Sunday, July 31, 2011

MIFF session 7: The Woman

Chris is middle America. In his early 40s he has everything in the list David Byrne makes in Once in a Lifetime; clean cut and confidently in control of his life and those he is responsible for. He even has a woman he found in the woods tethered up in his cellar. Oh, the rest of the family know about it, too. They are going to civilise her. She's a family project.

That's the sum of the plot information I'm going to give. The rest of it is best experienced fresh and without peeping at the imdb. That might be hard to do for awhile if you don't see it at the festival but I urge you to wait until a cinema release (unlikely now our arthouse scene has been cremated) or on an optical format snared from o'erseas. If you have any genuine love for what cinema can achieve at its wildest and yet most intentional then you need to see this film. Simple as that.

I have seen gorier films and films more unrelentingly violent than this but not since Martyrs and Irreversible before it have I been so exhilarated by relinquishing my control over a film and letting it force its way into me like this.

I am unaware if director and co-writer Lucky Mckee has made any statement to this effect but this film, even more than Martyrs (for which the claim was made) this is an anti-torture-porn film. Where Martyrs takes a kind of Kubrick approach to the use of pain in art The Woman chooses a linear assault on its audience as brutal as the actions and motives of its characters. There is no luxuriating in the means of pain and, crucially, no path of identification with the perpetrator. The person who can empathise with Chris and his very scary son will require immediate and terrifying psychiatric attention. There is similarly no sleaze or covert invitation to fellow travel. We are meant to be appalled by what we are seeing. If the silence of the full house at the Russell this evening is anything to go by, I think we won't be hearing of any copycat cases any time soon in this neighbourhood.

The film's great strength is the shift in ethical position. An impossibly oppressive situation presented to the family reveals a range of responses that for the most part must be kept secret from the family autocrat. The results of dissent to the latter are horrifying. The real achievement of the film lies in its management of this complex interrelationship. The morality here is front and centre but also protean, self-preserving as well as righteous.

There is something else that impresses me about this film (note that I haven't even mentioned any performances yet: they are uniformly strong): the music. It starts out with a winceable reliance on the kind of American indy rock that parties like it's 1974 and punk is never going to happen, a robotic constant replay of old man's music presented as new. Then when things start getting very very serious it is temporarily binned in favour of some old style synthesiser grind that really does sound fresh by contrast. Why? Because its violence is entirely appropriate to the atrocity happening on screen. No coy, winking irony, no reprieving levity, just a big ugly noise that matches the pictures. Then it's back to the robot rock and the sense that this America is culturally on borrowed time. Morally, as well.

I should stop gushing and let you get on the case of tracking it down or booking yourself any session left.

Other things that occurred to me:  rather than the resolutely ok Life During Wartime, this is exactly the kind of thing Todd Solondz should have developed from his masterful Happiness. Chris with his violence with a smile and unrestrained colonising of other human life reminded me of Dubbya and his delivery of US foreign policy in the 2000s. The power of the woman is solid and punishing in this tale that, while it might in fact preach, practices practices practices....

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