Valerian and mother!: Two perspectives on female leads

From Hollywood blockbusters to auteur movies, no script exists in a vacuum. As such, a cinematic era can be defined by the themes willfully or  inconsciously touched upon by directors and writers.  Be it stylistically or thematically, socioeconomic factors always play a role in creating art and entertainment.

Argaubly a feature of “our era” is  the renewed interest in characters defying tropes and stereotypes. Also thanks to the rise of internet reviewers and “errors hunters”, viewers seem more and more to reject  storylines which don’t adhere to a rigorous internal logic . Stories need to feel real, at least in the context they’re presented in. This is nothing new, in fact it’s one of the staples of good scriptwriting, but it’s especially important when we think to what we consider logic stems from ever changing social norms.  Ideas on ethnicity and gender roles dictate what we expect from characters, and shallowness is noticed when social movements cast a light on particular issues. The book example of this transformation are Bond girls: from simple sexual objects they’ve been provided with personalities to update 007’s coolness. It may have been considered smooth to stalk women in the 60s, but modern audiences simply have different (hopefully) ideas on what an hero should and shouldn’t do.

Burgeoning social consciousness affects even movies not aiming for social commentary. PR nightmares aside, the suspension of disbelief is such a fragile construct that viewers can easily be distracted by a behavior they consider “off” because disconnected from new social norms. The parade example would be the “damsel in distress” storyline, which has become toxic also thanks to what the role women have in modern societies: to think of women, who usually carry the weight of family, career and personal issues, as idle objects for the hero to win is unrealistically patronizing to say the least.

Scriptwriters have tried to come to terms with this new environment. Besson’s Valerian and the City of Thousand Stars and Aronofsky´s mother! are just two of the many attempts trying to be mindful of “new” gender roles. They certaintly aren’t doing nothing new: “strong female leads” have been a trend for such a long time that they’ve become a trend on their own. What’s interesting is that they both try to frame a relationship in which their partners seemingly have the higher ground, and that they come from very different angles in doing so. One is sci-fi action extravaganza at its finest, the other a reflexive, slow-paced psychological thriller. One proposes a female protagonist whose femininity is just one of her many traits, the other transforms gender in the salient theme of the movie. Yet, both spectacularly fail at presenting sympathetic female leads, commiting errors which fundamentally contradict the points they’re trying to make.

When adapting the comic strip Valerian and Laureline for the big screen, Besson aimed to create a charming and colorful European Star Wars knockoff focussing on entertainment rather than commentary. Bringing Laureline to the 21st century however wasn’t so easy: if the comic book version was so beloved because she defied the trope of the dumb blonde sidekick of the time, the movie equivalent had to find a similarly impactful way to assert her independence from Valerian. Emphazising her relationship with Valerian from the start was theoretically a great way to escape the subplot of “will they/won’t they” and explore more interesting dynamics. To simply ignore  her relationship to Valerian would have been both unrealistic and  an admission that interesting female characters can only exist if neutered from their femininity. To pretend there is no way the lead characters could get together would only pin this idea harder in the mind of the viewer. Pacific Rim solved the question quite directly, explicitly showing the moment when the protagonists show to lack any interest in eachother beyond cameraderie. Valerian however opted for a brand of “hard girl” which is just a roundabout way to write a female character which is only hard to get for the hero. The relationship is obviously artificial both because of the lack of change in Valerian’s attitude as a womanizer and because on no occasion he’s showed taking the hard decision between her and his way of life. Since all his exploits are off-screen the public is hardly convinced he will settle down with his partner; on the other hand, Laureline is easily persuaded despite a buildup of resentment whose resolution comes not from inside the relationship but from plot developments which have little to do with their romance. The result is a messy character arc which calls far more attention than the parade of action Besson aimed to deliver.


On the other side of the spectrum, mother!  clearly puts gender at the center of the movie. Depending on the interpretations, Jennifer Lawrence’s character carries the burden of the household she shares with her husband, sometimes literally, as she rebuilt the house they live in piece by piece after a fire.  Theres little one can write without spoiling a movie going heavily for the shock factor; nevertheless, the public can only struggle when trying to empathize with the wife. Despite the vivid representation of how she’s consumed by how the writer’s uses her as an artistic inspiration, her suffering sometimes take almost comical dimensions: she complains about having her needs never thought of, but theyre virtually non-existent. She silently suffers through what the marriage puts her through, but never shows a degree of reverance or obsession towards her husband to justify this silence.  Even her strongest attribute, the desire to become a mother doesn’t burn strongly enough to show some kind of interior conflcit until the plot requires it to. She certainly suffers from the situation, but her lack of depth leaves the viewer in a weird place: the shock doesn’t come much from seeing a true person being harmed, but from the twisted and unexpected nightmare she’s put into. This transforms a movie aiming at empathy into something similar to a slasher.

Valerian and mother! are perfect examples on why being mindful of what the public expects from a character doesn’t equate to good story arcs. Caring doesn’t equate in achieving, but it’s hopefully an imperfect stepping stone towards a more interesting and rich landscape of characters, with all the social and cultural change this could be accompanied with.

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