Foreign Films in Focus

Oscars: International Film Race Puts Spotlight on Extreme Female Characters

Courtesy of Far East Film Festival; Rolf Konow/Breaking Glass Pictures; Liana Mukhamedzyanova/Kino Lorber
From left: 'Inhuman Kiss,' 'Queen of Hearts' and 'Beanpole'

This year's submissions feature un-PC and frankly disturbing characters doing everything wrong, from prison sex to sleeping with young stepsons.

In Queen of Hearts, the Danish contender for the 2020 international feature Oscar, Anne, a 40-something lawyer, mother and wife who appears to have it all, puts everything at risk to seduce her teenage stepson in a lurid (and graphically hard-core) affair.

In the Dutch Oscar entry Instinct, at least the sex is between consulting adults. But the pairing — between a prison therapist (Carice van Houten of Game of Thrones) and a convicted serial rapist (Aladdin's Marwan Kenzari) — is problematic, too.

And then there's Inhuman Kiss from Thailand, in which a seemingly normal girl turns vampire by night. Or rather her head does, detaching from her body and, entrails dangling beneath it, sets off on the hunt for human flesh.

Welcome to the world of the 2020 international feature race, home to some of the most extreme, un-PC and frankly disturbing female characters to ever hit the big screen.

In the era of #MeToo and Time's Up, when stories of positive, aspirational women are on the rise, many of the most compelling foreign-language Oscar contenders are mining a darker vein of the female psyche. These ladies are nobody's idea of a role model.

"People say: 'At this moment in time when, finally, there is a craving for female characters, why would you want to do a film about this woman doing these horrible things?' " notes Queen of Hearts director May el-Toukhy. "But if we want to have more female leading characters, we have to create women that are nuanced, subtle and sometimes dark."

"Dark" is the word for the lives of the women in Beanpole, Russia's contender for the international feature Oscar. The second film from director Kantemir Balagov is set in the wreckage of Leningrad in the first months after World War II. Two women, both battle-hardened soldiers (the Soviet Army sent women to fight alongside the men on the front lines), find themselves adrift in a lawless and amoral world. Iya, the gentle giant nicknamed Beanpole (first-timer Viktoria Miroshnichenko), was discharged for shell shock and suffers strange paralytic blackouts as a result of the trauma. Her best friend, Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), who remained at the front, returns apparently intact, but internally, she is broken beyond repair. They are in shock. The nation is in shock. And, thanks to Balagov's unsparing portrayal, soon too is the audience. Iya is shown smothering a child. Masha all but forces an inexperienced young man to have sex with her. Despite the obvious love between them, Iya and Masha manipulate and abuse each other, unable to rebuild a normal life amid the rubble of identity — national, sexual and moral — that remains.

"This story, of the women who fought in the great war, their heroism, has been absolutely ignored by absolutely everyone. I don't think anyone of my own generation even knew such women existed," says Balagov, who based his film, in part, on The Unwomanly Face of War, the 1985 oral history of Soviet women's wartime experiences by Svetlana Alexievic. "The most compelling element of the story for me was the conflict between the female biological imperative — the ability to give life — and the experience of having fought in a war and having been surrounded by death."

El-Toukhy's Queen of Hearts also was inspired by true events, in this case involving a successful career woman who seduced her teenage stepson.

Others in the international feature race referenced more ancient examples of female extremes. Canadian entry Antigone is Sophie Deraspe's contemporary spin on the ancient Greek tragedy about a woman who defies the law to avenge her brother, and Sitisiri Mongkolsiri's Inhuman Kiss draws inspiration from the ancient kra sue myth of feminine spirits.

For Halina Reijn, an actress who has worked with taboo breakers like Paul Verhoeven (Elle, Basic Instinct) and the acclaimed Dutch theater director Ivo van Hove, the initial inspiration for Instinct came from a TV documentary salaciously titled Forbidden Love in Prison.

"It was about how common these boundary-crossing relationships are, how common it is that intelligent, professional women get into these situations. Even, in the case we based the film on, a psychologist who fell in love with a serial rapist," she says. "I thought it was the perfect story to address all the questions I have about my own female identity, about my sexual identity, about my tendency to do things in my life that are not necessarily good for me."

Given the source material, Instinct could have become a titillating, trashy Fifty Shades of Grey-style erotic thriller. Instead, Reijn's directorial debut is a subtle look at female desire, obsession and social taboos — at the stories "we keep hidden in the dark," she says.

As a working actress, Reijn says she's feels "very much a part" of the #MeToo movement. "It's brought about a lot of positive changes, also in the workplace," she says, but, as a director, she rejects that idea that "woke" culture should place any restriction on the kinds of women she depicts and the kinds of stories she chooses to tell.

"As an artist, we should never think in good and evil, never think in black and white. We should always confront, be courageous and go into the spaces we are so afraid of."

Reijn notes that her film is "completely made from a female perspective" and points out that despite the explicit sex in Instinct, there is not a single frame showing female nudity. "It became a dogma for me. I didn't want to show a female nipple or female pubic hair," she says. "I have been naked onstage for 20 years. I'm done with it. Let's find new perspectives. I don't want to objectify the female body anymore. Maybe let's objectify the masculine side for a change."

El-Toukhy was in the midst of shooting Queen of Hearts when #MeToo went global. She began to question whether her film was truly in the spirit of the movement.

"I define myself as someone who is a feminist and who strives to create stories with female leading characters," she says. "I did a lot of soul searching because it is not that often that we see a woman who behaves this way. Of course, the majority of stories that have been discussed are about male predators preying on females. I was afraid the audience could find Queen of Hearts to be anti-female or anti-feminist."

It was only when Queen of Hearts first screened in Sundance that el-Toukhy got her answer. At a post-premiere Q&A, a man stood up. "He said: 'Now I understand what #MeToo is about. Now I get it,' " she says. "And that's what we wanted to do with the film. To show that the #MeToo movement is not just about gender. It is about power."

El-Toukhy believes Queen of Hearts, and many of the most provocative international films in the Oscar race this year, could never have been made in the U.S.

"Because the American system is based on the box office, you have a tendency to shy away from the extremes, from anything that could scare us as an audience," she says. "In Scandinavia, like most of Europe, our films are financed mainly by the state, so you are more able to be bold in the stories you tell."

While Queen of Hearts, and many of this year's international feature contenders, have drawn criticism for their extreme depiction of women, the filmmakers hope their movies will broaden the discussion.

"I've never been able to identify with the cliche female characters, with the caring mother, the good wife, the woman torn between her family and her career," says el-Toukhy. "If we really want to have more strong female characters onscreen, we have to dive deeper and create more complex, subtle women onscreen."

"For me, that is the whole thing. That is feminism in cinema," adds Reijn. "To explore female identity in all its complexity. So don't make her into a hero. That would not be fair and that would not be real feminism for me. Because what is a hero? It's a flat character."

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Oscar Winners’ Close Ties to Controversy
by Tara Bitran

International entries are no strangers to controversy in subject matter, onstage and behind the camera, as these five films from Iran, Sweden, France, Germany and Italy clearly display. From directors boycotting the ceremony in protest to a cavalcade of court trials arguing for and against a film's merits, Oscar history is replete with winners who faced skirmishes.

THE SALESMAN (2016)
Director Asghar Farhadi boycotted the 89th Academy Awards as a form of protest over President Trump's executive order blocking the entry of citizens from Iran and six other Muslim-majority nations into the U.S. He enlisted Anousheh Ansari, the first female space tourist, and Firouz Naderi, a former director of Solar System Exploration at NASA, to accept the award for the Iranian film in his stead.

THE TIN DRUM (1979)
Volker Schlöndorff's German entry also won the Palme d'Or, but the film was banned as child pornography in Canada in 1980, then went through a series of high-profile hearings on its merits after it was also barred in Oklahoma and copies were confiscated. Eventually, all the legal cases were settled, the filmmakers vindicated and most copies returned. The incident became the subject of the 2004 documentary Banned in Oklahoma.

MADAME ROSA (1977)
The win for the French film, directed by Israeli Moshé Mizrahi, came in the midst of President Jimmy Carter's attempt to negotiate a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. The Arab-Israeli conflict found its way into the ceremony when, in actress Vanessa Redgrave's victory speech, she expressed political views that were considered pro-Palestine. While Mizrahi didn't complain, screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky announced his displeasure at the podium when he said, "She did not have to make a political proclamation. A simple thank you would have sufficed."

THE GARDEN OF THE FINZI-CONTINIS (1970)
Vittorio De Sica's Italian feature, which also won the Golden Bear in Berlin, caused Giorgio Bassani, the author of the novel on which the film is based, to distance himself from the project. Finzi-Continis received public acclaim, but devotees of the book recoiled from the way the feature made the relationship between the two main characters explicit, changing the original work's tone and personae.

THE VIRGIN SPRING (1960)
The Last House on the Left was a remake of this Swedish entry, which won Ingmar Bergman his first Oscar. But its release encountered censorship across America over its pivotal rape scene. Screenings and home videos were trimmed for decades until Criterion released the film in its entirety with the rape scene intact.

This story first appeared in a November standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.