Monstrous maidens hit the screen at Sax & Violins

Throughout August, Sax & Violins Film Society is reflecting on the representation of women in cinema: how girls become ghastly to get their time on the big screen.

It’s a monster-movie marathon with a twist: Sax & Violins Film Society is spending the month of August with the baddest mothers on the block, examining and deconstructing the way these women are represented on screen: as “corruptible, conduits of evil, monstrous, alien – ‘other’. Women no longer women, but forces of nature, paranormal entities, vengeful spirits and green-eyed monsters.”

Curated by Ashleigh and Chris D’Antonio-Hocking, the program spans the last five decades and includes films from all around the globe. The couple first started discussing the program theme in April, and found themselves faced with too many movies to choose from.

“It was very much an idea of looking at the way women are represented as ‘other’ – or how the ‘monstrous feminine’ is a conduit of evil,” says Ashleigh. “It was incredibly difficult to cull down the list of possible films. Consequently, though, we’ve arrived at this program which is really important to both of us.”

“We didn’t just want to show films we loved,” says Chris. “We wanted to put stories together in ways that gave them new context or gave them new significance.”

To help audiences explore the program’s themes more deeply, Sax & Violins are hosting two special screenings. The first, on Friday, August 17, is Anna Biller’s The Love Witch (2016), which will be presented by writer and critic Aimee Knight. The following week, Sam George-Allen (writer, musician, witch enthusiast) will present Robert Eggers’ The VVitch (2015).

The Love Witch is an occult sensation, which has enjoyed only limited release in Australia. The Sax & Violins screening will be Adelaide’s first. It’s a favourite for its rich aesthetic and subversive storytelling. The director, Anna Biller, also wrote the script, constructed the sets, painted the props, sewed the costumes and composed the music; every element is deliberate and considered.

Biller is one of a few female directors on the program, and her Love Witch takes one of the most nuanced approaches to the ‘feminine evil’ tropes seen in some of the other choices. Biller is particularly interested in exploring our idea of the ‘sexy witch’, which she explains is ‘a loaded archetype that is simultaneously about men’s fears and fantasies about women, and women’s feelings of empowerment and agency’.

Janice Loreck, the author of Violent Women in Contemporary Cinema (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), teaches in the Screen Arts faculty at Curtin University. She says that ‘the tendency to link monstrosity and sexuality shows that a lot of monsters are the product of heterosexual male anxiety about women’s sexual power’.

Biller willfully engages with these ideas, saying, “Elaine, the witch in the film, is a totally ‘constructed’ woman, with layers of make-up, lashes, fetish lingerie, a wig, and Victorian costumes – all of which she hides behind and uses as a weapon.”

“Such characters are usually figures of the male imagination,” says Loreck. “Some female monsters are femme fatale types who use their sexuality to ensnare men. Others are characterised as sexually ‘perverse’, which is meant to make them seem even more evil and abhorrent. […] That said, I do think women filmmakers have taken these male fantasies and repurposed them in interesting ways, so in a way they can now be reclaimed by women, too.”

Elaine (Samantha Robinson) casts a spell upon a pentagram in The Love Witch

While Elaine’s actions in The Love Witch are never excused, viewers grow to deeply understand Elaine’s motivations. “Biller really focuses on Elaine’s interiority, which pushes the character beyond the old ‘sexy witch’ stereotype,” says Aimee Knight. “We see events that might explain why Elaine primes herself for the male gaze, why that’s safer and makes sense to her. We may not choose to do the same, ourselves, but we can empathise with her decisions, in context. Somehow, that’s still a novel approach to depicting women – supernatural or otherwise – in cinema.”

The complexity of Elaine’s behaviour is an element that marks Biller’s production apart from others in Sax & Violins’ program. Loreck notes program-mate The VVitch also depicts “women’s transgression” with depth and nuance. When the D’Antonio-Hockings were compiling the program, time and time again they saw that women gained agency or power only when they lost their ‘human’ side.

“There’s a pervasive idea that women can’t be strong without being kind of monstrous as well. They often have to take on anti-feminine or anti-human traits to break out of gender roles,” says Chris.

Being a “monstrous” character isn’t necessarily a bad thing; in many of the films, the alien quality is a positive for the woman character. However, when monstrosity is a woman’s only option for “depth”, the characterisation becomes a problem.

“I think it’s important that women are represented in lots of different ways. Not every character needs to be a ‘positive role model’ or ‘feminist’,” says Loreck, noting that it would be difficult and subjective to pin down what ‘good’ representation entails. “Problems happen when women are represented the same way over and over, or simply not represented enough. […] I don’t mean to give filmmakers carte blanche to represent women in any way they wish. If they have produced a problematic representation, viewers have the right to voice their opinion. And I think that pushing back against poor representation does lead to better representation in future.

“Speaking generally, I think it would be a shame if we couldn’t represent women as monstrous or evil. For one thing, it would imply women are incapable of violence or aggression, and this would deny us our complexity as human beings.”

Monsters, maidens, and all characters in between are welcome to explore this complexity with Sax & Violins over the coming weeks. Films will be screened every Wednesday to Sunday until the end of August. The full program and session times can be viewed here.

Sax & Violins Film Society & Bar
Shop 2–3, 195 Pirie Street, Adelaide
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