Tuesday, March 29, 2011

My thoughts on Lucky McKee's "The Woman"

The film is about the upper-middle class New England Cleek family. Chris Cleek is an estate lawyer. His wife Belle is a stay-at-home mom. He has a moody teenage daughter, Peggy, and a tween son Brian who watches his every move to see how to behave. One day while hunting in the woods, Chris comes across a wounded feral woman (the character is a carry-over from the film The Offspring). He captures her and restrains her in the cellar. He introduces her to his family as their project. She must be civilized. If this were an entirely different movie, he would put marbles in her mouth and have her recite English vowel sounds over and over. But this is not that movie. In this movie, the method of choice is torture. 

This movie is NOT “torture porn” – a topic deserving of its own blog post. It does not seek to shock or titillate. Andre Dumas writes in this spot-on review, “I often talk about my problem with films that do not commit to their story and that do not push things as far as they need to go in order to tackle the themes they’ve proposed. The Woman however is one of the most committed films that I have ever seen. It goes to places that I did not anticipate and places that I didn’t plan on seeing ever in my life.” This is not a midnight movie that you go see with your buddies in a theater full of people who have been drinking and cheer on the gore. Even when the woman gets her justifiable revenge, there will be no cheering.

The movie is unsettling, disturbing, and very difficult to watch. It works as a parable for domestic abuse. Even before he captures the woman, Chris Cleek is a physically and emotionally abusive husband and father. Once the woman comes into the picture, the abuse is externalized and focused on her. She becomes a metaphor for domestic violence. Chris tells his family that she is their “secret.” She is also their shame. Mike Everleth over at All Things Horror writes in his review  that when Belle runs into an acquaintance at the grocery store, “you can almost see her searching the internal databanks for answers that are normal and acceptable to an outsider.”If you take the woman out of the equation, the scene would still stand – she’s not just covering up for the woman chained up in her cellar, but also for the treatment she receives from her husband.

I had a college professor who explained patriarchy, the rule of the father, as “the father can fuck or kill whoever he wants.” Mr. Cleek exemplifies this more than anything I have ever seen. And that is why I consider this to be a feminist film – though not one that I would recommend to many feminists I know. It unflinchingly shows (and condemns) the stranglehold that misogyny has over all women in a patriarchal society, and it does so with a rare gravity.

When I asked Lucky Mckee via twitter whether he would classify this film as a horror movie, he responded, “I would classify it as being my only horror movie.” To me, it is only in the third act that the film truly becomes a horror film. When Belle finally reaches her breaking point, it was at first a relief to me. All of that simmering repression needed to come to a boil. But her outburst also cracks Chris’ twisted Mr. Cleaver veneer and unleashes the raging and unabashed misogynist monster that we’ve known the whole time to be right under the surface.

And now I’m going to discuss the rape scene. So if you don’t want to know how it happens or you don’t want to read about rape, you should stop here.

As I said, this is a difficult movie to watch. For me, the hardest scene to stomach was the rape. This was the most disturbing rape scene I have ever seen (disclosure: I have not seen Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible). 

The rape happens the night after the woman has been “cleaned up” (hosed down with a high-pressure hose) and put in a dress. Chris checks to make sure his wife is asleep, goes down to the cellar, and fucks the woman. She doesn’t/can’t fight back as he fondles her breasts and lifts her dress - her hands are chained. To be sure, rape is an act of violence, not one of sex. But it is also an act of entitlement, and this scene’s clear illustration of that is what makes this scene so upsetting. It isn’t explicit. He doesn’t say a word. He doesn’t hit her. He owns her. He can do whatever he wants with her. 

During the scene, there are cuts to the other members of his family. His daughters asleep in their beds, his wife crying in hers (she wasn’t really sleeping, dickhead), and his son, who wants to know what his father is up to, follows him to the cellar, and spies. As the son peeps through a hole in the cellar door, the woman stares at him with unblinking eyes. It is the hatred and behavior the son learns during this scene that ultimately sets up the climax of the film.