When we saw Renate Reinsve’s Julie in Joachim Trier’s The Worst Man in the World, many of us immediately thought of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag. While “Fleabag” has become something of a smash hit, it was too late for the general public to take notice of Fleabag’s lesser-known sister, Lulu, from “Crashing.” The latter series came out well before Fleabag or The Worst Person in the World, way back in 2016, and it had a similar concern to Fleabag and Julie: the confusion of lust and coming-of-age redux. The world can end many times over a lifetime as generational consciousness begins to follow revolutionary growth rather than evolutionary patterns in the age of Twitter.
A friend of mine recently told me a story when she started going to college. She dated a girl, left her for a boy, only to break up with him and go back to the girl. No one had publicly called it a moral failure, but she long wondered if she would be gently teased as the “confused one.” While it didn’t really contain the sting of reproach, it still became a sort of immediate indictment. A woman as young as she was not allowed to examine the shapeshifter named Desire; Their passions necessarily had to have a value, an end, a strength, and a dedication.
Confusion and transformative desire are privileges that belong only to those women who have the time and social capital to think about life, apart from living in it. Julie, Fleabag and Lulu are all at different intersections of the same street called Desire and luckily they have the time to think about it. As the world revolves around the Nowhere Woman, she realizes we’ve been lied to: it turns out there’s more than one unique way to be a woman, after all.
Fleabag famously says: “I want someone to tell me what to wear every morning. I want someone to tell me what to eat, what to like, what to hate, what to be angry about, what to listen to, what bands to like, what to buy tickets for, what to joke about, what I’m not supposed to joke I want someone to tell me what to believe in… I want someone to tell me how to live my life, for now [Father] I think I got it wrong.”
Her feelings echo more in the voice of Julie’s partner Aksel than in Julie’s own voice when, one fine day, he realizes that his sexist “humor” isn’t being met with the indulgent giggles and headshakes it used to be. When he laments being “cancelled” in an emotional scene in front of an attentive, understanding Julie, it becomes abundantly clear that the film itself had no intention of canceling him. “The Worst Person Alive” finds a contested middle ground for all of its characters. Of course Aksel would have been the more appropriate candidate when it came to debating status as the world’s worst person, but it’s Julie who does so.
Queer, square and without maternal instincts
Although Trier has said that “The Worst Person…” is the story of a specific woman and not The Modern Woman, perception, both by the self and the other, is a phenomenon that is perhaps more pronounced for women in general is problematic. At one point, when Aksel and Julie are arguing about wanting children (he wants them now, she wants them eventually), he asks her what the obstacle is: “What has to happen first?” A lack of maternal instinct and an argument about a male partner wanting everything to happen on his terms (as claimed by Julie) still things that don’t deviate from the path of traditional femininity aren’t real. In that sense, Fleabag is a much more radical thinker than Julie. Fleabag’s weirdness and sexual fluidity might have something to do with it. Her confusion is not about finding love and questioning motherhood, but about the nature of her desire itself. Queerness is so far off the beaten path that one might be compelled or encouraged as an extension of that nature to investigate their desire more directly.
THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD // FLEABAG pic.twitter.com/yP2UhuT1Bc
— TIFF (@TIFF_NET) March 22, 2022
For example, Jacques Audiard’s “Paris, 13th District” shows Nora (Noémie Merlant) finding the zenith of her desire in the character of Amber Sweet, a woman who is literally a reflection of herself (at one point Nora is mistaken for Amber). who’s so lonely, so sweet, but freer. In the final scene, when they finally meet after many a video rendezvous, Nora falls to the ground, almost with an expression of “la petite mort”. Ahead of them are references to the questioning woman in Clementine (Kate Winslet) in The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, delivering an iconic speech against the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope: “Joel, I’m not a concept. Too many people think I’m a concept or I’ll complete them or I’ll bring them to life, but I’m just a fucked up girl looking for my own peace of mind. Don’t match me yours.”
Julie and Fleabag aren’t the only recent heroines struggling with themselves. In Maggie Gyllenhaal’s 2021 film The Lost Daughter, Leda (Olivia Colman) and Nina (Dakota Johnson) face a similar conundrum, but they’re deeper in the net as they’ve already made their choices and must face the consequences , once they have been taken already unfolded. As an older woman, Leda watches her maternal instinct shift and shape after already making and breaking a commitment.
Lulu from “Crashing” is arguably the most vulnerable of them all, with perhaps the most individual story of the three. Nothing Lulu does is meant to be a statement; She’s the one who’s genuinely amoral, acts on instinct, and doesn’t stop chafing herself about her concerns. Brazenly riding the waves of her desire, she watches with little or no self-punishment as Anthony, her best friend, whom she may or may not be in love with, serves his fiancé Kate a curry that Lulu has thrown up in (it is a long time story). There is nothing virginal or “pure” about the nature of Lulu’s desire.
Crime, Punishment and Bollywood
I try to think of the confused woman in Bollywood movies and surprisingly, Sara Ali Khan’s Zoe from Love Aaj Kal 2 comes to mind. The film, which suffered for many of its cinematic failures, currently has a meager 4.7 rating on IMDB, but in mainstream Bollywood, she may have to settle for this emerging genre of heroines. Imtiaz Ali’s films are widely criticized for using women as agents of character development for the men, but somehow the films that portray female characters with relationship problems aren’t necessarily concrete either. Love Aaj Kal 2 was a messed up movie in general, and that might be why Zoe was messed up too. She faces the false dichotomy of career vs. love unique to women and emerges from it as a whole while the film smugly concedes moral superiority to Veer (Kartik Aaryan), who says to Zoe: “Aana toh puri tarah aana, varna aana hello mat“. The message seems to be, though not in so many words, that a woman cannot be whole without giving herself fully to a man.
Zoe’s cousin is Deepika Padukone’s Veronica from “Cocktail,” who faces the music, which is louder and much more punishing. Veronica, unbridled in her sexuality, faces the most terrible punishment Bollywood films can inflict on their offending wives: not getting the man. Indeed, Veronica loses everything – friendship, family, love – and finds herself faced with the vast, sprawling urban solitude all alone for the simple offense of not being enough like Meera, a wise Mary Sue played by Diana Penty. Meera’s virtues, which include a blind, unconditional devotion to a warlike husband, are rewarded at the end with the affections of Gautam (Saif Ali Khan), a character who, for obvious reasons, would choose Veronica to sleep but Meera to marry for redeemable properties in sight.
Queerness has only just begun to begin its steep climb from comedic material to social film treatment in Bollywood. Yet millennial women in India remain just as adamant aboard the Streetcar Named Desire as anywhere else in the world.
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