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Monster is the year's darkest girl-against-the-world movie, yet it's not the stuff of gratuitous, exploitative "catharsis" but rather humanity and compassion. (If you'd like to meet the monster's foster-fathers, check out Lourdes Portillo's harrowing documentary Señorita Extraviada, which adroitly connects economic and cultural violence with abuse toward women.) Starring Charlize Theron in a genuinely stunning performance as real-life Florida prostitute and serial killer Aileen Wuornos, Monster is the feature debut by Patty Jenkins (note: a woman) and doesn't shy away from the roots of loathing and violence, inner and outer, but gives us the terrors of trying to fit into a world that won't have you. With Christina Ricci appearing brilliantly not as a porn actress but as that other dreaded outsider, the gay person, it's a funny, sad, ghastly, and thoroughly humane portrait of a modern girl who got a really raw deal. Although the title refers literally to a large Ferris wheel, we're left wondering whether the girl, or her environment, is the real monster.
And then there's the not-so-subtle but equally poetic depiction of a woman battling an actual monster-monster in Peter Jackson's somewhat successful paean to patriarchy, The Return of the King (co-written with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, both card-carrying women). Miranda Otto plays regal Éowyn, who dotes on her kingly uncle Théoden, but when it's time for battle doesn't shy away from a demon riding a phallic flying beast.
"My whole thing about the battling is that I never felt that it was because she [Éowyn] was so physically strong," intones Otto. "It's more about her strength of will and her strength of heart. That's very much what the film talks about. Also with Samwise and various characters: It's not about how big and strong you are. It's about how mentally tough you are, and how prepared you are to die for what you believe in, how prepared you are to put yourself on the line for the people that you love, and that's the kind of strength that she has. Her strength is not running away from the Witch King, but standing up and saying 'I will kill you,' and also that, 'I'm prepared for you to kill me, and I'm not going to back down.'"
Otto is pleased by the concept that feminine strength is increasing in the cinema, even in theory. "Well, it would be nice if that's true. It's important that they're not just physical roles. It's important that we see strength not just as the fighting, but also where they [the female leads] set up a story, and what they do in the story. And also what I like about Éowyn is that at first it seems like it will be a romantic story, and the significance of her in the film will just be about her love for Aragorn, but it turns out that she becomes a character in her own right. And I think that's the sort of thing that I like to see in women's roles -- that they're not just there, as Judy Davis once said, to prove that the male lead isn't gay. It's important that they have roles and motivations and things to do. You shouldn't just hide behind the physical aspect; make sure it's mentally strong as well."
Like her sword into the Witch King's head, Otto, who credits Jodie Foster for some inspiration, is not vague about driving the point home. "So often as women we play roles that are very emotionally reactive, but I'd like to play someone whose main characteristic is just being very, very smart." (From the other side of the world, Audrey Tautou echoes the deceptively simple notion: "I like intelligent films.")
And what did Éowyn enjoy in cinema 2003? "I saw Whale Rideron a plane and I thought it was absolutely beautiful. That girl is just remarkable. I couldn't believe it, I was so moved by her." From Otto's appraisal, zooming around the world while watching a young Maori woman harmonize her indigenous leadership with centuries of dominator culture, it would appear that art and life are running just about neck and neck.
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