Bad Women Make Me Feel Good

I never thought the sight of wild and wayward women parading across the screen would gladden my heart, but oh, it does! By “wayward” I mean not just cute eccentrics or heavy-lidded vamps, but worse: girlfriends who contemplate murdering their lovers; wives who prefer their fathers-in-law to their husbands; mothers whose first instinct is to ditch the kids; mothers who cut their daughters and daughters who cut themselves; female chefs with no maternal instinct; and a houseful of French women who make Clare Boothe Luce’s backbiting dames in The Women look like Brownie scouts.

Needless to say, the movies in question- The Good Girl , How I Killed My Father , Alias Betty , Secretary , Mostly Martha and 8 Women -aren’t Hollywood studio films. Nor are their anti-heroines those familiar cinematic archetypes of evil: opposite sides of the virgin/whore coin, as filtered through the neatly dichotomizing male sensibility. Many of these Eves spring full-blown not from the rib of Adam, but from the perfervid brains of … other women. And even when the films are written or directed by men, these characters radiate such self-possession-and the actresses playing them give such bravura performances-as to turn upside-down any notion of oppression or objecthood.

Time was when such “negative” images would cause us feminists to stomp our sensible marching shoes and write protest letters crying “Misogyny!” As recently as a couple of years ago, I was talking to a best-selling feminist author who, having just caught up with the first year of The Sopranos , was appalled by the character of Livia. How can we allow such portraits of evil mothers? she expostulated. But we’ve gotten past that stage and its narrowly defined notions of acceptability, of “positive” and “negative” images, as if women were either/or electrical currents.

The point is, the old categories and the dialectical notions they embody no longer serve-if only because there are so many more kinds of women in play that no single emblem of perversity has to stand for the entire sex. If feminism is about anything, it’s about the freedom to look further and deeper at those repressed parts of ourselves, the secret desires and fantasies that dictate the kinds of people we are attracted to long before we tell ourselves what we ought to think.

In The Good Girl , Friends sweetheart Jennifer Aniston-so miserable in her clerk’s job and life in Nowhere, Tex.-turns into a bad girl who makes life miserable for everyone else as well. She is, in her own words, “hateful”-to her poor old slob of a husband; to her too-cheerful co-worker, whom she deserts in her hour of need; to her pathetic lover and would-be soulmate, whom she considers poisoning with blackberries. Yet thanks to their deft way with comedy noir, the filmmakers (director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Mike White) achieve a tone perfectly pitched between humor and horror, permitting the film’s West Texas Madame Bovary to retain our sympathy, even as we reproach her for behaving badly toward her no-less-pitiable victims.

Likewise, tone is everything in Secretary , a bold and exquisitely funny examination of an erotic S&M relationship that threatens to capsize when “real” sex occurs. The movie, directed by Steven Shainberg (adapted, with co-scenarist Erin Cressida Wilson, from a story by Mary Gaitskill), features Maggie Gyllenhaal in an astonishing performance as the morose introvert with a cutting problem who, like Little Red Riding Hood, carries a “tool kit”-self-abuse implements and first-aid equipment-wherever she goes. The wolf in this case is a handsome but eccentric lawyer (James Spader), whose red felt-tip pens are the bloody weapons with which he corrects his new secretary’s typos and brings her to heel. As they feel each other out in a series of alternating dominance and submission rituals (a more extreme version of the covertly S&M games all couples play), Maggie actually becomes more real to herself.

Some male critics seem to have been put off by the heroine of Mostly Martha , a German chef (magically played by Martina Gedeck) whose rapturous interest in what she does takes priority over that usual fixation of the single woman-i.e., getting a man. Written and directed by Sandra Nettelbeck, the superb first half of the movie shows a woman with “unwomanly” qualities-pride, shyness and social indifference-who is nevertheless attractive and desirable, even while chewing out diners who don’t appreciate her fare.

When her sister is suddenly killed and Martha is saddled with her orphaned niece, she’s completely nonplused. The so-called maternal instinct is not there, nor does it spring forth. Until the movie detours into sentiment when an Italian sous-chef comes along to save romance and family values for Western civilization, the single heroine’s matter-of-fact happiness has been so subversive as to be revolutionary.

Alias Betty is a wildly improbable but juicy melodrama, directed by Claude Miller from a novel by Ruth Rendell, about a child-snatching with a happy ending in which there are not one, but two malefactor moms circling Betty, the saintly bereft mother. It’s a deft balancing act, but the charismatic Sandrine Kiberlain in the Madonna/Betty role holds her own against Mathilde Seigner’s dastardly hooker (who loses her baby-and good riddance) and Betty’s own mother, played by a monstrous yet funny Nicole Garcia. Presumably to atone for past sins against her daughter, the mother steals the baby and gives it to Betty. The mother is given to garrulous self-absorption; no crisis in the lives of others is so great that it can distract her from her own. Yet we can’t quite bring ourselves to hate her. She’s like Isabelle Huppert’s motor-mouth spinster Aunt Augustine in François Ozon’s 8 Women : Both are witchy narcissists who dare you to turn away from them or feel morally superior.

How I Killed My Father , Mostly Martha and Alias Betty were hits among friends with whom I shared the videotapes this summer. The latter two especially stirred up a kind of feverish excitement. The very idea of women not bonding with children remains anathema in our culture, the last taboo of drama. No matter how often we’re told that the complex phenomenon called “maternal instinct” is not necessarily innate, that there are numerous species and individuals in whom it never occurs, that many need to “learn” it and some never do, our quasi-religious faith in the idea gives rise to impossible images of Good Mothers. But isn’t the Good Mother ideal more of a prison, a straitjacket, than any number of so-called slanders against motherhood?

In Anne Fontaine’s haunting How I Killed My Father , we get not the feel-good father/son myth so popular in recent Hollywood movies, but an anguished duet in which an abandoned son turns furiously on his father, and the father, with cruel honesty, says, “I’m not obligated to love you.” The same devastating words might have been uttered by some of the mothers above-suggesting that we love where we need to love rather than where our love is needed. It’s a philosophy undreamt of in Hollywood, where matches are made in heaven or hell, rather than the in-between world where most of us live.