This guest post by Shay Revolver appears as part of our theme week on Cult Films and B Movies.
From moment I laid eyes on the first frame of ET I have loved movies. I will watch anything on celluloid , breathe it in , just so that I can examine and explore every bit of awesomeness exuding from the screen. Good or bad, every film has something to offer. It’s kind of guaranteed, unless of course you’re a woman; then it sometimes can become a crap shoot. Having been born a woman, a minority woman at that, the chance of watching a film and identifying with the main character is slim to none. Sometimes that can be off putting, and I have learned to manage as best I could without taking myself out of the experience. Being a true lover of the art, I’ve learned to be forgiving and try to find the spot of light in the midst of the gender polarizing mess. I tend to go for complexity in art and for a very long time, I watched a parade of less than complex women be carted out in front of me on screen with a sole purpose of filling a very specific and stereotypical role. As a woman, most filmmakers will portray us as a prize to be won, an undeveloped side character, the quirky friend of the queen bee or the bitch. Growing up it was a jarring contrast to my real life where the women I was surrounded by were some of the strongest women I knew. I was raised a feminist. I was taught that my frilly dresses and love of pink were just as valid as my love of playing pool, video games, and climbing trees. I was raised to believe that everything was gender neutral, but that was never what I saw on screen. By the time I was close to hitting puberty, I had all but given up on the fantasy of seeing a strong, complex, multifaceted woman (of any race) on screen.
Most of the time when I get into this debate or lament the lack of strong female characters in media, fellow feminists speak of Joss Whedon. Despite my love-hate relationship with his work, I can see valid points in hailing him as the male champion of the strong female in the gender wars of visual media. But, what if the reigning white knight of strong female characters Joss Whedon isn’t femme powered enough for you? Where does a film loving gal like me go to find true complexity? Enter the often forgotten genius of Luc Besson. I have loved his work since a twelve year old Shay got her first glimpse of video that her big sister showed her. I fell in love with La Femme Nikita, the visuals, the style, the story and the lead. Besson doesn’t get as much credit as he should for his work. Not only does he create some of the easiest to relate to yet stunningly complex female anti-heroes to grace the silver screen, but he creates a world where women almost always end up happier and okay just being alone. Sure, there is a love interest, but he’s always a subplot or distraction on the female hero’s way to her end goal. Besson always has his female lead start from a place of weakness; they’ve had a hard, almost violent life experience, and after having gone through all manner of–often male inflicted–hell, they prevail. They soldier through the trauma. They don’t stay victims or acquiesce to the men in their life trying to save them. They do something that rarely happens on film; they think for and save themselves.[caption id="attachment_4885" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Anne Parillaud as Nikita in La Femme Nikita[/caption]
For the uninitiated, Nikita was the often too realistic story of a drug-addicted young woman who finds herself in jail after a robbery gone horribly wrong. Most filmmakers would have ended there, a cautionary tale of the woman led down the wrong path who ends up punished for her sins. But Besson took the story further; this broken young woman gets turned into an assassin that is used by her government to kill. The killing takes its toll on her, but she values her life and freedom over the other option provided her: death. She meets a guy, falls in love, and at the end of the day Nikita turned out to not be the same story I was used to. Besson takes the character from a scared, isolated, broken young woman and turns her into a slave to her own freedom. And then he does something that I hadn’t ever seen before. He lets her be her own hero. After an assassination gone wrong she sees her way out, a way to control her own destiny, and she does the unthinkable, she saves herself and escapes alone. She doesn’t end up with the guy, or stay as a puppet. She takes her evolution and goes off on her own to continue becoming the person that she wants to be. Watching her evolution and seeing all of the complexity that she possessed was an eye-opening journey, not just for the character, but for me as an artist.
Besson has spent his career showcasing strong women making their way through difficult situations, breaking down and then coming out the other end a little dirty, both literally and figuratively, with a delicate light shining on their sweat smeared faces. His world was filled with a range of all the complexities of human emotions and the evolution of women from girl to woman, finding a sweet spot of strength in between. His women were tough and strong because they needed to be. He showcased their beauty and didn’t feel the typical male filmmaker desire to make them man-hating, or imply that if only they had a man, their life would be so much better. In fact, most white knighting was turned on its head. There was no breaking of these women as punishment for their strength. Their strength and independence was shown as beautiful; it was a celebrated quality. It was what made them who they were and what got them out of the often dire end sequence that almost always had them being brutalized at the hands of one of their male antagonists. There was no cowering or apologies; in fact these women fought just as hard and just as strong as any man would. They were resilient and strong and, through Besson’s lens, these women were equals. True equals.[caption id="attachment_4886" align="aligncenter" width="400"] Natalie Portman as Mathilda in Leon: The Professional[/caption]
In his American follow up to Nikita, he gave us a young Natalie Portman as an actual broken little girl bent on revenge who joins forces with an older assassin who she wants to learn from. There seemed to be a step back in Leon: The Professional because despite all the brilliant acting from Portman, Oldman & Reno, the female character in this film was an actual child, and she needed to be protected. But, in true Besson form, he gave her a voice. She wasn’t just vocal; she was strong and defiant, and even in the face of being overrun, shouted at, and abused by men, she held her own. She stood her ground and didn’t get the usual punishment that any other filmmaker would have doled out. Even in the end when Danny Aiello’s character forces her to go to school, it doesn’t seem like patriarchy at all. Her revenge had been accomplished; she was all alone, and it seemed fitting to know at the end of it all, she was going to be alright. She was going to have a chance to become whatever she wanted to become.
I found myself excited again when Besson showed up with Colombiana, and I could tell from the trailer that he was back to his wonderful old tricks. This was a return to the Besson style that I could so easily relate to, and he even threw in a woman of color as the lead. Like all of his other female characters, he didn’t make her a stereotype or a caricature or a piece of scenery whose sole purpose was to provide visual entertainment as a prize for the male characters. In a way, Colombiana was what you imagine might have happened to Mathilde if Leon had made her wait longer to go after her family’s killers. She was complete and whole onto herself. Colombiana showed an actual evolution of its lead from a little girl who fearlessly escaped to a grown woman with her own agenda of vengeance as a means to find peace. Her passion and emotion, much like all of his female leads, gets her into trouble but, in true Besson form, she fights her way out. In the end, when her mission is complete and her journey is over, she lets go of her rage and moves on to a new life. She wasn’t a soulless killer and worthy of pain, she was human, a little girl who fed the beast inside of her until it had had its fill. She was real, complex and human and we could relate to her pain and growth.[caption id="attachment_4887" align="aligncenter" width="580"] Zoe Saldana as Cataleya in Colombiana[/caption]
A lot happened in between Nikita and Colombiana, but the messages stay the same. When Besson is directing you’re assured that there will be a woman in the lead and she will be complex, independent, strong and, with the exception of The Fifth Element, the love story would be a side story and not the main attraction. His resistance to making a romantic love story the core of the female antihero’s journey is one of the things I love about his work. When he does show us our lead’s romantic entanglements, he does show only a side story, a throwaway to the real star of the show, the woman and her journey. He makes the men part of her scenery, her manic pixie dream boys who show her how to lighten up and let go. An extra in the movie of her life whose sole purpose is to give her a glimpse at a life she could have when her journey is complete. He lets his female leads do exactly what any male director would allow their male lead to do without batting an eye. He doesn’t try to sugar coat the reality of the situation by showing them as permanent victims. He allows them to grow, evolve and be who they are, be it good, bad, or a work in progress. His camera loves strong women. Their strength is what makes them beautiful. It does not sexualize them or treat them as less than the men on screen. Through his lens we are all human and we are all equal. And, I can’t think of anything more feminist than that.
Shay Revolver is a vegan, feminist, cinephile, insomniac, recovering NYU student and former roller derby player currently working as a NY based microcinema filmmaker, web series creator and writer. She’s obsessed with most books , especially the Pop Culture and Philosophy series and loves movies & TV shows from low brow to high class. As long as the image is moving she’s all in and believes that everything is worth a watch. She still believes that movies make the best bedtime stories because books are a daytime activity to rev up your engine and once you flip that first page, you have to keep going until you finish it, and that is beautiful in its own right. She enjoys talking about the feminist perspective in comic book and gaming culture and the lack of gender equality in mainstream cinema and television productions. Twitter @socialslumber13.