Erika Bean examines how filmmakers have explored feminism, autonomy and representation on screen, and how that relates to Alex Garland's Men.
When women tell you about their experiences; about how they have crossed the street to avoid a man walking alone, about how they walk with their keys between their fingers as a makeshift weapon, how do you respond?
Not All Men
Do you make comments on how “not all men” are the enemy?
Such platitudes are obvious. Many of us know perfectly safe men, the difference there is that we know them. But even then.
Most women will, if pushed, be able to tell you of an experience they had where a man, one known or otherwise, has done something to make them uncomfortable. Many of those instances will edge into assault, sexual assault, or rape.
Do you still say, “not all men”?
If you do, then you are part of the problem.
Alex Garland's Men
Alex Garland's newest film, Men, stars Jessie Buckley as a bereaved young woman on a solo holiday in a small English country village. Every man she meets is played by Rory Kinnear, in various guises. A priest, a barman, a police officer, a naked man lurking in her garden. These men are all strangers to her, and while some can be perceived as an obvious threat and others not, they all have the same face, and they all generate the same fear. Perhaps, not all men are dangerous, but to a woman, they could be.
Garland previously penned the screen adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's novel ‘Never Let Me Go'. This story transplants issues of autonomy to both men and women, as the young cast discover they are clones, created to be organ-donors for their originators. Completion is the term used to describe when they die for the benefit of another person. They are created with a particular path in front of them and a fate that they cannot escape. The frustrating lack of autonomy for these characters is brought to the screen through their fantasies. They hear a rumour that if they can prove their value, be it through love, creativeness, or some other way they are special, they will get a reprieve and escape their fate. This is all eventually revealed to be an illusion. When it comes to autonomy, for these people, they don't have a hope in hell of getting it. How relatable this must be for some, not just in terms of being safe from sexual assault, but medical autonomy, reproductive freedom, and avoidance of discrimination regardless of gender, colour, or class.
Garland is no stranger to stories which centre women. Ex Machina examines the evolution of an AI, from childlike and innocent to empowered. As Ava (Alicia Vikander) gains more knowledge of her captors, she can use that to exploit them and escape from her captivity. Some may see this as a horror, and Ava as a sort of Glenn Close bunny-boiler archetype, using her guiles to punish those who have wronged her. But another interpretation is that she is a victim taking back control. Despite Ava being created by Oscar Isaac's Nathan – part of his collection along with the emotionless and robotic Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) – Ava is a sentient being. She has emotions, thoughts, and can use them to empower herself. Do we as parents feel like we own our children? Or do we have a duty to guide them towards freedom? This is the question Ex Machina examines.
Annihilation too examines the female connection to life and its creation as a team of women with varying skills and specialisms enter ‘The Shimmer', a mysterious haze that has appeared around the site of a meteorite that hit earth. Inside ‘The Shimmer', nothing about nature and how it connects seems to work as normal. Strange hybrids appear, DNA is manipulated, and people are deconstructed before our eyes. The women, led by Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh, examine this with reactions varying between fascination and repulsion. But at each step, they push forward – the creation of new life in all its stages is too interesting to be overcome by disgust or fear.
This is not the first time that women's fear has been central to the plotting and devices of cinematic tropes. Whilst the slasher genre has always had big breasted sluts (please look up SlutWalk if you are unfamiliar) at the centre of their stories, many of these films, for better or worse, serve as a warning against such terrible and unchristian behaviours. One of the earliest examples seemed to use a feminine perspective to really solidify the fear that builds in some of its most powerful scenes.
John Carpenter's Halloween builds each violent scene up in a female-centric way, often with women placing themselves in a vulnerable but seemingly inconsequential position. It varies as to how aware these characters are of their surroundings, but the camera focuses on the negative space behind them, encouraging the viewer to look in those gaps and try to puzzle out what lurks there. Michael Myers or The Shape (Tony Moran) is, of course, an obvious threat, but in Garland's Men this technique and image is applied to every man Jessie Buckley's Harper meets. Perhaps in Halloween this is a symptom of Carpenter's ongoing collaboration with a female writer and producer, the sadly missed Debra Hill.
Roman Polanski told similar stories of women who were placed in positions of powerlessness. Repulsion has Catherine Deneuve as an isolated Belgian immigrant in London. She is left alone in an apartment by her sister and over the course of a few days her mental state crumbles to the point where she is so afraid of being assaulted that she murders her landlord. It is a bleak piece of work from Polanski, and an ironic one in context, but it addresses the fears that can build into uncontrollable anxiety in women who are not given a safe space, who feel alone and are endlessly vulnerable.
Rosemary's Baby again has Polanski addressing female paranoia and lack of autonomy as Mia Farrow's body is sold to her neighbours by her husband in exchange for an improvement in his acting career. This addresses the idea that women's bodies are for sale, that women can be made to feel isolated and mentally unstable, and that ultimately their worth and value is less than that of a man, particularly once they are pregnant – a plot thread that is so relevant now, as women are realising that limitations to abortion laws in the US are allowing more autonomous rights to a corpse than a pregnant woman.
Some more modern examples allow women to empower themselves, with caveats in the interest of realism. Steve McQueen's recent adaptation of Lynda La Plante's ‘Widows' has four women attempting to carry out their deceased husbands' final heist. Gillian Flynn pens the screenplay, adding another story to her list of impure, empowered, guilty, but ultimately multifaceted female characters. From Viola Davis' Veronica to Rosamund Pikes' Amy Dunne (Gone Girl), Flynn's characters are some of the few given the space to be truly vicious in a way that women rarely are. These women are not simply reacting to their surroundings under the control and influence of men, they are the controllers. They are not the ones being set on fire; they are the spark.
Promising Young Woman takes a similar approach; however, the ending brings all sense of empowerment immediately back to a much harsher level. As Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) takes step after step to avenge her best friend, she gradually begins to lose herself in the process. Like so many women before her, Cassie eventually sacrifices herself for her cause. The consequences of her choices, if she feels she has a choice, are a complete loss of herself and eventually the loss of her life. She wins, but does she? How many women do we know in the public eye who face abuse, judgement, and attacks, because they dare to move beyond their apparent station?
Alex Garland's Men adds itself to a long list of movies, books and articles that are attempting to address what women face in the real world. Each story is met with varying responses, as people either accuse the filmmakers of virtue signalling, or they see the story for what it truly is: an attempt to tell women's stories in real time, with honesty, respect, and compassion.
Men is released in UK cinemas on June 3rd.