Whether true or not, in the popular imagination the years of middle age for both sexes often represent a confrontation with one’s mortality. This is accompanied with reflection on the life lived so far, a concern for the future in the face of physical decline, and, most of all, the splurges that arise out of a perhaps catastrophic desire to freeze or stop time, to hold it tight.
There is no need to repeat here the obstacles confronting women above forty in the film industry on screen or off it. But as demographic shifts to an older population force industrial film production to change and meet the desires of these audiences, and while public support or funding to ensure greater diversity looks set to change more of what we see on screen, it seems timely to present this season of wonderful films, all of course featuring middle-aged women.
From ass-kicking Pam Grier, whose legacy as the first female action star in blaxploitation movies of the ’70s and ’80s prompted Quentin Tarantino to shape the role of Jackie Brown for her, to the elusive and comparatively unknown Ulla in Curtis Winter’s and Anders Endström’s austere art-house film The Anchorage, there is much to be admired in the films that will screen at Picturehouse Central and Duke of York’s Brighton.
Above all, however, there is much to be admired in the characters we see on screen. They fight on. They fight back. But they also generally seem to enjoy life too.
Two aspects strike me outright when I consider these films as a group. The first is a love of music. From the casting in Exhibition of Viv Albertine, singer in seminal punk band the Slits – not incidentally always recognised as part of the canon – which offers depth to the character D, to Jackie Brown’s legendary soundtrack and to Clara in Aquarius, whose record collection from her youth is kept, cared for and listened to, in nearly all of these films music is a vital force. Much more subtly, so much so that we don’t even see it on screen, the directors’ conception of Ulla in The Anchorage is of a woman who plays Schoenberg in her solitary abode. Chilean Gloria, meanwhile, loves to dance.
In fact, an enjoyment of their physicality beyond mere exercise is the second aspect also evident in these characters. Ulla (The Anchorage) and Clara (Aquarius) love to swim. Interestingly, Pam Grier’s off-screen martial arts training, she claims, allowed a quality of stillness to pervade the character of Jackie Brown. More unusually, D in Joanna Hogg’s Exhibition explores her bodily relationship with the house she loves by adopting unusual positions – stretched around the corner of a wall for example. Yoga practitioners may wonder if she is unknowingly exploring new poses! Finally, in participating in one of the more unknown forms of yoga practice, both Chilean Gloria and Cara in Aquarius attend a laughter class. Coincidence? I like to think not. At this stage of life, so often maligned, and where a kick-ass attitude is at times sorely needed, there’s no better approach than to recognise the power of laughter – a moment when, in the words of philosopher of laughter Georges Bataille, “ecstasy is freed, is imminent.”
Each screening in the Kickin’ Ass season is preceded by a short film from the Women Over 50 Film Festival. Look out for more details of that in a future blog post.
Kickin’ Ass: Middle-Aged Women On Screen starts at Picturehouse Central and Duke Of York’s on Monday 27 February:
Gloria (1980) (15)
Dir. John Cassavetes. 1980.
Rowlands garnered an Oscar nomination for her fierce portrayal as an ex-mob mistress who takes care of a young boy after his family is wiped out by the Mafia. Gloria must rely on all her street-savvy to prevent bother herself and the boy from being the mobster’s next target.
Jackie Brown (15)
Dir: Quentin Tarantino. 1997.
Firmly stamped with Tarantino’s trademark visual flair, hip dialogue, supreme soundtrack and cool stars Jackie Brown is also his most mature and emotionally satisfying work.
Dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho. 2016
Kleber Mendonça Filho’s 2012 feature debut, the slow-burning thriller Neighbouring Sounds, boldly announced a major new voice in Brazilian cinema, and Aquarius is every bit as impressive as its acclaimed predecessor.
Director Kleber Mendonça Filho will be at Picturehouse Central for a Q&A following the preview screening on Saturday 11 March.
The Anchorage (15)
Dirs. C.W. Winter, Anders Edström. 2010.
Shot in Sweden’s Stockholm Archipelago, The Anchorage describes the life of a woman, Ulla (Ulla Edström), over the course of three fictional days. On the face of it, it’s a film about the landscape that she inhabits, her passage of time on a rugged forest island and the appearance of an unfamiliar hunter who disturbs her quiet corner of the world.
Gloria (2013) (15)
Dir. Sebastián Lelio. 2013.
Gloria (the mesmerising Paulina García) is a 58-year-old divorcee energetically making the most of her freedom but still craving romance. Out dancing one night she meets Rodolfo (Sergio Herndández), another divorcee with apparently similar ideals, but in this effervescent, compassionate romantic drama, he isn’t quite what he seems.
Dir. Joanna Hogg. 2013.
British director Hogg (Archipelago) specialises in dissecting the middle-class psyche. Here she focuses on an artist couple whose decision to sell their elaborate London home provides a lens onto their complicated relationship.