Oscar history has been made this year, when two women, Chloe Zhao and Emerald Fennell, have been nominated in the Best Director Category; Zhao also being the first non white woman to be on the list and Fennell at 36, among the youngest. In the 92-year history of the Academy Awards, only five women have been nominated for best direction, and only one—Kathryn Bigelow – won for Hurt Locker (2009), a stark war film, that edged out James Cameron’s massive hit, Avatar that year. (That he happened to be her ex-husband probably made the victory sweeter.)
Interestingly, both Zhao and Fennell’s films, have women at the centre of the story, and have cast in these roles, two of the finest actresses alive.
Zhao’s Nomadland (which already won her the Golden Globe) is based on a terrific non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder, titled Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, which documents the heart-wrenching, yet hopeful phenomenon, of retired people, living an itinerant life, like modern day gypsies. They travel from place to place, in campers, vans or TVs, taking up seasonal jobs. They are people who either have no families, or have been abandoned by them. Their financial situation does not permit them to hold on to their homes, and they are too old to work at the conventional jobs, which they did all their lives.
The protagonist of Zhao’s film is Fern, played by the brilliant Frances McDormand (also nominated for best actress), who must be a Hollywood personality with the least amount of vanity or desire for glamour. Fern loses her husband and her job when the gypsum mine that employed most of the town of Empire, shuts down during the 2011 recession. She sells her home and possessions, packs the bare minimum into a van repurposed with sleeping and storage arrangements, and sets off on a journey to nowhere.
In the US, there are camp grounds, where people can park their vehicles, and stop for a while to recuperate, before they take off again. There is a community of nomads, who help each other out and, as one of them says, never bid a final goodbye, because they keep running into one another down the road.
Fern finds employment at an Amazon Fulfillment Centre that gives her enough money to keep going for a while. It is a fact that Amazon hires retired people and campers part-time jobs, offering decent money and facilities to those able to work at jobs like packing, gift-wrapping and cleaning in their massive warehouses.
When the assignment is over, Fern parks at a camping ground where she meets a lot of people like herself—as she says, “houseless but not homeless–” and they share experiences, skills or things they no longer need. In the film most of these characters have been played by real people and if it sad to see so many senior citizens, living a grueling, risky and mostly lonely nomadic existence , but there is also the joy of making friends and forming a community of like-minded travellers. Striking among these are gutsy women, Linda May and Swankie, who teach Fern the value of freedom and learning basic road survival tricks, like changing a flat tire. McDormand, with her self-cut hair, shapeless clothes, and wrinkled face fits right in with these people, whose personalities have been shaped by their tough transient lifestyles. (So self-effacingly sexless Fern/Francis makes herself, that her nudity cannot be seen as anything but utterly natural.)
Fern does have a chance to settle down to a ‘normal’ life—her sister offers her a roof, so does another nomad Dave (David Strathairn, the only other well known actor in the film), who is attracted to her, and wants her to be a companion in their autumn years, living with his affectionate brood, but by then the restlessness and independence of life on the road has entered her bloodstream. The life is harsh but also incredibly liberating. The romance comes not in the form of grow-roots relationships that fairytales and romcoms nudge people—especially women—towards, but from the magic of stunning landscapes, memorable encounters and unexpected adventures. If there is any ugliness—robbery, murder, molestation—the story does not go there. These are people, who are truly free, because they have nothing much to lose; people who have turned despair to thrill.
In comparison to this, Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman tells a more conventional, yet unpredictable, story of Cassie (Carey Mulligan), a medical student with a bright future, who falls apart when her best friend, Nina, is raped. The frat boy who assaulted her repeatedly with his friends laughing and cheering in the background gets away without even a rap on his knuckles, because the dean of the college does not want to “ruin a young man’s life.” That the woman’s life ended was nobody’s concern, because when the attack happened, she was drunk and in no condition to either consent or fight back.
The responses are typically misogynistic, that boil down to ‘ she asked for it’ or worse, ‘she deserved it.’ The men who were responsible for Nina’s tragedy, the people in power who dismissed her complaint and sent her down a spiral of suicidal depression feel not a moment of remorse. Cassie is so shattered, that she drops out of medical college to work in a coffee shop. At 30, she has no prospects of a career or personal stability. Much to the exasperation of her parents, she lives at home—they even gift her a suitcase on her birthday as a get-out hint. Even Nina’s mother, disturbed by Cassie’s obsession, advises her to move on.
Following a standard revenge movie trope but also upending it, Cassie dresses up in sexy clothes, hits nightclubs, pretends to be drunk and is invariably picked up by a man, who takes her home thinking he just got lucky. When she lets on that she is not drunk, they get nervous—because suddenly the power equation alters. The woman they have been pawing is not going to remain passive, and a woman in control of the situation scares them. This forlornly fruitless exercise offers a twisted kind of justice-for-Nina only for Cassie, who feels at least she has not allowed Nina to be forgotten.
In real life, Carey Mulligan got into a spat with a critic who suggested that she was not hot enough for the femme fatale part. She protested, the publication apologized, which sent critics up in arms for this humiliation of one of their tribe, by the publication that ought to have defended him.
Through Cassie’s bizarre vendetta, what Fennell brings to the audience’s notice is the bro code that is instantly invoked when a woman speaks up. Men who take advantage of an inebriated woman, see no hypocrisy in calling themselves “nice” guys, and waving aside rape with the excuse, “I was just a kid” –and society buys that! At one point, a man who has committed a crime, weeps over his buddy’s shoulder, and is told, “It’s not your fault.” Nobody but Cassie was willing to give Nina the benefit of the doubt that they hand over to a man on a platter in a “he said, she said” deadlock.
Both films are strong contenders for the Oscar; you know it is always said ‘let the best man win,’ but if a woman, who has head-butted the door to the Hollywood Boys’ Club, wins, every woman in that world raises an arm holding an invisible trophy, and exclaims, here’s one more paver block to level the playing field.
(This piece first appeared in The Free Press Journal dated March 24, 2021)