Thursday, 10 December 2009

Review: Cracks

I had been looking forward to Cracks since I first read about it. A film set in a girls' school? In the 1930s? With Eva Green? What isn't there to love about it? Disappointingly there is a great deal of things to dislike. The characters don't ring true, the style is pedestrian, and other films deal with the themes so much better.

Cracks opens beautifully with a scene between Di and Miss G on the lake discussing subversive novels. It is clear right away that Di is besotted with her alluring diving coach but her desire is never fully illustrated. At the beginning of the film we are encouraged to see Miss G, the school, and the other students through Di's eyes but soon after Fiamma arrives it becomes unclear who we are supposed to sympathise with. Di merely stares longingly at Miss G and scowls at Fiamma. This rather undermines the idea of her as the protagonist in a story of a girl in love. So perhaps it is a story about Miss G? But her characterisation is the weakest part of the story. She is at times confident, petulant, wise, serene, manipulative, crazy and evil. It may have been an attempt to make her a mysterious character but the result is just inconsistency. Perhaps if the scene where Miss Nieven reveals that Miss G has been at the schools since she was a student, was shown later then the gradual reveal would have had impact. But that still doesn't explain the differing behaviour later. Muttering when visiting the Baker implying she's 'crazy', the confident way she exerts authority over other staff members and then the devious abuse of Fiamma all seem to be different characters.

The way that Miss G's abuse of Fiamma is represented also caused me concern. The tagline itself "Innocence isn't lost. It's taken" seems a direct reference to Fiamma's sexual assault. For me this also has the uncomfortable sense of associating lesbian desire with such abuse. After seeing the film I read an interview where the film's director Jordan Scott said that Di's feelings for Miss G are platonic. Where I may have had doubts about the anti-lesbian messages, further investigation just supports it. I had expected Cracks to be about female desire within the restrictive and conforming structure of school. To have those desires pathologised degrades the film.

It is when compared to other films that Cracks really fails to impress. It can be no coincidence that Miss G refers to the diving team as "my girls". But she is no Jean Brodie. Miss G's exposure as an abuser and a liar doesn't have much impact as the script revealed her deceits to the viewers far too early. Because of the lack of consistency in Miss G's characterisation it is difficult to feel sympathy for or even understand  her. When Jean Brodie yells that Sandy is an "assassin" you feel for her even though the "assassination" was justified.  With Cracks it feels as if the Spanish civil war were included merely to give an exotic character the excuse to be far from home but the political misguidedness of Jean Brodie is acutely important to her relationship with her students. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a classic it's true, but Cracks does invite this unfavourable comparison in its allusions to the better film.

In terms of schoolgirl desire Madchen in Uniform is to be preferred as it is very easy to understand why Manuela falls for her teacher because the characters are fully realised. Also, I like the way her feelings aren't patronised and are presented as normal.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Growing Up Through Film

There are three blog pieces I've read this week that inspire reflection on how we define the meaningful films of our youth.

Sady at Tiger Beatdown writes a marvellous and funny piece about Titanic. I love her commentary on the villain character in comparison to the romantic leads. But it is also interesting in regard to looking back on the important films (and crushes for some) of teenhood. I'm hoping that this kind of reflection is part of the Giant Mystery Project Sady mentions.

Julie at Misfortune Cookie writes about films high-school aged girls should see and Scott at Rail of Tomorrow does the same for boys. I always love to read people's recommendations, despite instinctively wanting to resist any "must watch" instuctions. Julie's list is particularly interesting as it is written in response to the huge response to the Twilight series which she considers to have negative messages for girls. The films on her list tend to deal with girls' place in the world, issues surrounding relationships (both romances and friendships), and sexuality. Scott's choices seem to be more about identification and inspiration for boys. I don't know whether this is because the films produced for girls have more general messages or whether it is to do with how viewers are expected to identify with protagonists. Do girls have to work harder to seek out useful messages when films are generally aimed at a young male viewer?

I wouldn't want to make such a list myself. I think people can be highly skilled in making use of films in different ways. In a feminist sense reading against the grain is a useful strategy in enjoying mainstream culture, although it can sometimes be more delusional than creative to do so. Would I recommend anti-feminist films because they might inspire more debate? Sometimes it is easier to explain why we are rejecting an idea than accepting one. But that would work against the goal of getting 'better' films made, appreciated and valued.