The poster for Atomic Blonde—which stars Charlize Theron as a Cold War MI6 agent tasked with taking out a nest of foreign spies—features the actress in shades and leathers, packing a heroically phallic firearm. A neon pull-quote boasts that Theron is “totally badass,” which according to some critics is the movie’s only virtue. Theron is a terrifically skilled and versatile actress, and this is far from her first outing as woman warrior. She oozed attitude and a ton of extra poundage as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster, and pretty much ran away with George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road as the one-armed and dangerous Imperator Furiosa. Being an action lead is an actor’s fast track to the A-list, as Jennifer Lawrence and Gal Gadot have discovered to the delight of millions of their girl-fans.
But as heartening as it has been to see Wonder Woman—directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins—clean up at the box office this summer, it deserves only halfhearted cheers. And not just because female filmmakers still don’t command salaries commensurate with their male counterparts. As badass goes, look to something like Theron in Niki Caro’s overlooked, fact-based drama North Country, in which she excelled as a psychologically complex Minnesota mineworker who files a pioneering sexual harassment lawsuit. There, she was a compelling character as well as a real crusader against patriarchy.
To a degree, this is a matter of taste. Action films don’t do much for me, but violence is and always will be integral to cinema, and many women legitimately love the genre. Now that it’s also clear that women can make action movies, they’re right to get mad about not being hired more often to do so. But does the mere fact that women writers, directors, and actors can do what the boys do necessarily means that they have to in order to prove themselves? The mere reclamation of physical power, especially when its terms are cribbed wholesale from a hyper-masculine model, often feels like mere emulation or unwillingness to rethink what would count as a language of female agency and anger. Or to consider anew what gets women furious about in the nominally more gender-equal society we live in today.
Female furies have been around almost since cinematic time began—think Louise Brooks in 1929’s Pandora’s Box—though for a long time they were mostly creations of a feverishly paranoid, almost exclusively male imagination. In post-World War II film noirs like Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, or The Lady From Shanghai, the femme fatale beamed a powerful (if pathological) sexuality at the hapless male, the better to destroy him. No bunny boilers were needed in that stylish age to immobilize a man with his guard down. It was all in the lipstick, the shoulder pads and the acidic one-liners. These splendidly perverse creatures linger in popular memory far longer than the home-fire-stokers with whom they jockeyed for space.
And not just in noir: From George Cukor (The Philadelphia Story, Adam’s Rib) and Douglas Sirk (All That Heaven Allows) onward, a small but significant number of male filmmakers have always honored the women who form the beating heart of their movies and their audiences. They’re out there today too, in the Pedro Almodóvar canon and others. Terence Davies’ Sunset Song and A Quiet Passion are exquisitely sensitive homages to the desperate rebellions of troubled, oppressed and ignored women.
This year, in Miguel Arteta’s Beatriz at Dinner, a gentle spiritual healer fantasizes fatally stabbing a Trump-like developer who cares nothing for her or for the planet. Roger Michel’s My Cousin Rachel, based on the Daphne du Maurier novel, stars Rachel Weisz as a wily stranger from overseas who may or may not have murdered a possibly abusive husband. William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth transports a Russian novel based on Shakespeare’s play to Victorian England and retools it as the story of a repressed and brutalized young bride who is warped into a functioning psychopath. The celebrated Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao Hsien’s The Assassin is a different kind of women’s action movie: A ninth-century female contract killer comes to renounce the vengeful violence in which she’s been trained by a nun who doubles as a warrior princess. There's a way to read her choice as a rebuke to all the woman warriors currently rampaging through Hollywood's franchises, as if feminism were a matter of doing what the boys do, only more so.
It’s worth noting that all these movies except one (Beatriz at Dinner) are period pieces featuring women who rebelled against constraints in times far less enlightened than our own. Same with Sofia Coppola’s sly retooling of Don Siegel’s The Beguiled, which won Best Director at Cannes this year. Set at the tail end of the Civil War, the film centers on a bevy of repressed Southern seminary teachers and students whose libidos are aroused, then thwarted by a fetching captive Unionist soldier (Colin Farrell). Armed with an anatomy textbook and harmful fungi, they team up to wreak creative vengeance on the duplicitous hunk.
Gender inequality and oppression remain central concerns for women today, and with good reason. But slowly, women filmmakers all over the world—mostly outside the studio system—are coming into their own making films in all genres. They bracket or retool the de rigueur likability or madonna-whore dichotomies with which female characters have been saddled for so long.
Athina Rachel Tsangari’s black comedy Chevalier, about a bunch of Greeks of varying studliness on a fishing trip, beams a jaundiced gaze on male vanity and one-upmanship in all its forms. Ana Lily Amarpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and follow-up The Bad Batch deftly combine action, horror, and other genres to restore power to women under siege. Australian director Jennifer Kent’s hair-raising, moving, and very funny The Babadook nimbly adapts horror to consider the rising anxiety of a widowed single mother who’s trying to manage her grief and cover all the bases alone. Pumped with empowering rage and mostly without leaving the house, the young mother adds several new meanings to the term “hear me roar.” And Kent wades boldly onto risky, truthful terrain by allowing her heroine to vent, however irrationally, toward her little boy for the sacrifices she has made on his behalf.
Some of the most interesting cinematic expressions of female anger are taking shape where the rage is not an abstract shout against patriarchy. Instead it emerges organically from wide and deep inquiries into the character and predicament of women and girls who aren’t immediately sympathetic or likable, but who struggle to define themselves in a seemingly more gender-equal world. Marielle Heller’s groundbreaking Diary of a Teenage Girl harks back to the coming of age of a 1970s teen who initiates an affair with her mother’s all-too-compliant lover. This indisputably feminist film considers the cost and benefits of greater sexual freedom for women. Gillian Robespierre’s alt-romantic comedy Obvious Child turns on a foulmouthed standup comedian (Jenny Slate) so lost in rage at her cheating former boyfriend and her accidental pregnancy that she fails, for a while, to appreciate the seemingly dorky swain who likes her just as she is and understands that the decision to abort or not is hers.
There’s aslo the unlikely but extraordinarily fertile collaboration between director Kelly Reichardt and Michelle Williams, a major star who can write her own ticket but who chooses to work with an indie director of rigorously low-budget films that both embrace and subvert male genres. Amid the clarion call for roles for strong women, Reichardt’s complex vision of womanhood and its dilemmas can seem regressive if you’re not paying attention. The women in her films are often trapped in oppressive situations or in lives that feel too small for them, with uncertain prospects for release from their shackles. In Wendy and Lucy, as a displaced young woman trying to make her way to Alaska with her beloved dog to seek work, Williams exudes a blend of aching vulnerability and stubborn truculence that refuses to solicit audience sympathy. In Reichardt’s latest film Certain Women, Williams is all steely resolve, with a side-dish of forlorn, as a none too happily married newcomer to Montana obsessed with snapping up local stone for the foundation of an “authentic” house she wants to build. And in Meek’s Cutoff, a feminist Western of sorts, Williams thrills as an Oregon trail woman building up a slow boil of rage at the dissembling guide who’s leading her wagon train astray. When violence finally comes it’s swift, visceral and gender-blind. Together, Reichardt and Williams strip away the sentimental psychologizing of the women’s movie as ruthlessly as they undercut the hyper-masculine romance of the Western.
In and out of movies, women continue to struggle against men who would dominate, ignore or exploit them. But they also struggle with themselves. One of the most interesting recent representations of such a struggle was Lisa Cholodenko’s HBO mini-series adaptation of Elizabeth Strout’s marvelous novel Olive Kitteridge. Frances McDormand’s Maine schoolteacher is stably married to a kind and loving husband (Richard Jenkins) with whom it’s implied she enjoys an active sex life. She’s a discerning teacher and a canny lifesaver to a former pupil contemplating suicide. Yet Olive is perpetually infuriated, as well as blind and deaf to what a terrible mother she’s been to her only son. Her story hints at a family history dogged by depression and suicide. But neither Olive nor the anger that both sustains and threatens to destroy her are glibly defined or explained away by her childhood.
Olive is a fully-formed force field of contradictions, rarely lovable though sometimes brave and admirable. The audience doesn’t have to empathize with Olive to be fully engaged with her range and depth, or to discover alongside her what has made her so mad. Had she grown up in a different time and place, Olive might have had the means and the opportunities to become a more fulfilled woman. Who knows? Neither earth mother nor wonder woman, indeed no “essence of woman” at all, Olive finds a kind of solace in the company of the last man in the world she’d expect to bring her peace. Just don’t go expecting her to turn all pussycat at the close.