erik lundegaard

El Orfanato and the power of women

I keep going back to that Manohla Dargis article from last Sunday’s NY Times. Sure, she conflates two issues — “Where are the women in movies?” and “Why are the women in movies so unrepresentative?” — but her complaints raise a good question. The unrepresentative man, the fantasy man, in popcorn movies is the superstrong man — Iron Man, Batman, the Hulk — because power for men manifests itself in physical strength. But what’s power for women? How does that manifest itself?

You could argue sex appeal. It’s why women in those aspirational comedies Ms. Dargis dislikes (Legally Blonde, Pretty Woman) get their hair and nails done: they’re strapping up for battle. But there’s another, more obvious answer, and I didn’t think of it until I watched El Orfanato (The Orphanage) the other night.

The Orphanage, directed by first-time director Juan Antonio Boyano, is a beautiful Spanish horror film that’s super-spooky in the way of The Others and The Changeling: not a lot of gore, just a lot of creep. Laura (Belen Rueda) and Carlos (Fernando Cayo) are raising their adopted son, Simon (Roger Princep), in the orphanage where Laura grew up, and where she plans to open a school for children with special needs. On the very day they’re opening the school, Laura fights with her son, slaps him (she’s horrified with herself before the slap is even through), and he runs away. Or disappears. Or... It’s a horror film. Anything’s possible.

Earlier, he and his mother had a conversation about Peter Pan, which references his imaginary friends. (Exactly: Beware any imaginary friends in a horror story.) It’s a great conversation in that it feels like a real mother-son conversation — both for what she says and what she avoids saying — while it encompasses most of the themes of the movie. In fact, it prefigures the rest of the movie. And it creeps you out:

Simon: Wendy grows old and dies?
Laura: Wendy grows old but Peter Pan takes her daughter to Neverland every year.
Simon: Why doesn’t Wendy go, too?
Laura: Well...
Simon: If Peter Pan came to get me, would you come, too?
Laura: No, I’m too old to go to Neverland, darling.
Simon: How old are you?
Laura: 37
Simon: When will you die?
Laura: What kind of question is that? Not for a long time, until you’re very old.
Simon: I won’t grow old. I’m not going to grow up.
Laura: Will you be like Peter Pan?
Simon (smiles): Like my new friends.
Laura: There’s more than one?
Simon: Six.
Laura: They won’t grow up either?
Simon: They can’t.

Months after Simon’s disappearance the police are clueless, the husband is helpless (he’s got the thankless Joseph role — not even contributing his seed) and Laura is more desperate than ever. Eventually she consults a kind of seer, Aurora, played by Geraldine Chaplin, who tells her, among other things, “My dear, you are a good mother. Your pain gives you strength. It will guide you. But only you know how far you are willing to go to find your son.”

That’s when I began to think of the Dargis article again. What is a woman’s power? Her strength?

It’s not very 21st century to say this, but... What’s the most fierce animal in the animal kingdom? Isn’t it a momma bear whose cubs are threatened? And who is the most successful action heroine in movie history? Isn’t it Lt. Ripley in Aliens, with a big gun in one arm and a little girl in the other? One matriarch battling another matriarch. You could say The Orphanage is also a battle between two matriarchs.

A man gets super powers and does what? Protects society. These guys are usually single and childless and protect society against all the baddies. Attempts to slip women into this formula have been critical and box-office disasters. Nice girls like Supergirl and vixens like Elektra and Catwoman just come off as dopey. Maybe, deep down, we just don’t think it’s the job of women to protect society.

But a mother whose children are threatened? She doesn’t even need super powers. As in The Orphanage, her pain is her strength.

It’s just a happy coincidence, by the way, that this is being posted on Mother’s Day. Have a good one.


Posted at 08:26 AM on Sun. May 11, 2008 in category Movies - Foreign  
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