Written by Katherine Murray.
Last week, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) saw the world premieres of Nacho Vigalondo’s monster movie, Colossal, and William Oldroyd’s period piece, Lady Macbeth. Both of these are solid, carefully-made films built around a stunning performance from their lead actors – Anne Hathaway and Florence Pugh, respectively – and both tell the story of a woman surrounded by men who try to control her. Rightly or wrongly, both films also seem to presume that the best way for women to be strong and empowered is through physical violence.
In Colossal, Gloria (Anne Hathaway) struggles with problematic drinking, got fired from her job, and kicked out of her boyfriend’s apartment. She moves back to her home town to get her life together, but soon discovers that she’s psychically linked to a monster that appears in South Korea every morning to blindly stumble into skyscrapers, leaving a trail of chaos and destruction in its wake. This sounds like a completely bizarre and preposterous premise, but it works really well in the film. At first, it seems that Gloria will have to pull back on her drinking and behave in a more responsible way to deal with the monster, but it slowly becomes clear that there’s another antagonist in this story. At the risk of revealing one of the best twists in the film, it turns out that Gloria’s nice guy childhood friend, who initially seems destined to be her romantic interest, is actually a Nice Guy childhood friend – in that he secretly hates and fears women, and only pretends to be friends with them because he’s angling for sex. The second half of the film is about him getting increasingly vile and misogynist while she struggles to stand up to him.
At the screening I attended, Vigalondo explained that he’d been editing the film right up until the premiere and joked that all he could see were the mistakes he made. However, the mistakes don’t really show. There’s a little bit of fuzzy logic about the monster, and its origin story is built up to be more than it is but, overall, the film seems technically well-made and takes us on an understandable and unexpected emotional journey. The degree to which you enjoy this movie will be mediated by your Matrix quotient – meaning, if you were annoyed that Neo and Trinity killed a bunch of innocent people so they could look cool in The Matrix, you will be annoyed that Anne Hathaway’s monster kills a bunch of innocent people by drunkenly stumbling into a skyscraper. Colossal makes more of these deaths than The Matrix did, but not as much as it makes of the pain Gloria suffers herself.
That said, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Colossal and, even though I’m about to question the film’s use of violence as a path to power, this is a movie that deserves to land a distributor, so as many people can watch it as possible. There are interesting conversations to be had about the film, once it’s part of the cultural landscape.
Lady Macbeth is complicated, in that it’s an adaptation of an opera that was an adaptation of a Russian novel called Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, which does not, itself, have anything to do with Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Set in England, in the 1860s, the film follows Katherine (Florence Pugh), a woman who marries into a modestly wealthy family that hates her. The first act of the film depicts Katherine’s life as an endurance test – physical discomfort, humiliation, isolation, boredom, sleep deprivation, celibacy – that will apparently go on forever. By the time the murders start – and there are lots of murders in this film – we’re on her side.
This is Oldroyd’s first feature film (written by Alice Birch), after working mostly in theatre and, although everything looks gorgeous, there’s an overall broadness to the movie that would work better on-stage. All of the physical violence in the film is blocked and shot in ways that reveal it as pantomime; every line of dialogue and sound effect is crisp and loud as though there’s a chance we might not hear it.
Katherine intentionally goes from being sympathetic to villainous over the course of the film, and there are unanswered questions about some events – including what looks like a possible gang rape. The best explanation for the story came from Naomi Ackie, the actor who plays Katherine’s servant, Anna. During a Q&A, Ackie explained that to her, Lady Macbeth is about the choices people have when they’re oppressed, and how intersectionality leaves each of the characters with different options. The option Katherine chooses is to kill anyone who threatens her freedom and – without giving away too much – Gloria eventually resorts to violence in Colossal, too.
On the one hand, it feels great to watch these women fight back against men who threaten violence or have used physical violence to make them subservient – I got really emotional watching Colossal, and appreciated the care Vigalondo took developing the situation and exploring the misogynist undercurrents in what initially appears to be harmless behavior. There’s also a great moment in Lady Macbeth where Katherine stares at her father-in-law impassively during an outburst, and you can tell it’s because she’s already planned his death – it’s a much-welcome change after watching her bow to his wishes earlier in the film. On the other hand, watching these women meet violence with violence reinforces the idea that the best or only way to have power is to beat or kill someone else, which is an idea that’s bad for women (and many men) in the long run.
Men’s domination of women has historically hinged on physical strength and threats or deeds of violence. Although both Colossal and Lady Macbeth seem to propose that the best way for women to end their oppression is also through violence, the biggest gains women have made collectively in society didn’t happen because we started to beat men up – they followed from cultural change that placed more value on freedom, democracy, and equality. Some may argue that it’s important for women to learn to physically defend themselves, but the best way for us to ensure that women are treated like people rather than property is through dismantling intersecting systems of oppression and claiming an equal share of political, economic, and social power. Until we have that, women’s rights are an experiment that men can end at any time.
As committed to empowering women as both of these movies are – and I don’t doubt their commitment – the road to power on-screen looks a lot different than the road to power we’ve taken and probably should continue to take in life.