Posts Tagged ‘feminism’


Femme Fatales in the Work of Billy Wilder


The movies Double Indemnity and Sunset Blvd. are two of the most notable examples of classic Film Noir archetypes.  They have all the major pieces associated with the genre, voice-over narration, sassy dialog, contrasting visuals, and the femme fatales.  The hero is led into a murderous plot, thanks to a manipulative woman.

The principal character in Double Indemnity is Walter Neff, an insurance salesman who lustfully falls for Phyllis Dietrichson, and plots with her to come up with an insurance scheme where they kill her husband and make off with all the life-insurance money.  In Sunset Blvd. the lead is a down-on-his luck screenwriter who ducks into what he thinks is an old abandoned mansion, only to find out that it is still lived in by one of the classic silent film stars.


The women are basically simple.  The first is Phyllis Dietrichson, a wife and stepmother.  She has dreamt of her husband’s murder for some time, but it is only when she meets this new man that she thinks her dream can become a reality.  And with the Gloria Swanson character, the woman has a goal (to return to the cinema) that she is unable to achieve until the male protagonist enters her life.

In both these cases, these women are, in a way, classically dependent upon their male partners.  But there is stark contrast here between this sort of dependency and the traditional damsel in distress scenario.  These women are trapped by their own ambitions.  It is the inner foe that enslaves them.

This reversion of dependency has garnered widely different reactions amongst feminist commentators.  Some see this as a growth in female independence and identity.  Others consider the femme fatale archetype to be the epitome of chauvinistic sexism.  But no one can deny that the women in these films are the strongest motivators of plot.  These women are assertive.  They are pushers, movers, and shakers.  They will overcome a man’s will and conform it to their own.

There’s a certain sexual subtext here that one cannot ignore.  In traditional male-based protagonism, the woman’s role is supportive to the male’s more dominant desires.  But in any story with a femme fatale, it is the man who becomes dependent on the woman.  In the case of Double Indemnity, it is lust that keeps him tethered to her.

But in Sunset Boulevard, the appeal is something else.  He does not appear to be attracted to her physically, and in his voice-over he even describes being repulsed by her.  But he stays with her, and is even mothered by her.  She dresses him and feeds him.  She daily proclaims her love for him.  And despite his shame, a part of him sort of likes it.  Joe Gillis, the screenwriter, has always dreamed of Hollywood success.  Now, through his relationship to the femme fatale, he can experience it.


The relationships between the men and women in these films is toxic, to say the least.  These films are not nearly so much about murderous plots as they are cautionary tales about poisonous relationships.  They demonstrate the step-by-step process of falling head over heels for a girl, only to realize that she’s gotten you killed.

Are these roles sexist, as some have suggested?  The question really lies in whether or not a negative archetype is the same thing as a prejudicial stereotype.  Femme Fatales are powerful to a fault.  They could represent Wilder’s view of how a relationship might be distorted if a woman is in control.  On the other hand, they could also represent the general negatives of a dangerous attraction.  The roles could easily be reversed to produce a commentary on battered women.

In Sunset Boulevard, the unhealthy relationship with Norma Desmond is contrasted with a growing healthy relationship with a young script reader named Betty.  This is an evolution of the archetype from Double Indemnity, where the hero was exclusive to the woman.  It’s an incredible contrast, comparable to a prostitute falling in love.  He has allowed himself to become Norma’s pet.  She feeds him and tells him where to sleep.  She adores him, but belittles him.

Betty on the other hand looks up to him.  She can’t provide for his material needs, but she loves him.  She represents a choice in Joe’s life: a choice between the body and the soul.  Norma Desmond may have his body, but she’ll never have his soul.  And when he makes this plain by leaving her, she demonstrates her power over him by separating his soul from his body.  We do not really see Betty’s reaction to the murder, but we do know that she is now one of the offended parties.


Double Indemnity is similar.  Walter’s body and soul both belong to Phyllis and when he tries to separate from her, he is killed.  Though in Phyllis’ defense, Walter had become a genuine threat to her, whereas Joe Gillis was only a perceived threat to Norma.

As we examine these characters more fully, they produce more depth.  It is for this reason that I am inclined to disregard claims of sexism in Wilder’s noirs.  These characters have more psychological baggage than most other movie villains.  Though I suppose that is in part because being a villain and being an antagonist is not necessarily the same thing.  The women here are not technically antagonists; since they do their best to enable the men they’re with.  But they are most definitely villains.


Escaping Into Explosions: A Thematic Analysis of Sucker Punch


Zack Snyder has never been one for subtlety.  Though he was applauded for its absence in 300, he was criticized for a hyper-violent and over-sexualized interpretation of Alan Moore’s classic graphic novel Watchmen.  But by far his most divisive film is Sucker Punch.  Snyder’s self-proclaimed “Holy Grail of Nerd Movies” is certainly unlike any other film you’ll ever see.  It has depth, certainly, but it also has NO subtlety, leading many to consider it pretentiously exploitative, as if it is trying to justify its exploitation with the vague theme of female empowerment.

And in the opinion of this author, that criticism is dismissive at best.  Make no mistake, Sucker Punch is not for everyone.  Its audience is very specific.  Not even all nerds can get into it.  Its structure is weird.  The music is cartoonishly literal.  The dialog leaves no room for subtext.  But you know what?  I love this movie.

Its action scenes have been criticized for having no “real world stakes.”  As in, the impending threat in the main character’s (Baby Doll’s) world is that she is going to be lobotomized, but in the fantasies she faces off against dragons, trains, and clockwork men.  Thus, as the criticism goes, her accomplishments in the escapist fantasies are in fact anti-accomplishments.  Nothing is achieved.  Nothing is learned.  In any traditional story this would be a major flaw.  But Sucker Punch is not a traditional story. It is a thematic commentary on escapism and an explosive meditation on why we even go to movies like this in the first place.

The highest level of reality in the film (that of the asylum) has no more bearing on the audience’s reality than the genre-blending fantasies have on Baby Doll’s.  We all choose to substitute our stakes with those of high-concept fantasy worlds.  Take a beloved story like The Lord of the Rings.  The stakes in that story are very high – all of Middle Earth could be overtaken by the dark lord Sauron.  And yet, we find these stakes to be more comforting and relaxing than our real-world problems – problems which are comparatively much smaller.

The falseness of fantasy is part of its appeal.  It allows us to experience our messy emotional selves in a context where being emotionally manipulated is considered a good thing.  Then we walk away from the theater and back into our real environment; the same, but different.  We’ve matured with our characters, even if such maturation is exclusively psychological.  We relish the opportunity to explore ourselves emotionally, to redefine our lives in a new and safer context where good can triumph over evil.  In the film, Baby Doll does just that.  Her life has become a mess.  At first, she redefines her surroundings – the asylum becomes a brothel, rape becomes a dance.  But there comes a point where this fantasy is too close to reality, so she escapes even further into a world that bends itself to her needs.  Gravity?  Psh!  If we can’t climb we’ll jump, and if that doesn’t work, we’ll fly.

This is where the real commentary starts.  This deep layer of fantasy features the girls triumphing over impossible odds.  They’re the best in the world.  Nothing can keep them down.  This represents one of the most common escapist fantasies – victory.  But there comes an inevitable point where something so tragic, so jarring happens that the escapism fails.  I won’t spoil it here, but what we see happen toward the end of the second act forces Baby Doll to be self-conscious about her escapism, when faced with pain, she actively chooses to return to the fantasy.  But now the escapism is back a step, it simply redefines.  It repurposes a tragedy to be something of a different kind of failure.  What was a simple failure to steal a knife becomes the failure to disarm a nuclear explosion.  Perhaps that extremist failure is more comfortable to watch than the more personal tragedy.

There’s lots of talk in this film about Baby Doll’s virginity.  She’s supposed to lose it to the High Roller, the fantasy version of the lobotomist.  The idea of course is that the moment he inserts a needle into her brain is symbolized by sexual intercourse.  There is also much reference to the lie of entertainment.  The opening shot is of curtains being drawn (not unlike Moulin Rouge!), and the first layer of fantasy is filled with song and dance, countered by backstage scenes of sadness and pain.  The multitude of mirrors remind us of the different sides of every person, and maybe produces the anxiety of being watched from every angle.  And at the end of the film we get a glimpse of Paradise – the final escape.  This is what everyone in the film has been after since the beginning; and arguably, everyone in the real world too.

As mentioned earlier, there is depth here.  But its screaming at you.  Depth without subtlety can be a major turn-off for some.  All the symbols in the world won’t mean much to an audience that doesn’t care for your story.  But at the very least, I wish that critics had more respect for the incredibly unique work of art that this film is.  Like Edward Scissorhands for Burton or The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly for Leone, no one else could have made this film the way Snyder has made it.  It is deeply personal and in some ways completely successful.  Its themes of escapism will certainly strike a cord with anyone interested in the idea of entertainment as public service.

For my case, these escapist action flicks are precisely the types of movies that I want to make some day.  And Sucker Punch is a very clear description as to why.