Female Best Director nominations: part one

Each time I see a news story about the Oscars, the odds in favor of Kathryn Bigelow winning the Best Director award seem to have increased. It’s close to the point where it will be a real upset if she doesn’t take it home. While I definitely think it’s problematic to focus on her as a female director—rather than just an accomplished filmmaker who’s made the best film of her career—my inner angry woman (the one wearing the “Don’t blame me, I caucused for Hillary” t-shirt) is rooting for her so hard not just because of the brilliance of The Hurt Locker, but because she is a she. And her win really would be historic.

So, as my anticipation builds, a distraction: going back to visit/revisit the three films before The Hurt Locker that earned a woman a Best Director nomination. For today’s entry, I’ll begin at the beginning. Such a nomination first occurred for Lina Wertmüller, writer and director of the 1975 film Pasqualino Settebellezze (Seven Beauties). (She was recognized for her original screenplay, as well.) But, before I discuss this movie in depth, let me ask a leading question…

What’s the weirdest movie you’ve ever seen?

Now, let’s eliminate films such as Santa Claus Conquers the Martians and other such novelties. These types of films are narrow in their weirdness; we know what sort of experience we’re in for just from the title. Along the same lines are low budget let’s-just-do-the-craziest-thing-we-can-think-of films (often horror). These can get very weird, but we understand why they are so weird. It’s the same with any exhibitionist or exploitation film. Personally, I could also eliminate from contention those films that “break the rules”, so to speak, but seem clear in their message and purpose: films like Lars von Trier’s Dogville, or  Michael Haneke’s Caché or Funny Games. We know what theme the director is trying to get across. Even bizarre experiences like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet or Mulholland Dr., or Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, are consistent in tone, and operate within a certain established genre of surrealism.

Seven Beauties, however…I don’t know what world it came from.

First, before I tell you about this movie, which I was totally unfamiliar with before starting it, enjoy the opening sequence:

Right. From there, we move along.

We are presented with a main character, Pasqualino Frafuso (Giancarlo Giannnini). He has seven sisters, each uglier than the last, in a garish, cartoony version of 1930s Naples. One of the sisters is involved with some sort of mafia member/pimp. Pasqualino’s decision to get involved with “rescuing” his sister from this situation (through an act of murder that is both sick and hilarious) sets off a series of bizarre events: we skip around in the timeline, seeing how Pasqualino’s odd journey takes him from prison, to a mental hospital, to the Italian army in WWII, to fleeing across the countryside, to a concentration camp. Sometimes we visit Pasqualino before any of this got started, flirting with absurdly young women in the street, or fixing his hair so that it is slicked back just right. He is vain, pompous, meddling, overly impulsive, and uneducated about his country’s politics or anything greater than his own immediate desires and opinions. Despite all this, somehow, the movie gets us to root for him—not just when he’s trying to survive, but also when he’s being truly awful.

There are some other very funny moments among these twisted adventures. Pasqualino, after escaping the army, comes across a kind of fairy tale image: a huge house in the woods, where a beautiful, scantily clad woman plays piano in a grand room, and a crone sits in the nearby kitchen, next to table covered in food. Both seem oblivious to Pasqualino’s presence as he blathers on and helps himself to their feast. But even without them ever noticing him, he manages to alert the enemy to his location all on his own, and we’re pulled out of this odd skit of a scene and back into the war.

This is the point at which we veer from the scattered, absurd black comedy we seem to be getting to something much too uncomfortable to be described in those terms. In the concentration camp, Pasqualino—with visions of his younger, dashing self, before jail and the asylum and the army—decides to try to seduce the commandant: a very large, very harsh, very stoic woman. His efforts succeed, in a way, and lead to the single most bizarre and disturbing sex scene I have ever seen. It is the least sexy thing ever put to film. And the movie gets darker from there, as the sadistic commandant sees how she can best torture Pasqualino further: by giving him a position of authority over his friends in the camp. I’m sure you can deduce that things don’t go well from there.

More than the dear-god-what’s-next storyline, or the scenes themselves, or the constantly fluctuating tone (always at its most detached when things get more serious), the thing that makes Seven Beauties the weirdest movie I’ve ever seen is the fact that I can’t figure out why Wertmüller made it. What is she trying to say? Pasqualino is awful. Awful things happen to him. But because of his circumstances—no one roots against someone who’s in a concentration camp!—we the viewers want things to work out for this lout, this brute, this man who relishes his own image as a murderer. Not the typical hero of a WWII film, to say the least. Is that what Wertmüller wants the audience to feel? Plain old confusion?

Well worth seeing and beautifully crafted in all its oddity, with a hell of a performance from Giancarlo Giannini, I’m sure I will revisit Seven Beauties after I seek out some Wermüller’s other work. I don’t believe the film will ever feel less weird, but I’m sure it will feel in some way different with every new perspective, which can be the mark of a great film.

P.S. I really do want to know the weirdest movie you’ve ever seen. Please let me know in the comments!

And a shout-out to Becca, who obtained the film from her local public library and invited me to watch it with her.


1 Response to “Female Best Director nominations: part one”

  1. 1 Carly March 8, 2010 at 1:19 am

    Time Bandits is definitely one of the weirdest movies I’ve ever seen. It’s a Terry Gilliam flick, and while I remember as a young teenager in it for Brad Pitt being slightly put off by 12 Monkeys, this was just…more bizarre…it’s one of those strange 80’s plots that involve little people/dwarve characters, time travel, fantasy realms, an effing strange intro short (business apocolypse, kind of) which then makes a cameo at a pivotal plot point. I was convinced to watch it while deep in the throes of early courtship culture-sharing, and I do love Gilliam’s Monty Python animations. But this…I pride myself on being one of those open-minded types (I’ve done some strange shit onstage, I try not to judge!), but this was like the Labyrinth or the Never Ending Story, but lacking charm, or wit, or whatever spark it was that made those 80s-anchored flicks work. I think it would have been bad, but those apocalyptic businessman pushed it firmly towards weird.

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Downton Gabby: podcasting about Downton Abbey from a funny, foul-mouthed, feminist perspective

Quick Lit: reading one short story a day in 2015

Grand Dames: collecting sundry achievements of admirable women

The MacGuffin: archive of my days as a film critic

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