On this edition of Sunday Night MUBI, Field of Streams explores 5 great titles that honor National Women’s History Month
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It’s National Women’s History Month; the month where we honor and recognize the strides that women have made and continue to make throughout the world as well as offer up a reminder of the accomplishments still needing to be achieved. While the championing of women and their contributions to society are all bigger than a single month can possibly contain, this month is a vital tool that ensures that the world never forgets what the once dubbed “softer sex” has done to help further progress and change.
Nowhere has the state and status of women been more influential, at least on a visual level, than in films. The image of women is an issue the industry has been at war with almost since its very conception. Many industry players, from producers to movie critics, have wrestled with bringing well-rounded illustrations of female characters to the screen which reflect the truth of the female experience. At the same time, the journey of women behind the camera has enjoyed its own bumpy road with female contributions going unheralded and the visibility of women filmmakers finally beginning to become more celebrated than ever before. In this edition of Sunday Night Mubi, we offer five examples from the streaming platform, which either offer up films featuring complex heroines at their centers as well as a pair of titles from two female directors who have more than made their mark on the industry.
Derek Cinafrance’s portrait of a romance between two people (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams) who now find themselves grown more apart than they ever anticipated is still one of the most emotionally gripping love stories of the 2010s. Cianfrance’s decision to interweave flashbacks with present day offer up an intriguing puzzle as he charts how Dean (Gosling) and Cindy (Williams) went from being made for each other to two people whose marriage is killing them. An Oscar-nominated Williams is marvelous here. Cindy is one of the most complex female heroines to ever come along in a film of this genre. We see her wrestle with what she wants from her marriage and herself in ways so incredibly striking. The scene in which she orders Dean to be violent to her during their lovemaking says far more than any emotionally-driven monologue ever could. Williams boldly delves into the darkness of her character and takes on Cindy’s flaws, not with judgment, but with honesty, making Blue Valentine memorable over a decade later.
THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS
Double Indemnity may have made Barbara Stanwyck the First Lady of noir, but it’s The Strange Life of Martha Ivers which proved she was worthy of such a title. In the film, Stanwyck plays the title character, a woman who years earlier killed her wealthy aunt (Judith Anderson) out of rage with a fire poker, inheriting her millions and eventually marrying the only witness to the crime (Kirk Douglas) in an effort to keep him under her watch. When an old flame (Van Heflin) comes back to town, Martha’s past comes back to haunt her. In terms noir mystery twists and turns, there admittedly aren’t a great deal here. What there is instead is a “top of her game” Stanwyck delivering as a woman who has spent her life bitter and rageful to the point where such emotions control her every move. We see Martha continuously doing battle with her past (and herself) in every scene, which never gets tired or passe in Stanwyck’s spellbinding grasp. Martha’s fate may be in keeping with noir conventions, but the fact that it’s her who decides her own fate was revolutionary and makes The Strange Life of Martha Ivers a telling and poetic edge.
Considered by many to be the only horror film Robert Altman ever made, Images stars Susanna York as a children’s book author who has retreated to her childhood home in order to deal with visions which continuously haunt her. When Altman first presented his script for Images to York, the actress was as unhappy with it as he was. It was only when she told him of a children’s book she had been working on, did the true film begin to take shape. Altman read it and immediately incorporated various lines of York’s prose and concepts into the script. Perhaps this is why Images lives up to its title with such disjointed visuals, which are also endlessly striking. York’s input and brilliant performance proved invaluable as Images becomes one of the most frightening and visceral portraits of female madness on the screen. As Cathryn, York is so magnetic, trying to fight off the illusions and apparitions which refuse to let her go, while remaining very much a woman of her time. A solid psychological portrait and an underrated masterpiece.
Ida Lupino’s transition from 50s leading lady to director is almost unthinkable, given how only in the last few years does the tide actually appear to be turning. Still, as the second woman to ever join the Director’s Guild, Lupino quickly proved herself with a cinematic language all her own. For many, late-noir offering The Hitch-Hiker, a story of two friends (Edmund O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy) who unknowingly pick up a serial killer (William Talman) while on a fishing trip along the California/Mexico border, remains her best work. A cousin to the flawless Detour, The Hitch-Hiker is ripe with suspense, twists and turns which Lupino handles just right. But it’s the interplay the actress-turned-director captures on film between the three men which comments on the likes of masculinity, class and good old fashioned survival. Lupino’s skill is such that never once do thrills sacrifice character. Instead, The Hitch-Hiker strikes the right balance between the suspense driving the story and the men trying to outlast it. It remains one of the most enthralling post-war noirs ever made.
One of the highlights of this past awards season (which as of right now, is still going on), was Kelly Reichardt’s period drama First Cow. The film tells the story of two men, a cook named Cookie (John Magaro) and a Chinese immigrant named King-Lu (Orion Lee), who meet in the wilderness of Oregon and soon decide to go into business together. Reichardt’s film is beautiful, quiet and thoughtfully; virtually everything a person could want from an awards-ready indie. But the joy of First Cow remains in the way Reichardt guides the story. What first seems as a revolt against a society which has written Cookie and King-Lu off, ends up becoming a tale of inspiration as well as suspense when the two begin stealing milk from the only cow belonging to the small town’s wealthiest man (Toby Jones). Reichardt indulges in the story’s tension just enough for it to have the appropriate effect before focusing on the shared brotherhood between the two characters. It’s here where the heart and soul of Reichardt’s film can be found and why the director and her deeply moving film very much deserve every bit of acclaim they’ve received.
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