Charlize Theron and Marion Cotillard outstrip Meryl Streep’s political grandstanding through their all-out physical embodiment of the moment’s anxieties and silliness. This week, both actresses engage in political costume-play. Theron dresses up as an MI6 killer-chick in Atomic Blonde , and Cotillard wears sackcloth couture portraying another hard-luck dame under the thumb of the patriarchy, in From the Land of the Moon . One is an overexcited action movie, the other is a weepy melodrama, yet each movie exploits currently popular notions of female potential and longing.
The image of women as warriors and sufferers in these films derives from political manipulation first practiced in one pop form then another: Atomic Blonde comes from Antony Johnson’s graphic novel The Coldest City, which exploited the idea of a sexually ambiguous spy, Lorraine Broughton, who is as lethal as she is voluptuous. From the Land of the Moon is an adaptation of a novel by Milena Agus that explored the idea of feminine longing as experienced by Gabrielle, a daughter from a middle-class French farming family, but her feelings perplex everyone around her.
These films also combine sexual politics with international politics. Atomic Blonde, set in 1989 Berlin, puts a stiletto through the Cold War as Lorraine kicks her way toward feminine prerogative. From the Land of the Moon, set in the 1950s toward the end of the Indochina War, argues for Gabrielle’s sexual liberation as well as for Vietnam’s independence from French colonialism. Both these conceits are trendy rather than serious, the stuff of comic books and romance novels, with ridiculously self-involved and absurdly cruel protagonists.
Theron and Cotillard base their careers on routinely playing such politically loaded heroines — products of these self-deluding times.
As far as I recall, Theron (Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road) has never appeared in one of those gun-control commercials, so it isn’t exactly hypocrisy when she wields so many “assault weapons” in Atomic Blonde. (“Why the gun, Delphine?” she asks a lesbian spy after a mutual seduction.) But the real question is: How much triteness can Hollywood unload on the public even when everybody knows that Hollywood condescends to most moviegoers in envisioning them as easily excitable adolescent boys?
In pop-culture terms, Atomic Blonde’s berserk mix of feminism and violence makes it Baby Driver for girls. Director David Leitch seems almost clever as he imitates the long one-take style of the film-noir classic Gun Crazy when Lorraine tools through Berlin pursued by bad guys, leaving pandemonium in her trail. But then Leitch falls short of Gun Crazy’s real-time suspense when he edits in F/X shots of intricately staged crash stunts. Leitch’s showcase is an unrelenting and unoriginal indoor fight sequence modeled after Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy.
Director Nicole Garcia, a former actress (Resnais’s Mon Oncle d’Amérique), should know better, yet her indulgence of feminist fantasy is cartoon-like; Garcia simply uses a romance-novel tone. When Gabrielle (who cries “My body’s on fire!”) finally falls in love with an Indochina War veteran (Louis Garrel), his name, André Sauvage (a Jacqueline Susann kind of name), reveals the film’s trite romanticism. There’s little sympathy for José (Alex Brendemühl) the Spanish bricklayer whom Gabrielle marries and refuses to love yet deliberately deceives (while deluding herself).
Cotillard’s madwoman contortions cannot pass for innocent adolescent pique, and this exposes the film’s fakery. Its pseudo-classy fantasy feminism can be traced to misinterpretations of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Vittorio de Sica’s A Brief Vacation, but Garcia’s perceptions are shallow. As Gabrielle’s frustrations play out, with sidelong references to imperialism and immigration, the film becomes increasingly absurd and indulgent. So Cotillard goes into her suffering routine, which says no more about female sexuality than Atomic Blonde does. When movies reduce personal and political history to cosplay, actresses make fools of themselves and of moviegoers, too.