Enough films have been made to remind us that growing up to become a ‘woman’ isn’t all sugar-and-spice and that teenage girls sometimes turn out to be… well, not too nice after all. Heavenly Creatures, recently reviewed by The F-Word, comes to mind immediately, along with Sophia Coppola’s 1999 film The Virgin Suicides.
A girl’s coming of age and negotiating of ‘her burgeoning sexuality’ (an obligatory phrase in this context) within the framework of patriarchal society and heterosexist culture is governed by this society’s expectations and rules. Her choices seem prescribed: if she ends up playing by the rules or if she attempts to transgress.
Increasingly films (like Céline Sciamma’s recent Tomboy) make a point of showing how tweens’ and teens’ sexuality is indeed more fluid and amorphous than society, obsessed with labels and categorisations, is ready to accept: the gender trouble they find themselves thrown into is of the adults making.
Swedish director Lisa Aschan’s debut feature Apflickorna (She Monkeys), winner of Best Narrative Feature at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, doesn’t pass unequivocal judgement on its three central female characters’ actions or the results of those actions.
The film’s chief she-monkey, 15-year-old Emma (Mathilda Paradeiser), is being brought up with her younger sister Sara (Isabella Lindquist) by a single father (Sergej Merkusjev). She lands a dream place on a young women’s equestrian team. Despite the brutal competitiveness of the world of female horseback acrobats, she gets ‘adopted’ by the team’s most experienced member, Cassandra (Linda Molin).
The older girl helps Emma with her practice but quite early reveals a controlling streak and pushes her new friend to her limits, both physical and moral. The relationship between the two becomes intense as they negotiate strong competitive impulses and growing sexual attraction. Their tug-of-war is made tangible for the viewer by their constant pushing, tugging and wrestling, ostensibly in a friendly-playful way.
In the meantime, left to her own devices due to the older sister’s symbiotic friendship with Cassandra, seven-year-old Sara is forced to analyse her body and sexuality by a lifeguard supervising her swimming lessons.
A young employee of the swimming pool insists Sara (right, hiding behind the reeds) should get a swimming top to cover her budding breasts for modesty reasons (a lifeguard’s mentioning of certain “problems with men” and spectators leering at little girls subtly references paedophilia in this film permeated with children’s sexuality). To deal with her more important problem, that her much older cousin-cum-babysitter Sebastian is not in love with her, Sara decides to take matters in her own hands.
So does Emma, after not being selected for the final performing team on chiefly aesthetic grounds (“It’s not always about strength and control. It’s about creating your presence,” says the coach). I will say no more so as not to spoil the fun for you: the film is scheduled to open in the UK cinemas in May 2012.
Echoes of Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl resonate in Aschan’s courageous tackling of pre-teenage sexuality
“I would rather raise more questions than give answers”, said Lisa Aschan in an interview for Medium Rare film blog. Even though it seems a bit of a cliché, coming from a filmmaker, the director actually delivers on this point. The focus is on actions: body language, facial expressions and generally all matters tactile outweigh the sparingly deployed dialogue. Much remains unsaid (Whatever happened to the girls’ mother? Will the dog ever get properly trained?) but there is no sense of menacing, heavy secrets lurking in the shadows.
A touch of Nordic austerity is discernible in the film’s economical use of both emotional outbursts and light (it was shot in Sweden during the summer, so night sequences demanded good planning and swiftness to finish before the sunrise). The horses and the close bond between Emma and her dog add to the vibe of extra-verbal communication.
Mischievously drawn to trading in clichés, I am tempted to say only half-mockingly that this coming-of-age story is ultimately about sex and power, and how the two tangle and untangle in different proportions across all the relationships depicted.
Despite some moments with breathtakingly lesbian flavour (notably a chat-up scene in the pool, where Cassandra flexes her beautiful athletic body in front of Emma, ridiculing two boys who are trying to pull), the ensnarement of two girls seems to be mainly a power game, with sex being used by older and more experienced Cassandra as yet another tool of exerting control over her younger partner.
Importantly, Cassandra is not depicted as a predatory lesbian on a mission to seduce an unsuspecting victim; we learn nothing about her other objects of desire and after Emma’s lukewarm response she does not pursue her further.
As a focal point of a classic coming-of-age narrative, Emma is the innocent one with her sexuality just awakening. She is only starting to crave a lover’s touch and even though she doesn’t explicitly reject Cassandra, she seems even happier being caressed by Jens, one of the pool boys whose luck has changed. But even here power comes into play: Emma might be fond of the trembling boy because she is much more in control of him than she’d ever be of Cassandra (who gets involved in the tête-à-tête, leaving Jens not only panting but literally pant-less).
It is perhaps the constant power struggle and professional competition over the top position on the team that makes sexual relationship between the girls impossible – or maybe she’s just not that into her? On one of the unfulfilled nights of longing and rolling in bed beside each other, Cassandra yells impatiently: “What do you want? You must want something!”. “I want for things to be the way they used to be,” mumbles Emma vaguely in response, not the biggest turn-on.
Somehow, controversially, sex turns out to be a burning issue for seven-year-old Sara (astonishing performance by Isabella Lindquist), so far used to frolicking in only her knickers and being routinely put to sleep by her bare-chested father, who would also scratch her belly on demand.
Echoes of Catherine Breillat’s A ma soeur! (Fat Girl) resonate not only in Aschan’s courageous tackling of pre-teenage sexuality, but also in the set-up where a younger sister attunes to the older one’s puberty to surpass it. Made aware of her femininity by a concerned lifeguard, Sara feels the urge to express her warm feelings for her cousin by dancing for him in scanty clothes in a way she thinks is seductive.
However, she is far from being portrayed as a brainwashed victim of much talked-about ‘sexualisation of culture’. Blind following of gender rules and sexualised norms of femininity get challenged by a kick-ass girl in a brilliant scene of shopping for required swimming costume top.
Given the choice of three outfits, Sara goes for the sexiest one, a leopard-print adult-like bikini. Stretching in front of the mirror, she doesn’t let her father into the changing room and pulls out the eye pencil to – as the feminist part of the audience expects with their hearts sinking – complete her objectification by underlining her eyes. Not exactly. Sara triumphantly draws on her cheeks… two sets of whiskers! She is the Big Cat now, is she not?
Ania Ostrowska is a post-communist Polish feminist. She got an MA in gender studies from SOAS and is currently on a leave from academia. She lives in the London borough of Hackney and divides her time between working part-time at the Wellcome Library and reaching a conclusive position on the UK feminist movement