Maybe you’ve heard: There are not a lot of women in the Venice lineup. Well, not a lot of women filmmakers — there are plenty of women, stories about women, and women walking down the red carpet. But there are only eight films directed by women in the official selection, and a lone woman director in this year’s 21-deep competition lineup: Australia’s Jennifer Kent, with her follow-up to 2014 horror breakout/evergreen meme The Babadook. The festival agreed to sign a protocol identical to the one signed by the programmers at Cannes this year, which agrees to greater transparency in the selection process, increased gender parity in executive boards, and an overall goal toward gender parity in directors — but not a quota. Festival director Alberto Barbera rivals Cannes director Thierry Frémaux in his vocal discomfort with letting anything but “quality” determine the lineups, stating with no small degree of melodrama that he would “quit” his post if any kind of quota was put into place.
Sadly, I departed Venice before The Nightingale’s premiere, so the lone film by a woman director I will have caught by the time I leave is Charlie Says, Mary Harron’s story of the three women convicted in the Manson Family murders. It was in the Orizzonti sidebar, and I went to the premier screening, where Harron and her cast and more than a few Doctor Who fans (a scraggly, drawling Matt Smith plays the title role) packed into the Sala Darsena, next door to the glitzier (and bigger) Sala Grande.
The vibe of festival sidebars is an interesting thing to feel out. At Cannes, the Director’s Fortnight often feels like a more thrilling place to be than the main competition (Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace and Chloe Zhao’s The Rider both made appearances there); Sundance’s Next program is more hit-and-miss but feels comparable in stature to the competition screenings (Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline was a breakout this year, and currently in limited release). There’s less pomp and speechifying overall at Venice compared to those two tastemaking festivals, but the Orizzonti screening I went to definitely felt at least a few rungs lower than the competition premieres. And — perhaps there’s some correlation here — Orizzonti happens to be the sidebar with the strongest female showing, with a whopping 5 films out of 19 directed by women. (If you’re keeping track, yes, that accounts for over half the female-directed films at Venice.)
I wish, then, that I could fight harder for Harron’s film, especially with Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood looming on the horizon like a big, bright oxygen-sucking ball of gas. Undoubtedly the Tarantino will be more star-studded, louder, and, crucially, more expensive than Harron’s, which is more an attempt at a psychological portrait of Manson acolytes than a mythologizing of the grisly events of 1969. Our primary protagonist is Leslie “Lulu” Van Houten (Hannah Murray), who arrives as a new family member about a year before things go south (it’s all relative, I suppose) and gets her coveted “ego death,” replacing every aspect of herself with blind devotion to Charlie Manson and a whole lot of LSD.
There are flickers of the truly exciting, complex film that Charlie Says could have been throughout; Guinevere Turner (who also wrote the scripts for Harron’s American Psycho and The Notorious Bettie Page) spends a lot of time on the group dynamic in the family; how the whole group contributes to breaking down and building up each member. In an early scene, a new recruit is made to strip down in front of the Family; she begins to cry, humiliated and terrified. But then the women of the commune gather around her, repeating to her over and over again that she’s beautiful, and we see her smile, as a lifeline is formed to that narcotic feeling of acceptance. Later, Charlie practices throwing knives at his followers to test their allegiance. Terror and reward are always in quick succession, and the film does a good job of making us feel that. And even though Smith feels miscast in the role, Harron also does an admirable job of making his Manson more of a dangerous spoiled baby than a charismatic leader, a volatile specimen of fragile male ego who just wants to wear his cool leather fringe outfit and be a rockstar.
But Charlie Says never gets its momentum going. The film flashes back-and forth between “BC” (“before the crimes”) at the Spahn Ranch, and 1972, when Leslie, Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon) and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendon) are serving their life sentences in the California Institution for Women. The fantastic Merritt Wever, in a performance so good I wish the rest of the film could rise up around her, plays Karlene Faith, a grad student assigned to teach classes to “Charlie’s Girls,” and she becomes increasingly distraught over the degree of their brainwashing, desperate to “give themselves back to them.” But while the film does a passable job exploring how one gets seduced by a cult, it has a harder time elucidating who those selves really were before they came into Charlie, and what restoring them would actually mean. The editing is disorientingly abrupt as well, hopping from one timeline to another with seemingly no rhyme or reason.
Charlie Says, despite its considerable flaws, was an interesting film to watch close on the heels of Suspiria, a superior film in every way, but one that also deals with women’s relationship to evil, and what monstrous forces we invite into our lives. I’m still very wary of spoiling very much from Luca Guadagnino’s movie (my review is here and doesn’t spoil any plot points that aren’t in the trailer or haven’t been previously reported) but I’ve been noting the increasing repetition of the line that it’s “this year’s Mother!”
As a person who adored Suspiria and loathed Aronofsky’s piping hot allegorical windbag, I take some issue with the comparison, because I think it sets up expectations that are not anywhere near the same neighborhood as Mother!’s goals. Yes, both films have just-see-it-for-yourself bonkers final acts, yes both will undoubtedly get an F CinemaScore. But audiences who both loved and hated Mother! walked out of it eager to decide what it was “about” — whether it was global warming or living with Darren Aronofsky. While I’ve heard many people who have seen Suspiria express a desire to see it again, and think more deeply about all the seemingly disparate ideas it ties together about 20th-century Germany and Jung and the body, I don’t think anyone thinks there’s a single thing it’s “about” unless it’s just something like “the virality of evil” — which doesn’t have quite the same 1:1 punch as “Jennifer Lawrence is Mother Earth!” Guadagnino puts a lot in his pot, but he’s not so hung up about having it coagulate into any one message or parable as he is expressing a kind of phenomenon that you will either feel on an intuitive level or not.
This weekend of women’s stories (again, mostly told by men) was perhaps most encapsulated by the premiere of the first two episodes of HBO’s My Brilliant Friend, the first installment of its adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. It sounds strange to say, but the trick Ferrante’s writing pulls is not that different from David Kajganich’s Suspiria update: pulling in issues of class, politics, sociology, and female bonding and then letting some harder-to-utter idea form like a cloud over them, imbuing its events with more meaning. (I wrote about the premiere over the weekend.) Saverio Costanzo’s overly mannered, tastefully sepia-toned adaptation has all the events of the first section of Ferrante’s first book, but the cloud of something else–ness is missing.
To watch the first two episodes of My Brilliant Friend without having read the source material would probably leave you perplexed as to how this story won so many devoted readers around the world — so many of them women. Granted, the episodes document the early stages of Lila and Lenú’s friendship, but Ferrante’s prologue, in which she hints at adult Lila’s obsession with disappearing, casts a haunting spell over seemingly mundane stories of dolls and shoes and furious fathers. That prologue is reproduced nearly word-for-word at the start of the premiere episode, but it feels like a recitation; everything is in place, but it feels hollow.
I offered my own left-field proposal for how the adaptation could have been improved, but aside from that, while it’s just as likely a woman director would have botched it, I can’t help but think that would be a more promising place to start, especially when “dude who just doesn’t get what all the fuss about Elena Ferrante is” is such a documented type. There were plenty of them walking out of the Sala Darsena during the packed press screening I attended; those who stuck around could be seen checking their texts and emails and sighing loudly, and they weren’t wrong to. In a cruel twist, one of the most important “women’s stories” of the 21st century was made to feel minor and inferior to emails and, yes, a man.