For my last day of the Milwaukee Film Festival, I chose two films that revolve around women and their place in a changing modern society. And there are common threads, some of them disturbing.
The women in both films all find themselves at a different kind of crossroads. Their paths in life seem all set, but they find themselves questioning whether it’s what they really want. While they more or less figure it out, if only because they have to, the final destination can sometimes be happy, or leave something to be desired. But whether the film was directed by a woman who was born and raised in Brooklyn, or by a male director who grew up in Germany, both ultimately cannot seem to comprehend another life for their female characters other than a traditional one. They may embark on passionate physical affairs, but only so they can realize the value of a duller, but stable home life. The fact that both movies cling to this mindset demonstrates how much women are expected to ‘behave,’ and just how few options they’re given, even by other women.
Somewhere in the movie Paula, there’s a very interesting discussion about gender, class, art, and how modern life has influenced them all. It’s basically a biopic of Paula Modersohn-Becker (Carla Juri) a highly influential painter around the early 1900s who was far ahead of her time, and had a huge influence on art during her very short life.
The opening shot is indicative of just how little the movie knows her, and how it will treat her. She is out of sight, completely hidden behind a painting, the canvas turned towards her, so we can see neither herself nor the art she has created. But for the man speaking, also off-screen, it might as well be nothing. He is telling her about how she will never achieve true greatness, since that is impossible for a woman. His advice is to get married, and see if her husband will still allow her to dabble in art. However, Paula is determined to persevere.
This is a common refrain about female artists, both then and now. They tend to be depicted as instinctive, not taught, or at least not studied. They may have achieved greatness, but we are reassured it’s because they were essentially spontaneous creatures who created easily and effortlessly, not because they worked hard and refined their technique. We are able to marvel and appreciate that they beat the odds in a time now safely past that was so hostile to women, very much unlike our own, very enlightened time.
As such, after Paula marries an artist, she leaves not just because the marriage has become suffocating due to the period’s gender norms, but also because he is unwilling or unable to meet her physical needs after five years of marriage. So Paula goes to Paris, takes up with someone new, improves and expands her art, and reconnects with her best friend, who has also been disappointed in her marriage to the poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke. Indeed, the experience is so liberating, and she is so insistent on her newfound freedom, that her decision to go back to her husband and their remote country home is downright incomprehensible, mostly because the film cannot comprehend her.
It wants to embrace sexual freedom while holding marriage and monogamy sacred. It wants to create a beautiful, loving tribute to art while disrespecting-rather than just criticizing–the people who make it. And it wants women to be liberated, but only as long as they realize they will be happiest with a husband and children. Small wonder then, that Paula’s complexity, her family, her years of study, the new techniques she introduced, her friendships with other artists, her shifting feelings on motherhood, are all pushed to the side so the film can focus on her learning how great it ultimately is to have a traditional home life. Of course, there is nothing wrong with a woman wanting a family. But when any other option is presented as unthinkable, then we haven’t made nearly as much progress as the movie Paula obviously thinks we have.
The last time Gillian Robespierre and Jenny Slate teamed up, they made Obvious Child, a fun romantic comedy about abortion. Needless to say, they know how to do charming, and take on the difficult stuff in a delightfully quirky, hilarious way. So after nailing what could potentially havebeen a very uneven start, tackling the many issues Landline raises about family, fidelity, and love seems like far easier territory, and it’s mostly up to the task.
It’s 1995, and the seemingly happy, typical Manhattan family is about to be rocked when the teenage Ali (Abby Quinn) discovers her father Alan (John Turturro) is having an affair when she finds a floppy disk containing his letters to his mistress. It probably shouldn’t help that discovering this via such an outdated and thus adorable technology, but it does. Don’t judge me.
Wistful nostalgia is a big part of Landline’s charm, as it aches and longs for a simpler, more peaceful time before technology took over our lives and women in Manhattan had to face the fact that not everyone found Hillary inspiring. Such a lightening of the mood helps considerably when Ali’s sister Dana (Jenny Slate) also starts questioning her relationship with her loving fiance Ben (Jay Duplass), and begins an affair with an old college boyfriend. Then there’s the family matriarch Pat (Edie Falco), who’s also struggling with her own issues.
Yes, life is hitting everyone hard in Landline, and each family member is left to pick up the pieces as best as they can. Luckily, we have Robespierre and Slate to make sure that it’s brought to us with all the quirk (sometimes a bit too much), charm, and hilarity that’s become their trademark, all in a way that does justice to the film’s female characters as well as Turturro. Everyone’s imperfections are depicted compassionately, but there’s also no comforting guarantee of a happy ending for all. However, Landline does reassure us that happiness is still possible even after heartbreak.
However, the movie might still take some conventions too seriously for its own good. Turturro is told that he’s broken the rules, it’s an interesting choice of words. Would he be more forgivable if he wasn’t married to Falco? Is Slate given a happy ending because Duplass is her fiance, not her husband? I’m inclined to say yes. But stability and passion don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and marriage shouldn’t automatically put a relationship on a higher tier than other kinds of partnerships. It’s by no means the first film to have this flaw, but it is one I’m sick of seeing. It’s strange that Landline questions so much else while reinforcing such rigidity.