Fantastic Women

Ian Haydn Smith
Crown Shyness Performance The 8th edition of New Horizons Studio+

Beyond the excellent Good Girls Gone Bad strand in this festival (see the interview with Ewa Szabłowska), there are a clutch of films screening in the festival that explore singular women in the distant past, recent past and present.

Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled is very much in keeping with her previous work. Though some critics have been disappointed that she has removed the characters of colour that appear in the source novel and the 1971 Don Siegel adaptation (that film is hardly a beacon for political correctness, so negative comparisons are more than a little spurious), her interest lies in exploring aspects of femininity within a specific environment. The young students at a school in the Deep South, just hidden away from the ravages of the American Civil War, could easily have been the Lisbon sisters from The Virgin Suicides (1999), Coppola's feature debut. And the ethereal atmosphere - at once riven with emotion yet coolly detached - is a signature approach that can be found in both Coppola's film work and photography. What isn't so commented on is Coppola's sense of humour. Even in the midst of war, with threat - both physical and sexual - not just an abstract concept but physically manifested in Colin Farrell's wounded soldier, Coppola includes moments of sly humour, such as Nicole Kidman's school head suddenly flustered while washing her injured charge, or - more darkly - in the shared mirth at the tastiness of a seemingly benign plate of mushrooms. Coppola marks out a very distinct woman's world and woe betide those who disrupt it.

20th Century Women is Mike Mills' companion piece to his earlier Beginners (2010). That film explored his relationship with his father just prior to his death, while his new film travels back to the 1970s and details his relationship with his mother and the woman who shared a commune-like existence with her in Southern California. Lucas Jade Zumann plays Mills' on-screen alter ego, but the real star of the film is Annette Benning, his mother. It's a performance that runs the gamut from barnstorming - her rages against corporate society alone are a reason to see the film - to subtly nuanced, particularly in the moments where she explains to Jamie that no one is ever perfect, least of all her. The household is rounded out by Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig (whose hilarious menstruation dinner conversation was entirely improvised) and Billy Crudup, acting as a mostly ineffective father figure. Mill's rambling approach to narrative imbues the film with a snapshot quality regarding these characters' lives, allowing each - but particularly the women - to shine.

In present-day Chile, transgender waitress Marina finds her world turned upside down following the death of her long-term partner Orlando. This alone could destabilise one's life. But in Sebastián Lelio's A Fantastic Woman, it is the fallout of this tragic incident and the prejudice she has to endure by which Marina shows her true metal. Orlando's family loathe the choices he made late in life and see Marina as little more than a pariah. Everything she built with her lover is threatened, but she isn't going to go down without a fight. Daniela Vega's extraordinary performance is sassy, audacious and heartfelt. Lelio never views her as a victim, no matter how victimised she is. Her journey is harrowing at times, but like the protagonists in Coppola and Mills' films, she is most a singular, defiant and fantastic woman.

Ian Haydn Smith

Ian Haydn Smith is a British writer and editor. Formerly the editor of the International Film Guide, he is the co-author of New British Cinema and author of the forthcoming The Story of Photography. He has attended New Horizons since 2008.

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