I watched two movies with women protagonists this weekend. The films couldn’t have been more different, but each in its own way, was a discerning moving portrait.
Both women are asked to do the impossible and must find the strength to command their universe.
In ARRIVAL, linguistics professor Laura Banks—played by Amy Adams—is asked to put her life on the line to communicate with aliens, or ‘Heptapods.’ Her continual lapses into memories of her daughter who died interrupt the work only she can do until the interruptions become the answer to her searching. The cinematography is rich and real, mirroring the carefully transparent process that the scientist uses to reach the extraterrestrials. And when the military demands answers too soon, the process is aborted and she must risk her life to save the world. And she never resorts to heels to get the job done.
In contrast, Natalie Portman’s JACKIE digs her heels into the mud when no one else will find the perfect spot in Arlington Cemetery to bury her husband. Unlike the gorgeousness of the filmscapes in the science fiction film, here the camera clings to Jackie’s every move like the dried blood on her pink wool jacket. This unrelenting extreme closeup is so uncomfortable it feels wrong— but then, that is the point. Reality is shattered, and the murderer is murdered. The world has gone crazy. Even the editing is disturbing—a scene will jump from the beginning to twenty seconds later in the same scene breaking our honed sense and structure of the grieving process.
In both films, we participate in what looks like the unraveling of each protagonist’s mind, but in the end, we see she has been the steady support we have been looking for, even though she never really believes it herself.
These two contemporary film portraits of women—though neither written by a woman—offer a shift in the landscape of tired female character tropes—the broken bird, the lost girl, the determined widow, the hot scientist. They have to hang on in traditionally patriarchal social systems (politics, military, science), confirm they have the skills to do the job before them, and find their own core of resilience to do the right thing even if it is against what everyone around them suggests.
Jackie’s dilemma is played out in a very public arena—she is now irrelevant with the death of her husband the president. Yet she still must be seen as standing for what her husband stood for, and that means deciding to walk with the coffin on parade, out and available for anyone to shoot.
For the professor, the woman in a man’s world dilemma shows up as she must ‘translate’ why she can’t simply get answers from a species who don’t even know what a pronoun, subject, or question is in our language. She must trust that her way of communicating will offer the best results, even if the process takes longer in a very impatient world.
But here is the really unique element to these characters—that, as women, the final struggle isn’t against men, that is just the world they live in. The true struggle is a visceral attachment to what is ‘right.’ For Jackie, that’s understanding the media’s need for a fairy tale. Jackie is the one who defines the presidency as ‘Camelot,’ and gives that brilliant piece of PR to the journalist, Theodore H. White, (whose name isn’t mentioned in the film or the credits, and who is not the earlier T. H. White, and, no relation to me that I know.)
For Prof. Banks, it is her final trusting of what looks to us like the grief of madness. In the climax of the film, she asks her colleague, “Do you trust me.” Something she herself finally learned to do.
Although these two films are radically different in tone, mood, and style, they both tell the story of what it means to act from what you know—to follow that voice inside you that is sure-footed and resilient amidst the chaos that can come without warning.