International Women’s Day | The Rise of Female Genre Filmmakers
Gay surfers. There are many achievements under Kathryn Bigelow’s belt, not least the only Oscar win for a female director but Point Break may be her greatest in terms of pure entertainment. Bigelow was no stranger to genre before or after her surfing crime caper. She co-wrote and directed the horror-western Near Dark in 1987 before following 1991’s Point Break with the sci-fi thriller Strange Days in 1995. Bigelow’s early films have been received with varying degrees of financial and critical success but it is undeniable that she helped pave the way for genre films directed by women.
Point Break is about FBI agents Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) and Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey) attempting to catch a gang of surfing bank robbers known as the Ex-Presidents. The gang is lead by Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) and to get to the gang Johnny befriends Bodhi. But is it just friendship? There’s an inherent homoeroticism to action films whether it’s the latent brotherhood of John Woo’s Hard Boiled or the rippling planes and mountains of muscle on display in Rambo or Commando.
It’s hard not to watch two men gaze deeply into each other’s eyes and read into it despite the hospital exploding around them in Hard Boiled. In the same way it’s hard not to read into the tension between Arnie and Carl Weathers in that bulging hand clasp in the first scene of Predator. Bigelow became well known for flipping genre conventions on their heads. In most films the hero and the villain hate each other but not in Point Break. Johnny and Bodhi are basically best friends.
The firelit football scene on the beach, for instance, is just an excuse for a lot of lean, shirtless men to tackle each other. Admittedly the context is so Johnny can prove himself to Bodhi but the subtext runs deeper. Although Johnny might be shacking up with Bodhi’s ex Tyler (Lori Petty) it’s Bodhi he wants to be close to and not just so he can arrest him. Point Break could be easily dismissed as just another action movie that used sports as an affectation but you’d be wrong – that’s what the remake did – it’s actually a sports movie with the action as an afterthought. We’re paying for the shootouts but, little do we know, we’re staying for all those wet abs and long, meaningful looks.
Genre films are often centred around men which is fine but it’s better to have a certain amount of these movies directed by women. A hundred years of film history has taught us how men see women but very little about how women see men. American Psycho is an important film in this teaching process. Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is a lame, pathetic, impotent dork. Directed and co-written by Mary Harron in 2000 American Psycho follows Bateman, a successful New York investment banker and possible serial killer, in his daily life and nightly killings. It’s a horrific hoot.
The film holds up on repeated viewings thanks both to Bale’s absolutely magnetic performance and Harron’s sympathetic and sarcastic look at Bateman. Anyone that hoped American Psycho would live up to its rightfully controversial and endlessly extreme source novel was bound to be disappointed. Fans of the book and the author as well probably wanted another Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer but flashier. With Harron at the helm that was never going to happen. The murders if or when they happen are rarely all that bloody with most of the violence being shown off-screen. It’s when we get to the scenes of Bateman interacting with others without violence that the films is at its most interesting although Paul Allen’s (Jared Leto) murder is an all-timer.
The way Bateman interacts with men and women are very different, almost alien. Men are people to impress with business cards, cocaine and reservations at Dorsia. Women, to Bateman at least, are incomprehensible and must therefore be either killed or used for sex. It’s when it comes to women that he can’t kill like his fiancée Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon) or his assistant Jean (Chloë Sevigny) that Bateman is at a loss. An attempted break-up with Evelyn, who he hates like everyone else he knows, ends in a teary tantrum that Patrick is desperate to flee. But it’s his date with Jean in his apartment that is the make or break point of the film.
As Patrick wanders the apartment viewing the evidence of his murders hidden in plain sight Jean talks about wanting to travel. All the while Patrick considers how to butcher her. He never does though, he is too lame and impotent to go through with it. It’s something that takes him the entire film to realise but Patrick’s realisation that his horrific, misogynistic impulses may have gone no further than pen on paper is a shocking moment for him. It’s also a moment that rips movies like The Wolf of Wall Street a new asshole. “This confession has meant nothing,” Patrick intones in hopeless voiceover as the film ends. He’s just like every other asshole out there which is probably the worst thing you can say about him or any other man.
But what about genre movies by women that look at women? The 2010s have genre films directed by women in abundance though it is still not enough. From Julia Ducoournau’s Raw to Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Bad Batch it’s clear that women can be trusted to put as much gore, shlock and violence onscreen as their male counterparts if only they were given the opportunity. One of the more deeply layered films of this current crop is Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook.
Amelia (Essie Davis) is a widowed single mother who struggles with taking care of her troubled young son Sam (Noah Wiseman). Amelia is still grief-stricken by the death of her husband in a car accident the same night Sam was born. This grief along with Amelia’s fears of motherhood and Sam’s own nightmares combine and manifest themselves as the Babadook. A spasmodic creature wearing a top hat and long coat the Babadook is a white faced nightmare drawn from deep within this small family’s collective unconscious.
Motherhood is a trying ordeal as any mother (or anyone with any shred of compassion) will know. Facing it down alone is a more terrifying prospect than any goblin, ghoul or ghost could possibly be. Amelia sees the Babadook everywhere; in Sam’s unusual behaviour, on a police station coat rack and eventually in herself. The film’s climax is unyielding and had me cowering at shadows and unable to sleep properly for the guts of six weeks. The Babadook is the best horror film I’ve ever seen and for no other reason than that does it deserve to be on this list.
Real world horror like the stress motherhood can place on a woman’s mind is a lot scarier than anything imagined. The same goes for the assaults we’ve all been warned about or against. Revenge is the best and probably only movie to analyse, chop up and rearrange the rape-revenge film to suit it’s own needs. Jen (Matilda Lutz) is an American socialite having an affair with Richard (Kevin Janssens) at his desert holiday home. When Richard’s two friends Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchède) arrive early Jen is flirtatious one night but aloof the next morning. Stan takes the next logical, rational step and rapes her before the three men leave her for dead in the desert.
Revenge is a lurid movie full of bright technicolour that would be more at home in a Dario Argento giallo film but still suits the desert setting incredibly well. Director and writer Coralie Fargeat is selective with what violence she chooses to show. The singular rape scene is mercifully brief and occurs mostly off-camera. The bloody revenge Jen exacts on Richard, Stan and Dimitri not so much.
In excruciatingly detail and bold, brutal colours Fargeat films Jen ripping out eyes, plunging her hand into a man’s open stomach wound and cauterizing her wounds with a beer can emblazoned with a phoenix. One scene lasts maybe a minute but it feels like a year as we watch a sniffling, sobbing Stan remove a shard of glass embedded in his foot. Revenge makes monsters out of men by rendering them both human and inhuman at once.
With the rise of streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Shudder genre films are more accessible than ever before. Streaming services are also more willing to take more risks than big budget studios are. It’s been ten years since we had our first and until now last Marvel movie directed by a woman. Lexi Alexander’s Punisher: War Zone bombed so hard despite all of its violence and visceral thrills that it’s taken Captain Marvel to set a course correction. Movies like Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel show a brighter future for big budget female fronted and female directed films but if you want the really good stuff you’re still gonna have to dig deep.