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This Woman’s Work: Karyn Kusama


“I don’t think about their strength. I think about if they are interesting.” — Karyn Kusama

The strongest depictions of women onscreen have often found their audience not by preaching but by making straightforward genre pieces. Although Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise (1991) was a tour de force in the canon of feminist pictures it is essentially a road movie or, as Susan Sarandon summarised at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016, “When we were making it, we weren’t making a feminist film — we were making a buddy film.” Although originally written as a male, Scott created another feminist icon in his seminal sci-fi/horror Alien (1979) presenting Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) as the definitive heroine. James Cameron expanded on that image by turning Ripley into a straight-up action star in Aliens (1986), a few years after his sci-fi masterpiece The Terminator (1984) made Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) a household name.
In recent years we’ve seen the rise of the self-conscious feminist action franchises that have often been disasters. For every Captain Marvel — safely ensconced in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — there’s a Charlie’s Angels ‘women can do anything’ reboot, gender-swapped Ghostbusters, or a demand to understand that ‘the Force is female’. This feels like feminism as activism (which should be encouraged, not diluted) rather than feminism as natural storytelling… all of the aforementioned just a hindrance to any important message. One can tell a good story via characters showing what they stand for through their actions rather than reactions.

Karyn Kusama is, without a doubt a feminist filmmaker. But she is a filmmaker, first and foremost. Cine-literate; articulate; intelligent and completely grounded, her influences are broad and her willingness to push how far women can be tested onscreen can be seen throughout all of her work. With Jennifer’s Body (2009) in particular, it is interesting to see the amalgamation of classic horror, American gothic, and women of limitless power inherited from J-horror. Her work doesn’t so much recycle and westernise but, instead, understand what turns a woman into a monster — and how that monstrousness can be used to wreak vengeance on the men who have wronged women. Kusama strips away the celebration of women and, instead, embraces what a woman would represent with no compassion, leading to them making the worst choices imaginable. Jennifer’s Body doesn’t deal with hysteria or forms of gaslighting where the men are in control and making them believe they are someone they are not; instead Kusama and writer Diablo Cody presented a villain who is out of control. Women make bad choices and they’re punished for it.

Kusama’s punishment came in the shape of her $62 million second feature — an adaptation of the surreal MTV animated sci-fi series, Æon Flux (2015) — where, removed from the final cut, the experience with studio filmmaking forced her to re-evaluate her path as a filmmaker. But, despite the problems with the film, it is clear that Charlize Theron’s central character is as much a nod to the sexual appeal of Métal Hurlant as she is the evolution of the female heroine via Scott and Cameron’s representation; where women were no longer seen as passive objects but as action heroes who function as individuals lending a natural point of view. This is viewer identification and narrative agency while back flipping and shooting you in the balls. But Æon’s femininity is defined through being self-aware — feminism is not conquered, it’s triumphant over male authoritarianism and therefore derails masculinity. The clue is in her name; she is in flux and unable to be controlled, and like a true Western hero, the environment tests and defines her with no boundaries and limitations. She dominates; a vision of female power that is both chaotic and destructive.

Despite Jennifer’s Body being maligned at the time, it has experienced a resurgence in respect following revelations about Hollywood’s abuse of women. The film is one of the best analogies within the horror genre this century about women projecting their anger at the abuse of men, their voice (or the threat of one), projected as something corrupted and monstrous. Because this is what Kusama does best — to rebuild a woman and the important message they stand for — they often have to be destroyed first, whether in the first fifteen minutes or slowly over two hours. Most importantly, her methodology is displayed through the choices of fresh and original storytelling.

Aside from, Girlfight (which she wrote) and Jennifer’s Body (written by Diablo Cody), Kusama collaborates with her husband Phil Hay and his writing partner Matt Manfredi. It could be argued that working so closely with male writers tends to shape how the female characters are portrayed, but as independents working on the projects they choose, it is hard to imagine that development at this crucial stage excludes Kusama in any way. Their work together — since breaking away from Hollywood — has more than proved she is a true patron of outlaw cinema with The Invitation (2015), which was made for a mere $1 million. The film deals with traumatic events not only inspired by Kusama’s own personal loss but also Hay and Manfredi’s. The dark themes explored border on the Lynchian L.A. observations held together by Hitchcockian tension and suspense and more than proves what can be achieved on such a small budget. 

Kusama’s most recent picture, Destroyer (2018), delivers an unrecognizable Nicole Kidman as Erin Bell, a grizzled, washed-up LAPD detective who, while solving the homicide of a John Doe, ends up detecting herself in the process. In true Kusama fashion, our protagonist is slowly dismantled over the course of the film and presents one of the strongest post-feminist characters put to screen in recent years. An interesting companion piece to Lyne Ramsey’s You Were Never Really Here (2017) released the same year, Kusama shows the debilitating effects of PTSD all the while never losing focus on a mother’s efforts to reconnect with her only child. This effortless melding of traditionally masculine and feminine concerns does more to present a truly progressive artistic portrayal of women than any pop feminism girl power montages could. Kidman, who never broke character off camera, limps through the film as though she has a wounded soul, carrying the weight of every woman who has suffered a traumatic experience. Her pain is not preached but suffered in silence. Destroyer cements how Kusama’s women are the antidote for the vapid outpour of commercial feminism that says very little and relates to fewer people than Hollywood realises. Kusama has, more than often, had to rebuild through her own experiences before she chooses to destroy. This can be seen as a cynical and nihilistic approach but (nine times out of ten) her films remain honest and utterly compelling pieces of cinema.

Ever since the forgotten works of Alice Guy-Blaché, there is no question that female filmmakers have struggled within the film industry. Yet, many of them prove they don’t have to conform and more than proved through their work that they are able to survive in a man’s world. Representation is crucial, but telling a good story in a cinematically interesting way is more important, and more effective, than turning feminist tropes into a PR exercise.

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