Desire and power confined in a sapphic western

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She Monkeys 1
Desire and power confined in a sapphic western

The Swedish director shocks with her first feature film, even though there is no violence and nothing of an explicit matter but an impressive exploration of a girl’s psyche and the process of awkward maturation. She Monkeys delves into the darker corners of the juvenile soul where the desire for power and sexuality dwell together. The film is absorbing, as there is another woman standing behind the camera, so the testimony becomes even more intimate.

The filmmaker, Lisa Aschan, chose an unconventional subject for her debut within the boundaries of a coming-of-age story. The protagonists are two sisters. The primary plot line is dedicated to the older one, 15-year old Emma (Mathilda Paradeiser) and the secondary plot line observes 8-year old Sara (played by first time actress Isabella Lindquist, who gives a stunning and disturbing performance). Even though there is an obvious parable in both plot lines as well as in the characters, each sister is dealing with slightly different problems of development in the estrogen domain and so-called politics of gender. The slightly transgressive approach to the theme generates certain controversy, due to the deconstruction of the sweetness, care-freeness and innocence of this youthful part of life, thus marking the entrance into womanhood.

However, the majority of the screen time is dedicated to the older sister and her psycho-sexual tribulation, yet what is more solemn and alarming is the obsession of the younger sister due to her prepubescent age. There are some doors which are rarely opened, but Doctor Freud had already burst through this one a long time ago, proclaiming the sexuality of children. Recently, it was Céline Sciamma who peeked inside the thirteenth chamber of children’s sexuality in the provoking and eye-opening film, Tomboy. Even though many parents deny it, kids have sexuality and it is really very fragile. Sciamma established herself as an author on the taboo issue of child sexuality. The debut feature, Water Lilies, could be a form of inspiration for Aschan as there are many similarities, although the author´s approach is slightly different. It seems that the boundaries of this subject are being greatly expanded thanks to a recent wave of young filmmakers who are not afraid to address this rather delicate subject.

The main subject of pseudo-lesbian and confused relationships is not that shocking, as this has been investigated by Sciamma and later in the film this is transposed into a power control allegory. What is alarming is the sexual perception of prepubescent Sara and her own notion of sexuality. There is turmoil about such an abstract thing as sexuality in the head of the 8-year old. She doesn't understand it yet but she is driven by this inexplicable urge. The director has craftily combined several messages into an innocent looking subplot. Besides the inseparable instinctive part of human life without taking age into account, another indication of this is the current trend of the oversexualisation of children, as well as putting children into a sexual context. The latter was treated by Eva Ionesco in her autobiographical film, My Little Princess. Apart from an eternal struggle of art versus pornography, Ionesco provided a disturbing result of the fetishisation of children and a profile of a prepubescent person who is forced to face their sexuality in a very early stage of life. This is part of Aschan’s film but it is not on the same scale.

The whole plot of She Monkeys is driven by Emma´s inauguration into the world of adults via a questionable up-and-down connection with overtly self-confident and manipulative Cassandra (Linda Molin), her friend from a vaulting course. Shared training at a vaulting course soon turned into a master and apprentice game. Despite Emma´s “identity crisis” which might just be common teenage confusion, she gathers sufficient knowledge to overcome her mentor. The beauty of She Monkeys rests in its subtlety, implicitness and nuances. Everything is just mind games and Emma plays the “game” in a passive aggressive manner and remains stoic through whole film, except single brief emotional and physical outburst. Mathilda Paradeiser´s debut performance is impressive in subtleness as Aschan´s direction.

Even the content is quite interesting. The director uses a specific formalistic approach to address such a sensitive subject. It seems like there is a popular wave in an unconventional rehabilitation of the coming-of-age genre, as both Attina Rachel Tsangari (in Attenberg) and Todd Solondz (in Dark Horse) proved in really emancipated and challenging works. Film director Aschan follows in the footsteps of her colleagues from the North and reminds viewers of Dear Wendy, the Western stylized story of adolescence by veterans Vintenberg and von Trier. However, these two authors offered a testosterone charged piece and Aschan stands on the opposite side of the fence. The Western genre framework allows the director to treat the matter delicately, mostly by using seemingly innocent tropes. This conscious encryption only emphasizes Aschan’s attempt to treat the controversial subject sensitively. Which means that the props from the Western genre inventory, such as rifles and stallions, have a clear reference to power, in addition to a secondary, implicit meaning. This symbiosis represents another level of the film and is also proof of the director´s ability to create a complex yet vivid scene.

She Monkeys employs a naturalistic and dramatic approach. From a conceptual point of view, the director avoided the use of any kind of stereotype and instead is trying to provide two complex individuals and examine their motives. Another colleague of Aschan, Jannicke S. Jacobsen based almost an entire comedy Turn Me On, Goddamit about teenage sexuality and coming-of-age solely on stereotypes and their variations. The director of She Monkeys refused to use this pattern and is following in Sciamma´s footsteps. Secondly, the absorbing camerawork must be mentioned, as there are some beautiful fixed shots that do not include unnecessary movement. Particularly remarkable is a thoughtful composition of single scenes. The interior shots in particular serve as a coherent commentary of the protagonist´s state of mind. The separation from Dardenne-like fluid camera work has proved to be a wise choice, much like the diversion from the social aspects towards mostly psychological ones.

She Monkeys is not a feminist thesis about the superiority of women, however the filmmaker has not forgotten about feminine flaws. The presentation of the gentle sex is fairly balanced and the director took one step further compared to Sciamma, concerning narrowing the presence of a male population. The film is set in a gynoverse which uses men sporadically, and just as a tool. It thereby goes deeper into the woman’s psyche and explores their numerous dissonant facets. The film happens to be part of a current de-tabooising trend. It incorporates didactic values as a manifestation of the innovative approach in the overused genre framework. Lisa Aschan delivers a delicate, nuanced, impressive, minimalist yet complex and dramatic study of women´s prepubescent and adolescent sexual perceptions as well as underexplored part of a politics of gender.