ITHACA, N.Y. — Two films sharing the story of female struggles premiered at the Ithaca Cinemapolis this past week: “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” and “Phoenix.” Though happening worlds and timeframes apart, the films both portray stories of women told through the perspective of women — a rarity in cinema.
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The Diary of a Teenage Girl
“You have a kind of power, you know,” Charlotte (Kristen Wiig) teases Minnie (Bel Powley), her 15-year-old daughter squirming at the kitchen table. “You just don’t know it yet.”
Besides the heebie-jeebies “the talk” sends over the skin of any teenage child, girl or boy, Minnie has extra reasons to wish this session over: She is sleeping with her mom’s boyfriend, a mustachioed, rather shameless horndog of 35 years named Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård).
They have been at it for weeks now, in a surreptitious, mutually arousing affair initiated by Minnie, actually. Of course, the eyes of the law see the matter differently, with an adult predator on one side and underage victim on the other, but not Marielle Heller, whose directorial debut, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” respects the complexity of Minnie’s desires, which are one with her intellect and her pain.
Befitting the 1970s San Francisco setting, this premise plays fast and loose with conventional morality or political correctness or, honestly, any coherent ethical framework.
Minnie wants what she wants, until she doesn’t anymore — she is a living, reckless, growing girl. Her whatever-you-want-to-call-it with Monroe inspires a trial run of indiscriminate sexual behavior, from same-sex flings and anonymous hookups to obsessing, with her friend, over a certain mythical organ allegedly unique to black men.
An agent of her own adventures, Minnie also rages and discovers her depression over voiceover, and Powley covers this gamut with spirit and grace.
Though wise beyond her years, Minnie does not yet grasp her mother’s aforementioned advice, but thankfully Heller does, for one of the film’s sly thematic through lines concerns female sexuality’s intrinsic power, and how it can be leveraged. When Monroe’s fear of consequence starts to dog him, Minnie feigns childlike innocence and nestles up with him, which leads to an inevitable result and says more about his weak will and creepiness than anything wrong with her.
She is on a relentless pursuit of pleasure, a most unusual objective for a female character in American cinema, where satisfaction belongs primarily to boys and man-childs. Diary addresses that imbalance, like when Minnie tries to teach an excited male classmate a thing or two about female pleasure, and he recoils at the results: As she is near orgasm, he mutters, “Having sex with you scares me.”
By this point Minnie has retreated to her doodled dream world (animated by Sara Gunnarsdóttir) where she lumbers down San Francisco streets as big as King Kong, the boy in her hand like Fay Wray; upon hearing these words, Mega Minnie flicks her wrist and he meets pavement with a muffled splat.
She has a kind of power, indeed, and what Diary implies is that, if he and the other boys do not like it, this power will at least find expression through art. Not a revolutionary message, and possibly a self-serving one, but faithful to the pragmatism and fire of this hungry, knowing little film.
First off, the ending: No review can neglect to mention it, it comprising of a main character’s devastating epiphany followed by a clean cut to black. It has so regularly moved theatergoers to applaud that, despite my reservations with the film as a challenging whole, I recommend Christian Petzold’s “Phoenix” for just how uncommonly satisfying it is.
It stars Nina Hoss as Nelly, a Jewish singer who stumbles out of World War II deceived by her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), and missing most of her face. “Phoenix” promises, through its title, that our protagonist will rise from the ashes of these opening passages. But first, she must suffer some more, from changing her identity through facial reconstruction surgery to searching postwar Berlin for a husband who would not recognize her even if he wanted to.
Nelly is weak and uncertain, which Hoss, who is remarkable, externalizes down to her small, wincing walk.
On her shoulders presses the burden of being a free Jew after the camps, with options to migrate with her sole surviving friend (Nina Kunzendorf) to Haifa or, per her doctor’s wisdom, start over as a Gentile. Both options repel her, yet she appreciates their logic, and her quiet, sometimes random breakdowns betray a mind struggling to reconcile her past with her future.
What she wants above all is to find her husband, and when she does, a plot familiar to anyone who has seen Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” unfolds. She is to perform as “Nelly,” like Kim Novak did as “Madeleine,” because Johnny sees in her a resemblance to his wife but not, the actual woman, who he believes stood no chance of surviving the camps. When Nelly, her face transformed and performing as a stranger, asks if he has since looked for his wife, he snarls, “She’s dead.
If it is thus not abundantly clear, Johnny is a real piece of work — so despicable, in fact, that he drains the film of much of its mystery. Nelly continues to suffer, now purely psychically, so that we in the audience will view her as beyond reproach, a forthcoming saint.
Though the “Vertigo, from the woman’s perspective” premise is a rich one, Petzold’s clean, minimal style delivers plot above subtext, complication or ambiguity, whittling down its ambitions so that it may leave us with an ending that is perfect, which is to say too perfect.
If analyzed from a sociopolitical (liberal, duh) lens — and what isn’t these days — “Phoenix” passes with flying colors. Its female protagonist survives the crucible of war and callous manipulation, trials inflicted upon her by men. She is an unshakeable good soul, cast aside until she finds her voice. She centers this rousing, beguiling movie, a movie that is also neatly politically correct, which is an ingredient desired for consensus but prohibitive of true art.
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