A Real Woman

4 Apr

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Jacky: A real woman needs a man

Gracieuse: Then I’m not a real woman

— Sport de Filles

As the largest festival of its kind in the United States, the French Film Festival in Richmond at the Byrd Theater was an event which I had anticipated for months. Carytown has that “je ne ces quoi” which makes it the perfect host. Cafes and shops lining the avenue were filled to overflowing with not only French speakers but German, Italian, Spanish. It was the closest I can imagine to being on a Parisian street. The Byrd Theater is an amazingly beautiful venue, its restoration supported by the Richmond community. Upon entering the lobby, a rich plushness transports patrons back to the earliest years of cinema. Surrounded in lush red, gold, and mahogany paneled walls, I marveled at the frescoes glowing behind carved wisteria trellis. A central chandelier in green, red and crystal white was breathtaking above a red velvet curtained stage, flanked by sconces, their low burning orange shades reflecting against the golden copper gilt. The space spoke to me of a time when coming to the theater for a film was an event. In our age of multiplex box cinema, where the screen takes precedence, this venue spoke of a wider experience, of film being an addition to life experience rather than a replacement.

All of the films I saw were excellent, but one principle quickly made itself evident: exceptionally strong central female characters. Perhaps it’s a French characteristic or just evident in the films I chose, but each one displayed a view of the lives of women that perhaps cut too closely. Friday evening’s film, Cigarettes et bas Nylons, explored the relationships between French WWII brides awaiting their journey to America in a processing camp. The film opens with their preparation at camp, chocolates, cigarettes and nylons symbolizing the abundance of American life. From the group, two main female leads emerge, their stories in direct opposition. A young French widow, Marie Therese, travels to small town Alabama to her new soldier husband. As peacetime unwinds, she finds herself the bride of a shell shocked alcoholic, whom she had married for security and a father for her young son. This story contrasts against another bride, Jeanette, who is told her new soldier husband has been killed before she can board the ship to America. Her journey back to a small French village and the judgments she receives from her family and from men in her town fuels her longing to go to America, to enjoy its freedoms just like her “sisters” from the bridal camp. As their stories unfold, however, she comes to realize that no one’s life is entirely fulfilling. She travels alone to America, only to discover the dream of husband and American promise is just that …a dream. The characters’ greatest comfort is in friendship, within the intimacy they create with each other. Husbands seem ancillary to the true emotion and tenderness they share. Jeanette eventually finds love in America, but as a result of following her own path, alone.

Saturday, I viewed Sport de Filles, the story of a young woman, Gracieuse, impassioned by the love of sport horses. Her desire to take a horse “all the way” opposes the expected feminine path, namely find a husband and train horses on the side. In rehabilitating a cast off dressage horse, she finds freedom from a feminine stereotype. But what most interested me about the film was the male lead, Frantz Mann, an older trainer who must face his own aging masculinity. Mann’s relationship of twenty years displays a power struggle all too common among powerful women and the men they love. His partner, Josephine, owns the dressage training facility, the horses, and the business. Mann, a previous champion rider and now coveted trainer, brings in the business, namely young wealthy women riders. I found this inner story intriguing, the interplay between older men and younger women, the yielding to the man’s sexual capriciousness by his same age partner, and how her control of the business and his passive aggressive resistance underlies his own sense of emasculation. He has sexual power. She has money. And it’s the desire by each for the other’s power that ends the relationship.

His younger lover Susan, a forty-ish English woman, tells him, “Its incredible how sexy you are for a shriveled old man.” And the power construct reveals itself quite easily in that. I saw the romantic relationship narrative: older man grasping at power and clinging to his fading ego, younger woman as a spoiled sexual plaything gaining power through him. Gracieuse’s character directly contrasts against Susan, but she is distant, cold, and driven. Gracieuse is miserable at home with a boyfriend and father, only alive when she is in seat. Each film at the festival had a question and answer session post screening with the director. During this one, a young man asked, “Did you mean for this to be such a strong feminist film?” Patricia Mazuy’s reply? A slightly laughing, “No.” His question revealed more to the audience about the interplay of men and women than he had anticipated, I think.

At Sunday’s film, I hit a wall…a question that has plagued me about the absence of a mate in my own life. I must play a role in order to be acceptable or interesting to the opposite sex? I must be soft and helpless? OR I’m an independent ball breaker, cold and hard…a feminist? It seems there is no in between. I’ve always tried to be myself, who also happens to be female. And I thought I’d meet someone who is also himself, who also happens to be male. He’d be impressed by my strength and my intelligence, relieved that he didn’t have to fix me, carry me, or rescue me. He’d just enjoy me and let me enjoy him back. I found out differently. A bartender once told me, “You are the kind of woman I’d never date: driven, talented, intelligent and hot. . . . too hard”. I’m not joking. A male friend tried to help me understand this dilemma. In a recent letter he said,

Something else I had thought about the other day….you trying to explain your “softness”. . . maybe what you meant was that you don’t bear that vulnerability that men seem to be drawn to maybe?…That subservient “need”….in that you don’t have that desperate fawning thing . . .And most men have to have that being needed so that they can have control and boost ego, and it is all about possession and what you get-not about giving ….Anthropologically, it seems my gender has been trained to quest and hunt (in relationships as well)-but only for the easy prey….or if the quest is harder, it is more about the ego challenge itself…you just seem to realize your own ‘self’ and independence…

Even in some analyses of the heroine’s journey, the ultimate boon is to be independent from the domestic role. Seriously? Joe’s hero gets to be master of both worlds and I get to be powerful and alone?

Yay…I can hardly wait.

Death of the romantic ideal, that’s part of the heroine’s journey, they say. I’m so very excited about that. Women get to be their own mothers, find out their fathers were failures and overcome. . . to be alone or with other women. Aces.

On Sunday evening as I watched Therese Desqueyroux, her emotional numbness to the point of insanity disturbed me intensely. Set in the 1920’s, Therese walked willingly into a social role only to discover that the position would not “quieten” her mind. Her imagination would not fit into the role of wife and mother. If she remained, she would cease to exist. Her desire to lead an independent life was so great, she attempted to kill her husband with arsenic. I was so struck by her reply to his questioning of her motives. He had thought it was over the wealth of land their “merger” created.

“You think this was because of the pines?” she says.

To write about this has been difficult. Questions which the films provoke still linger and I continue to think about what it means to be me, a woman who wants to be a woman but one who does not want end up solely in the company of other women, “put out to pasture” so to speak. I think of Gracieuse riding, bending the horse to her will and of Jeanette, walking down a long road, alone. And of the change in Therese’s eyes as she walked away, free from her past and I know these women will be with me for quite a while.

Cigarettes et bas Nylons

Sport de Filles

Therese Desqueyroux

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