Some critics are arguing that independent movies lack interesting, complicated female characters. But is mysteriousness being confused with dullness?
Last week, Elizabeth Greenwood complained that independent movies of the last decade have developed an unfortunate tendency towards their female characters, turning them into dull surface characters devoid of interior lives or purpose other than to animate the men around them. They "remained amorphous," she writes. "All you saw was all you got."
Maybe Greenwood should have looked closer. Respecting the rich mysteriousness of a woman's inner life doesn't mean she doesn't have one—and some of the women Greenwood calls out as boring are deeply sympathetic, brave characters, even if the people around them on-screen don't always see them for who they are. And those people often get punished for underestimating these heroines, or assuming they are less complex and fully human than they are.
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Among the species of character Greenwood criticizes is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a character meant to jolly a depressed young man into getting on with his life, "has no interior life, and she's disposed of once she's taught her lesson." Greenwood singles out Rachel (Mila Kunis), the woman in Forgetting Sarah Marshall who jollies Peter (Jason Segel) out of his funk after a wrenching and surprising breakup, as an archetypal manic pixie dream girl who "functions as a utility [but] is at least a memorable character. You can see a movie and remember what she does, even if it's cloying and grating."
Segel, who wrote the movie, and other members of the Frat Pack of actors and directors are certainly sometimes guilty of giving women dramatically short shrift. But Rachel in Forgetting Sarah Marshall is not one of those occasions. The movie carefully traces Rachel's interest in Peter from professional responsibility—she works at the hotel where Peter comes to escape his depression—to genuine affection. Rachel has a past. She is a college dropout with an ex-boyfriend who appears to have been dangerously unhealthy for her, and her work at the hotel appears to be a distraction from her past failures.
After hurting her by having a fling with his ex-girlfriend, Peter steals back a picture of Rachel drunk and flashing the camera from a local bar and getting himself beat up in the process—the only way to redeem himself for having misjudged and mistreated her is to inflict actual pain on himself, and to give her back a piece of her past. Ultimately, Peter is as much inspiration for Rachel as she is for him. After their split, he finishes his musical, and she comes to Los Angeles to give college another shot.
But even quieter types who don't meet the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl archetype have more going on than Greenwood gives them credit for. Take Margot Tenenbaum (Gwyneth Paltrow), the adoptive daughter of a wildly eccentric family in Wes Anderson's breakout movie, The Royal Tenenbaums. Margot, a failed playwright, is in a miserable marriage with an older anthropologist when the movie begins, and spends most of her time locked in the bathroom of her apartment watching bad television in the tub. "She never develops past a sullen girl with her arms crossed against her chest and too much eyeliner," Greenwood complains."
But that's the point: Margot, like her siblings, is stuck, trapped by a false preadolescent myth of greatness. "You used to be a genius," her adoptive father Royal tells her at some point. "No, I didn't," she tells him. "Anyway, that's what they used to say," he moderates.
She's not the only person who suffers the consequences of the gap between who she actually is and who the world perceives her to be. Margot's husband (Bill Murray) and her brother Richie (Luke Wilson), who has loved her secretly for years, are both devastated when a private detective tells them that she has had an expansive and varied sexual life that neither one of them had any idea about, and that varies wildly with their ideas of her as a faithful wife, and an object of artistic purity (Richie has painted dozens of portraits of her since they were children). For her husband, the result is abject humiliation. For Richie, it's worse—in one of the movie's most beautifully-shot, emotionally devastating sequences, he shaves his head and beard, faces his agonized countenance in the mirror, and slits his wrists.
But when Richie returns home after his suicide attempt and he and Margot confess their love for each other, it's no mistake that the music that's playing is the Rolling Stones' "Ruby Tuesday." Like the mysterious leading lady in that song, who Mick Jagger didn't understand, but couldn't stop himself from loving, hanging a name on Margot hasn't actually ever made her a Tenenbaum. The members of that family by blood, marriage, or choice are an open book to Anderson and to the viewer. But just as Royal always announced Margot as his adoptive daughter, she has always understood herself to be apart from the rest of the family. There's a life implied by her international sexual history, but neither her family nor we are privy to it. That doesn't mean it isn't there.
Similarly, Greenwood is wrong in her summary of Shopgirl as a movie about a rich older man, Ray (Steve Martin, who also wrote the book on which the movie is based) who saves a poor younger woman, Mirabelle (Claire Danes), "from a life of selling gloves at a department store."
It's not that Ray doesn't help Mirabelle financially—he pays off her student loans near the end of their affair, saying he doesn't give her very much except "financial things yes, but that's easy for me." And when she unwisely goes off her anti-depressants, he helps her get on new and more effective medication—if Mirabelle's affect is sometimes flat, it's because Shopgirl is one of the quietest, truest portrayals of serious depression in recent years.
But ultimately, Mirabelle saves herself. Her skills at drawing are the thing that propel her out of her job at Saks Fifth Avenue and allow her to transmute her depression into something artistically meaningful and beautiful. She is the person who ends her affair with Ray, recognizing that they do not see their relationship the same way, declaring "I can either hurt now, or hurt later. Now, I guess."
It's only after Mirabelle has moved on with a man who loves all of her and not just the idea of her that Ray understands he has made a serious moral error that robbed him of one of the best things in his life: "Only then did he realize how wanting part of her and not all of her had hurt them both, and how he cannot justify his actions except that, well, it was life." Ray is the person who fails to grow, not Mirabelle.
There's no question that in some of the movies Greenwood mentions, the women are entirely ephemeral. Lost in Translation's Charlotte floats through Tokyo like a dust mote, and it's not ever really clear whether the titular woman in (500) Days of Summer achieves any more emotional connection with the man she marries then the man she doesn't. But in the movies, much like in life, sometimes the people you don't understand have secret marriages, apartments under assumed names, and private sorrows like Margot Tenenbaum's—just because you can't see those things doesn't mean they aren't there. And sometimes, there's nothing to conceal, because there's nothing to hide in the first place.