BY THOMAS BREEN
Jackie Onassis (Natalie Portman) takes a long drag on a cigarette, exhales, and looks her interviewer right in the eye as she says, "And by the way, I don't smoke." Una (Rooney Mara), her head in her hands, weeping half way through sex with a guy she barely knows, asks him to take her to his boss's place ... a ploy to find out where a troubled man from her youth now lives, with a new family and a new identity. A Korean jewel thief (Kim tae-ri), pretending to be a courtly handmaiden to a Japanese heiress, unwittingly seduces her mistress while trying to explain just what to expect from her male suitor's sexual advances.
These are a few scenes from movies at this year's Toronto International Film Festival that sought to complicate, if not undermine entirely, the traditional balance of sexual power in the movies, with men seemingly in positions of authority and women seemingly in positions of submission. A First Lady dismissed as shallow and decadent, a young woman living in the long shadow of childhood sexual abuse, a petty criminal working through layers of male deception and lust in order to betray her betrayers: Jackie, Una, and The Handmaiden all offer female perspectives on how to upset the traditional apple cart of misogynistic cinema.
Pablo Larraín's Jackie focuses on the former First Lady Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy's grief, confusion and pride in the days following the assassination of her husband on November 22, 1963. Natalie Portman plays the recently widowed Jackie as a woman who, to quote Walt Whitman, contains multitudes: she is an accidental political figure deeply concerned with her husband's legacy; she is a mother determined to protect her two young children but defiant in the face of intimidation; she is a widow humiliated by her husband's infidelity, but undeterred in her mission to bring arts, refinement, dignity and tradition to the culture of the White House.
After the assassination, Jackie finds herself struggling with a number of crises of self: who is she, a woman who has been so defined in the public eye by her relationship to her husband, now that that husband is gone? How will she be remembered? How will her husband's legacy affect her own?
But, of course, those questions are not new to the morning of November 23rd: amplified by loss, these are questions of identity and autonomy that have bedeviled Jackie since well before the Dallas shooting. For, as the movie implies through its focused examination of a single woman over the course of just a few days in 1963, these questions are latent to every marriage, and are particularly difficult to work through when weighed down by the stereotypes of the era. Women are frivolous, decadent, superficial, dependent, sexual but disposable, while men determine the path forward, for their families and for their country. Once the latter ceases to exist, what path forward for the former?
These are the stereotypes that Jackie struggles with, and Larraín's savvy direction and Portman's complex performance give substance to a Jackie Kennedy who's strength and vulnerability lie in her attempts to exert some kind of authority over her own being. Portman plays the First Lady as someone cannily aware of her surroundings, concerned with appearance but also able to read a room and play off of her audience. Alone with a reporter, she is confident and authoritative; in front of a cellist, elegant and demure; with her brother-in-law, stern and unabashed.
Throughout the movie, Jackie questions again and again the state of herself, her family, and her prospective position in future history books. And, through that questioning, through the action she takes to understand past, present and future, she sheds any veneer of shallowness and emerges as a sad, strong, complex, complete human being.
Una, a new psychological drama from director Benedict Andrews and based on the play "Blackbird" by David Harrower, follows a 28-year-old woman named Una (Rooney Mara) on her quest to find and confront Ray (Ben Mendelssohn), an older man who had an extended sexual relationship with her when she was 13 years old. Ray has moved on to a new job, a new name, and a new family after 4 years in jail for child sex abuse, while Una continues to be haunted by the past, longing for some revelation that will relieve her of her hatred and obsession.
On the one hand, Una explores the harrowing psychological trauma of being abused as a child. The adult Una seems to be trapped in the self-destructive recklessness of her pre-teen self, desperate for validation but unable to accept it from anyone but Ray. The movie also derives much of its suspense from the way that it slowly unspools the subtle, insidious, manipulative psychology of the child abuser. Ben Mendelssohn's Ray is meek, deferential, wary of confrontation, characteristics which only serve to mask each lie that he tells, hidden beneath words of gentle affection. He is not a child molester, he asserts, he only fell in love with her. Someone unique, someone willing and equally complicit, not just any 13-year-old girl.
But the movie's greatest strength comes from Rooney Mara's performance as Una, a troubled woman with great determination but uncertain of exactly what she wants. She knows how to wield her sexuality as a way to get information, to control younger and more vulnerable men. But when it comes to her relationship with Ray, she is motivated as much by a yearning for reconciliation as for revenge. Which only adds to the horror, for Mara's performance never seeks to hide that unsealing pain and that struggle for self-control at her character's core. No longer a child, Una tries to figure out if she is still a victim. Or, at least, the same victim as she was at 13. Her pursuit of Ray, though far from cathartic, hints at a faint chance for a shift in that sexual power dynamic, however delayed and however bleak.
Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden follows a young Korean girl (Kim tae-ri) from a family of thieves who is roped into a con job that has her acting as a courtly handmaiden to a secluded Japanese heiress (Kim Min-hee) who is on the brink of insanity.
Part of the joy of the movie is trying to keep up with its various plot twists and turns, so I'm reluctant to say too much more about the story itself. But the movie explores with great verve and intensity the idea that initial impressions of people almost always miss the complexity of their personalities, backgrounds, and motivations. When you are a con artist, that type of misapprehension is more than just unprofessional. It's fatal.
Like Park's 2003 feature Oldboy, The Handmaiden can be motivated by sexual manipulation and control. But the women in this story are not just more clever than the men (in fact, everyone comes off as a bit of a buffoon at one point or another). The difference is that the sexual mockery and humiliation and exploitation that the women have had to endure over the course of their lives has inspired a desperate but controlled determination of which the indolent men are completely lacking. While the latter think that they are in control, deciding who is getting played and who will end up on top, they are merely the unwitting stooges for a long con perpetrated by two women who have shed those shackles and cannot be stopped.