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Female Fantasy

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In an interview with Sight & Sound, auteur-filmmaker Anne Biller makes clear that her spectacularly lush The Love Witch (2016) is a "movie that comes with feminine fantasies". Some are feminist, she says, some not, but since her film is not a 'manifesto', feminism is not the most productive lens through which to view it.

The same might be said of Elle (Paul Verhoeven, 2016). These films neither make 'a' point about women, nor take 'a' stance on feminism. Like most films, they're complex, with multiple and contradictory elements giving rise to multiple and contradictory readings. However, unlike most films, their fantasies are feminine and a female gaze is both represented and invited.

Also unlike most films concerning rape and abuse, they have plenty of genuine, often laugh-out-loud humour, often achieved through their biting attack on social norms. New York Timescritic A.O. Scott describes Elle as "a savage comedy of bourgeois manners". Something similar could be said of The Love Witch - for instance, in its bizarrely delightful tea-room sequences and its parodies of matrimony. Elle is particularly critical of religion and social authority. The Love Witch inverts this by showing the potential alternative of an occult group as unsatisfactory too, with a patriarchal leader looming large.

Elle's protagonist Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) might reject the law, but remains firmly committed to finding her attacker and avenging herself, although many reviewers seem to doubt this because of how she goes about it. But when she smashes a car window and learns to shoot, latterly reeling in her attacker, I find her motives hard to doubt. Michèle's recollections of the attack shift in significant ways as the film goes on. We learn by the end of the film that she's worked off as well as on-screen to shift her reality to match those fantasies. Just as her friends don't get full insight into her response to the rape, nor do we. We're not given full access to Michèle, and are not unrestricted voyeurs, despite filmic conventions and Verhoeven's strategies to con us into feeling otherwise.

In contrast, the tragedy of The Love Witch is that we see the protagonist's pain laid bare. Despite the revenge she takes on men, Elaine's (Samantha Robinson) aggression comes not from strength, but from vulnerability stemming from abuse. Even love magyck can't undo the emotional harm, despite superficial readings of the film as showcasing her supposed 'power' over men.

Both films speak to the extent to which feminine fantasies, and the female gaze, are delimited within patriarchal structures. The Handmaiden (Chan-wook Park, 2016) also illustrates this, the stories of its two female protagonists - Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) and Sookee (Tae-ri Kim) - circumscribed by a third, male character's telling of the tale. But Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) is also treated badly, as he's lower class and a Korean under Japanese occupation. Women are not the only ones to suffer under patriarchy.

Thus The Handmaiden's early nods to a female gaze are undermined, with women's fantasies replaced by men's. In particular, the ending of the film appears to visualise the Count's fantasy rather than Hideko and Sookee's reality. Such shifts might be considered critically reflexive, but remain a problematic choice, especially as the film's images of women become like the pornographic texts its narrative seems to revile. In contrast, neither The Love Witch nor Elle chooses to embrace a male gaze to articulate their own "conversation[s] with the pornography all around us" (Biller in The Guardian, 2 March 2017).

Little screen time is given to the explicit abuse of Elaine, and while Michèle's rape appears on-screen, it's handled very differently from the slow reveal and almost fetishised rendering of abuse in The Handmaiden. More significantly, comments, attitudes and experiences born of sexism clearly pepper both Michèle and Elaine's everyday lives. Relatedly, Scott's observation about Michèle applies again also to Elaine: "An awful lot of her time and attention is devoted to handling the insecurities and emotional needs of men." This gives rise to many of the most amusing moments in both films, yet Scott is onto something in identifying it as one of the films' 'principal feminist insights'.

Ultimately, these women's fantasies are shaped by a need and desire to somehow stay safe in the face of both everyday and more violent abuse from society, as well as from specific individuals.

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