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12 October 2014

The Sick, the Betrayed, and the Dark Enlightened: Psychotic Women in Hollywood Films (Film Criticism)

by Rob San Miguel
Warning: Spoiler alert and adult content (Rated SPG)
[For the Film Review, click this]

Clockwise: Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone),
Alexandra Forrest (Glenn Close) and Bridget Gregory (Linda Fiorentino)
Rationale for the Use of Non-Free Media, click this

“Gone Girl” is the talk of the town because of the film’s many plot twists and the icy performance of Rosamund Pike, the femme fatale du jour.  The film can be interpreted in many ways, from the challenges of marital life, media voyeurism, and to the subjectivity of truth, akin to a modern-day Rashomon. "Gone Girl" is a well-crafted film albeit lacking. One Brun critic calls it "like a post-modern film or an attractive Easter egg; everything is on the surface but hollow inside. The film is everything and nothing at the same time." 

Still, the film is very entertaining, which is expected since David Fincher’s hands were on the helm. Fincher is astute in turning a simple story into something compelling as in the case of “Panic Room,” and streamline a convoluted plot into something coherent as in the case of “Zodiac.” However, the real center of “Gone Girl” is its female character, Amy Dunne, the prototypical psychotic scorned woman.   

Despite the progress in the quality of female roles in cinema, every decade or so, moviegoers are served with at least one popular unstable beautiful woman hell bent on punishing or killing men. In a way, the “psychotic beautiful woman” has become a sub-genre. Perhaps, the "psychotic woman" in film is just a re-imagining of the outdated "mad woman in the attic" in literature. 

In this so-called psychotic beautiful woman sub-genre, three fictional female characters stand out: Amy Dunne of “Gone Girl,” (2014) Alexandra Forrest of “Fatal Attraction” (1987) and Bridget Gregory of “The Last Seduction.” (1994)

THE CONVENIENTLY SICK

In terms of originally and female characterizations, Amy Dunne is a step back.  Glenn Close’s character Alexandra Forrest in Adrian Lyne’s “Fatal Attraction” is relatively more progressive than Amy Dunne. Amy is written not as a symbolic commentary on women’s role in current society, and she is not a tool for dark satire either.  Amy Dunne is pop culture crazy woman. She is written to entertain.

Many critics and psychiatrists have already elaborated on Amy’s mental state. Most noteworthy of all these analyses is from Psychiatrist Dr. Paul Puri, who specializes in personality disorders. His interview with Lauren Duca was published in Huffington Post on October 3, 2014. (Read it here).

Amy Dunne is clinically sick, and that is what drives her. She is just a beautiful patient, a convenient plot tool for a pop thriller. Rape, spousal abuse, the public and media’s voyeuristic and vulture-like nature are conveniently utilized just to create a thriller. There is nothing wrong with that. Good entertainment is good entertainment. Pop cinema is like soda. We know it does not have any nutrients and it is bad for us if we drink it in excess but we still enjoy it. It just annoys us when soda claims it is green tea. But I digress.

THE BETRAYED, FROM BOTH SIDES

In the case of “Fatal Attraction,” Alexandra Forrest is mentally unstable but not on the same level as Amy Dunne. Alexandra repeatedly attempted suicide and stalked her married lover Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas). She even killed then boiled the pet rabbit of Dan’s child. Yes, those are compelling evidences against Alexandra. However, her difference from Amy Dunne is that Alexandra is a well-written character, and superbly played by Glenn Close. Alexandra is an independent successful woman maneuvering her way in a man’s world, and in the 1980s. Imagine the sexism she had to face on a daily basis. Like Dan Gallagher, she wants to have the same freedom and privileges to which a man is entitled. And if that includes cavorting with a married person, so be it. If men can play, she should also be allowed to do so.

Unfortunately, Alexandra could not handle being quickly disposed after a temporary fling. She falls in love and she refuses being easily dismissed.  The film presents Alexandra as just another woman desperate for a man’s love despite being a successful editor of a publishing company. She is still incomplete without a man, and so if she cannot have one for herself, she has to steal another woman’s man. Whatever the root causes in the past of her erratic behavior, Alexandra is a functioning member of society. She can keep a job; in fact, she is a success. It is only in her relationships that she becomes volatile, conveniently of course, to move the plot and be the center of a cautionary tale about infidelity.

Despite being a narrative tool, Alexandra is flesh and blood, and the character’s impact on pop consciousness during the 80s is testament to her realness. Alexandra hit a nerve. When Alexandra shouted, “I'm not going to be ignored!” She is announcing her presence. She is not just a fling. She is not just a quick lay for a man. She may not be the poster girl for feminism but she is not easily disposable either. She demands accountability from men. 

The original ending of “Fatal Attraction” was different from the final cut. In the original ending, Alexandra committed suicide to frame Dan. Suicide is a logical course to Alexandra’s self-destructive nature. She tends to hurt herself than other people. The revised ending, on the other hand, panders more to the audience’s cry for blood. Moviegoers hated Alexandra for ruining a happy marriage, and so she must pay. The funny thing is that it takes two to ruin a marriage: the man and the woman in some cases. But in the film, only Alexandra experienced public flogging.  In a way, Alexandra's lover and the audience betrayed her. She is a self-destructive ambitious unstable woman so she may eventually kill. That is the assumption. Despite Glenn Close’s protest, Adrian Lyne re-shot the ending.The revised ending turned Alexandra from a deeply frustrated woman to a stereotypical cinematic psycho killer. It is also worth noting that Alexandra died in the bathtub, which is reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”

Moviegoers made “Fatal Attraction” a monster hit, case closed, unfortunately for Alexandra.

THE DARK ENLIGHTENED

On the other hand, John Dahl’s “The Last Seduction” features Bridget Gregory, brilliantly played by Linda Fiorentino. Bridget belongs to a different category. “The Last Seduction” is more of a neo-noir than a “psychotic beautiful woman” film. Bridget is a woman who plays like a man. She swears; she smokes; and she f*cks like a man. She is guiltless. In fact, she is amoral, for lack of a better word. She has no illusion about finding happiness if she falls in love with a man but she does understand the sexual pleasure she can get from a man. Pick up lines do not work on her because she will demand proof. For example, when a man declares that he is hung like a horse. Bridget dryly says, “Let’s see it,” and confidently unzips the man’s pants and grabs his penis to measure it. Luckily, Bridget is satisfied, takes her hand out and causally smells it.

Bridget has relationship with men if they serve her a purpose. She understands men’s weaknesses and plays with them, using men’s insecurities to manipulate or control them. Wait! For a minute there, I thought I was describing a stereotypical man.

Hatred towards men does not motivate Bridget. In the film, Bridget left her husband Clay Gregory (Bill Pullman) and took their money after he slapped her. Clay is still on his medical residency and Bridget supports him by working as a telemarketing manager. But the slap is not really her reason. She intends to leave him with or without the slap, which only happens once. Bridget is not a character that you can easily bully. In fact, the slap only proves that Clay is a loser, not equal to Bridget at any level. The only reason she probably stayed with him is to trick him into doing the dirty work. The slap was just her convenient excuse to escape. She was not even convincing when she told Clay on the phone that she left because of that slap. You can see her bull sh*t in her subtle mannerism and eyes. She was playing him.  

On the surface, Bridget seems like another amoral dangerous brunette that populates film-noir films. She is bad news for men. However, if you examine the character on an ideological level, Bridget is enlightened, albeit on the dark side. Instead of embracing the affirmative aspect of women’s liberation, the character embraces the other side. Bridget, the film character, showed moviegoers how the patriarchal man behaves. (Oh dear, did I just use patriarchal? Sound the alarm). But I digress.

Bridget knows that in man’s world, everything is utilitarian, even people. She still uses her feminity to lure men, but like all her other assets, her sexuality is just a tool. Bridget knows how man’s world works and she takes advantage of the system, not to further a greater cause, but her own.

In a way, Bridget is telling us. If you are attracted to the tall dark sexy bad boy, well, I am he with a skirt. Are you still attracted? Let me know so I can f*ck you, literally or figuratively.

Bridget is not relatable, unlike Alexandra is some level, but Bridget does not want any of our sympathy. Bridget is a walking deconstruction. In layman’s term, she is a critique of a male-imagined female persona. She is nobody’s victim. Most importantly, her sanity is what truly sets her apart from all those blond beautiful psychotic women in films. She is the sanest of all fictional female characters in a male-directed film, with the exception of Thelma and Louise. She sees the dark truth, and she did not blink nor turned away. She decided to play, and she won without dying unlike Alexandra, and without a man on her side as a shield unlike Amy Dunne.

If you strip “The Last Seduction” with all its substance and dark humor, you get the very blond Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) of “Basic Instinct.” (1992). But if you do that, you lose the point, which is all right because "pointless" is what “Basic Instinct” is about. 

I guess you can say that Amy Dunne’s film mother is Catherine Tramell, not Bridget nor Alexandra, and this explains why “Gone Girl” may be empty and still be figuratively all over the place. Substance is not important, it is the big bucks and the media frenzy that create artificial substance. 


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