t feels different writing about gender and cinema here in Jerusalem – the divided city – where zealots deface women on billboards and a young group of activists, Lotem, ignite a nationwide protest against domestic violence.
Three of 2018’s most prominent films expose how the patriarchy overtakes our habitus and hurts us from within. These films, directed be three male filmmakers raised in the middle and end of the 20th century, touch on the dangers of the patriarchy and how those dangers are manifested in their protagonists, all controlled by the male elites.
In Roma, Alfonso Cuarón captures the moment in which a father abandons his bourgeoisie home in 1970’s Mexico City, told from the point of view of his childhood hero, Cleo the nanny, who acted as a “third mother” to him, all while cleaning the family dog’s feces.
Custody by French filmmaker Xavier Legrand depicts Julien, a young boy watching his family fall into crisis as his father chases after him as an act of revenge on his ex-wife, Julien’s mother. The film is a nerve-racking Gender-Thriller that deals with a man’s lost pride, taking place in 21st century France.
The Sisters Brothers, French filmmaker Jacques Audiard’s adaptation of Canadian author Patrick DeWitt's book, is a Dark-Comedy-Western set in the 19th century, and tells the story of two brothers, professional assassins, who were abused by their father as children. As they continue on their professional journey, they rid themselves of the tyrannical boss who controlled their lives, and one of the brothers also discovers the toothbrush, and perhaps a new masculine identity.
And so, three contemporary filmmakers – Alfonso Cuaró, Xavier Legrand and Jacques Audiard – tell three stories in which the father’s cruelty moves the plot forward. They take place in three different centuries, in three different countries, in three different cinematic genres. What attracts modern cinema in the second decade of the 21st century to confront the patriarchy? Why go back to that dark past, and what do they actually find there?
Before I refer to the timing, I would like to point out the cinematic representation of the protagonist’s habitus in a manner that exposes the patriarchy and objects to it.
Cuarón opens Roma be depicting the cleaning ceremony, almost at naturalistic length, preformed by Cleo, the nanny and housekeeper who acts as a “third mother” for the children in the movie.
The father controls the motif of cleaning the house. Among other things, he demands that the home’s yard always be clean of the dog’s feces, which he never bothers taking out for a walk. He is a scientist with a successful career, traveling a lot for work, which grants him financial superiority and the position of ruler in his home. In this manner, despite being present yet absent in his family’s life, the house rules and the family’s habitus’ phases are conducted according to his will. The film, which takes place in 1970s Mexico, depicts how the family’s grunt work is still performed in accordance with patriarchal and colonial forces. The father blames Sofia, the mother, of neglecting her role as mistress of the house, in charge of enforcing the cleaning of the dog feces in the home’s yard. In his eyes, she has “failed” at managing the household, and she must stand trial before the family’s financial ruler. Sofia, still bound to her husband and controlled by the powers of the male habitus, harasses Cleo instead of confronting him, shifting all her anger and frustration toward her. In the film, the mother’s resistance to the father’s tyranny appears only once the father leaves the family, a move of open financial violence. Sofia is forced to open her eyes in respect to the ideal of a couple, she understands Cleo’s role as a third mother to her children, and she begins deconstructing the male habitus that controlled her life by making new choices like the style of the family car or the rearrangement of the children’s bedrooms. Cleo, the film’s heroine, is meant to live by rules of a habitus reserved for the lower class, but her special powers allow her to resist part of those male-elite rules and conserve her inner self.
In Legrand’s film, Custody, the controlling male habitus is represented through Julien, a 12-year-old boy, and his stiff body language as he finds himself the captive of his father and a legal system uninterested in his needs. In the second decade of the 21st century, Legrand films a boy becoming a tool in his father’s act of revenge, frozen in his body language, forcefully trained to be masculine and restrained. Julien’s shifts from his father’s custody to his mother’s, totally against his will, reflect a modern legal system that leaves no room for youth to make its own choices, like forming a masculine identity that suits him. In his stylized Western, Audiard depicts how the path to free ones self of the memories of a violent father that control you is paved through changing customs and adopting new rituals, and he gives Eli, the brother who wants to live different, a toothbrush, which will rewrite the rules of the new male hygiene, along with his own masculine identity.
In all three films, the interfamily relationships and the development of a new gender identity take place in what is called “the struggle to redefine the habitus.” What is a habitus? The man who formed the notion of the habitus within the context of gender was the outstanding intellectual and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, in his book Masculine Domination.
Bourdieu writes how the elites’ dominance passes through our consciousness and our body in every day actions and rituals, in which we internalize the ruler’s culture and recognize it as our natural identity – in other words, our habitus. This way he argues that we lose our defense capabilities against the elites that try to control us and succeed in deceiving us.
In the three-abovementioned contemporary films, the protagonists are void of an independent voice or total control of their fate, and yet they attempt to oppose the patriarchy’s brutality. Throughout each film they discover capabilities they didn’t know they had within themselves. Roma’s Cleo discovers special powers in concentration and courage during the crisis in her own relationship and that of the family who employ her; the young Julien who pushes back on his father’s pursuit of him, which reaches a breaking point; and Eli, the older Sisters brother, who’s sick of his tyrannical boss and is striving to break free from his horrific regime – and become a new man. To some degree it isn’t clear if the way each one resists the patriarchy is connected solely to their personalities, or perhaps also to the shifting identity of the patriarchy from location to location and era to era.
How different is the patriarchal style in different cultures?
Another essential 21st century film that dealt with the patriarchy is filmmaker Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, in which evil has a sadistic nature, affecting its protagonists differently.
The film, released in 2009, dealt with the patriarchal education’s social impact on Germany on the eve of World War I. The social backdrop of the film is a late 19th century education system, under the complete control of the religious and economic elite, all men, of course.
Michael Haneke, an Austrian director born in 1942, depicts a crime mystery in The White Ribbon in which a number of violent events impact an entire town. The film’s violence seems at first to be a series of accidents, but with time we discover that these are premeditated, cruel crimes that harm everything in their path, and the mystery around the criminals’ identities grows.
The film’s narrator, the town’s schoolteacher, is convinced after investigating that the pastor’s children, his beloved students, are the perpetrators of the crimes. The pastor’s children are in fact the protagonists of the film. We watch them as they live under their tyrannical father’s physical and emotional terrorism.
Haneke doesn’t bother clarifying the motives behind the pastor’s children’s crimes, and instead is satisfied with a dry depiction of children’s life circumstances during that era. Humiliation, starvation, sexual abuse, whippings and other kinds of torture that the children go through daily under their father’s rule, as their mother’s are absent or silent.
What comes of children that absorb that education and then internalize it? Haneke created a clever critique on the end-of-the-19th-century European patriarchy. He depicts how at a certain historical point in time, that model rose against its maker and turned into a boomerang, as our protagonists recreate the violence they absorbed from their father throughout the entire village.
In The White Ribbon, we are witness to the daily violence children and youth undergo, with no means of expression, functioning with an emotional detachedness. The internalization of the dominant masculine culture disconnects children from expressing empathy and emotional capabilities, represented in their habitus through a closed body language, an apparent restraint and peace of mind – seeming proof of the European male elite education’s success. In Haneke’s world even the mothers do not offer great compassion to their children, but are rather passive, holding a dormant muteness, or a painful muteness at best. Mother’s in early 20th century Germany still weren’t able to provide their children with substantial protection from violence, nor did they have an independent point of view or an individual language. This is how the theme of the patriarchy and its affects in The White Ribbon differs on the surface from the world of the three contemporary films – Cuarón’s, Legrand’s and Audiard’s – in which we see a different way of life, what I would call “life in the shadow of the relics of the patriarchal world.”
How different is the father-inflicted violence endured by the protagonists in the new world and the modern and post-modern age? And how do they react to it?
Roma and Custody depict stories with different types of abusive fathers.
While Custody deals with a father’s physical terror, which existence is denied by the legal system that abandons the son and his mother between a Kafkaesque nightmare and a suspense film that keeps us asking, “when will the police get there?” In Roma, the father’s economic violence toward his family is almost taboo; the police won’t come to protect the family, so they are forced to develop indirect ways to free themselves from oppression. In Roma, the ability to fight external male violence is connected to developing awareness of the lies of the male habitus and the ways we respond to them. In The Sisters Brothers, Eli, the older brother, finds his path to freedom from his inner suffering through adopting new rituals that will help him channel a masculine identity that will suit his current needs.
In Roma and Custody the protagonists confront situations with male violence that are harder to detect. These acts of violence show up in a society with a pretension of equality for all citizens, hence being more deceiving to its victims. French historian and philosopher Élisabeth Badinter describes in her book, Dead End Feminism, that the old, classic patriarchy that views women and children as the father’s direct property was not extinct but merely replaced in Western society. Is her diagnosis accurate?
There is a troubling resemblance between the father’s violence toward his son in Xavier Legrand’s film Custody and the pastor’s style of violent fathering in Haneke’s The White Ribbon. Is it so?
The prominent thing in both films is the unchecked, aggressive use of children, along with a demand for blind obedience in the relationships between the father and the sons.
In the case of The White Ribbon it’s demanded in the name of God, and in Custody in the name of the child’s best interests.
Custody’s exposition depicts the contemporary family law’s legal language’s rhetoric in a long cinematic scene. With brilliant minimalism, Legrand depicts the balance of powers in the family, in which the mother is the primary caregiver and the children, who all endured their father’s violence, want to detach themselves from him and distance him from their lives. The legal system sides with the father’s right to be a parent, compelled by the psychological presumption that it’s also in the child’s best interest. The boy has no right to express himself in trial, and the moment his voice isn’t factored in to the legal deliberation, the plot becomes more entangled and the threat to the family member’s lives rises.
The court forces Julien to return to seeing his father with a warrant he must comply with. This step exposes the son to his father’s manipulations and violence anew. Even so, there are different traits in the father types in both films; in The White Ribbon, the pastor is apparently a psychopath, whereas the father in Custody seems like a destroyed man.
Legrand depicts a father figure in a deep state of mental distress, untreated by any social entity. The contemporary French legal system abandons the boy and doesn’t supply him with any actual tools to defend himself. Despite the father threatening his life, Julien has no way of escaping the harsh violence that is instigated toward him. The only way Julien tries protecting himself is by cloaking himself in silence, as if freezing himself, disappearing so as not to expose his mother or sister to the father’s rage. Therefore, the film is subversive in how it depicts the heavy price children pay in a society that still elevates the father’s right over the child’s best interest.
In all three films the protagonists live in a reality where raising the children is still in the woman’s sphere, but her worth is denied and she isn’t adequately financially compensated. What happens in families where raising the children is still handled by women? Who pays the price for the denial of that work?
In Roma, the film that focuses on the 70s, the spotlight is on mother’s financial subjugation. As mentioned above, the father, Antonio, is the primary source of income to a family with no less than four women doing the invisible tasks entailed with raising and cultivating his four children.
The wife and mother, Sofia, is a white woman of European descent, with a good education in science that is neglected for the sake of the familial project – producing successful children in a capitalist society.
The grandmother, the mother’s mother, helps her by implementing the controlling social order – principles of rationalism, including self-control and ambitiousness in a capitalist environment. In addition, the two nannies and housekeepers carrying out the grunt work of raising the children are unsurprisingly not white.
Cuarón chooses Cleo the nanny as the main character of the film.
What are the powers that make this heroine unique? Why was the third mother chosen to become the lead heroine?
Who is Cleo?
Cleo is the image of the natural mother, providing one of the most coveted myths, a mother’s love. Cuarón flips the social order and depicts that poor nanny as a maternal heroine with super powers. Cleo, unlike the other bourgeois characters in the film, masters the depths of human empathy. This intuitive talent allows her to demonstrate hidden powers like concentrating on her consciousness, beating many fighting men who can’t. But primarily, she can push against the deceitful consciousness of the oppressive male habitus and do her work her own way. In addition, Cuarón grants Cleo’s character abilities in spiritual control that appear almost randomly in the scene where Cleo arrives to confront her lover. She finds herself amongst a crowd of people watching rows of fighters, including her lover and the father of the baby she’s carrying in her womb. The fighters, who had displayed their fighting skills, await their master’s words. The head master tells them to stand in a position that will test their ability to concentrate. Cleo, pregnant, naturally succeeds at doing what most fighters in the field failed at. Her phenomenal success is unseen by those surrounding her, she is what is called an “invisible superhero”. Nevertheless, Cleo, unlike the other mothers in the family, doesn’t need to break her consciousness free from the patriarchy. Sofia, the first mother and an important supporting role in the film, goes through a painful process of abandonment that only makes her stronger, and by the end of the film she starts choosing how she wants to communicate, what car she’ll have, how to clean the house, how to arrange the house and she recognizes Cleo the nanny’s value as a heroine and a partner in her work as a mother.
The Sisters Brothers deals with a protagonist that goes through a type of midlife crisis in which he confronts the legacy of his habitus and successfully moves on to new decisions that include new hygiene rules like how to brush teeth, listening to a kindhearted prostitute or breaching the tyrant boss’ trust. All these opened the road for him to go back home to the farm he grew up on and to his mother.
Even if it’s a wonderful coincidence, the three productions were made at the end of the 10s of the 21st century. Hence, there is an accumulative power to the echoing statement heard in all three about the dangers of the patriarchy present in our culture and still affecting reality, even if in a more covert way.
From a pseudo-equal contemporary legal system that ignores the children and youth’s choice, like in the film Custody, and through the denial of the children and their mother’s economic rights in the film Roma, and up to a work environment that erases the new man’s needs, as depicted in the film The Sisters Brothers – these three films bring to the cinema new images of masculinity and femininity, of the power balance between the father, the mother and their children, and they reveal motherhood through the powers of the habitus that activate us.
Three Directors and the Patriarchy
A Gender and Cinema Critique