As the decade came to a close and every self-proclaimed cinephile compiled their video essays of the best films the 2010s had to offer, one film unsurprisingly made its way into dozens of lists: David Fincher’s Gone Girl. Nearly six years after its theatrical release, we are fairly certain that we understand exactly what the film (and its literary source material of the same name) wished to tell us about femininity, marriage, and manipulation. This presumed understanding, however, only scratches the surface of the female psyche in film.
Now, the male psyche is a topic that is ever-present within Hollywood storytelling. The Jack Torrances, Patrick Batemans, and more recently, Arthur Flecks have always infiltrated the silver screen and are rarely condemned in the same way as their female counterparts. Some standout iterations of these women would be Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond, Black Swan’s Nina Sayers, and of course, Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne. Dunne has become something of an icon in the last six years, from her whip-smart remarks to her ‘cool girl’ monologue, audiences simply can’t get enough. Let’s face it, if film Twitter had a face, it would be Rosamund Pike’s dauntless grin.
However, one leading lady within this same vein is frequently overlooked: Ellen Berent from John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven. Ellen acts as the perfect precursor to Amy, both in their notions of femininity and control and in the way that their narratives are presented to us. They are both sleek, headstrong, and calculated women who are constrained within their marriages and are driven to murder. The two are not dissimilar in their motivations, however, their portrayals render them entirely distinct.
Amy’s wrongdoings surround her husband’s infidelity. He cheats, so naturally, she tries to frame him for her murder. However, her actions are never shown to have been born out of jealousy, rather, from a place of severe mistreatment. She is a woman discarded, who is clutching to a marriage that isn’t even there. But she’s trying nevertheless. Fincher elevates our understanding of her character in a way that can only be described as the “female gaze” — we find ourselves constantly aligned with Amy. Her atrocities seem almost warranted at times because of how her husband, Nick, is framed throughout. Nick is Missouri’s village idiot, equipped with a dumb smile and an often boorish personality. From the beginning, Fincher makes it genuinely hard to side with him. Now, Amy is undoubtedly a manipulative murderer, but being able to see the root of her wrath makes her an altogether more fascinating character to watch and one that viewers can, at times, even resonate with.
Ellen, who similarly commits murder and then frames her husband for her suicide, is not granted this same token. Being that Leave Her to Heaven was released in 1945, the presence of an obtuse male gaze is implicit. Ellen is clearly an immoral character, however, this immorality is heightened by a lack of insight into her mind. The audience experiences the story from the perspective of her husband, Richard Harland. This choice seems obvious given the cinematic confines of that time, but does a great disservice to Ellen. She often appears annoying; her doting becomes bothersome and her desire for intimacy becomes obsession. She is a tumultuous force with seemingly no reason to be so. Stahl’s choice to portray his femme fatale as one dimensional makes sense seeing as there was little desire to delve into the female psyche in the forties, but ultimately limits what the story could have been.
Perhaps the most noteworthy difference between these two films is that Amy wins. We watch her stare at a note on her calendar that reads “Kill self?”, written as though a quotidian chore. But she doesn’t — she figures out a way to return to her old life on her new terms. Ellen, on the other hand, loses at her own game; she tries to frame Richard for her murder (and succeeds) but in the end, Richard is happily living with her sister. In letting Amy live and moreover, bear a child against the wishes of her husband, Fincher breaks the prototypical ‘crazy wife’ canon. She wields the power in a dynamic that is systemically forged against her. She wins.
If anything, Leave Her to Heaven and Gone Girl do an excellent job of showcasing how time and narratives can wholly change themes. It is rare for male directors to attempt to, let alone succeed at, depicting the damaged female mind but Fincher does so seamlessly. There is value in analysing these flawed women the same way that we analyse their male counterparts. There are stories to be forged from our wreckage and more importantly, there is a clear demand for them. Amy Dunne finished what Ellen Berent started seventy-five years ago and in doing so, revived a necessary take on the female psyche.
by Saffron Maeve
Saffron Maeve (she/her) is an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto, with aspirations to one day have her own Criterion Closet video. She habitually cries to film scores and at any given moment, can be found skipping class to go to the movies. Her favourite films include After Hours, Empire Records, Call Me By Your Name, and Bringing Up Baby. You can find her on Twitter (@saffronmaeve) and Letterboxd.
Categories: Feminist Criticism