wife’s abuses. Both parents are happy to see their older daughter go away to university. The full weight of the mother’s ambition, frustrations, craving for authority, of her jealousy when Julien is befriended by a female schoolmate, falls on the poor boy. Julien submits meekly for most of the film, but finally, pushed beyond endurance he stabs his mother with a kitchen knife. The wound, however, is not fatal. This depressing unintentional horror film is a caricature which succeeds neither as satire nor as a cautionary tale.