A typical tactic to further a male character’s development, especially in the tidal wave of male superhero movies we’ve been getting for the past five years or so, is to take the guy’s girlfriend or daughter, and have her die. His resulting “manpain” is then milked at the dead female character’s expense to give an emotional resonance to a story that’s mainly about punching.
So I was gratified to have been able to view two films in the past week that flip the script on this trope, each using a man’s death as a jumping-off point for two women to have an interesting, complex relationship based off his being their mutual object of affection. Not surprisingly, both these innovative scripts were written by women--Ilaria Macchia and Andrea Paolo Massara wrote L'Attesa (now available for streaming), while Amber Tamblyn co-wrote Paint It Black (now in theaters) which she also directed
While these two relationships are markedly different, the fact that in each of these films the largest male role is only there to further the character arcs of female characters is a laudable cinematic development! L’Attesa is a meditatively shot film with a magical realist finish by first-time director Piero Messina, and Paint It Black is an electrifying debut from director Amber Tamblyn, whose gritty, strobing, and boldly expressionist vision is one I will be following with interest. While very different in tone, setting, and style, the two films each involve a mother and girlfriend who connect through their boyfriend/ son’s sudden death, but build a relationship on top of that which touches (L’Attesa) or disquiets (Paint It Black).
L’Attesa starts with Anna, the mother, burying her son, Giuseppe. After the funeral, she finds out that Giuseppe’s girlfriend, who is coming to stay for Easter, has not yet heard about Giuseppe’s death and is en route to Anna’s home, wondering why Giuseppe isn’t answering her calls. After avoiding her initially, the next day Jeanne asks Anna about Giuseppe’s whereabouts, but Anna chooses not to tell her that Giuseppe is dead. Anna can’t give Jeanne a concrete explanation of why Giuseppe isn’t at the house, but she invites Jeanne to wait (L’Attesa is Italian for “The Wait”) with her for the holiday weekend, and Jeanne accepts. Lou de Laâge plays Jeanne beautifully in both emotional scenes and more lighthearted moments, providing a youthful passion to offset Binoche’s more grounded and weary character.
Paint It Black’s girlfriend, “Josie” (Alia Shawkat), is an actress and a punk rocker; she has very little money, in contrast to her very wealthy boyfriend Michael, who she met while modelling for his figure drawing class for extra cash, seemingly at a UCLA or USC-type top-tier California school. After Michael’s mother “Meredith” (Janet McTeer) attacks her at his funeral, Josie finds that she is withdrawing funds from everything in her life Michael had been paying for. Eventually, the emotional weight of mourning, paired with the stress Meredith has been bringing down on her, causes Josie to break down during a confrontation with Meredith, bringing up both women’s pain at Michael’s loss. It is at this moment that Meredith invites Josie to stay with her for a while, and Josie, having nowhere else to go, agrees.
It’s around these junctures that the two stories begin to diverge more sharply. Meredith quickly uses Josie’s isolation and vulnerability to take control of Josie’s life from behind the walls of her Beverly Hills mansion and Josie, forced to rely on Meredith, has no choice but to let her. She confines Josie to the huge, luxurious house where Michael grew up, not even allowing her contact with friends. At the funeral, Michael’s father told Josie that Michael and Meredith lived in “their own little world, with no one else allowed,” and Meredith seems bent on recreating this dynamic.
Meanwhile Anna and Jeanne have much less out and out manipulation going on, and Anna, played empathetically by Juliette Binoche, feels like more of a human and less of a villain compared to McTeer’s more frightening counterpart. We get insight into her conflict about whether or not to tell Jeanne in every scene, and her motivations come much more from genuine good intentions which have gone wrong, and much less from a nebulous grasping desire to have someone to entwine with, as Meredith sees to be driven by. Jeanne and Anna also begin to form a genuine friendship, girl-talking by the beach and throwing a dinner party together. Anna’s central conflict in L’Attesa is not fundamentally about control, but rather a desire to befriend Lou de Laâge’s Jeanne despite Giuseppe’s death, a motivation that leads the audience to be able to sympathize with her.
The conclusions of each of these excellent films are very different, of course, but eventually both pairs of women part, as Josie escapes Meredith’s clutches and Jeanne is drawn back to her life in France after the Easter holiday ends. The relationship between the two women in each film end as well, though there will clearly be lasting effects on each of them. If you’re tired of the “Women In Refrigerators” trope, check out our reviews of L’Attesa and Paint It Black for more on these two great films!
© Giorgi Plys-Garzotto (6/6/17) FF2 Media
Featured Photo: Janet McTeer consoles Alia Shawkat in Paint It Black.
Top photo: Juliette Binoche's Anna at an Easter celebration in L'Attesa.
Middle photo: Alia Shawkat's Josie at a punk show in Paint It Black..
Bottom photo: Juliette Binoche's Anna and Lou de Laâge’s Jeanne getting to know each other in L'Attesa.