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Not Every Film Has to Pass the Bechdel Test (And Some Shouldn’t Even Try)

"Dunkirk" and "Their Finest" present two perspectives on World War II, only one of which passes the Bechdel Test. That shouldn't matter.

“Dunkirk”

Warner Bros.

Girl Talk is a weekly look at women in film — past, present, and future.

There are only three requirements for passing cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s eponymous test to determine how active and present women are in a film: It must feature at least two women in speaking roles, who have names, and who talk to each other about something – anything – other than a man. Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” does not meet any of these measures, and while that might make for a splashy talking point or prove a filmmaker’s spotty history with crafting compelling female characters, it’s the only acceptable outcome for a bombastic, fact-based war film.

As valuable and insightful a metric as the Bechdel Test – off-handedly conceived of in one of Bechdel’s ’80s-era comic strips, and generously inspired by the works of Virginia Woolf – it has its limitations. Plenty of films don’t pass the test, including heaps that should, but there are also a number of films that shouldn’t even try. “Dunkirk” is one of those films.

Nolan’s brutal World War II film isn’t entirely absent of women, though a passing glance at its cast – including Nolan regulars like Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy alongside newcomers like Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles – makes it plain that this is a male-dominated outing. Despite its battlefield setting and compulsion to record a wartime history long before women were allowed to participate in combat, the film does feature appearances by a handful of actresses. One of them even makes off with a one-word line in the middle of the film’s most emotional beat, though it’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it at best.

Elsewhere, female nurses appear amongst the increasingly chaotic scrum, and a few seafaring women take to the water alongside their male counterparts. But to shoehorn in other women amongst them and to request that they speak about anything other than a man – in a film that’s principally about the hopelessness and seemingly imminent death of hundreds of thousands of male soldiers – just to meet the requirements of the test would be a disservice both to it and the film itself.

"Dunkirk"

“Dunkirk”

Warner Bros.

No one is more aware of the necessary boundaries of the test than Bechdel herself. When I spoke to her in 2014 on the occasion of her winning a MacArthur Genius Grant, she was open about the test and its limitations. She even ticked off a handful of films she had enjoyed recently that don’t past her own metrics (“Jackie Brown,” “About Time,” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel”).

“I’m not a stickler about the Test — if I were, I wouldn’t see many movies,” she said at the time. And while the number of films that don’t meet the test – user-generated stats at BechdelTest.com hold it at about 42% – is in dire need of change, that still doesn’t mean that its application needs to be a requirement for every film.

Bechdel Test imperfections don’t diminish its importance, but they do open the possibility that different films should be measured by other metrics. “Pacific Rim,” for instance, inspired the creation of the Mako Mori Test, which has its own trio of requirements: The film must feature at least one female character, who has her own narrative arc that does not depend on supporting a man’s story. Elsewhere, filmmaker Ava DuVernay inspired New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis to propose the DuVernay Test, which was designed to determine a film’s racial diversity. At Sundance last year, she described it as “what might be called the DuVernay test, in which African-Americans and other minorities have fully realized lives rather than serve as scenery in White stories.”

In a lucky bit of counterprogramming, this year has already played home to another great film about Dunkirk that principally focuses on the experiences of women during World War II, including a pair ostensibly involved with the same operation chronicled in Nolan’s film. Lone Scherfig’s “Their Finest” takes on World War II from a different angle, set mostly during the latter half of the war in a bombed and blasted London, a city still trying to carry on in the face of tragedy and terror. It’s also a city temporarily dominated by women, who are set about new tasks while the men are drafted into military ranks. Women are everywhere in “Their Finest;” it’s the men who are in short supply.

Scherfig’s film traces the path of a fictionalized heroine as she changes the face of England’s propaganda-film machine in the waning days of the war, a character based on real women who made a string of films during the war. Starring Gemma Arterton as unlikely filmmaker Catrin Cole, “Their Finest” doesn’t just show Catrin discovering the power of creativity during a time of tragedy – including her work on a film about the Dunkirk evacuation – it also makes room for unsentimental depictions of her work as a volunteer rescue worker during nighttime bombings.

Like “Dunkirk,” it uses fictionalized characters to tell a real story, one that comes complete with its own (and wholly valid) limitations. It’s a war movie just as much as “Dunkirk” is a war movie, albeit a very different one, and one that passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors.

But passing a test – and checking off necessary boxes in order to meet some predetermined end – does not always prove essential to the crafting of a stirring piece of art, and both “Dunkirk” and “Their Finest” seem well aware of that. That’s the only kind of requirement we should ask of our art: what serves the story at hand, what pushes the craft forward, what determines its own requirements.

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