Of the new releases I saw on the big screen this summer—
Far From the Madding Crowd, Ex Machina, Spy, Mad Max: Fury Road, Jurassic World, Inside Out, Mr. Holmes, MI: Rogue Nation, and The Man from Uncle—
(not as many as I’d like but more than I’d expected), I find it interesting that the three spy films were the most feminist.
“Feminist cinema” is a murky concept at best, so here I’m going to limit it to the narrow sense of films that attempt to stage male-female relationships in something other than clichéd heteronormative expectations. Spy is the least ambitious in this regard, since Melissa McCarthy’s character, Susan Cooper, has to find her feminist feet by breaking out of her girlish self-subordination to her man-crush, who is (yes) called Mr. Fine and played by Jude Law. The film doesn’t yank off the rom-com track too far, but being a locomotive for McCarthy’s humor, the men’s sexual complacency does get a bit of a send up.
More interesting to me are the new Mission Impossible (directed by Christopher McQuarrie) and The Man from Uncle (directed by Guy Ritchie). The male-female relationships in these two films are unusual and this unusualness doesn’t seem to be sparking critical commentary.
We are used to Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) being on the hunt for leggy women, even if his trysts are less instrumental than the average Bond hookup. But in this sequel Ethan doesn’t even kiss Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson)—(Faust, really? More to be done there)—and she doesn’t seem to care. The two characters resonate in height, hair color, penetrating stare, and a fundamental sense of institutional abandonment (the government is not family, folks), but they are not lovers. They are not even the promise of being lovers. I found it remarkable and refreshing that cinema can finally visualize what we all (I hope) have experienced, that men and women can share tasks, projects, mutual regard, and professional assistance without needing to roll in the sheets.
The Man from Uncle actually has a similar mirroring between its protagonists, with the added fold of a second man who does, sort of, carry the love interest. Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) are slim, dark, and efficient mirror images of each other. But he and Gaby never touch. And though Illya Kuryakan (Armie Hammer) is the KGB agent assigned to pose as Gaby’s fiancé, and though the two do have palpable sexual energy flowing between them, the energy always diverts before it takes shape in fleshy encounters. Nothing passes between them, not even a kiss. What seems noteworthy is that the missed opportunities do not register as failures or even comic relief (though they are funny) so much as the more prosaic fact that women actually focus on their jobs as much as do men, and sometimes even more so.
Two films that convey the ordinary but under-visualized fact that women are not always waiting anxiously for that kiss. We do not live for you men.