Saturday, July 07, 2012

SIFF2012: Coming Home & Wonder Women!

Coming Home (2012), France
Dir. Frederic Videau

The title in French is À moi seule, which translates as "by myself" or "alone". I am constantly frustrated with the English title given to foreign films. After seeing Coming Home, the title seemed ironic although maybe it was intended as to be literal. By Myself would be a much more fitting title for this exploration of a relationship between a kidnapper and his prisoner. The film focuses on Gaëlle and while Coming Home could be a coy suggestion of the last shot of the film, Gaëlle is a character that seems destined to a solitary existence.

The film opens with a close-up on Vincent's bruised face just prior to his punching a coworker. In the very next scene, Vincent (Reda Kateb) opens a floor panel to a basement, releasing a young woman, Gaëlle (Agathe Bonitzer). She immediately dashes from the house, pausing once to look back, and then runs. À moi seule, or Coming Home,  reveals the details of Gaëlle's captivity in non-linear flashbacks, where often Gaëlle's hair color provides the only clue as to the order of events and depicts her life after release as just as controlled as it had been during the 8 years she was imprisoned in Vincent's cellar.

I found Coming Home to be a completely absorbing film. First, it relies on tension and curiosity by not revealing too much about Gaëlle and Vincent and it is oversimplifying to call it an exploration of Stockholm syndrome. The film is obviously inspired by the strikingly similar circumstances of the 8 year imprisonment of Natascha Kampusch. While Coming Home is a fictional film, director Frederic Videau admits to finding inspiration from interviews with Kampusch. He was struck by what wasn't said about her kidnapper, specifically that she never condemned him and seemed to genuinely grieve his death. These sentiments are at the heart of Coming Home. Gaëlle never stopped attempting to escape, but she did learn how to manipulate Vincent into providing her with books and hair color without setting off his unpredictable and violent temper. One way Gaëlle accomplished this was through completely shielding her emotions and presenting only neutrality. While this is probably an accurate depiction of what would be necessary in such a situation, it does make Gaëlle more difficult for an audience to relate to. She's not particularly warm, but exceedingly bright and adept at making Vincent believe in the end that they had truly become a family and that she wouldn't leave if given the opportunity. Despite her imprisonment in the cellar, Gaëlle and Vincent share meals, go on walks, even take trips together. And while Vincent has a very quick temper that sometimes results in his striking Gaëlle, the relationship is not one of horrific abuse and violence. It is more a relationship of dependance, albeit, Gaëlle's dependance on Vincent is not by choice and she does eventually escape. 

My disappointment with the film was that Vincent's motives for kidnapping a child were not really explored. While it was clear that he was not a pedophile, did he long to be a father? Or did he just have a need for companionship? Also, is was never entirely clear why Gaëlle was in a mental institution after her release. I was trying all movie to sort out if it was due to the obvious lack of connection with her parents, after essentially spending her entire childhood in captivity, that they had her committed. But spending some time reading about similar cases in Europe, although they were different in that they typically involved many years of sexual abuse, the victims spent many years in a mental health institution to deal with the psychological aftermath. So perhaps, this is just standard protocol.

Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines (2012)
Dir. Kristry Guevara-Flanagan

Asking random people to name superheroes, as demonstrated in a street scene at the opening of Wonder Women: The Untold Story of Super Heroines, superman, batman, spider man and so many others were listed, but it wasn't until a female companion butted in with "Wonder Woman" that a female superhero was finally included. And thus, in many ways, analyzing the history of the comic book character Wonder Woman provides a nearly perfect way to examine the place of powerful women in culture. In telling the story of Wonder Woman's true origins, Kristy Guerara-Flanagan tells the story of feminism and illustrates the lack of truly  feminist role models today.

Wonder Women's first appearance was as a character in a 1941, DC comic book, created by Marston as a feminist character at the time of WWII. She had all of the powers of the male superheroes, but her ultimate goal was the promotion of peace and her most powerful weapon was the lasso of truth. The film focused on just how subversive this character of female empowerment is, not only in the setting of 1941 America, but even so today. However, post-WWII, the character of Wonder Woman became more domestic, more focused on romance, and she even surrenders up most of her superpowers. While the comic was eroding her power, some of it was renewed by Lynda Carter's depiction of her in the 1970s television series. This is the Wonder Woman I grew up with and it was fun listening to Lynda Carter talk about bringing the comic book character to television.

But the strongest aspect of Guevara-Flanagan's film was the focus on Wonder Women's enduring appeal to female fans, like 4th grader, Katie Pineda. Bullied in school and speaking with a noticeable lisp, Katie emulates Wonder Woman. She appears in her costume in the documentary and it is obvious that she uses her as a source of personal power. This is the true message of the film; girls and even adult women need these figures of feminine power to emulate or to at least look up to at a source of hope. There are so few truly powerful women in the world, so until the day that at least half of our scientists, explorers, doctors, police officer, and politicians are women, these fictitious figures representing the possibilities of a world where women can truly be a source of great strength and power are needed.

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