A particular theme has emerged at the Toronto International Film Festival, where several of this year’s movies paint portraits of women artists forced to grapple with how they — and their art — are perceived by society.
Some are unravelling from the pressures of creating in an industry that doesn’t want them to succeed, or their art is being used against them to devalue their humanity.
Atom Egoyan’s Seven Veils, for example, is about a Canadian opera director who begins to lose her footing while remounting a piece that her former lover (who was also her much older mentor) staged years before her. In Days of Happiness, an orchestra director’s promising career is tightly controlled by her agent-father, and she must choose whether to pursue perfection or happiness.
Then there’s Anatomy of a Fall, in which a successful German writer — and her novels — are put on trial for the murder of her husband; while the biopic Wildcat wrestles with southern gothic writer Flannery O’Connor’s unwavering belief in her often-contentious work, while it is chronically misunderstood by the people around her.
These appear to run counter to the mainstream feminist fare that has emerged since the #MeToo movement began, much of which centred, for better or for worse, around heroic women in pursuit of a better world (think Captain Marvel or She Said or Bombshell, or even most recently, Barbie.)
“There was this movement of people — an audience or even filmmakers — being like, ‘Oh, we’re going to make films about “strong female characters,”‘” said Justine Smith, a film critic and the screen editor of Montreal arts and culture website CultMTL.
“Which — I don’t know why — soon became a symbol of this caricature of a woman who can do no wrong, who is super strong, super powerful, is literally a superhero in a lot of cases. And it is not a reflection of reality. It reveals no complexity.”
“It ends up feeling like an over-correction that erases any complexity to being a woman, to being a human being, even.”
The offerings at TIFF suggest that a handful of filmmakers are increasingly preoccupied with a more complex portrait of women — and specifically, women artists. Some are manipulative; some are caught in a cycle of abuse; some have to defend the nature of their art.
“One of the things that emerged out of [the #MeToo era] is what it means to be a woman in the world of entertainment. And we can broaden that to be the world of art,” Smith said.
“We’re having a lot of very difficult or challenging conversations about how gender plays into the artistic process in general. And so, to me, that is what is kind of fuelling a lot of these types of films.”
Fascination with geniuses
Justine Triet, the French director of Anatomy of a Fall, discussed her feelings about how she is perceived as a woman in the creative industry, and whether some of that was channeled into her film, in which her protagonist Sandra’s novels are picked apart.
“The character in many ways is tracked or surveilled and she’s analyzed for much more than her actions. She’s analyzed for her [social] mores,” Triet said.
WATCH | The trailer for Anatomy of a Fall:
Much of the film plays out like a procedural, with excerpts from Sandra’s published works presented as evidence in the courtroom. (“Her books are a part of this trial,” the prosecutor insists.) The jury is a surrogate for the audience: Do we think she committed murder? What does that say about us?
“It took some time for me to come to really understand the stakes of a feminist struggle, and to be able to identify the places in which I was being judged and where I was a victim of a system of critique whereby women aren’t allowed to make errors in the same way, and where success is always a little bit more suspect,” she said.
Part of the appeal of these films might be our fascination with creative geniuses, says Smith.
Last year’s psychological thriller Tár was about a powerful, world-renowned conductor (Cate Blanchett) whose manipulation and abuse of her female subordinates, including a former student who committed suicide, begin to catch up with her. The title character — who is a lesbian — embodies many of the cliches of the male genius, Smith said.
“What I find interesting about a lot of these films about women is that they don’t immediately assume that they’re a genius in the way that we might a film about Mozart or another male genius,” she said.
“There’s more complexity to dealing with that question and what it means and also, again, what it gives you permission to do in the world.”
Similar themes reverberate across Seven Veils, as Amanda Seyfried’s character seems to enter the same cycle of power-tripping and manipulation that she was a victim of in her youth.
These ideas are also present, albeit to a different extent, in Wildcat. While O’Connor isn’t the director of an orchestra or an opera, nor does she have subordinates in a corporate setting — she holds a different kind of power, Smith says.
“She’s powerful because she’s perceived in a way as a genius,” she said. “We see all these scenes early on in the film where she’s at the Iowa [Writers] Workshops, where she’s in these classes and she’s a writer, and we don’t necessarily see the other students work, but through the framing, we understand that she is above them.”
Speaking to CBC News ahead of the film’s premiere, Wildcat star Maya Hawke — who is the daughter of Wildcat director Ethan Hawke and actor Uma Thurman — said that she was fascinated by O’Connor’s mixture of artistic ambition and self-doubt.
“I think a negotiation of where you belong and who you fit in with and how to do a good job at your work is a pretty common feeling,” and one that she wanted to explore within O’Connor’s story, she said.
WATCH | The trailer for Quebecois drama Days of Happiness:
Ethan Hawke said that the younger Hawke wanted to play a “really complex woman” whose life story didn’t revolve around a man.
“It was about herself and her knowledge of herself and her faith and her creativity and her own demons,” he said.
Chloe Robichaud, who directed Days of Happiness, says that, while she can only speak for her own experiences as a woman working in a creative industry, the demands put on women are a common thread that extend beyond the artistic world.
“I feel we can all relate to that kind of pressure to be everything,” she said. “I don’t think that it’s as specific. I think it is just what we ask in general to women.”