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10 Essential Films About Women In Crisis

10 Essential Films About Women In Crisis

“You are heartbreak incarnate” says one family member to the title character in Trey Edward Shults‘ widely lauded “Krisha,” which opens this week (read our review). It’s a memorable description, not least because Krisha will come across as so many other things —a monster, a memento mori, a lapsing addict, a self-deluding fool— before she becomes a tragic figure, and the heartbreak of her situation is made apparent. It’s a remarkable debut from the young director, built around a riveting, almost alien performance from Krisha Fairchild. But original as it is, the picture loosely belongs to a category: the woman-in-crisis film.

It’s an area we’ve been drawn to several times recently, with a slightly different focus each time. With the release of “Queen of Earth,” we examined some female-centric films that shared that high-anxiety sensibility; when “Trainwreck” came out, we took a moment to look at other characters who could be so described; and for “By the Sea,” we took a run at a broader examination of relationships in crisis. But in celebration of the excellent “Krisha,” this time we’re taking the opportunity to explore some other examples of women facing psychological and mental crises. Some becomes paragons of strength, many crumble to dust, and still others survive the crucible but emerge irrevocably changed. Almost accidentally, they happen to be some of my favorite films, which I’m sure does not bode well for my future mental health.

“The Headless Woman” (2008)
There is a phrase that kept occurring to me while I watched Lucrecia Martel‘s stunning, rivetingly precise drama “The Headless Woman” for the first time: jamais vu. Meaning “never seen,” it’s popularly described as the opposite of deja vu (“already seen”), where instead of the feeling that something unfolding right now has happened before, jamais vu describes the rarer sensation of looking at something you know to be familiar but feeling like you’ve never seen it before. It’s a neat encapsulation of the mental breakdown that is happening to the central character here. Vero (a blistering María Onetto, alternately woozy, disconnected and frighteningly, nakedly present) is a glamorous upper-middle Argentinian woman who runs a dental clinic with her husband. On her way back from a family gathering, she hits something with her car —it seems to be a dog, but after she drives off in a daze that is partially shock but partially perhaps a calculated move, she becomes certain that it was a person. We learn that she is having a not-particularly-torrid affair, that her husband and family don’t really seem to understand or even notice her increasing dislocation, that, as one elderly relative says, swimming into focus briefly “everyone in this family goes crazy,” and that the darker-skinned domestic help and menial workers that populate her world are so peripheral as to be invisible. Shot in claustrophobic frames that often effectively decapitate Onetto, “The Headless Woman” is one of the most immediate examples of making the viewer feel the way a character feels that I can remember: the accident, or perhaps her morally inexcusable reaction to it, knocks Vero out of phase with the sine wave of her life —not completely, but just enough for her to know that everything is wrong, and we are there along with her, just as helpless. And that is the other way that jamais vu applies to the experience of watching “The Headless Woman.” Martel’s singular vision is such that while it operates roughly within a genre we’re all familiar with, it devastates with the power of something you’ve never seen before.


“The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant” (1971)
The naked forms in Poussin‘s painting “Midas and Bacchus,” a large print of which dominates one wall in the apartment that is the sole setting of Rainer Werner Fassbinder‘s endlessly fetishize-able ‘Petra Von Kant,’ are the only males we see in the film. It presents a tiny shag-carpeted universe occupied only by women: indolent fashion designer Petra (Margit Carstensen), the artificially made-up star of her own inner Sirkian melodrama; Marlene (Irm Hermann), the mute, black-clad servant who responds to Petra’s commands with a doglike devotion that is eventually revealed to be its own pathology; and Karin (Hanna Schygulla), the flighty, manipulative ingenue with whom Petra falls instantaneously and ruinously in love. This is a world in which men are either ghosts clinging to stories brought in from the outside world, or painted two-dimensional audience members for the grand pageantry of Petra’s unraveling. As so often with single location films, the room (and how it is shot) is a reflection of the state of mind of its inhabitant, and Petra’s boudoir is explicitly a narcissistic extension of herself —it boasts a kind of surface glamor that even under the slightest scrutiny is revealed to be a rather tacky facade, like the way there’s a line running down the Poussin print where the two sheets don’t quite meet. At times, the room seems lush and palatial, a lair of luxury and seduction. At other times, as Petra and Karin’s love affair becomes increasingly one-sided, it’s little more than a shabby bedsit, rendered all the more claustrophobic for the arch pretensions of its occupant. Finally, it becomes a place of abandonment, as evinced in the remarkable shot of Petra, on her knees and isolated in what suddenly seems to be an ocean of white fluffy rug, imploring the phone to ring. The tragedy of Fassbinder’s brilliant, unrelentingly odd, wildly camp movie is that Petra, who has only ever worn the idea of grand romance as a costume before, gets to experience what it really means —normal, prosaic heartbreak.


“Middle of Nowhere” (2012)
One of the most gratifying aspects of the (notoriously under-awarded) success of Ava DuVernay‘s “Selma” was that it caused many to go back and search out DuVernay’s previous feature. “Middle of Nowhere,” which netted her the Best Director award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, may seem to have a more modest scope than her Martin Luther King drama, but many of her instincts on the latter movie — such as the sense of intimacy she creates beyond the idea of MLK as a historical titan — are exemplified in this gentle, insightful meditation. Indeed, the most progressive thing about “Middle of Nowhere” might be how unflashy it is, how calm and assured in the simple belief that this story, of a young black woman’s journey back to herself, is inherently worth telling. Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi), is gradually forced to reassess her life during the period of enforced separation from her husband Derek (Omari Hardwick) when he is sent to prison. But the very gentle subversion of DuVernay’s approach is to simply point the camera (and Bradford Young’s woozily beautiful, textural photography is everything here) away from the cinematic cliches that the premise may suggest — we don’t even know the nature of Derek’s crime until late in the film when Ruby describes it simply as “guns” — and onto Ruby. Not just onto, but into, as the arc of “Middle of Nowhere” is not so much about how she overcomes the various practical difficulties she faces as regards to money, career, living arrangements, etc., and more about how this sudden revolution in her circumstances affects her internally. And so all of her interactions, with her husband, her sister (Edwina Findlay), her mother (Lorraine Toussaint), a potential lover (David Oyelowo) or even the lawyer she scrapes together the money for, to represent Derek at his parole hearing, are actually there to further illuminate Ruby’s psychology. And in Corinealdi’s luminous, quietly riveting performance, DuVernay has a wonderful secret weapon — just why, off the back of this great showcase, she was not immediately one of the most in-demand rising stars of her generation would be a really baffling conundrum, if the reason weren’t so depressingly obvious.


“Senso” (1954)
As with many melodramas — and they don’t come more melodramatic than this luscious, hysterical film from Luchino Visconti — “Senso” has a troublesome relationship with feminist theory. On the one hand, it’s gathered around a monumental central performance from Alida Valli (“The Third Man“) as the tragically wrongheaded Contessa Livia Serpieri, and it is unusually interested in a putative notion of feminine psychology. But on the other hand, the Contessa is, well, tragically wrongheaded and the feminine psychology she displays is wildly simplistic, contributing to the pernicious tradition of the untrustworthy woman who cannot help but place carnal desire and romance before the demands of social duty. But Visconti’s film is so grandiose that it almost blasts through those political objections: it helps, perhaps, to regard it more as an opera, in which rousing choruses, trilling refrains and melancholic arias — the whole gamut of orchestral expression — are employed to summon the workings of one human heart. Not only that, but as soon as one recognizes the elements of self-censure that exist in Visconti’s portrait of Livia’s eventual degradation (like Livia, Visconti was of aristocratic, moneyed background which sat ill with his avowed politics) the film’s critical depiction of her becomes far more compelling. During the Italian-Austrian war of 1866, Livia (Valli) bedecked in the most spectacular period costuming, is ostensibly an Italian patriot, despite being an aristocrat, and is trusted by her nationalist revolutionary cousin Roberto to keep safe a large sum of money that will equip his militia. But Livia falls in love with a scoundrel: Austrian officer Franz (Farley Granger, in a role originally earmarked for Marlon Brando). Franz casts her aside, whereupon she humiliates herself serially by refusing to end the affair, ultimately consigning her cousin’s troops to death by giving the money to Franz. Eventually she is driven insane and subjected to widespread social ridicule by the folly of her unreciprocated love for such an unworthy man, and her knowledge of her own treachery. But the narcissistic Livia’s spectacular fall from grace is, courtesy of Visconti, among the most ravishingly beautiful ever committed to film.


“Safe” (1995)
In hands other than those of Queer Cinema pioneer Todd Haynes (“Carol,” “Far From Heaven” — our retrospective is here), the story of “Safe” which involves a woman who becomes progressively more allergic to every aspect of the modern world, might feel a little heavily allegorical, a little on the nose. But Haynes avoids that by making the film less a polemical tirade against the dangers of modern living than a character study of a fragile woman fighting demons she cannot see because they very well might be coming from within herself. Carol (Julianne Moore) is a type-A housewife, whose life mostly revolves around regular hair appointments and aerobics classes, baby showers and tasks like supervising the delivery of a new sofa — she has a housekeeper to attend to the more quotidian domestic chores. But she starts to develop symptoms of illness seemingly without cause: nosebleeds, fainting fits, shortness of breath. And she becomes certain, based on a magazine-clipping level of research, that the toxins and chemicals that surround her are to blame, occasioning a full withdrawal from her previous life to recuperate on a cult-like retreat in the desert. There is of course critique of the vacuity of modern life here: Carol’s comfortable surroundings subconsciously oppress her, as in a particularly wonderful, Kubrickian moment of symmetrical framing where she drinks a glass of milk while a pillar behind her neatly bisects her head. But whether her illness is the genuine physical expression of her subconscious unease with the emptiness of her existence, or whether it is a psychosomatic ailment brought on by her desire to progressively shed the skin she no longer feels comfortable in, is left deliberately ambivalent. Like so many of the women on this list, Carol’s crisis is ultimately about identity, about recognizing who she really is, and trying, in the glib language of the self-help manual, to love that person. But where another filmmaker might be content to reach that hopeful conclusion, Haynes will not let us, or her, off so lightly: she might finally be able to look in the mirror and say the words “I love you,” but this is not a triumphal moment — she has never looked more deathly ill.


“Three Colors: Blue” (1993)
Perhaps the defining arthouse film of the mid-1990s, there is something so foundational about the first installment of Krzysztof Kieślowski‘s ‘Three Colors‘ trilogy that its greatness almost goes without saying: a fact of cinephile life. It certainly feels to me like it’s just always been there, playing on a never ending loop in that section of my prefrontal cortex that houses my internal rep cinema — due to factors like my age and lifestage when I first saw it, ‘Blue’ partially rewired my brain. As this monolithic artifact, then, one of the many highlights in one of the most important European filmographies of all time, it is certainly bigger than any one of its elements — its formalism, its lyricism, its politics. But considering ‘Blue’ in the context of a character study, and a portrait of self-erasure and self-creation, unlocks yet further layers. Juliette Binoche (cementing her own stature as the arthouse actress of the 1990s) plays Julie, the sole survivor of the car crash that opens the film and that claims the life of her famous composer husband and young daughter. Not so much catatonic with grief as desiring catatonia as an escape from grief, Julie goes about methodically dismantling her life prior, systematically unmaking the woman she was, until the revelation occurs that at least part of that old life was a lie. In some ways it sets Julie free (‘liberty’ being the very loose theme of ‘Blue,’ as ‘equality’ and ‘fraternity’ are to subsequent installments ‘White’ and ‘Red’) but Kieślowski‘s ambivalent grace ensures this is anything but a simplistic “finding yourself” narrative. Indeed, despite our unrelenting focus on Julie (and Binoche’s incredible face that becomes so glowingly familiar to us over the course of this film that it seems like the face of a lover) the miracle of ‘Blue’ is that we can know her so little yet understand her so well: she is as intangible and as real as a color.


“Cries and Whispers” (1972)
If you ever need proof that the film industry did things differently back in the early 1970s, the fact that Ingmar Bergman‘s “Cries and Whispers” was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars should provide ample ammunition. Not only is it a foreign-language title, dealing almost exclusively with a cast of women, it has to be one of the most uncompromisingly bleak films the never-particularly-compromising Bergman ever made. A shattering, difficult, despairing watch, even among his many female-fronted films it may just be the jackpot for Bergman’s women in crisis, however, as here there are three: sisters Maria (Liv Ullmann), the sensualist who can look on dispassionately as her husband attempts suicide; Karin (Ingrid Thulin), who mutilates her own genitals in disgust at the notion of sexual contact; and Agnes (Harriet Andersson), whose painful, horrible death is anticipated by the other two and is the reason they’ve come together now. This is a view of the world in which sisterly concern is less potent a force than mutual mistrust and envy, and in which it is only very rare glimpses of a happier past that can quell the agonized screams of the dying woman (really, it is an incredibly distressing portrayal of near-death). But faced with a literal embodiment of their own mortality, the unexplained antagonism of Maria and Karin’s relationship takes a back seat to the ongoing sexual and personal crises each is experiencing. Through flashbacks and theatrically presented conversations, the depth of their solipsism is revealed, couched in a saturated, non-naturalist palette of blood reds, bright whites and pitch blacks (the cinematography won Sven Nykvist the Academy Award that year). So far from being a source of comfort to one another or a symbol of unity, the three sisters become flesh-and-blood expressions of just how alone we are when we are without faith: it is only the pious, selflessly devoted and ultimately exploited maid who earns our sympathy and it is only Agnes who is granted even a moment’s contentment, and even then it is only in a memory of the long-dead past.


“A Woman Under the Influence” (1974)
It’s no surprise to learn that John Cassavetes‘ masterpiece was originally conceived as a play for his partner Gena Rowlands to star in — and even less of a surprise to learn that the idea was abandoned because this level of emotional commitment would be impossible to achieve 8 times a week for the run of a theatrical production. Theater’s ephemeral loss was cinema’s eternal gain, though, as the film that resulted is extraordinary, and even though over four decades have passed since its release, the almost physical, electrical connection that Rowlands makes with the audience remains as shockingly vital today as it was then. Ably supported by a brilliant Peter Falk as her husband Nick (whose own functioning insanity suggests itself more strongly as the film unfolds) Rowlands plays housewife and mother Mabel, introduced in a shreddingly high-energy scene where simply by the manic way she packs her children into her mother’s car, frequently losing a shoe in the process, we understand that something is, indefinably, wrong with her. Even in the relative calm that follows (with her house a reflection of her disordered mind), Mabel’s neuroses seem to practically pulse out of her in buzzing radioactive waves. Perhaps what is so terrifying about ‘Woman’ is that Rowlands makes Mabel’s devolution seem so plausible as to almost be logical: we get the sickening lurch of the stomach that comes from looking down and realizing we, too, are perched on the abyss. And perhaps that’s all that madness is (helped along here, of course, by pharmaceuticals and electroshock): a giving-in to the gravitational pull of all those other millions of ways it is possible to be, other than the very few that are socially acceptable. Once you have strayed off that narrow path, how are you ever to find your way back? Cassavetes has no reply: like on the soundtrack to the closing scene of temporarily harmonious domesticity, the restlessly brilliant “A Woman Under the Influence” is a ringing phone that goes unanswered.


“Melancholia” (2011)
Almost every Lars Von Trier film, from “Breaking The Waves” onward, qualifies for this list, but the astounding and flawed, yet monumental “Melancholia” is perhaps the most thoroughgoing and direct exploration of depression ever committed to film, and the one I’ll choose to highlight. It is a movie that haunts you long, long after it has stopped irritating you (though it does do both). One of its key elements, aside from Manuel Alberto Claro‘s stunning cinematography which marked a new aesthetic direction for Von Trier, is the revelatory central performance from Kirsten Dunst. As Justine, the new bride of Part One who disintegrates internally over the course of her wedding party, Dunst is a perfect encapsulation of the unknowability of the disease of depression, with her waning radiance having so little to do with external, controllable, comprehensible cues that it might as well be tied to celestial mechanics. And as the Justine of Part 2, living in an improbable castle with her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Claire’s family, she’s, if anything, even more impressive: Justine is sicker than ever, but her fatalism turns out to be better equipment for the end of the world than rationalism, which leads Claire into paroxysms of panic at the thought of everything she’s going to lose. In fact, as a proxy for Von Trier himself who has acknowledged his struggle with the illness publicly, Justine gets to experience a very droll kind of wish fulfillment: she’s a depressive who may never be able to achieve contentment or stability, but she can at least have the dark satisfaction of having been right about this doomed world and our worthless existences all along. But it’s also not accidental that while this might be the most despairing of Von Trier’s overwhelmingly pessimistic filmography it remains also the most beautiful. There’s a kind of Baudelaire-like poetry to the idea that everything is at its most gorgeous at the point of death, and while despair and apocalypse are too heavy a price to pay, in “Melancholia” the fates do at least make good on that part of the bargain and ensure that the end, as terrible as it is, will also be inexpressibly stunning to witness.


“Gloria” (2013)
The concept of the “woman in crisis” of course most immediately calls to mind desperate dramas in which crockery is hurled off mantelpieces and reflections are shattered by the smashing of mirrors. But Chilean director Sebastián Lelio‘s “Gloria” has none of that — it’s a warm, wry comedy/drama built around one of the most lovable performances in recent memory (from Paulina García in the title role). So can it even belong on a list like this? Well, she may not be flinging herself from rooftops or swallowing pills but Gloria does go through a kind of late-midlife crisis. She’s been divorced ten years and her children have been grown-ups with their own lives for some time now, but the crisis she faces is no less real for being slow to take hold. And it is no less of a crisis for the way that Gloria deals with it: in marked, refreshing contrast to almost every other entry on this list, she does not disintegrate. Instead she tackles her loneliness in practical ways, always approached with a sense of humor and in full possession of her faculties. When she makes mistakes she owns them and moves on, and when a sudden romance with a guy she meets at the disco seems to promise to end her loneliness but at the cost of compromising her sense of self-worth, that has to end too (though not before a completely delightful little vignette of satisfying, though unmalicious, revenge). “Gloria” is not just a wonderful film but a vital addition to the catalogue of women-in-crisis films because it proves that while crisis is probably inevitable for all of us, it does not have to spell catastrophe if we can meet it with a little self-aware humor and retain a sense of our own identity. Gloria, sometimes beautiful sometimes closer to Dustin Hoffmann‘s “Tootsie” character behind those bottle glasses of hers is always able to look at herself and like what she sees. And in this broken mirror genre, that is often predicated on self-annihilation, humiliation and punishment, that is almost as beautiful a note to end on as that of the film, which sends us into the credits with Umberto Tozzi‘s eponymous hit ringing out in the dancehall while Gloria spins, ecstatic and alone, under colored lights.

This is a highly selective, fairly arbitrary list chosen from the many hundreds of films that detail the psychological journeys of women, and so I’m not going to make any claims at it being definitive. But there were a couple of films that were very nearly included, aside from those mentioned in the introduction or covered in one of the other related features. “Blue Jasmine” boasts a tremendous, Oscar-winning turn from Cate Blanchett, but I’m not wholly convinced by the rest of the film around her; George Romero‘s “Season of the Witch” would be a fascinating addition to the canon, but its execution is just too uneven and schlocky to be able to really invest in it as a psychological study, while “Belle de Jour,” “Cleo from 5 to 7” and “Diary of a Mad Housewife” are a stunning trio of French films on the subject that it pained me to exclude. Similarly, the omission of any Pedro Almodovar title seems borderline indefensible, and I was also sad not to be able to make room for a classical Hollywood title: While I felt my melodrama quota was filled (to overflowing) by “Senso” and ‘Petra Von Kant’ there are Golden-era films in other genres such as “Gaslight” and “All About Eve” that could have been included on a different day. Let us know your favorite films about crisis-bedevilled females in the comments below.

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