Mean Girls (dir. Mark Waters, 2004)

Ah, to be a teenage girl.  For the average lass it’s a frequently stressful, occasionally hideous and unintentionally wickedly humorous time – a time lovingly harpooned with hairbrained hyperbole in the instant cult classic Mean Girls.  Though Mark Waters directs, the true creative credit goes to comedian-writer-feminist hero Tina Fey who co-stars and also penned the zingy script (“Boo, you whore!”), infusing her witty critique of girl-on-girl crime into practically every moment of the film.  The very title Mean Girls (which is slightly generic but more commercially palatable than, well,  “Popular Bitches”) suggests that teen girls are bred to be pitted against one another, to lose track of what’s important for the sake of the unending and staggeringly unrewarding who’s-hotter-who’s-notter competition.  And what a competition it is.  Brilliant sequences that skewer Slut-o-ween, the exhibitionism of gym class and the schlocky sex-kittenizing of Christmas only point out the ludicrous standards society has laid out for young women.  Fey seems to be asking in her deft, non-preachy way: Would the girls be so mean if our culture wasn’t so dumb?

Le Corbeau (dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1943)

In Henri-Georges Clouzot’s modest masterpiece from 1943, an anonymous blackmailer known only as “The Raven” wreaks havoc on a provincial town through a series of damning letters accusing the inhabitants of adultery, theft, illegal abortions and murder.  Paranoia mounts and grudges become violent.  In the midst of this mayhem, Denise, a glamorous if “ruined” woman languishes in bed, feigning illness for the attentions of a Dr. Germain and ruminating with bitter humor on her role as crippled whore in the bourgeois universe.  While Dr. Germain is the film’s “protagonist” for all intents and purposes, Clouzot presents us with the clever predicament that Germain is actually somewhat of a cad, a player nursing the wounds of a dearly departed love by romancing one man’s wife and casually sleeping with Denise.  As opposed to modern-day film cads (the roles of Matthew McConaughey or Gerard Butler, anyone?) who inexplicably are supposed to pass for worthy mates, Germain comes off as unenlightened and selfish while Denise takes command of the film with her snarly curled lip and unapologetic insights on gender hypocrisy.  Clouzot’s attention to Denise – his shimmering close-shots of her face and tendency to linger on her tumultuous expressions – gives back to Denise what her gossip-ridden town stole from her: sympathy, respect and an admirable sense of womanhood.

Lovely & Amazing (dir. Nicole Holofcener, 2001)

Lovely & Amazing has the valuable and deceptively simple goal of exploring how a family of women feel about themselves.  Centered around sisters Michelle and Elizabeth (Catherine Keener and Emily Mortimer, both equally impressive), their mother Jane (Brenda Blethyn, in her excellent nervous-chattery mode) and Jane’s adopted daughter Annie (Raven Goodwin, capturing perfectly the defiance and impressionability of little girls), the film examines with a sensitive eye each character’s tendency to conflate physical attractiveness with self-worth and to veer, despite better judgment, toward a notion of “perfect” that is more soulless and harmful than it is ideal.  Director Nicole Holofcener has a knack for setting up narrative predicaments that play out naturally and with refreshingly little obligation to contrived climax.  When Elizabeth, a model and actress, suffers a sizable wound to her face by a ferocious dog, there is not one line of dialogue that calls attention to it.  Rather, the liability to the woman’s career remains visually apparent, and the fortitude she must find to restructure her self-esteem is beautifully implicit.

The Stepford Wives (dir. Bryan Forbes, 1975)

Before Nicole Kidman starred in the somewhat silly-looking remake with her alarmingly ageless face, there was the original 1975 version of The Stepford Wives, an intelligently creepy melodrama about the horror of imposing domineering male fantasies on to women’s bodies.  The film is a refreshingly strange combination of classic 1970s sunsoaked euphoria and queasy, suffocating tension, with Katharine Ross gracefully handling the lead role of a married photographer who detects something off about the serenely smiling women in her Connecticut town.  Ross, with her lithe body, discerning gaze and lovely if mildly worn features, is the perfect example of a truly appealing woman who would nonetheless be an ill fit in the violently limiting, glossy mold of Stepford idealism.  Director Bryan Forbes’ attention to her face in striking close shots, and non-sexual attention to her body in long shots, emphasizes the strong and defiant presence a self-possessed woman can have.  A presence that, hearbreakingly, is not long for the misogynistic dementia of Stepford.

The Velvet Vampire (dir. Stephanie Rothman, 1971)

Quite often is a vampire tale the site of sinister sexuality mixed with irrepressible desire.  Less often is the main bloodsucker a sheeny-locked, dune buggy-driving, desert-dwelling knockout who attends dive art shows seemingly for the sole purpose of seducing dopey married couples.  In Stephanie Rothman’s smart and campy The Velvet Vampire, the aptly named Diane LeFanu (played by the pretty, oddly inscrutable Celeste Yarnall) is said bloodsucker, and once she successfully lures California blonds Lee and Suzy Ritter back to her ranch of tumbleweeds and bite victims, her true female strength and ferocity are unleashed – of course, in a lackadaisical, Vaseline-lensed sort of way.  Not only does the vampiress expose a parallel between the fear of untamed female sexuality and the fear of death (Diane is a bisexual, murderous single to whom monogamy is a swattable fly), she also acts as a vessel for liberating other women.  In a series of beautiful slow-motion dream sequences, set to an infectiously twangy guitar, stupid Suzy finds herself at first terrified that chauvinist Lee is being seduced by Diane, and then pleased that Diane starts to pay sexual attention to her.  Suddenly the recipient of flirtation instead of the watchful guard dog of her philandering husband, Suzy declares upon awakening, “That was MY dream!”

Vagabond (dir. Agnès Varda, 1985)

A term used occasionally in film studies scholarship is “the unruly woman,” referring to a female character who displays traits that go against conventional ideas of femininity.  A feminine woman is quiet, while an unruly woman may be loud, a feminine woman is of non-threatening size, while an unruly woman may be large, and so on.  Mona, the voluntarily homeless, dirt-encrusted gamine of Agnès Varda’s masterpiece Vagabond is perhaps the best incarnation of an unruly woman ever to grace (and smudge) the screen.  Mona (a raw, perfectly cast Sandrine Bonnaire) has a well-traveled stench that is increasingly mentioned by other characters throughout the course of the film, as if her odor ripens with each passing minute spent away from conventional society.  In a particularly expert scene, Mona’s head is framed in a medium-close shot while her face is obscured by a filthy nest of hair blowing violently in the wind.  “Do I scare you?” she asks a prissy male graduate student, who later relays this encounter to his freshly showered girlfriend.  Though Mona’s fate is ultimately tragic, her existence is exhilarating by virtue of it being so jagged: an unscrubbed woman without a tether is a woman with all her gloriously unique blemishes intact.