“Every time she killed a man, her lips would open. Yes, she would spill their blood with pleasure. And she wore a flag […] it was a symbol. Stars and Stripes. I swear, this was a blonde American” (YES)
From time immemorial, it has been the destiny of women in literature, in song, in cinema, to fall victim to their desires, or else lay waste to notions of order and authority as a result of such desires. From Judaism’s Lilith, to the Greeks’ Pandora, and Christianity’s Eve, the apparent insatiability of female transgression (be that fatal curiosity, deviant lust or just plain evil) has thrilled and disturbed audiences alike. In the year 2000, the world was, according to Francis Fukuyama, already ‘beyond history’. Not to mention it was on the cusp of digital ascendancy, rampant with late capitalism and primed for the new millennium. Yet despite all this, the archaic notion of female transgression endured in the collective mind with vigour and perhaps nowhere more pointedly than in cinema.
Between 2004-2005, two audacious films sought to explore the long-mythologised concept of female desire. They were Sally Potter’s knotty political romance YES (2004) and Kenneth Lonergan’s searing study of guilt, Margaret (2005). In an industry otherwise saturated with politic-lite approximations of female agency – Legally Blonde, What a Girl Wants, Closer, Gigli, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days etc. – these two films offered a nuanced and trenchantly political perspective of the modern American woman, warts and all.
Both are unapologetically theatrical in style and acerbic in message, falling somewhere between diatribe and epic, and perhaps as a result of this, are largely overlooked as part of their director’s catalogue. Both are inevitably distinctive of the milieu from which they were born – ringing with an acute anxiety arising from personal torment, unfulfilled desire and pervasive White American guilt, ever the more pertinent in the years directly after 9/11. In considering these two films, we are able to pinpoint the exact moment cinema stopped saying, ‘women are inherently transgressive’ and started asking ‘why is film so drawn to the idea of the transgressive woman?’ and ‘what would it look like if we tried to understand the transgressive woman?’
Enter, YES. Potter’s film follows ‘Her’, an unnamed American-Irish woman (played with cool fervour by Joan Allen), who finds herself adrift both in her physical surroundings – the glacial environs of upper-class London – and in her emotions. She is trapped in an atrophied marriage to her British Politician husband (Sam McNeill) and looking down the barrel at a life as sterile and barren as her immaculate home. She meets an unnamed man, ‘Him’ – a waiter at one of her husband’s conferences. He makes her laugh over the tops of cut crystal champagne flutes and embarrasses her with his compliments – “I wouldn’t let such a beauty out of my sight, not for a moment”. He is a Lebanese refugee, a successful doctor in another life, now moonlighting as a chef and waiter. Simon Abkarian plays him with fearless charm and just a hint of danger. He and She fall instantly in love. Potter is not one to obscure her intentions, and from the offset, it is evident that YES seeks to impart some hefty political discourse. As the relationship between She and He deepens, the inevitable questions bubble to surface – what binds them? What separates them? How will the world look upon them?
Potter is candid about the genesis of her project; “I started writing YES in the days following the attacks of September 11th in NYC. I felt an urgent need to respond to the rapid demonization of the Arabic world in the West and to the parallel wave of hatred against the United States”. The film’s characterization of Her is hinged on the contrasting notions of science and passion – a binary almost as persistent as that of female and male. She is an Embryologist, spending her days engaging in the thorny discussion of life and not-quite-life. For Her, science is the “truth” which she pursued with all the “passion of [her] youth”. The two exist in a fine balance – an American woman, for who the empiricism of science suggests not limitation, but boundless opportunity. She admits herself that “objectivity” could “be just a point of view”, and indeed, after meeting Him, she idles in such abstraction, “I find I lie in bed and drift and dream. Things really aren’t as they seem”. When confronted with her desire, the American woman departs from reason as dictated by Western academia, and offers herself up to the volatility of the world. She is undone by desire.
This is an acutely political sentiment lodged in layers of romance. While She discovers her rational core transmuted by the new affair, her body discovered anew in its agency and power, for Him the affair only serves to reinforce the prevailing imbalance between depictions of East and West. At the pinnacle of the film, the two lovers argue caustically. He feels emasculated and diminished by her eclipsing desire, saying, “my body’s been in your possession, now I’m asking for it back. It once was mine, but everything I said was true, how I worshipped you”. He feels intrinsically that her desire for him has robbed him of his agency, his nationhood, his faith. The power of her longing has stripped him of his raison d’etre, and as Pandora learned, transgression can never be returned to the box once out. Likewise, she feels pigeonholed by his view of her, “I’m not only your goddess and queen. I’m a 21st century any-damn-thing I choose, including your teacher or king”. Using the age-old device of the lovers’ quarrel, Potter interrogates notions of shame, responsibility and truth that overlap and befuddle, characterizing it in the following way, “I tried to create characters with contradiction in them, who are more than one thing, because that’s what many of us are”.
In a similar manner, Lonergan’s Margaret is a quintessentially post-9/11 film (if we can lend it that moniker). It follows a seventeen-year-old New York schoolgirl who inadvertently causes a bus to crash, killing a pedestrian. It is both a story about a young girl’s death of innocence (with NYC as the Edenic metropolis) and a cautionary tale for the ages, concerned with America’s guilt surrounding foreign affairs and multiculturalism in the wake of September 11th. If in YES, the protagonist’s desire was a regenerative force, in Lonergan’s film, the protagonist’s desire is a destructive agent.
Lisa Cohen (played with overwrought sincerity by Anna Paquin) is about to discover the power of desire to irredeemably alter the lives of others. She flirts uncreatively with her teacher (Matt Damon), shirks off a fellow classmate’s intrepid proposals and blunders through a sexual encounter with an older boy. These incidents seem of little import to her, allured as she is by the world of high drama she perceives to exist just beyond her reach. When she mindlessly distracts a leering bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) and causes the death of a random woman, some sly part of us wonders if this is not perhaps the galvanising article Lisa had secretly desired as antidote to her adolescent torpor. Here is an event as tragic in proportion as the opera she attends with her mother, as wrought with injustice and cruelty as the events taking place in the Middle East, which her classmates dissect with indifferent eloquence in class. Here is a whirling cyclone of chaos and catastrophe and who else is at the centre but Lisa Cohen?
Both Potter and Longeran worked in theatre before becoming filmmakers, and the elevated rhythms and parlance of the stage seeps into their work. Indeed, what saves Lisa Cohen from being a hateful character is as simple and as significant as the title of the film. Originally billed as ‘Bus Story’ (thank GOD that didn’t go ahead), Lonergan was persuaded to take inspiration from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ seminal poem Spring and Fall for his film instead. A sinewy lament about loss of innocence and youths’ inability to perceive of a higher order, the poem was a natural namesake for Lonergan’s adolescent psychodrama. In the poem, Hopkins addresses a young girl, Margaret, and tells her how her grief, now abstract and overwhelming, will take on shape and consciousness over time– such is the burden of adulthood. This sentiment is exemplified in the final lines; “It ís the blight man was born for// it is Margaret you mourn for”. The structure of Lonergan’s film mirrors Hopkins’ principal, with Lisa slowly becoming aware of the scale and shape of her grief, and in turn, realizing its insignificance in the face of an apathetic world. Her desire to be seen and considered as a woman, though still only seventeen, leads her down a treacherous path of discovery, and what she finds at the end is shrunken, inconsequential and resolutely human. At one point in the film, an exasperated older woman tells Lisa, “we are not supporting characters in the fascinating story of your life!” Indeed, as America flailed in the years following the attacks, its glossy, inflated self-image wounded and diminished, the same pattern can be seen in Lonergan’s Lisa, who falls from dizzying solipsism to the cold reality that awaits her.
In the same way Lonergan uses a literary foil to foreground his modern tragedy, Potter incorporates elements of theatrical history to suggest an inevitability to her work. Now might be a good time to mention that YES is written entirely in iambic pentameter – the literary device popularised in Shakespeare’s plays, and loathed by school children ever since. Take this post-coital interaction between Her and Him in YES; “single is a word based on illusion, life itself developed from a fusion. Two is joining, letting go, attraction and rejection, yes and no. It’s not a solo but a sweet duet …” to which He responds, “it is two that brought us to the mother. Desire that led us to the lover”. Remind you of anything? Perhaps Shakespeare’s lofty tale of East and West, Anthony and Cleopatra. In mirroring the words of Shakespeare, the dimensions of Potter’s story become not merely global, but historical too, inverting the Bard’s epic tale to present Him as Cleopatra (passionate, tempered, enigmatic) and Her as Anthony (dogged, resolute and smitten). It is a subversion not just of gender, but of desire too, wherein the powerful, doting Westerner is a woman and her object of lust is a man. Potter addresses this binary in her online blog (which she kept during the process of making YES and which offers a rarely-accessible insight into a director’s creative process), she writes, “we discussed our own experiences of being listened to and not listened to; the unheard stories, the grief and rage of not having our experiences understood; for Simon, as a man from the Middle-East, and for Joan and myself as females”. While desire may be the inciting incident for discussions around Western culpability in YES, Potter is careful to avoid the hoary stereotype of the disgraced woman, who’s lack of control inevitably leads to destruction and violence. In listening to the desires of Her and in responding to them in conversations that feel candid and passionate, Potter reshapes the narrative, placing female agency (in all its contradictions) resolutely at the centre.
Evidently, the concept of female desire as explored in the early 2000’s was still hazy. Both Potter and Lonergan depict it as indivisible from a wide array of exterior elements (war, politics, power, history etc) with male desire still functioning as the cinematic benchmark. However, YES and Margaret do manage to antagonize, with erudite scriptwriting, challenging characters and directorial deftness, the simplified notions of feminine agency proliferated in pop culture at the beginning of the millennium. With the recent success of films such as Julia Ducournau’s Titane, Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady of Fire, and Todd Haynes’ Carol, all which centre around female desire and so-called transgression, it is interesting to note how the fallible, complex female in film had its own quiet explosion back in the 00’s, a period otherwise dominated by lazy stereotypes, dangerous ideals and corporate greed.