Part 2

The Dark Side

by PopMatters Staff

16 February 2009


These are the women who confronted, made, or actually were monsters in one way or another. Some are villainesses, others were just born bad, some still are just misunderstood or a little disturbed, but each actress listed here intrepidly confronts some form of evil. In the process they redefine and reinterpret the role of women in emotionally and psychologically disturbing material. They are not necessarily in the archetypal roles of “the victim”, “the femme fatale” or “the bitch”, therefore, with such nuanced playing, they represent the full spectrum of characters for women in this genre; giving viewers a truly dynamic scope of characterizations.

Isabelle Adjani Possession (Andre Zulawski, 1981)

When it comes to describing great film acting, “fearless” is perhaps the most overused word in the critic’s handbook. Watching Adjani in Possession however, is to witness it being defined on-screen. The actress’s vampire-like beauty harbors an electrifying mélange of mesmerizing physicality, intransigent masochism and unbridled eroticism. Her meager frame both expunges and is penetrated by the most inconceivable of grotesqueries, whilst remaining grounded in the authenticity of maternal longing and misplaced desire. And during the film’s morbidly engrossing set piece, she literally throws herself around the frame whilst releasing blood-curdling screams of terror as she enacts the so-called “possession”. It’s a scene, not to mention a performance, which threatens to veer hopelessly into exploitative camp. With the ferocity of Adjani’s conviction however, Possession morphs into a spiritually-disfigured ballet of female angst and suffering, suspended in time and irrevocable from the memory. SB

The single thing I want most in life right now is to talk to Adjani about how that “possession” scene was made and what she did in preparation for it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an experimental, unnerving thing as that onscreen. The sustained, unreal state of hysteria she had to inhabit throughout the film demands an actress with equally unreal stamina and beauty, and Adjani fits all of the role’s requirements perfectly. She deservedly won Best Actress at Cannes for this. MM

Sandrine Bonnaire La Ceremonie (Claude Chabrol, 1995)

In Chabrol’s undervalued, mysterious thriller, Bonnaire made a strong impression as Sophie, the dyslexic maid of a well-to-do family who calmly, coolly, cracks apart under the pressure of working for her imperious bosses. Along with her partner in crime, the devious postal employee Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert, in top form, as usual), Sophie begins exacting her “revenge” with slight little bits of mischief directed towards the family that eventually turn into something much scarier and more substantial. The things separating the somewhat tawdry material from becoming just another “woman-as-killer” flick are the steady-handed direction of Chabrol, who turns the screws very tightly; the gorgeous original score from Matthieu Chabrol; and the chemistry between the two leading ladies. Bonnaire, though, in particular, as the wispy Sophie, lends great humanity and depth to the shocking spiral of domestic violence that happens at an achingly slow crawl. Everything she needs to express in this film, she does it using her face and through subtly of gesture; the construction of Sophie’s fragile psyche is accomplished on the cellular level. As she so equally (and successfully) disappeared in Agnes Varda’s Vagabond, the actress nailed every nuance of this sordid drifter’s downfall, playing her as a rogue maid who has a eerily quiet psychotic break encouraged each step of the way by her diabolical gal pal. MM

Glenn Close Fatal Attraction (Adrian Lyne, 1987)

As skilled as a performer as we realize Close to be, she allowed her portrayal of Alex Forrest to be feathered by a dangerous stroke of spontaneity. Words like “instinct” and “impulse” come to mind when thinking about this performance. It’s no different than an actress undergoing a physical transformation to look right for a part, only Close works conversely from the inside out. She brought a realistic approach to a potentially misogynist vision and fought tooth and nail for the artistic integrity of her creation when the studio insisted on going back and re-shooting the film’s ending. Her take on how a woman in this situation would not only behave, but also construct sentences and be aware of the smallest details –- down to how she held her purse to her side, gave Alex the necessary humanity she was missing on the page. Even though we do not see her crime in the infamous bunny scene—we can imagine her doing it since she made Forrest’s traits and progression into mental illness so three- dimensional. It’s a tremendously realized characterization which only made her crimes all the more terrifying and almost understandable. [trailer] TD

Judi Dench Notes on a Scandal (Richard Eyre, 2006)

At age 72, Dench reinvented herself as obsessive lesbian stalker Barbara Covett in this gripping study of two very desperate women (the other is Cate Blanchett’s Sheba Hart) who have nowhere to turn except to one another. Barbara is an institution at her school, students fear her, and the other teachers hate her. She is a mouthy loner that is just unpleasant in general to everyone. She finds everyone dull or stupid except Sheba, who (unfortunately for her), brushes the cobwebs from Barbara’s eyes and virtually illuminates her face and thoughts with her presence alone. Once Barbara sets her sites on a special friendship with a certain young (targeted) lady, things can get a tad nasty, a tad tawdry, even. Couple this obsessive love with the fact that Barbara has, coincidentally, stumbled by accident onto some choice evidence to use in bribing Sheba to be her companion. Filled with one-liners you will use for the rest of your life (“you’re not young, sneers Barbara in one scene), Eyre’s depiction of sexually threatening, corpulent evil lurking in the most unseemly of places, like in the person of sweet little Dame Judi Dench, is a nail-biter. The veteran actress goes for broke in a way that hasn’t been seen since Beryl Reid chortled and smoked her way through The Killing of Sister George 40 years ago. Only here Dench brings an unquestionable theatrical pedigree along with her to quiet any detractors that dismiss this as camp trash. MM

Faye Dunaway Mommie Dearest (Frank Perry, 1981)

In a performance that encompasses the traditional, expressive styles of the Kabuki, Noh, and classical Greek forms of theater, Dunaway positively attacks this part and devours it from the second she emerges onscreen as legend Joan Crawford. Whether or not this is how Crawford actually was isn’t really the point, nor is dismissing the stellar, deliberately-mannered work of Dunaway as simple caricature: underneath the wigs, immensely shoulder-padded costumes, and the garish “Old Hollywood” make-up job (complete with gigantic, crazy Crawford eyebrows!), there is a brilliantly-organized, fearlessly physical tour de force. Dunaway is committed in an almost eerie way to this character, as though she is channeling a malevolent ghost. Playing someone who is constantly giving a performance can’t be an easy feat, but giving a thinly-drawn sketch or an impervious legend a semblance of a heart, as well as making her an all-time classically iconic villainess, is a pure victory for Dunaway, who made this sort of magic time and again with other similarly iconic parts in Bonnie and Clyde, Chinatown and her Oscar-winning Network. She took these prototypes and fleshed them all out, Mommie being her most brave, most inventive, and certainly most chillingly scary. MM

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