A Horrible Woman depicts a toxic relationship of manipulation and submission that rings uncomfortably true. However, the two lead characters are psychologically typecast, amounting to little more than manipulator and victim.
Danish filmmaker brothers Christian (writer/director) and Mads (co-writer) Tafdrup court controversy with their depiction of a dysfunctional relationship in A Horrible Woman. See, it’s the male, Rasmus (Anders Juul), who is abused here. His abuser is the woman villainised in the title, the possessive, manipulative Marie (Amanda Collin). Shaky ground in the #MeToo climate, then, although it shouldn’t be. Male disempowerment in toxic relationships of the type on show here is certainly a thing, and therefore a legitimate subject for artistic investigation.
The film opens on Rasmus and his soccer mates pissing it up in his testosterone-thick apartment and getting pretty untidy (shirts off, freaking out to hard-core punk, wrestling etc), when a female friend and her girlfriends arrive unannounced. Naturally, the party takes a hasty turn for the civilised. Rasmus and Marie get talking in the kitchen, and…
In the early sexual enchantment stage the relationship is normal enough, but it’s not long before Marie starts rearranging Rasmus’ apartment, needling him to get rid of his beloved CDs, replacing his wall poster of Bono (WTF?) with a painting of hers, and goading him into having her accompany him on his routine Sunday visit to his parents, despite his feeling that it’s a little premature.
The gradual but relentless development of the power imbalance in the relationship as Marie’s manipulation and possessiveness blows out to monstrous proportions is psychologically plausible and authentic in feel. Very well managed. The climax is brutal: on a date weekend gone wrong, Marie rips Rasmus apart, deriding virtually every aspect of his personality, leaving him an emasculated wreck. He now has no choice but to terminate the relationship and try to take back control of his life – or does he?
The narrow focus on the power dynamics of the central relationship is the film’s strength, but also its weakness. Marie is just a possessive manipulator; Rasmus is just her victim. We are given no insight into why either is as they are, or why they persist with their relationship once things start going pear-shaped. They don’t appear to have much going apart from their initial sexual pull.
If the lead characters are one-dimensional, the minor ones are far more so. Going by this flick, when Danish guys get together they become frat party animals; ditto Danish gals (except when Marie and her gal-pals party together, they dance on the sofas to pop rather than wrestling to hard-core). And when they partner off, the women, it seems, pull the levers of control like Marie.
Example 1: Prompted by his wife, who complains that she has an early start in the morning, Rasmus’ best mate turns him away when he knocks on the door in the early hours in a perilous state after breaking up with Marie.
Example 2: Later, when a newly single Rasmus meets up with his mates at the pub (puzzlingly, the same ones gyrating bare-chested in the intro scene), they all trot off dutifully back to their wives and kids after a couple of drinks, leaving him having bought a round of undrunk beers. Why could they not have phoned home and explained they would be delayed for a short while? Are their wives tyrannical ballbreakers, like Marie? Are they weak and disempowered, like Rasmus? Is this “the way things are” according to the Tafdrup brothers? If so, that’s a troubling view of gender and marriage Danish style!
A Horrible Woman might raise more questions than it answers, but it’s a provocative piece well worth catching that is sure to make for some spirited after-viewing discussion. Catch it at the 2018 Volvo Scandinavian Film Festival, which starts tomorrow at Cinema Paradiso in Perth.
Movie website: https://www.levelk.dk/films/a-horrible-woman/3538
Runtime: 86 mins
Australian release date: Showing during the 2018 Volvo Scandinavian Film Festival (Cinema Paradiso in Perth, Thursday 19 July – Wednesday 1 August 2018).
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