Francis Lawrence has heard all your comparisons already. The “Red Sparrow” director knows that audiences are expecting his Jennifer Lawrence-starring spy thriller to be in the same vein as recent hits like “Atomic Blonde,” or that it’s some kind of knockoff of that long-rumored “Black Widow” standalone Marvel film. It’s neither.
Instead, Lawrence plays a Russian woman trained in the art of seduction, but even though there are sex scenes, don’t expect something sexy. “It’s not an erotic thriller,” the director said. “I did not want to go and make an erotic thriller. Jen certainly didn’t want to go make an erotic thriller.” The resulting movie, an unnerving portrait of a woman who weaponizes her own body, found Lawrence working in close collaboration with his star, even allowing her sign off on the final cut before the studio.
So stop with those “Atomic Blonde” comparisons. “I find it annoying,” Lawrence told IndieWire. “I’m not surprised by it anymore. I’ve seen it happen before. I didn’t know about ‘Atomic Blonde’ and then I saw the poster and I knew the second I saw that shot of Charlize in the wig, ‘People are going to think we’re just doing “Atomic Blonde.”‘”
Based on former CIA operative Jason Matthews’ best-selling novel of the same name, the film weaves a twisted (and timely) tale about Russian and American espionage, centered on former ballerina-turned-Russian-spy Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence). Unlike “Atomic Blonde” or the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s not an action-centric film, and it doesn’t try to make the spy world look “cool” or “fun.”
“I think [audiences are] used to a world where everything is familiar and everything is a take on a thing on a thing on a thing as opposed to something really unique,” he said. “There are a lot of movies that glamorize the world of espionage. I was interested in doing the opposite of that. I was interested in doing the version where it’s a very brutal, cold, violent world, where the stakes are very high.”
Jennifer Lawrence’s Dominika is also, by the director’s own approximation, “a very unlikely hero, because she’s also capable of extreme anger and some real violence.” When the film opens, Dominika is the star of the lauded Bolshoi Ballet, a vocation that makes her one hell of an alluring potential spy: she’s physically tough, driven by competition, and willing to do whatever it takes to win.
When a horrific injury ends her career (and there are a lot of horrific injuries in the R-rated film), Dominika is sucked into the spycraft world, hastened by a stint at a Russian institution that aims to teach her some very uncomfortable tactics, essentially becoming a good spy by seducing her targets. Lawrence is clear that although the film hinges on Dominika’s evolution from injured prima ballerina into ruthless spy, all thanks to a curriculum focused on temptation over tussling, the film is not meant to titillate.
During Dominika’s training at Sparrow School, the art of seduction serves as the primary lesson, and while that might sound like something flirty and fun, in the world of “Red Sparrow,” it’s dehumanizing. It’s something for Dominika to fight against, not for, and anyone who calls the film a “sexy spy thriller” or anything similarly reductive has missed the point.
“My approach was for it never to be sexy,” Lawrence said. “I think that, once again, there’s a sort of a perception that if you’re going to do a movie about somebody who is trying to seduce for information, that there’s going to be a lot of red lipstick and high heels and things like that. There’s really not.”
“Red Sparrow” star Jennifer Lawrence has been open about how the nudity and sexuality in the film helped her reclaim her sexual empowerment following a 2014 phone hack. “I realized there’s a difference between consent and not,” she said in a recent “60 Minutes” interview. “I showed up for the first day and I did it and I felt empowered. I feel like something that was taken from me, I got back. It’s my body, it’s my art, and it’s my choice.”
The Lawrences have long enjoyed a close working relationship, as Francis took over directing duties on the final three Jennifer-starring “Hunger Games” films after original director Gary Ross declined to return for more. It’s that relationship that helped Lawrence and his star hash out the film’s most uncomfortable scenes, including ones that portray violent sexual assaults.
“When Jen read the script and she agreed to do it, I think it was maybe an hour after she had said, ‘Yeah, I want to do it’ that I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to come to your house and we’re going to have a very frank discussion,'” Lawrence said.
The filmmaker had already grappled with the nature and tone of the scenes with screenwriter Justin Haythe, but he wanted to make sure that his star was not only fully cognizant of the requirements of filming them, but of how it might make her feel to lens them.
“I wanted to talk about all the scenes, I wanted to make her a partner in making sure that we were really, really, really vigilant about each and every moment in terms of sexuality, nudity, and violence,” he said. “And that it was hitting the right spots in terms of tone and theme and character.”
The director even offered his star something rare to further ensure her comfort.
“One of the other things that I did too with her was that I promised her that I would show her the cut before anybody saw it, including the studio, including the producers,” Lawrence said. “She had first right to just say, ‘Hey, you know what? Not comfortable with that being in it.’ She had control of what the end result would be. I just wanted the environment to be as safe and as collaborative as possible, and for her to be brave, she had to be able to have control and be empowered.”
The star didn’t ask the filmmaker to cut anything. It’s unclear if Lawrence’s approach to different material will pan out. Reviews have been mixed to positive (the film currently has 65% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes), and it’s opening in a box office landscape currently dominated by the success of “Black Panther.” Lawrence acknowledged it’s not an easy sell.
“It’s a risky kind of movie these days,” he said. “It’s not the little indie and it’s not the big huge comic book tentpole. It’s a very different kind of R-rated adult film. I want people to know the kind of movie it is. I think part of the problem actually stems a little bit from people’s expectations of a spy movie, people’s expectations of Jen. I think people like to put things in boxes.”
“Red Sparrow” opens in theaters nationwide this Friday, March 2.
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