February 22, 2020

Holiday films celebrate women

Although few explicitly Jewish-oriented films will be opening during this holiday season, there are several movies worthy of attention. Many of these focus on various forms of female empowerment or movement toward independent action by women.

One film featuring a Jewish subject is “Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict,” Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s documentary about the heiress from the socially prominent Guggenheim family who became a celebrated art collector, exhibitor and promoter of artists.  

Roloff Beny, Peggy Guggenheim seen through a sculpture Photo courtesy of National Archives of Canada and Peggy Guggenheim Collection Archives, Venice 

“I am mostly enraptured by the idea of characters who like to reinvent or transform themselves,” Vreeland said in an interview. “They decide at a young age that they want to become something different, something that perhaps they were never destined to become.  As an art history major, I was always interested in Peggy. I’d read her autobiography, ‘Out of This Century.’ I fell in love with her story, her modern approach to life, her courage and audacity and, most importantly, her love of the arts.” 

A daughter of German Jews, Guggenheim is described in the film as feeling “outside” the traditional life of her wealthy New York family, hence her interest in modern writers and artists, including the Dadaists and the Surrealists, practitioners of what was then “outside art,” and with whom she mingled in Paris during the 1920s.

 In 1938, she opened a gallery in London called “Guggenheim Jeune,” where she exhibited the works of such artists as Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky, Henry Moore, Max Ernst and Georges Braque. When World War II erupted, she bought innumerable paintings by some of those artists, as well as other icons, among them Joan Miró, Marc Chagall, Salvador Dali and René Magritte.

After fleeing Europe for New York during World War II, she opened The Art of This Century Gallery and was instrumental in promoting still more artists, including Jackson Pollock and Ernst, the latter of whom she married.

Ultimately, Guggenheim established a museum for her world-famous collection at her palazzo in Venice, Italy, where she lived until her death in 1979.

Vreeland, who garnered attention for her previous film, “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel,” about her husband’s grandmother, anchors her current film around audio recordings made of interviews with Guggenheim for an authorized biography by Jacqueline Bograd Weld, who believed the tapes were lost. Vreeland was given access to Weld’s original research and discovered the tapes in the basement of Weld’s home.

The interviews serve as voice-overs for the film, which is replete with archival footage and images of paintings from Guggenheim’s collection, as well as interviews with art historians and curators. The movie also covers Guggenheim’s sexual adventures and the tragedies in her life, including her father’s death in the sinking of the Titanic.

Vreeland said one thread running through the film captures a kind of passion.

“I am very old-fashioned and still feel that passion is an important aspect in life. Peggy Guggenheim did not have the type of character that makes you immediately feel like she had that quality, but I profoundly feel like she did. The practice of art is a very human endeavor, and she identified with it and truly found herself. Her love of the arts and the artists would become her drive and ultimately her legacy to the world.”

“Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict” opens Nov. 13.

An extraordinary, pioneering female journalist is the focus of the biographical feature film “10 Days in a Madhouse,” about the young reporter Elizabeth Cochrane, who took the pen name Nellie Bly. The movie, based on Bly’s book of the same name, deals with her infiltration into an insane asylum for women and her subsequent exposé describing the deplorable conditions and abuses she experienced there.

Russian-born actress Alexandra Callas plays the historical figure Nurse Grupe in “10 Days in a Madhouse.”

Bly was only 23 when Joseph Pulitzer (who was Jewish), owner of the New York World, hired her for the risky assignment of going undercover in a mental institution. The film depicts Bly (Caroline Barry) moving into a boardinghouse for working women, where she practices feigning insanity. She gets herself committed to Blackwell’s Asylum, and, once there, drops her insane demeanor and acts normally, but, just as other normal inmates cannot do, she fails to convince the doctors and nurses that she isn’t sick. While a “patient” there, she witnesses other patients being unnecessarily drugged, beaten, fed inedible food, made to endure ice-cold baths and denied other basic human needs and rights. She herself suffers some of that abuse, under which many of the inmates die. Their bodies are then sent to a crematorium. 

After 10 days, which seem an eternity to her, Pulitzer arranges for her release. When her articles revealing the inhuman conditions at the institution are published, several investigations are launched, including an inquiry by a grand jury, and meaningful reforms are introduced.

In the production notes, screenwriter/director Timothy Hines is quoted as saying, “My mother died in 2008 at the age of 91. She had 10 of us and could tell many stories of oppression against women throughout her life that began in 1917. My mother was a hero of mine. A hero of hers growing up was Nellie Bly. Eventually Nellie Bly was a hero of mine as well — a woman who changed the world again and again.

“She was the mother of investigative journalism and the inventor of the 55-gallon drum,” Hines continues. “She championed orphans and those with no voice and was the first woman to report from the front lines in WWI. In ‘10 Days in a Madhouse,’ she showed unbridled courage standing up to horrible abusers and facing death to tell the truth of what went on behind locked doors for poor women who could not afford, nor were offered, representation.

“As a man and a supporter of women’s rights, I believe her story needs to be told.”

 “10 Days in a Madhouse” opens Nov. 20.

Another tale of female courage, this one mostly fictional, is found in “Mustang,” a Turkish movie that marks the filmmaking debut of Deniz Gamze Ergüven, who was born in Ankara, Turkey, but has lived in the United States and studied film at La Fémis in France. Ergüven also co-wrote the script with Alice Winocour.

Five sisters fight oppressive social norms in “Mustang.”

“Mustang” is set in a northern Turkish village, where five orphaned sisters are being raised by their grandmother and uncle. At the end of the school year, the girls say goodbye to one of their teachers, who is leaving the town, then they frolic on the beach and in the water with some of their male classmates. As the young people splash one another, the girls play a game on the shoulders of the boys. It is all quite innocent, but a neighbor sees them and tells the girls’ grandmother that they were behaving lewdly. In their culture, female chastity and modesty are mandatory.

Consequently, the sisters are forbidden to attend school anymore and are virtually imprisoned in the house. Bars are put on the windows, and the exits and entrances to the home are placed under lock and key. The house is transformed into a school for future wives, and women come to teach the girls how to cook and to fulfill other domestic duties. The goal is to arrange marriages for the girls as quickly as possible, and the two eldest soon become brides. 

The story becomes darker as the action proceeds, and the suppression of females in their milieu becomes increasingly stark.

However, the two youngest girls take back their power in a monumental act of rebellion.

According to Ergüven, the film grew out of her deep desire to tell what it means to be a girl in Turkey today. 

“I had an acute feeling of a strong, almost permanent sexualization of women here, which starts at an early age,” Ergüven said in an interview. “And it happens to the young characters of the film, who are accused of having rubbed themselves against the back of some boys’ necks, after playing an innocent game where they sit on some boys’ shoulders. That specific situation is autobiographical. What I have in common with the narrator and main character of the film is to be the youngest in a family nebula of girls and women.”

Ergüven said her movie has engendered great emotional response in Turkey. “The reactions to the film are as polarized as the country is today. People who love the film are completely passionate about it, those who don’t range between aggressive and murderous. With this film, we’re in pioneer territory. 

“I am proud of my characters and proud of my actresses,” she added. “They are figures of strength, courage and absolute resilience. And it is such a joy to know that the voices of these girls are heard and touch people far away from our home.” 

“Mustang” opens Nov. 20.

The season’s offerings include two films about female sexual empowerment. One of these is “Carol,” which depicts a forbidden love affair between two women in New York in the 1950s, with Cate Blanchett in the title role. The film is based on the book “The Price of Salt” by Patricia Highsmith, and was adapted for the screen by Phyllis Nagy.

In the film, Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), a young New York department store clerk, finds herself drawn from afar to an elegant, attractive, obviously affluent customer, who turns out to be Carol Aird, a woman caught in a loveless marriage to a wealthy man.  After a series of meetings that seem casual at first, but are heavy with a tension that permeates the air, the two women take a car trip west during the Christmas holidays and begin a passionate liaison. It is a relationship that, in that era, was considered depraved. 

Carol has had a similar affair in the past with a friend from childhood, and her current situation is complicated by her impending divorce from a husband who still loves her and who decides to sue for sole custody of their young daughter.

According to Mara, who spoke at a Q-and-A after a screening of the film, the relationship is a coming-of-age experience for Therese. Mara’s character begins to pursue a career as a photographer, and she has a boyfriend when we first meet her.  

The film re-creates the look, feel and attitudes of the time and place. At one point, attempting to reconcile with her husband for the sake of their child, Carol sees a therapist, reflecting the belief back then that homosexuality was a psychological problem.

Ultimately, she and Therese decide to make a bold choice.

“As these two women become infatuated and entranced by each other, they begin to confront the conflicts their attraction provokes,” director Todd Haynes says in the press notes.

Blanchett’s thoughts on her character are also quoted in the notes: “Carol is someone who perhaps appears very remote and self-contained and self-possessed, but in a way I think she’s crumbling. She doesn’t fit — neither Carol nor Therese fits — neatly into a social circle or in that time, an underground movement. So, I think they’re both ambushed by the intensity of the connection they share with each other.” 

“Carol” opens Nov. 20.

Another bold form of sexual freedom is portrayed in “The Danish Girl,” a docudrama about one of the first transgender individuals to undergo a sex-change (male to female) operation.  

Eddie Redmayne in “The Danish Girl.”

As the action begins, it is 1926 in Copenhagen. Artists Einar (Eddie Redmayne) and Gerda (Alicia Vikander) Wegener are a couple who seemingly enjoy a healthy sex life.  At the time, he is a landscape painter, while she is a portraitist. 

One day, a model cannot make a sitting, and Gerda asks her husband to fill in by putting on a pair of women’s shoes and stockings so that she can complete the work. She also drapes him with a dress. 

The attire awakens something deep within Einar, and he starts wearing women’s clothing with increasing frequency. He begins to say openly to Gerda that he has been caught in the wrong body, because he really is a woman, and he begins to identify as Lili Elbe. At first, the couple’s lovemaking continues, but that ceases when Lili emerges more fully and starts going out publicly as her true self.

Eventually, they leave Denmark for Paris, which they believe offers a more open-minded environment. Despite the strain on their marriage, Gerda supports Lili’s journey, which leads, ultimately, to two sexual reassignment surgeries. Although tragedy strikes, Lili is fulfilled in having emerged completely.

According to screenwriter Lucinda Coxon’s statement in the press notes, “Stories that are rooted in truth, like Lili’s is, are never only heroic or only tragic. We wanted to tell the full story, so we show what became of both Gerda and Lili. ‘The Danish Girl’ is absolutely a heroic story, but these are people ahead of their time, and that is reflected in what medical progress had or had not been made. Tragedy enters the story not because of anyone’s overreach.

“I realized that Lili’s remarkable story had been swept away by the tide of history. Hers was an incredibly important moment, and one I’d not heard about at all.” 

Director Tom Hooper is quoted as saying, “I fell in love with the script as soon as I read it, which was in 2008 when I was preparing ‘The King’s Speech.’ (Hooper won an Oscar for his direction of that film.) It was the best script I’ve ever read. I wept three times when I read it — and I’m not sentimental.  I’ve wanted to make the movie ever since.” 

“The Danish Girl” opens Nov. 27.

On a lighter note, two British princesses take a stab at liberation from their regal roles to celebrate VE Day, May 8, 1945, in the film “A Royal Night Out.” According to the press notes, 19-year-old Princess Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) and her 14-year-old sister, Princess Margaret (Bel Powley), actually did celebrate at the Ritz that night, in the company of other aristocrats, and returned to Buckingham Palace soon after midnight. The movie is something of a fairy tale about what might have happened to them. In reality, events probably did not quite play out as presented in the film. “It’s a true story by which everybody is intrigued. But we don’t know exactly what happened. It’s a little fantasy inspired by that true story,” director Julian Jarrold says in the press notes.

Bel Powley in “A Royal Night Out.”

The movie begins with images of cheering crowds and footage of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill announcing the victory in Europe. Princess Elizabeth, the future queen, and Princess Margaret, called P2, entreat their parents, the king and queen of England, to let them go out among the people to celebrate. Although they lead privileged lives, the sisters are restricted by protocol and by their responsibilities, and they long for more freedom.  

At first, their parents are adamantly opposed to the idea, but Elizabeth finally persuades her father to relent, arguing that they can get an accurate idea of how his planned victory speech is received by the public at large. And so, the princesses are sent forth with two soldiers as chaperones and with a 1 a.m. curfew.

After managing to give their chaperones the slip, the sisters get separated, and Margaret, the livelier of the two, winds up with a naval lieutenant who introduces her to the wilder side of London life. In the meantime, Elizabeth tries frantically to locate Margaret and enlists the aid of a cockney serviceman who is staunchly anti-monarchy and who has gone AWOL.

After a series of comedic mishaps, the two princesses are reunited and can look back on one adventurous night.

Gadon, who is Canadian, is quoted in the notes as saying that the occasion celebrated in the film really hit her as they were shooting in Trafalgar Square, where the people had actually congregated at the time. “It was a real movie moment of, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m in Trafalgar Square shooting a film about VE night.’ It was really special for me, because my nana was in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and my grandfather sailed under the British Navy in World War II. They were both in Trafalgar Square, celebrating on VE night. It is a powerful moment personally and a powerful moment creatively in the character’s journey as well.”

“A Royal Night Out” opens Dec. 4.

Also of interest:

“Iraqi Odyssey” is directed and written by Samir (who goes by only one name), who was born in Baghdad but moved to Switzerland as a child. The documentary traces the modern history of Iraq through the story of Samir’s family, which is now scattered around the world. His aim is to explain how the family’s hopes for a modern, secular and democratic Iraq have been crushed by internal political struggles and external forces. Opens Nov. 27. 

In the documentary “Stink!” director John Whelan, a single father, notices a stench coming from a pair of his daughter’s new pajamas and tries to investigate the source of the odor. His inquiry takes him on a journey leading to encounters with political and corporate operatives, all trying to shield the chemical industry. Opens Dec. 4.

In “The Night Before,” co-producer Seth Rogen also co-stars as Isaac, a Jewish father-to-be who joins two childhood friends for their last Christmas Eve together in New York. Opens Nov. 20.