Reel Women: The Women Were Fierce at Fantastic Fest 2014
The Fantastic Fest film festival in Austin provides us with tons of genre films every year, and as such, we’re often treated to some grim and violent narratives -- narratives which can typically include violence perpetrated against women and can sometimes skew a bit on the masculine side of things. But this year’s festival was wonderfully diverse and filled with some incredibly fierce female-oriented features, ranging from smart and terrifying horror to darkly comedic and biting family dramas, and a seriously brilliant satire on gender politics.
Walking around the fest this year, the most talked about films featured strong female performances. ‘Force Majeure’ was a definite favorite, an exceedingly dark comedic drama about a family on vacation in the French Alps and what happens when the father of that family deserts them right when an avalanche almost hits. What follows is an increasingly and gloriously uncomfortable battle between an exasperated mother and a cowardly father, a contemplation on false masculinity -- a more sophisticated and female-focused version of the totally batshit ‘Escape from Tomorrow,’ if you will. Lisa Loven Kongsli’s performance as the fed-up Ebba is a beautifully complex thing to behold -- even something as simple as a scene in which she brushes her teeth while glaring in the mirror alongside her husband speaks silent volumes to the rattling of her mind. Ebba is intolerant and toys with her husband, testing him in subtle but hilarious ways, pushing him to step up and be the man and father he projects himself to be. The film asks many questions about selfishness and selflessness, but it also posits the notion that women are inherently more ferocious and braver than our male counterparts. Ultimately, men are just big weenies.
Other films which received a lot of praise this year were ‘The Babadook’ and ‘It Follows,’ both of which are horror films with strong female leads, and are helping to prove that the genre still has fresh perspectives and the ability to scare us senseless. I reviewed both films separately, but there’s another film that deserves some serious attention: Jason Banker’s ‘Felt,’ his low-key sophomore effort, which follows a fascinating artist and sexual assault survivor named Amy. ‘Felt’ stars real life artist Amy Everson, who created all the pieces in the film herself. Banker was inspired by Everson, her work, and her story, and collaborated with her on the film. Much of it is shot documentary-style, which allows for us to connect more intimately with Amy, which is especially crucial in the film’s more horrific moments. ‘Felt’ examines the difficult struggle of trying to reclaim your life post-trauma, as Amy tries to take agency for herself using her art in some wonderfully bizarre ways, but it’s also a great, damning exploration of rape culture and sexism, and how that culture can nebulously extend past the act of rape itself. ‘Felt’ hits on a very specific, personal, and relatable topic in ways that are so poignant. No other film has approached these precise ideas before, and that in and of itself is pretty exceptional.
For all the dark and grim stuff we see at a genre festival, a movie like ‘Jacky in the Kingdom of Women’ is a breath of fresh air. A joyous satire on gender politics starring Charlotte Gainsbourg? Yes, please. The film takes place in a fictive land where women rule as a militant faction, led by a dictator and her daughter (Gainsbourg), who is soon to be wed off before she can succeed to the highest ranking. But first she must choose her “Big Dummy” to marry, so her mother throws a ball, inviting all the eligible boys in the land to buy a ticket to attend and vie for her affections. The boys in the film wear burqa-esque garb and are treated as housewives and do all the chores, the people in the kingdom eat mush that looks like semen and comes out of their plumbing, and everyone worships horses -- because what’s girlier than horses? ‘Jacky in the Kingdom of Women’ is like a gender-swapped ‘Cinderella’ set in a place that’s like North Korea meets the French countryside. It’s riotous and joyful and weird, and its gender politics are very tongue-in-cheek. This isn’t a film that’s trying to cut deep into something -- it’s just gleefully making a jerk-off motion and rolling its eyes while saying, “Yeah, well, how do you like this crap?” The delightfulness of the film could probably best be embodied by a scene in which our young male protagonist is accosted by female militants in the woods, who masturbate in front of him and force him to suck on their breasts -- a strange sigh of relief at a genre festival where we’re so used to seeing the roles reversed.
There were so many more great films and women at Fantastic Fest this year that it’s hard to discuss them all -- ‘Darkness by Day’ was a neat but minor take on an old horror convention, one that had us empathize with characters we never would have in a worn-out narrative. The lead actresses in films like ‘Alleluia,’ ‘Spring,’ ‘Blind,’ and ‘Goodnight Mommy’ were all so vital and so lovely, and really anchored those films with amazing performances.
Each and every year Fantastic Fest delivers some surprising films, but this year more than any other year, there was a real prevalence of great women on screen -- so much so that I didn’t even get around to seeing all of their work. So often with genre films we think of action, violence, and horror, and these things can typically not be kind to their female characters, but Fantastic Fest really proves that there are some great female-centric genre films being made every year.