Fists clenched. Nostrils flared. Foreheads beaded with sweat. This image accurately describes any number of female characters in a year where angry women were ubiquitous and just as likely to appall as to appease. The murderous woman is cinema’s ultimate rebel in that she flouts the expectation that a female character should be likeable. In 2017 we’ve witnessed a number of women raging against their societal or bodily constraints. For Alice Lowe, director, writer and star of Prevenge, this means turning “the fear of violence against my own body outside of myself.”
Externalised malevolence is also at the heart of Lady Macbeth (written by Alice Birch). Married off to the sullen son of a wealthy mine owner, Katherine (Florence Pugh) is quickly initiated into the abrasive existence of 19th century wedlock. As her father-in-law intimidatingly instructs, she must perform her wifely duties “with rigour”. The film’s opening scenes unflinchingly detail this. Her skin is scrubbed raw, her hair brushed as though she were a doll unable to feel every violent wrench. She endures the torture of being hemmed in by a corset, and then forced to undress to the tune of her husband’s command.
Katherine’s response is to undergo a tyrannical transformation, in which her sensuality and venom ruptures that bodice and all its connotations of gentility. A later image of her, scrambling to bury evidence – dress bloodied and muddied, rifle in hand – is antithetical to the virginal veiled creature we meet in the opening shot. And yet these murderesses are never masculinised. The poster for Prevenge showed Alice Lowe’s Ruth standing side-on in a flowing red dress, her tousled brown hair resting on her shoulders, rejecting the muscular athleticism of action heroes such as Ellen Ripley or Katniss Everdeen. With one hand on her stomach, the other clutching a knife, she is at once life-giver and slayer.
Her ambivalence towards her impending motherhood is manifested in a Machiavellian killing spree and her deadly bump (personified via a sweet, infantile voiceover) is a potent obstacle to the flattening out or glossing over of what it means to be a woman. Though the blood is a comedic hue, Prevenge doesn’t sterilise the savage. “Is she dangerous?” asks Ruth, before slaying her first victim with a knife sliced across his throat. His last word is a resounding “yes”.
The notion of a woman’s weapon of choice being poison is embedded in our culture. Physical violence is deemed untenable with a woman’s ‘diminutive stature’ and ‘weak stomach’. That Katherine graduates from fouling her first victim with mushrooms, to bludgeoning her husband on their bedroom floor and exerting herself with the abominable and labour intensive task of suffocating a young boy, destabilises this stereotype.
Likewise, in Catfight two old college friends, embittered by entitled middle-class angst, engage in a series of fistfights. Ashley (Anne Heche) is an artist seeking the approval of a male dealer. Her canvases seethe with chaotic, gender-politicised rage that he suspects unsuitable for exhibition. It’s too “shocking” and “vulgar”. Veronica (Sandra Oh) is a housewife whose husband advises she back off the booze for his important business event. Amid cocktail party chatter, Veronica and Ashley’s verbal jousting escalates to profanity and finally full-blown physical aggression, replete with jaw-smackingly good sound effects.
The bloodied teeth, grunting and choppy camerawork make it look like The Bourne Identity for the yummy mummy crowd. And just when you think exhaustion has crippled them, the pummelling prevails. An outpouring of repressed fury, Veronica and Ashley’s fight becomes a rejection of men curtailing their pleasures and passions, labelling it excessive or embarrassing. Here female violence is depicted in all its ugly, undiluted glory. Every punch thrown and wound inflicted is a rallying cry for the reconstruction of femininity reverberates.
Rage is the only way for these women to impose their will, as their arguments and opinions are consistently met with violence and humiliation. Katherine finds herself stripped or slapped when declaring a preference for the “fresh air”, or contending that her sexual appetite is nothing “to be ashamed of”. That she makes the latter proclamation behind the columned and cage-like bannister of a staircase becomes a visual indication of her imprisonment.
Similarly silenced is Beatriz (Salma Hayek), the titular protagonist in Beatriz at Dinner. She’s a holistic healer and masseuse, reluctantly invited to dine with a rich client and their guests. However, the film’s composition depicts her difficulty in being seen and heard. Beatriz lurks at the periphery of each frame, traipsing behind Connie Britton’s host and her gaggle of guests, or hovering at the edge of conversations to the extent that real-estate mogul Doug (a Trumpian John Lithgow) mistakes her for a caterer.
In a scene of sudden apoplexy, Beatriz’s spiritual stoicism splinters and she commands attention. The camera flits between the dominant conversationalists (read: rich, white guests) as they prattle on about holiday plans. Beatriz is always framed in isolation, her face a picture of indignant stillness. “Hunting is all about patience,” says Doug, regaling the room with his poaching anecdote. After seeing photographic evidence, Beatriz’s takes a stand, emphatically voicing her repugnance and throwing Doug’s phone against a wall. The room turns to look at her, as if to acknowledge her presence for the first time.
It’s worth noting that white female rage is often associated with transcendence or triumph. With her final act of wickedness complete, Lady Macbeth’s Katherine sits on a faded ochre chaise lounge, front and centre of the frame and finally free of subjection. For Katherine’s maid Anna (Naomi Ackie), a woman of colour, her own rage against the helplessness of her situation – seen to be taken out on the kneading of dough or the scrubbing of her ward’s skin – manifests itself in muteness. Her status does not afford her the deviousness required to escape. Likewise, Beatriz’s final act of violence can only be imagined and her fantasy of retribution, in all its bloodthirsty fury, is just that.
Female rage at its core is anarchic. It’s a snarling and sparkling riposte to centuries of imposed subjectivity and silence. And for women watching in the audience? Such characters provide some much-needed catharsis. Seeing temper replace timidity, or passion override passivity, is a far more accurate representation of our emotions, particularly in the current social climate. As Rose McGowan, a vocal crusader in the sexual assault case against Harvey Weinstein told Dazed, “a lot of people are benefitting off us being quiet.” So why not make like the women in these movies (albeit without the murder) and embrace the rage that’s burning within?
Published 9 Dec 2017
The Prevenge director on how she owned her womanhood by flipping a perceived weakness into a strength.
Is it possible for women to love movies which promote a regressive, misogynistic worldview?