The Frightening Gaze of the Female

in 70th Locarno International Film Festival

by Rita di Santo

Chilling shivers of fear were to be found throughout the Locarno programme. The backbone, a retrospective dedicated to horror maestro, Jacques Tourneur, with Cat People (1942), I Walk With a Zombie (1943), and The Leopard Man (1943 among the titles. Tourneur’s poetics were spun from the many facets of fear: Fear for the outsiders, fear for the animal that lives inside us, fear for not being able to survive our own desire. But also fear as feeling of absence or presence. Women were often the provocateurs of unsettling feelings. Many titles which touched me the most in the rest of the programme were those made by or concerning women’s fears or fear of women.

The opening title of the festival, Tomorrow and Every Other Day (Demain et tous les autres jours) , directed by actress Noemie Lvovsky focussed on the intense bond between a nine-year- old and her mother, a warm-hearted but fragile woman on the brink of madness. The young girl forced to cope with a situation beyond her capabilities, her mother’s condition erupting at the most unwanted moments, a school ceremony, for example, where she jumps on the stage to congratulate her daughter, disrupting the entire event.

Another movie about motherhood was Valérie Massadian’s Milla. Seventeen-year- old Milla and Leo, her boyfriend, set themselves up in an empty house. They aren’t criminals or junkies, but rather two recognizable teens forced to fend for themselves. When Milla gets pregnant and Leo takes a job on a freighter, their individual priorities change, and the film, merging the details of their separation, refocuses on Milla and her bond with her new-born baby. Massadian displays an extraordinary ability to see things from the point of view of the young female protagonist, making a moving and richly authentic tribute to motherhood.

Another mother runs from her duty in Anna Urushadze’s Scary Mother. A 50-year- old housewife, Manana, struggles with a dilemma: to choose between family life and a love for writing she has repressed for years. When she finally decides to follow her passion, she is ready to sacrifice everything for it, mentally and physically. A psychological drama laced with absurdist humour and a genuinely compelling universal story of hopes and dreams and the determination to prevail against inner monsters.

Monsters become real in Brazil’s Good Manners, an astonishing werewolf story with lesbian overtones, directed by Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas. A rapturous romantic thriller with a darkly comic subtext about what really kills human values. Clara (Zuaa) is an independent-minded, self-possessed professional caretaker from a favela, taken in as a nanny by wealthy future mother Ana. Clara’s role shifts from servant to confidant/friend to lover. Meanwhile, Ana begins to exhibit some unusual behaviour during her pregnancy; her full-moon somnambulism pushes Good Manners closer to fright-cinema territory. Mixing literary and cinematic origin this is a wild, hypnotising, and surreal film, tautly-directed.

Another fascinating movie on the theme of the woman-monster was Serge Bozon’s ironic comedy Madame Hyde. Isabelle Huppert plays Mrs. Géquil, a teacher who endures daily contempt and disrespect from both colleagues and pupils. She seems too small and too weak to deal with the burden until a freak accident leaves her changed forever, moving far beyond the persona of kind and concerned teacher. Poignant and funny, this is a classic of its kind with an irresistible central character. Weird but never unbelievable.

Returning to reality, a special mention is merited for a special woman: Selma, one of the voices of memory of Distant Constellation, a documentary by Shevaun Mizrahi, about ageing residents in an Istanbul retirement home. In a frail voice, sometimes falling asleep mid-sentence, Selma recalls the horrors of the Armenian genocide. Her story moves the imagination. A woman who had to change her identity in other to survive, a woman deprived of the right to live her life freely. The testimonies are terrifying, but easy to comprehend: political alienation, economic deprivation, ignorance and fear loom large. A great find and A breakthrough feature from a director to watch: Shevaun Mizrahi.

On a similar path was Mrs Fang, Wang Bing’s uncompromising documentary study of a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s in an impoverished corner of China. As her family reunites around her deathbed, Bing uses their differing reactions to tease out revelations of the woman’s past life, drawing together complex relationships, while reflecting on death and life. The result is a significant social document and a substantial portrait of woman made visible only at the end of her life.

Hugely unsettling, claustrophobic and poetic Xu Bing’s Dragonfly Eyes crafts a mystery around the disappearance of a woman named Qing Ting (dragonfly). After she abandons her training to be a nun and returns to the secular world, she takes a job in a dairy farm, where she attracts the attention of Ke Fan. To win her favour he breaks the law and goes to prison. On his release, he searches desperately for her- until he comes to believe that she has reinvented herself as the online celebrity Xiao Xiao. Xu Bing’s daunting and slightly foolhardy project required the editor to sift through approximately 10,000 hours of surveillance footage to select the fragments which could form the material of a coherent story, subsequently voiced by actors. The outcome, however, is a triumph. A strange documentary/fiction hybrid which comments on everything from the lack of privacy in the modern world to the level of violence around us. Xu Bing’s vision is daring, deeply absorbing, utterly mesmeric, idiosyncratic, and scarily innovative. This movie is like a desperate attempt to construct a woman, that may or may not have exited, a metaphor to the attempted of caching the new identity of women. A new way to portrait woman, an homage to a woman as a goddess, a special creature that doesn’t belong to this world.

In a time when women are asking questions about the discrimination and deprivation faced their entire lives, questions either glossed over or, worse, ignored, it is interesting to see how this reflect in modern cinema. As the singer Björk once said about women and cinema: “Usually, when you see females in movies, they feel like they have these metallic structures around them, they are caged by male energy.” This cage looks fully open to me.

© FIPRESCI 2017