While this year in film offered varying narratives, perspectives, and styles, it was the women audiences saw on screen that left an indelible impact. Intersecting identities and specific lived experiences were embraced, leaving so many in awe. But more than simply seeing women on screen, this year brought an immense cathartic experience for many. Here, we look back at the range of rage and relationships from a selection of female-driven films.
If there were ever a moment where art mirrored so cathartically the present circumstances of the world, this year in film would be a prime example. While the past two years’ post-election fare of film embraced ‘the Other,’ this year brought stories of women that were powerful, resilient, and vexed.
To have the release and connection of seeing that frustration mimicked on screen brought validation to many. This year, female characters did not once yield to audience comfort, leading moviegoers to confront the rage of women in its varying forms. From controlled and purposeful, to contorted, tired, and blistering, the range of female rage was full of staggering performances and characters.
Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge was is one of the first films out of 2018 that revisited a tired narrative and subverted genre expectations. With a leading performance provided by relative unknown to American audiences, Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz, Revenge upheaved the horror and thriller genre. The film sees Lutz portraying a woman seeking restitution in a most violent way. After her brutal rape and assault, Lutz’s Jen is left for dead – her blood on the hands of three vile men. But in a turn of survival that becomes the ultimate tale of retaliation, Jen’s rage, fueled by newfound strength calculated in rageful retaliation is brought down on these men in the most brutal of ways. It’s cathartic and gory, offering a new perspective to a sub-genre that seemed to have run its course.
Sharing vengeance and a need for righteous justice, Craig William Macneill’s Lizzie reinterprets the Lizzie Borden story as a suppressed rage released into a violent end. Dominated by the patriarchal, abusive world around her, Chloe Sevigny’s understanding of Lizzie Borden is one that allows Lizzie to speak her truth. Bearing witness to the unrelenting cruelty of her family, and by a connection that which is inflicted upon by Kristen Stewart’s Bridget, the final act of rage bursts into a calculated, violent attack. But as the audience sees the pain suffered by Bridget and Lizzie, this interpretation lends itself to offer the pair as trapped women. Therein lies a recognition of their pain, circumstances, and an understanding of their actions.
Shifting to Ari Aster’s summer-horror-hit, Hereditary combines a family falling apart with the backdrop of inherited trauma and pain. Constantly thrust between chapters of grief and under the burden of having to ‘keep it together,’ Toni Collette’s Annie feels everything all at once. Often imprinting her mindset through her artwork, Annie, in one of the film’s most stirring scenes thanks to Collette’s superb performance, releases herself. Yelling at her son, standing at the dinner table, it is the apex of her frustrations, confusion, and grief supplanted into a rage that is controlled and firm. Throughout the film, Annie is given the task of trying to dismiss her grief; to carry on. Eventually, she confronts (and releases) her demons. Horror breaks loose within the last moments of the film and an unrelenting examination of a woman in grief, enraged by the demons she cannot control and those who would seek to repress her emotions.
A point of frustration with pockets of rage audiences don’t often see was the story of Charlize Theron’s Marlo in Tully. Unquestionably, there is rage and frustration to go around in motherhood, and Diablo Cody’s script articulates that experience in an honest manner that is at once jarring and then reaches out for empathy. Marlo’s rage is one of regret and at times self-destruction. But the film endeavors to – and succeeds – in the task of wholly sympathizing with Marlo. There’s a connected strand of rage that comes with motherhood; dissatisfaction, maneuvering of identity, and trying to belay the judgements of others. Cody’s script presents motherhood as a thankless role, and in doing so renders the rage of motherhood in a way that validates and renders empathy.
Leading into the fall, films like Björn Runge’s The Wife and Wash Westmoreland’s Colette offered familiar stories; great women residing in the shadows of mediocre men. With Knightley and Close’s superb characterizations, the rage of the subjugated wives lies in the palpable frustration of being touted as nothing more than an accessory to the great works of men. Adding insult to injury and bolstering that rage is the manipulation of their partners. The men warp the idea of the women’s work as a collaboration with their husbands. “We aren’t bad people,” Jonathan Pryce’s Joe says to Close’s Joan in The Wife. When the final seizure of rage arrives, there’s a bold calculation and bluntness both women have; undressing and verbally decapitating their husbands.
In these calculated depictions of justifiable actions is the rage that the women of Widows harbor. Of the films from this past year, it shows intersecting identities and each woman’s individual grappling with a shared situation. Working together, each tackling a specific role, their rage is fueled by a need to take care of themselves and their families. In a world of transactions, the women here must foot the bill their partners could not pay, and they do so in a steady, calculated effort. It is a rage fueled by disappointment of the men around them and a system that does not allow them to break in, literally, until they forge their own paths. Tactical and self-sufficient, the women of Widows formidably reap what their husbands couldn’t even sow.
In a different path of rage, through the matriarchal world of Suspiria, director Luca Guadagnino vexed audiences with his slow-moving, garish film. In the realm of these women, the outside world is a mess while their own sanctuary feels stagnated. With rage inflicted on the body and through the body, Suspiria’s women unleash their frustrations on the world through ritual and transgressive movement. It’s their stunning power and the preservation of order the reaps a final dance sequence full of blood, violence, and throbbing bodies. Carnal and spiritual, it’s a subtle examination of rage building up for nearly two hours to a final act strewn with gore. In the final moments of the film, Dakota Johnson’s Susie warns Dr. Klemperer, “We need guilt, Doctor. And shame. But not yours.” It’s an indictment of the world women live in, and how their frustrations and rage could unleash a most violent turn.
Giving way to a more internalized, youthful rage, Madeline’s Madeline turns a stunning performance and announcement of Helena Howard’s brilliance. All through the film struggling with her mental health while her white teacher begins to slither into her Madeline’s world, Howard is the best part of a narrative seeking out its storyteller. In a stirring scene, Howard’s Madeline unleashes a monologue full of the rage that she is not the one in charge of her narrative, even before seen practicing a silent scream in the mirror. It is the catalyst of a film that is jarring and internalized through Madeline’s lived experience, one she cannot help but find the willful art of her teacher trying to infiltrate. Madeline’s culminating monologue and subsequent collaboration with others identify her frustrations, releasing her rage and finding her personhood.
That cathartic feeling carries through Regina Hall’s celebrated performance in Support The Girls. Hall holds up tremendous emotional weight. As the manager of restaurant, “Double Whammies,” Hall’s Lisa balances her staff, her boss, and her family, rarely given time for herself. It’s a staggering implication of the role women find themselves; trying to maintain it all when internally coming to terms with what it all means. Hall is so commanding given the enormous weight of everyone else around her. When confronted early on in the film by Danyelle about how she is feeling, Danyelle declares to Lisa, “You know what comes next right? Screamin’ and freakin’ the fuck out.” Sure enough, by the end of the film Lisa, Danyelle, and Maci (Haley Lu Richardson) stand on the roof of an office building and scream. They scream about nothing; they scream about everything. They scream because they haven’t been able to scream before.
Going through just a handful of the tremendous films from this year, the consistent theme so many female characters grappled with was rage. Through these films, ones mentioned and ones that weren’t examined, audiences were placed in the position where they had to bear witness to the range of female rage. In these narratives, women were commanding, frustrated, vengeful, bearing their emotions to audiences. Women possess the innate, societally internalized quality of recognizing and digesting their emotions. Conditioned to be in touch with the deepest empathy, rarely is the way women grapple with and demonstrate their rage examined so thoroughly. This year, however, women were free to be enraged and frustrated. It was a cathartic year to bear witness to the rage of these women, all the while women in audiences are feeling the rage; feeling it validated.
Whether it was listening to the Kavanaugh hearings or the chronic reminder that women were still marginalized in cinema, it was amazing looking at Twitter and, for probably the first time, seeing women support each other. We championed movies that presented the femme experience in a positive light and railed against those that didn’t do us justice. In some cases, the divides of privilege caused us to look at our community and see how much further we had to go. Regardless, watching relationships evolve between women in the world was being mimicked on-screen to beautiful effect.
Several prominent features examined isolated communities of women and the cooperation that needs to arise from circumstance. In Alex Garland’s Annihilation, five women are tasked with going into a mysterious “shimmer” to prevent its spread. Each woman comes with her own baggage, whether it be internal or external. All the women are guarded, holding secrets from each other. There’s a mutual distrust that’s only enhanced by the Shimmer itself, a strangely beautiful but unexplainable mass that refracts our thoughts, feelings, and failings. In a way, the Shimmer is like all the information we’re privy to today, broken down and fed to us via social media that shows the best and worst of us as individuals.
But for Natalie Portman’s Lena, interacting in this isolated, and female-dominated community, causes her to realize her own relationship with her husband is irreparably broken. Lena doesn’t want to disclose that her husband was part of the previous expedition sent into the Shimmer who presumably “went crazy.” Her relationship, already perceived as broken before her volunteering for the expedition, is the source of her depression and melancholy. By entering the Shimmer and working with the other women, Lena is forced to confront her own failings. In the film’s conclusion, she fights a version of herself, only to return home a changed woman.
Annihilation’s ending is intentionally ambiguous. Lena is different, and how will that alter her relationship with her husband going forward? In the end, Annihilation seems to say that, with women’s increased social awareness and open hostility to the patriarchy, it’s hard to keep a relationship afloat, particularly if the two lovers are now literally different people because of their experiences.
In Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria, like Annihilation, the women are considered the creme of the crop. As elite dancers at the Markos Dance Academy, they are perceived as special, and yet this specialness extends to them being grist for a coven of witches. Witches have always been a popular conceit, but especially in 2018 the idea of the insular, protective coven of women contained an added cache. The women here aren’t perceived as malevolent to the outside world; we never see them engage in horrific acts to outsiders. In fact, when they are using their powers, it’s often to show the stupidity of men – as seen with two police detectives who they undress and mock. It is in newcomer Susie (Dakota Johnson) that order is restored and the bad women deposed and replaced.
Suspiria is also one of several films this year that openly points out the fears of being a woman and attacks men for it. The character of Dr. Klemperer (Tilda Swinton) is on a search for his wife, only to discover she was put into a concentration camp. He suffers guilt from this because he failed to believe her fears. At one point a character says that women should be believed, a pointed critique to men everywhere in the wake of the #MeToo movement. A similar sentiment is echoed in The Favourite, when Emma Stone’s Abigail beats up Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn), screaming at him “Men should not sneak up on women!”
The Favourite and Mary Queen of Scots takes the idea of women in isolation and infuses it with a sense of power. Compared to Suspiria’s deeply ingrained presentation of religious power, The Favourite looks at female-led political power. Compared to Mary, wherein Saorise Ronan’s Mary Stuart is often at the mercy of her male Parliament, Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is the capricious one. The men around her all defer to her or try to get themselves into her esteem, and doing that often puts them at odds with her de facto favorite, Lady Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). Where Mary Queen of Scots shows the ways women were limited in power, The Favourite champions them, especially in their relationships. The relationship between Lady Marlborough and Queen Anne is romantic, but also heavily steeped in love, appreciation and respect. Lady Marlborough isn’t afraid to tell the Queen the truth because “that is love.”
This idea of women being able to talk authentically, if only to each other also comes through in Paul Feig’s noirish throwback, A Simple Favor. Emily (Blake Lively) and Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) spend their afternoons drinking martinis and telling each other secrets. Where Emily feels the need to lie, unable to put her guard down, Emily finds a sympathetic ear. This isolated woman who has confined herself strictly to motherhood, Stephanie is express desire and autonomy with Emily. When Emily disappears, herself drawn to help out her relationship with her sister (which goes horribly wrong), Stephanie is more saddened by the loss of an understanding ear than anything else.
A Simple Favor also shows the fallacy of men. In a year where women were questioning men at every turn, movies were emphasizing that the true bonds were found between women and that heterosexual/romantic relationships were fraught with peril. In Widows, nearly every woman in the cast is let down by a man. Left alone, with a 2 million dollar debt to collect, Veronica (Viola Davis) must round up the widows of the men her husband worked with to pull off a heist to get the money. Each woman has a reason to join, from Linda’s (Michelle Rodriguez) husband using her store as collateral to Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) complete helplessness because of societal expectations that she should rely on a man to provide for her. Each woman is forced to confront the lack of ownership in their lives, aided by the belief that men take care of things.
This was a throughline running through many films, from Emily’s husband Sean (Henry Golding) being shot at the end of A Simple Favor, only to have the camera never show us he survived because he’s unimportant in the grand scheme of things, to Lena’s husband in Annihilation doing nothing more than mindlessly staring, unable to survive in the new world the Shimmer’s spit him into, to Bad Times at the El Royale’s swaggering Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) being less of a God and more of a pervert. As Marina de Tavira’s character says in Roma, women are all alone, and that was true on so many levels. Thankfully, women returned to the world of female friendships to find succor, and it ended up helping keep us all afloat.
Every year, the boundaries of narrative are being pushed into a more inclusive, intersectional frame. Looking back at another incredible year for film, it is the stories of women that captivated and motivated a deeper examination of the portrayals of women on screen; how we see them and how we, in turn, see ourselves. Cathartic and connective, women were an absolute powerhouse. Even more, the varying ways we saw women, particularly in their rage and relationships, offered a conclusive call to action; a desire for more of these narrative, a demand they continue to be told.