To me, this year in film has been defined by ambivalence. More than ever, it seems, I’ve found myself having no idea how to feel about the movie I’ve just watched as the credits roll. The Tree of Life was breathtaking when hurtling through space and time, but rote when focusing on its central family; Melancholia was fascinating and unique when inflating its characters emotions to apocalyptic proportions, but tone deaf when dealing with its ensemble interactions; The Skin I Live In was delightfully fucked up in the abstract but a little dry in its execution. For the most part, though, I’d much rather a film be flawed and interesting than proficient and dull – all of the aforementioned films have made it into my top ten of the year. However, two films recently have left me completely stumped: Evan Glodell’s Bellflower and Lucky McKee’s The Woman.
Both Bellflower and The Woman have premises that are by design problematic. In Bellflower, two manchildren spend their time indulging a fantasy that casts them as a post-apocalyptic road gang called Mother Medusa, but when one of them falls in love and that relationship consequently turns sour, lines between fantasy and reality blur with violent consequences. In The Woman, a family man discovers a feral woman while hunting, captures her and ties her up in his shed, and uses the pretense of “civilising” her as an excuse to indulge his misogynistic impulses through rape and torture. Both directors have something distinct and valuable to say, for certain, but problems arise when one examines how they say it, and whether they themselves end up guilty of the misogynistic and violent impulses that they seem to want to criticise.
You can’t fault Bellflower for its aesthetic appeal, though. Making the most of its microbudget by covering the lens in a thick layer of grime, Glodell goes a long way to make ‘ugly’ aesthetically pleasing. It’s not without its visceral thrills, either. The very premise of two guys slacking off by constructing flamethrowers and pimping out their cars with rollcages and whiskey dispensers provides plenty of excitement in itself, but that’s only the backdrop for a love story which is initially swooning and transcendent before becoming destructive and finally, quite literally, explosive. Glodell directs these moments with an assurance beyond his years – the film’s dizzying highs and devastating lows have a vitality and immediacy that is rarely seen in independent cinema. At it’s best, Bellflower is heartstopping.
In turn, The Woman distinguishes itself from what could have been a shallow torture-porn flick by making a number of fascinating choices in tone and style. It begins with a sequence that’s something akin to Apocalypse Now or Tarkovsky – a fever dream in which we see the titular woman fending for herself in the woods, all slow-motion and crosscutting – before the film abruptly shifts to a more conventional style as we meet the family at its centre. McKee shoots the rest of the film with an almost cartoonish use of colour and light, soundtracking everything with his own moderate rock so that even as things become violent and aggressive, the illusion of a shiny happy nuclear family is never completely dispelled. The Woman has plenty to say about how misogyny is deeply ingrained in the notion of the traditional family, and its uses its ultraviolent premise to explore these ideas in their extreme.
I have to wonder, though, whether either film is entirely innocent of that which they are trying to criticise. The Woman is fascinating in the way casts its feral, monstrous woman as the defiant victim and its upright family man as the true monster, but its camera often seems to revel in the abuse that the woman suffers at his hands. I’m not interested in Haneke-esque finger-wagging about how violence is depicted on film, but I do wonder if one can justifyably critique such violence against women and still shoot it with such glee. Bellflower suffers similarly from its inability to decide whether it wants us to buy into these kids’ stunted adolescence or be disgusted by it. Both films are characterised by a strange kind of schizophrenia, and at worst, they could be guilty of indulging the very things they are trying to hold a mirror to.
In the end, though, I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt to films so singular. If anything, I’ve ended up thinking about these films more than many I’ve seen this year, and I’d much rather be confused about how I feel about something than feel nothing at all. For all their problems, both Bellflower and The Woman are indicative of directors with something to say and a unique way of saying it. I only wish I knew what it was.