Content Warning: Mentions of rape, sexual and emotional abuse, and violence.
With the recent release of Promising Young Woman, the idea of a female controlled narrative has come back to the forefront of discussion between critics and audience alike. The film works with costuming and pastel colours to create the illusion of Cassie (Carey Mulligan) as a docile and sweet, naïve young woman, before the layers are stripped back through dialogue to reveal a hidden agenda underneath. Promising Young Woman draws on a history of films about female agency in the face of male power. This category of film can play out in a multitude of ways, but two interesting examples which contain unique cinematic parallels are the more recent Black Bear, and the original rape revenge film I Spit On Your Grave. Both are stories centred around female artists who retreat to a remote location to write, using isolation to unlock their creative ideas. However, they soon become trapped in betrayal by men, whether that is emotional or physical. This forces Allison (Aubrey Plaza) and Jennifer (Camille Keaton) to take back control of the narrative they are living through, and they end up telling a completely different story than they set out to.
Both films begin with the women trying to find serenity in nature in order to write. They leave the city behind, filled with its fraught gendered relationships and power imbalances, and try to escape to a place where they will solely be perceived as an artist. This is clearly important to Jennifer, who introduces herself to one of her future rapists through her identity as a writer. In their initial conversation when Matthew (Richard Pace) delivers her food, she says she is not alone because she lives with Mary, tapping the side of her head theatrically when he wonders where Mary is. Unfortunately, their very first interaction already demonstrates the way she is becoming entrapped in his fantasy. She spends the whole time talking about the novel she is planning to write, but when he relates the encounter to his friends, he claims she flashed her breasts to him. She wants to be taken seriously as an author, but he simply sees her as a sexual object. His gendered dismissal of her as a writer is also painfully obvious in their dialogue, where she says “It’s okay if you’ve never heard of me, all of my stories were published in women’s magazines” and he replies “I don’t read ‘em.”
This provides such a strong contrast to how she feels out in the woods, where she can be herself. When she arrives at the cabin there is a long shot of her car pulling up, centred in the frame. She steps out and is in an oasis, alone and free from scrutiny. There are no sounds besides peaceful birdsong in the background. The camera follows her as she runs to the lake in her heels, wheeling around with an expression of joy. She strips naked feeling safe in the solitude, and plunges into the water, ecstatic and unrestricted. Later she finds inspiration in this outdoor space, and we see her in the centre of the frame again, writing while swinging on a hammock and reading her book aloud to herself. However, she is soon interrupted, as men in a motorboat manage to intrude on her creative space. Her words are drowned out by their whoops and cat calls, and they circle closer to the shore with the aggressive sound of the motor revving filling up the soundscape. The camera starts to pan following the boat which moves back and forth horizontally, focusing on the disturbance instead of Jennifer, and she stays static in the background trying and failing to continue writing. Because she is wearing a bikini, they harass her as she is trying to focus on her craft. Eventually it becomes impossible to concentrate and she walks away. The men in the film take control of the narrative, diverting the film plot away from being about a woman writing a book in the woods, and making themselves the focus of attention both visually and audibly until Jennifer is drowned out.
This is just the beginning of their harassment of her, which becomes more brutal as the film progresses, culminating in them mocking her book after she has been raped. As she lies on the floor, completely still, muddy and half naked, one of her rapists desecrates her even further by doing a dramatic reading of her book to the circle of laughing men who have all physically abused her. They rip up her manuscript into pieces and scatter it over the red carpet. The men in I Spit on Your Grave both metaphorically and physically destroy her position as an author. They take away her ability to control a sequence of events, to decide what is going to happen to either her or her character, to tell a story in her own words, to be perceived how she is portraying herself. They force her into their narrative, where she is an object to be used, and a victim of their abuse.
While this deposition does not happen to Allison physically in Black Bear, she does have a similar experience emotionally. Like Jennifer, she has gone on a writer’s retreat to a secluded cabin in the woods. The specific similarities between these films are almost eerie, as Allison also sits by the water waiting for inspiration to write, dressed in a red swimsuit. However, eerie violin music and drums build to a frightening crescendo as she walks back to the cabin, already setting the scene for the uneasy encounters Allison will experience before she is able to chronicle it all at her desk. Black Bear is a layered film, which I believe takes place in reversed chronological order. It consists of three sequences which all begin with long shots of Allison thinking by the lake, then walking back to the cabin and beginning to write. Lawrence Michael Levin left it to the viewer’s discretion to decide which one of the sequences might have actually taken place, saying in an interview: “…it would be more interesting to consider at what point is Aubrey writing these stories? Does she imagine them at the dock…Did she live one and then write the other? Did she write one and then live the other?” However, because of some clues planted in the dialogue early into the first scene, I believe the second segment of three really took place and will use that interpretation of the film in this article.
Red is a recurring motif for both Jennifer and Allison; present in the swimming costumes they wear, and their writing environments (Allison’s red writing chair and Jennifer’s red lavishly decorated living room). It could symbolise the boldness they feel when they are in a position of power, as female writers, using agency to construct their own stories. Sadly, Allison is also drained of her creativity and made helpless by a relationship with a man. In the second part of the film, she is being forced to act the role of a wife who is being cheated on, while being cheated on by her director husband. He manipulates her knowledge of the situation to draw a better performance out of her.
There is a scene that is reminiscent of the reading of Jennifer’s book over her prostrate and battered body, where Allison is being filmed through an emotional breakdown. There are extreme close ups of her sobbing, which cut to her husband Gabe (Christopher Abbot) still rolling the film, capturing every intrusive moment. The camera shakes along with her as she collapses to the floor, and sobs in foetal position. Even then Gabe uses his position of power to record the sounds of her sobbing for room tone. There is a circle of people surrounding her here too, but as the camera does a 360 pan around the entire room, the audience sees the cast members’ shocked expressions and dead silence rather than the mocking laughter that was present in I Spit On Your Grave. At the beginning of Black Bear Allison is introduced as a writer and director, someone who has the ability to control a story; but here she is reduced to a hysterical woman, suffering a complete breakdown in front of others and being humiliated by having that recorded for the viewing pleasure of others.
Both women manage to empower themselves through writing, to reframe the narratives that they have been forced into. When Jennifer regains consciousness, she curls up in the bathtub washing away the blood and mud, rebirthing herself. Then she pieces her novel back together and begins to write. Her fingers shake and she is more hesitant this time, erasing some words, but she is constructing her own story again. We don’t see what she writes down, but we do see what happens next, as she exacts revenge on each of the men who traumatised her. These men only viewing Jennifer as a sex object is their downfall in the end – they end up playing into her revenge narrative because they just see her as a submissive seductress, believing she is going to simply forgive them or even have sex with them right up until the moment she kills them. She uses their perception of how their interactions are going to play out against them, enticing them into private places with her, getting them just close enough to plunge the knife in/tie the noose.
Likewise, Allison ends all the segments letting us know that while a man might begin to put her in a position where she has a lack of power, she is writing her own ending. Both times she chooses death rather than emotional turmoil over Gabe; in the first story swerving out of the road to avoid a bear and crashing into a tree, and in the second confronting the bear as a close up on her face shows her expression changing to a mixture of wonder and relief. In the final scene of the film she completes the sequence of events by sitting down with her notebook one final time. The camera stalks her every time she enters the cabin, with the camera lingering voyeuristically by the half open door, making us viewers complicit with Gabe in disturbing her privacy. But in the very final scene, when she starts to write, she breaks the fourth wall and looks directly into the camera, meeting our gaze. This powerful shot lets us know she is still in control, and that as much as we are watching her, she is watching us.
by Anita Markoff
Anita Markoff is a freelance journalist and published poet, who is currently doing a Creative Writing MA in the frosty north of Scotland. She spends any fragments of free time watching lesbian films or horror films or even better, a mix of both. Her favourite films all seem to include a club sequence with blue or red lighting where people are dancing and laughing to indescribably sad music (Victoria, Water Lilies, Nina, Thelma). Outside of film and writing she has no interests besides astrology and Charli XCX, who she frequently tweets about alongside obscure film jokes at @rozaem17. Her letterbox is not worth naming as her reviews go something like: spooky & feels gay.
Categories: Anything and Everything
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