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Archive for June 2016

dressmaker

No. 13 –The Dressmaker (Jocelyn Moorhouse, 2015)

This is the third film from 2015 that I’ve watched in three weeks, and like Evolution and Mustang before it, the third time a film has been heralded as a triumphant comeback for a female director after a decade’s absence. Press reports attributed Jocelyn Moorhouse’s absence to time off caring for her children while her marginally-more prolific husband and frequent collaborator PJ Hogan continued directing. (Mustang’s Deniz Gamze Erguven and Evolution’s Lucile Hadžihalilovic both pointed out their absence was due to difficulties finding funding – in fact, Erguven was pregnant while she was filming – and this is not only a female issue, as auteurs like Spike Lee and Charlie Kaufman have turned to Kickstarter for funding assistance.) But I have no interest in drawing assumptions about mothers in the workplace. Rather I’ll simply affirm the concept of different strokes for different folks, as neither approach has prevented or any of these directors from making yet another cracking film.

The Dressmaker got something close to a savaging by reviewers – “tonally deranged” according to the good good people at the Financial Times. And I can sort of see why. This is a film people will despise or adore – it’s hard to imagine anyone being lukewarm on this festival of grotesque characters, preposterous twists and, sure, a fairly uneven tone. But that didn’t seem to bother anyone about any superhero movie, and Captain America never looked this good in knock-off Dior.

Tilly Dunnage returns from her international life as a dressmaker, to her grotty Australian hometown, ostensibly to care for her feral mother, but really wants to discover the truth behind her troubled childhood which saw her accused of murdering a schoolmate and removed from her home. Her reappearance initially scandalises the locals until they realise her skill with her Singer sewing machine. She costumes them in glorious and extravagant couture, in stark contrast to the dusty, insular little town and the population’s sordid secrets and hypocrisy. But Tilly’s talent doesn’t ingratiate her back into the community. Instead their shiny new façade convinces the townsfolk of their superiority to the murderess with the crazy mother, who live in the shack on the hill on the outskirts of town. Their confidence increases alongside their cruelty, but Tilly isn’t willing to take it lying down, especially once she uncovers the levels of deception and delusion that led to her ostracisation as a child.

Identity is at the heart of The Dressmaker, not just Tilly’s attempts to reclaim her past, and reawaken the tarnished mother/daughter relationship she left behind. The townsfolk themselves have recreated their history, from the cross-dressing police officer, to the mother of the murdered boy, who is kept in the dark about the details of her son’s fate, and the numerous witnesses who prefer to accept Tilly as a murderer than rock the boat with something so inconvenient as the truth. The film itself lurches between romance, comedy, drama and something akin to Jacobean revenge tragedy. Tilly’s first client is the dowdy Gert (Sarah Snook, who proved in 2014’s Predestination that she’s a master of transformation), who is besotted with the son of an upwardly mobile neighbour, and receives a spectacular makeover. As the film progresses, she becomes the groomed and refined Trudy (while Tilly constantly has to remind people she doesn’t go by Myrtle anymore) and gradually Trudy’s new social standing is reflected in her arrogant, sniffy attitude. It’s hard to ignore the class tensions throughout the film – Australia, like the UK, is built on a series of complex and frankly incomprehensible rules about social standing, what you can achieve, how far you are allowed to rise, and who is never allowed to transcend their past. People who live in shacks don’t get to be treated with dignity, no matter how long they worked for Balenciaga. It’s the old cliché of Tall Poppy Syndrome. When someone from a “low” standing achieves something, it’s not a time of celebration but a time to remind them where they came from, in case they get ideas above their station. The film criticises that attitude through mockery, which is the most powerful weapon to use against powerful people.

I do hate to cheapen this astonishingly informed and academic blog with shallow commentary, but Kate Winslet looks incredible in this film. As it should be, given that she’s a master seamstress with a background in Paris and a stopover with Balenciaga, but really. Half the time she’s on screen you have to remind yourself to listen to what she’s saying. And incidentally what she’s saying is in a pleasing accurate Australian accent. (Winslet has always done well in the southern hemisphere – see Heavenly Creatures or Hideous Kinky for a start.) Sure, there’s a problem where Liam Hemsworth (26), Sarah Snook (28) and Kate Winslet (40) are supposed schoolmates. But by my assessment, all the characters are meant to be 35-ish, so they’re all out of sync, thus cheap shots at Winslet are a bit unnecessary. And regardless, it would be hard to swap any of the cast (even Hemsworth, who is inoffensive in a role of an inoffensive man). It is a distraction, until another horrible character or flamboyant outfit appears, and all is forgiven.

At least the cast, regardless of age, all get the film and know exactly what tone to aim for, even if the audience has to put a bit of work in to catch up. But I always admire a film that doesn’t hold its audience’s hand and trusts you. The Dressmaker is a totally refreshing watch – beautiful with hidden depths, light but with a surprising emotional punch, and unpredictable, cutting like a razor just when it seems like it might lapse into sentimentality. And the clothes. Good Lord, the clothes.

mustang

No. 12 –Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven, 2015)

You wait all year for one female-directed-film-in-the-cinema-experience, then they all come at one go. Or, well, I got to enjoy my second in two weeks with the added pleasure of the woman behind me chatting with her friend and kicking my head throughout. Two female-directed films at the cinema in two weeks might not sound impressive, but think back to 2014, where analysis of UK and US releases showed that female directors worked on less than 14% of films released (even including co-directing with a male collaborator). Maybe things are looking up. Still, by my count, this is only the 6th film this year to receive a UK release. Good thing it’s a wonder.

Lale lives with her four older sisters and their grandmother, who is horrified to hear about their school-end celebrations with local boys. Concerned for their reputations, she beats them then drag them to the doctor for an emergency hymen check. Despite proof of the girls’ “honour”, they forbid the girls from leaving their house, and seek to educate them in the ways of good Muslim womanhood – cooking, cleaning, modest clothing and eventually, marriage – the house becoming a “wife factory” according to Lale. So far, so Virgin Suicides (as many reviews have pointed out). But Mustang is more heavily weighted than its American counterpart – perhaps because of Ergüven’s more realist approach, her skill at burying into the girls’ point of view rather than people watching them, or maybe our sickly awareness that situations like this are really happening to girls who act like girls rather than statues or property.

At first, the girls find ways to survive their summer indoors, adapting their shapeless dresses and sneaking out to attend a woman-only football match. But as the summer ends, the girls realise they’re not returning to school, and their uncle’s terms become ever more extreme. The house is not just locked, but bars soldered on the windows to prevent the girls leaving. Soon, their grandmother is arranging marriages for the older girls, with Sonay demanding to be matched with her existing boyfriend, leaving Selma to take her place with a more conservative family. The double wedding marks a turning point in the film, where the sisters’ joyful collaboration ends and the three remaining daughters are at the mercy of their uncle. The action moves almost entirely indoors as he discovers more little acts of rebellion and takes measures to prevent the girls’ independence, sealing off all remaining escape routes and closing them off from the outside world. As the house empties, Lale starts dreaming of escaping to Istanbul, knowing her favourite teacher has moved there, and finding her uncle’s keys, she tries to work out how to operate his car with little success.

One of the strengths of the film is the universality of the story. Despite being based in a Muslim community in the outskirts of Turkey, the story is sadly familiar. The standards to which girls are held across the world, in secular and non-secular communities, lead to situations of imprisonment (literal, as in this film, as psychological and emotional elsewhere). There are numerous scenes of the house becoming a prison – keys turning in locks, hammers, drilling and workmen, the high walls surrounding the patio, the gaps in windows getting smaller, getting broken up by bars going up, and the girls looking out of closed windows into the world they can’t reach. The audience feels their world closing in. The girls are punished for something they hardly seem aware of – we see them play, we see them in their underwear, they wear makeup and their white school shirts turn see-through in the sea, revealing the modest vest tops worn underneath. These are not provocative girls (not that they’d deserve the punishment if they were) – they are provocative simply because they are girls. The girls’ sex education is a dog-eared book discreetly slipped to the engaged sisters as their grandmother prepares their marital chest. Selma and her husband panic over the lack of blood on their sheets on their wedding night as his parents knock expectantly on the bedroom door waiting to see confirmation of her former virginity, eventually taking her to A&E thinking there is something wrong with her. Selma tells the doctor she has had sex lots of times, but he confirms that her hymen is still intact, and asks why she lied. Selma, who has been quietly desolate since her engagement was announced, and sneaks the dregs of the men’s drinks at her reception, knows that the truth is irrelevant, and all that matters is how other people view her, regardless of how she behaves. Virgin or whore, she remains imprisoned by perceptions.

The film takes another sickly turn as Uncle Erol is revealed to have been raping first Ece, then the painfully young looking Nur. It’s unclear whether this is Erol’s opportunism in an emptier house, or whether Lale, who has been narrating throughout and as the youngest is naturally the most naïve, sexually and otherwise, and has only realised what the night time bed creaking means, after having sneakily read the sex book. While it’s a sad reality for many girls and boys, in Mustang it reads a bit melodramatic, coming seemingly out of the blue. We’re already aware that Erol’s bad news, it just seems like a cheap attempt to ensure no one in the audience has any sympathy for him, and it’s a big subject to just throw in. But it’s a minor complaint, given the ending of the film is so strong, turning into a high-tension breakout. Turning Erol’s scheme against him, Lale helps Nur to lock out her wedding party, turning their prison into their own fortress. While Erol attempts to remove the window bars he spent so long erecting, Lale and Nur race around the house, packing a getaway kit, making a forbidden phone call, and escaping the arms reaching through every window like a nightmarish home invasion. Their escape, as Lale finally manages to drive them away, is proof that the girls’ irrepressibility was never able to be stifled by social expectations, and that even under such extreme duress, they need nothing more to escape to their uncertain future than belief in themselves.