[Editor’s note: Elle and The Handmaiden were shown at the Hop on January 20 and 13, respectively.]
My friend turns to me as the credits roll on Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, the French thriller that has been impressing worldwide, and says, “Take a while to process it and then let me know what you thought. I need to know if you’re as confused as I am.”
I spent those few minutes of filing out of the cinema to figure out if I had any thoughts to gather. A week earlier, I walked out of the Loew with the same confused dizziness in response to Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden. Both films end with a shot of two women, lovers or potential lovers, walking or sailing into a distant tomorrow. Their happiness comes after two hours of pain, rape, murder and suspense. The idea that they can be happy is absurd and perhaps the most unnerving part of the entire film—and that’s including the octopus in the basement.
I was surprised when I saw The Handmaiden and knew it hadn’t been nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film. A friend pointed out that I probably knew why—that five, maybe six, quite graphic lesbian sex scenes were enough alone to disqualify it. Elle, on the other hand, won both the Foreign Language award and Best Actress in a Drama Motion Picture, beating Amy Adams in Arrival and Jessica Chastain in Miss Sloane, who won for Zero Dark Thirty in 2012. Elle, while skipping the lesbian sex scenes, showed numerous traumatic rape scenes. In content, theme and defiance of cultural or filmic norms, these films were fairly similar. Both explored the idea of a woman who overcame brutal abuse, while also inflicting some abuse, to make something of herself.
Both women were scarred and hurtful to others, yet they refused to give themselves up for anyone else. When I count the number of films that do that to the same emotionally raw and real level, I barely come up with a handful. There is a reason every day to celebrate strong women on film. Those roles have been few and far between. This particular moment, though, it feels especially important to have this “Hear Me Roar” by the Dartmouth Film Society. Never have I seen two films, made in the same year, that challenge gender roles in film and society—and have received as much recognition—as these two. The Hop has already brought Queen of Katwe, The Eagle Huntress and Sonita as just some of this year’s films celebrating the strength of women. The Eagle Huntress played on the night of the worldwide Women’s March that will make history if not for its size and strength. Still to come are Edge of Seventeen, Jackie and Miss Sloane, films which all show that strong female roles need not always be fictional.
I think it’s important to remember, throughout all these films, that the woman isn’t always the victim. An abused, attacked and victimized woman can remain the hero of her own story. Two women can build a future that the men around them tried to tear down. Plus, women make excellent protagonists for thrillers. But I guess that, since The Ring, we all knew that already.