Female representation and gender roles in selected first and second features at the 36th edition of Warsaw Film Festival
Much like Several Conversations about a Very Tall Girl (Câteva conversații despre o fată foarte înaltă, 2018), which is the feature debut by Romanian director Bogdan Theodor Olteanu, Mia Misses her Revenge (Mia își ratează răzbunarea) owes a lot to the improvisational talent of its actors, and more specifically to their flair for dialogue.
The characters often speak about the artistic milieu which they are part of. When they mention the names of Augusto Boal or Romanian theatre director Radu Afrim, the film gives the impression it’s been made for the private use of an audience made up of the actors playing it, and others like them. It is not too uncommon a thing. Up to a point, the belief that the world begins on the stage and ends with the last person standing in line for tickets is symptomatic of an as of yet unorganized, but not unimportant demographic within the Romanian art scene. On the other hand, when the names of Puiu, Mungiu and Porumboiu are mentioned, Olteanu’s bras d’honneur, as a director who finances his movies independently, is clearly identifiable.
Beyond this personal stake, and between all the episodes – humorous or grave, but always earnest and realistic – of a film made up of several conversational tableaux, sneak the more profound concerns of Olteanu, which have a lot to do with relationships in general and traditional gender roles in the current times. One of Mia’s friends is undoubtedly lecherous, at least from the moment Mia states the terms and conditions of the relationship contract she submits for his approval. On top of this, once this symbolic emasculation occurs, he is also unable to provide a satisfactory erection, adding insult to injury.
But the other men in the film are seen in a neutral, if not positive light, and that happens because the film’s engagement does not at all rely on its prosecutorial impetus. Besides, Mia Misses her Revenge’s characters may be regular Pride goers, and would normally exhibit progressive attitudes, but one of Mia’s confidantes (most likely her mother) supports a theory placed at the opposite end of any form of militant feminism, while Mia herself is overridden with something that looks suspiciously similar to guilt, once she cheats on her former partner.
If Olteanu’s film is indeed a feminist one, and that is beyond a doubt, it’s because it is dedicated to almost exlcusively female characters, shot in their own homes or verandas, interacting verbally first and foremost. Such long conversations make them anything but frivolous or weak; in fact, the film’s skin proves to be extremely slippery in any attempt to make gender stereotypes stick. It is an option that creates the perfect conditions for as many impeccable pieces of acting as there actors playing (leading the pack are Maria Popistașu, Ioana Bugarin in the main roles, and Ana Maria Guran). But this doesn’t mean the film’s feminism isn’t also out in the open – such is the case with the monologues by Mia herself.
In addition to being yet another feminist manifesto (after Self-portrait of a Dutiful Daughter (Autoportretul Unei Fete Cuminți, 2015)), Mia Misses her Revenge reveals itself as one of the most entertaining films in contemporary Romanian cinema. While this certainly says a lot about the country’s recent output, it still doesn’t take away the merits of Olteanu and his admirable actresses.
A conscientious objector goes to war
Not a single plot point in Blindfold (Iz zavyazanymy ochyma, 2020), the second feature by the Ukrainian director Taras Dron, is not accompanied by music – obvious, aggressive, deafening. Yulia’s first fight, her nocturnal howling session in an empty field, the first night she spends with her new partner, the violent fight with one of her club colleagues, even the viewing of a video tape of former partner Denys. Or when she is verbally abused in a bus and when she herself abuses her abusers, this time physically. When she runs toward the site of an illegal fight, during the illegal fight, after the illegal fight. When she reads Denys’ diary. When she is getting ready to get back in the ring, and when she fights in the ring again. Although you won’t find them in the credits, the sad piano or violin notes are among the main characters of this film.
Yulia, on the other hand, has the same blank facial expression, customarily belonging to a person who’s been through a lot, throughout. Her main characteristic is her ability to suffer, which goes hand in hand with an extremely bizarre helplessness. In Blindfold, people ride the bus a lot, and on the bus, they speak almost solely about soldiers and war (that is, when soldiers don’t ride the bus themselves). Almost everything in this film is related to the Donbass war, which is only natural, after all, and at the same time adds very little, if anything, to the film itself. What’s certain is that all this talk seems to deliver a serious blow to Yulia, whose former partner has most likely perished in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.
Not only is the protagonist unable to shut up the passengers on a bus, or at least persuade them to change the subject, but she seems to hold no power over anyone else in the movie. Her partner always has the initiative, drawing her to foreign ground with each new scene (the expensive restaurant, the exclusive shop from which he buys her a dress, his modern flat). Denys’ mother dominates her to an even higher extent, barging in on her or going through Yulia’s things at will. She then does such a good job of shaming her, that Yulia wholeheartedly agrees to become the victim of what is clearly a con. Her only two attempts at showing the faintest sign of independence are met with disaster – the targets she picks for a robbery have next to nothing in their wallet, and her illegal fight ends with a clear and painful loss. For a film with a supposedly strong female protagonist (a MMA fighter, no less), Yulia’s inexplicable passivity means Blindfold ends up losing considerably more points than it can afford to.
Secrets and secretions
If someone came up with the idea of setting up a museum for instantly recognizable cinematic archetypes that are hateable to the highest degree, Scumbag (Sviňa, 2020) would be likely to score maximum points with its impressive gallery. Among them, smooth-tongued priests who tell parishioners how to vote, corrupt businessmen who decide the political destiny of an entire country from behind the curtains, social service employees that only pursue their own wealth, social services employees who use rape as a tool. In the universe built by writer-directors Rudolf Biermann and Mariana Čengel Solčanská, mobsters speak with their mouth full, the whipped cream between their teeth almost as incriminating as their illicit activities, while the politicians’ favorite company seems to be prostitutes, usually drugged. We get sex with an underage sex worker, while the underage sex worker is sleeping, has fainted or is under the influence of a sedative; sex with a second cataleptic sex worker; sex with a former Miss Slovakia, who snorts cocaine off the belly of the politician; sex in a jacuzzi with the same former Miss Slovakia; sex with the head mistress of a youth detention center. And these are just the sex scenes that we can actually see on film.
The scriptwriters cannot or will not deny themselves the pleasure to plant into our minds a thought that will have brought them at least some degree of excitement, since it flickers on and off with the persistence of a broken traffic light: that of the rape that an underage girl falls victim to. The idea is introduced by the guard of the detention center, who brings Broňa up to date with the perspective of unannounced nocturnal visits, should any transgression occur. The threat is not followed by action, but her best friend does get raped (by a politician), and then prostitutes herself in a train station underpass. Broňa herself would have been the victim of a rape (perpetrated by a politician and arranged by the mobster who speaks with his mouth full), had she not died from an overdose. On the other hand, acting as counterweight to all this sex that’s paid for, either with actual money or with influence, is the morally adequate and conventionally tender foreplay between an idealist journalist and his wife-to-be.
In Scumbag’s Slovakia, it is perfectly normal for a doctor to refuse to issue a fake death certificate for a victim of a human trafficking ring, and then for the very same doctor to prepare a lethal heroin overdose for another victim of the said human trafficking ring. For Biermann and Solčanská, details such as these are not worth pondering too much about. What they want us to believe is that this is the Slovakia of today: a system that’s rotten to the core, which they expose pawn by pawn, in a homage to fallen journalist Ján Kuciak. They seem to regard their film as an act of resistance and an ethical endeavor, when in fact what they want to showcase (suspecting it is what we, too, want to see) is a perfect physical display of female breasts.
When she leaves the underpass where she sells her body, Broňa’s friend spits firmly on the sidewalk, as if the terms of the transaction hadn’t already been made obvious. The Biermann-Solčanská duo might as well have shot the underpass scene. Their film is already more obscene than any porno I’ve seen.
© FIPRESCI 2020
Edited by Amber Wilkinson