WOMEN GONE WILD
Even though the number of women directors and show runners is still small, the ones that do break through are continually amazing us.
Especially when it comes to talking about sex. Maybe male artists have had so many more centuries and opportunities to explore these issues onscreen that the male POV seems a bit stale, tame and cliched comparison.
Maybe these female characters are so impactful because women are finally getting a voice at this moment when gender is fluid and censorship is dead, giving them a lot more creative leeway. And maybe women are just naturally more explicit when it comes time to time about sex and the rest of the world (men) are just now getting to hear that dialogue.
Our picks this week are provoked by Jill Soloway’s hot, shocking and artful new Amazon series I Love Dick. Be forewarned, this is a pretty Amazon-centric week.
Kathryn Hahn plays Chris Kraus, a floundering NYC filmmaker who accompanies her husband Sylvere (Griffin Dunne) to his writing fellowship in Marfa, Texas. There she becomes instantly, obsessively, erotically fixated on the cowboy artist who runs the place. His name is Dick and he’s played by Kevin Bacon.
Hahn’s character is a bubbling mess, with no discernable shame or boundaries. She immediately becomes known as “The Holocaust Wife” (Sylvere writes about the Holocaust) and starts frantically stalking Dick.
Meanwhile she records her obsession in a shameless series of letters, uses her erotic fantasies to rekindle the couple’s moribund sex life, and steals weed from the younger fellows.
I Love Dick is simultaneously arty, head-turning and erotic. And, features a hell of a lot of anatomy, if you care about that kind of thing.
In the week before it dropped we were hearing a lot of noise about I Love Dick; and we’re also admirers of Transparent. So we decided to go back and watch the feature film that brought Soloway into the spotlight. There’s a marked family resemblance between this movie and Dick.
In the film Kathryn Hahn plays an LA stay-at-home mom who lives in a spectacular Silverlake home. A wall of sexual apathy has halted marital relations with her app developer husband (Josh Radnor) and she’s desperate for something more stimulating than the momsters at the JCC preschool.
The couple goes to a strip joint with some adventurous friends and the husband buys her a lap dance with blonde pole rider McKenna (Juno Temple). When something starts happening in her crotch, she freaks out.
But this is a Soloway character. Within a few days she has stalked and befriended the stripper and installed McKenna in the spare bedroom under the pretext of saving her.
Things escalate from there – in ways that are both surprising and provocative — until the inevitable explosion.
Part of what’s remarkable is the lack of bourgeois moralizing and the extremes to which both Soloway and Hahn are willing to push the character as she reconnects with her lost libido.
The next two picks are UK imports.
Fleabag is a comic tragedy in six terse episodes. Within the first five minutes of the first episode our heroine is talking intimately to us (the camera) as she describes what is happening to her just out of frame – taking it up the bum.
Our heroine is the owner of a failing tea shop in London which she started with her best friend, now deceased, who died a semi-suicide, leaving behind a pet guinea pig. She tells her story with charm and black humor, enticing us along until we realize that both we and her have been waltzing into the toothy jaws of an emotional trap.
As writer/star Phoebe Waller-Bridge pointed out in a recent Q&A, throughout the series you don’t actually see much of anything; and yet, because of the intimate soliloquys, it feels like one of the filthiest TV shows you’ve ever experienced.
At the beginning of the series, Fleabag is so blithe about her escapades that you feel like she just has a very healthy (if somewhat hyperactive) sex drive. But slowly you realize that her constant need for transgression (sex, lying, thievery) are attempts to cover up a brutal secret that is threatening to destroy her.
Yet even though that secret is tangled up with sex, it is not about her sexuality per se, but about the tangled way that the guilt it expresses itself.
Is this just the way of the world – in most of these shows about female sexuality, men, heterosexual men, tend to be pretty one-dimensional. Just like in men’s stories, the opposite sex is a black box — we seldom get any idea of what is really going on with them, or why.
Which is why we love Catastrophe – it’s much more honest than any comparable American show, but it’s also about a couple and we get to see both sides of their story.
The show’s title comes from Zorba the Greek: “Wife, children, house, everything. The whole catastrophe.”
The series is written and produced by the female star, Sharon Horgan (Sharon) and was co-created with American comic Rob Delaney (Rob).
The seminal catastrophe here is a wild, zipless, carnal week in London, after which Sharon comes up pregnant. Even though they barely know each other, Rob steps up and moves to London, where they marry and have the baby.
It’s a comedy, like our other picks here, but what sets it apart is that the characters seem more like adults, meaning that they fuck up constantly but actually must and do take responsibility for it, which makes it less outrageous than these other shows, and maybe less revelatory.
But also more relatable. The show feels a couple degrees more honest than most about what it’s like to try and hold it together as a couple in today’s world.
Tiny Furniture is most interesting as Lina Dunham’s preparatory sketch for Girls. The subject matter is essentially the same – smart, privileged, sexual young women who are so scared by their own power and options that they retreat into infantile behaviors to avoid responsibility for the questionable choices they make.
That may sound like we were not fans of Girls. But we were. It was surprising– not consistently but often enough that we kept coming back despite our frustrations with the characters’ lack of progress.
In Tiny Furniture, Dunham (her character’s name is Aura) comes back after college to live with her mother and sister (played by Dunham’s sister and mother, who actually photographs tiny houses). Indulgence and chaos ensue.
The film won Best Narrative Feature at SXSW and won Dunham Best New Director at the Indie Spirit Awards.
When Kevin Bacon’s Dick tells Kathryn Hahn’s Holocaust Wife that women can’t make good films because they’ve been oppressed for too long, she sputters out names: Sally Potter… Jane Campion…
Jane Campion’s signature film is an enchanting and powerful fable. Campion seduces us into traveling with Holly Hunter’s mute piano player as she grows into possession of her sexuality and is severely punished for it.
There’s both a parallel and a disconnect between the muscular figure of Harvey Keitel and Kevin Bacon’s shirtless Dick. Dick is a self-constructed sexual archetype, and even though the self-construction world, it makes him a figure of farce. Keitel’s character is also an archetype, but more authentic and thus more romantic, willing to prove he has enough integrity to earn a place in the heroine’s world.
This story, with its lack of irony, had to be set in an exotic past. And that setting, enhanced by the hypnotic score, opened the movie up to a much wider audience than it could have reached in another form.
Jane Campion became the first and only woman to win the Palme d’Or, and The Piano won three Academy awards: Best Actress for Hunter, Best Supporting Actress for young Anna Paquin, and Best Original Screenplay for Campion.