Fantasia 2011: ‘The Woman’ is both shocking and challenging
Directed by Lucky McKee
Written by Lucky McKee and Jack Ketchum
USA, 108 min.
Opening with a phantasmagorical montage of the beginning of life, The Woman first emerges. She moves with a primal grace and an impossible focus propelling her forward in the dark wilderness. A montage of super-impositions and rapid cuts present a baby and a wolf in a dark cave, all three figures now engaged in a visual dance of music and growing tension. As the sequence grinds to an end, the Woman emerges from the cave covered in blood.
The narrative begins with a teenage girl sitting beside a pool fully clothed. A boy splashes her with water in a crude attempt to garner her affections. She turns away from him and the soundtrack, though offbeat and alternative, lends a false sense of romantic yearning towards an older man she stares out at from a distance. The film’s tone and narrative rhythm becomes fixated with unsaid and misinterpreted signs. As the scene progresses this man is revealed to be the girl’s father, Chris Cleek, whose folksy southern charm masks a violently megalomaniac streak.
It is on a hunting trip that he discovers The Woman and his obsession for control leads him to capture and set her up in his cellar. He presents her to his family with the intent to “civilize” her.
The film’s ironic depiction of stock characters and misleading soundtrack guides us to expect emotionally gratifying scenes of violence. As the unanswered questions and motivations begin to mount though, unease begins to settle in. Though there is a great deal of humour in the film, it is dealt uncomfortably. Especially in regards to the apparent devolution of the father. Devolution is not the right word though, it is merely that we are caught in his spell. He becomes suspect early on but as the fear of his wife and daughter seems directed more towards him then the wild Woman in the basement, they are soon confirmed.
Somehow more upsetting then seeing a finger being bitten off when Chris’ wife expresses doubts at this endeavour he slaps her across the face. Angela Bettis, who played the title character in McKee’s film May, plays her role with an incredibly nervous energy. Her thin frame and sad face suggest a lifetime of psychological and physical abuse. The presence of the Woman actually seems more liberating for her, as her outrage forces her into action. She is only confronted with violence though, and there is a sense of hopelessness in her endeavour. Her husband is not only physically dominating but a keen manipulator.
The rest of the film unfolds in an uncomfortable emotional state. We suspect and hope that Chris Cleek will get his comeuppance, but the ease in which he navigates the world instills incredible doubt. Aside from having his finger bit off, for most of the film there is not a moment where his authority is challenged. His every desire and whim are satisfied, and any sign of rebellion is met with swift physical violence. The film is nauseating because his behaviour is not alienating. He is not transformed into some impossible figure of evil, he is disturbingly real.
The Woman is both shocking and challenging, revealing a pattern ingrained social misogyny. What is left unsaid about The Woman’s origins reveals a long list of questions we’d prefer not to ask about our preferred social ignorance in regards to abuse. Lucky McGee daringly depicts violence against women that makes you want to look away. It is not titillating but tragic. It has some of the most shocking sexual violence I’ve seen onscreen, perhaps because a lot of it takes place at the edges of the story or offscreen. His inventive mise-en-scene is at once reminiscent of more familiar ironic depictions of underbelly of small town life but with moments of sincere and horrifying imagination. The film’s final moments are wonderfully horrifying in their ambiguity and strange sense of hopefulness.
– Justine Smith