A timely film that fights back against the stereotypical “chick flick” to explore the usually silenced and ignored relationships between women.
Catfight is, in many ways, a horrible film.
There’s a lot of physical fighting. A lot. And it’s gruesome (I admit, I had to look away a few times).
Anne Heche’s character, Ashley, starts the film as a struggling artist painting pictures of dead babies and the like. Grim. It’s terrible, too, because it seems to have predicted a future in which Trump becomes president. The horror.
But Catfight is, also, a great film.
Premiering at the 2016 Toronto Film Festival, writer/director Onur Tukel has created a world wherein voices of the unheard – women of colour, LGBTQ women – fill the whole space. What happens around them – capitalism, war, ignorance and greed – is just the status quo going about its business.
The film opens with a comedy TV host – think of him as the Shakespearean chorus who sets the scene when something notable happens – announcing that a new president has been elected and he’s thinking about starting a new war in the Middle East. But nevermind that, let’s bring on the fart machine! A man wearing just pants and a cape cavorts around the stage trumping (pun intended). The only purpose, I can assume, is to clear the air and relieve the tension of an otherwise awful reality. Keep the people laughing and they’ll fall for anything.
In the beginning there’s Veronica (Sandra Oh), the wined-up housewife of war-mongering developer Stanley (Damian Young). We have little pity her for as she harangues her teenage son about his (pretty amazing) drawings, reverse-mansplaining that “art isn’t a real thing”.
Where Sandra is selfish and obtuse, Ashley appears the opposite – an ambitious artist who loves her work that nobody wants to buy. Her girlfriend (Alicia Silverstone) makes her pay the bills by serving cocktails and hors d’oeuvres to capitalist assholes. You feel sorry for her.
It’s here, at Damian’s self-congratulatory wankfest (his firm has just signed a contract with the government that will allow it to profit handsomely from the new war) that Veronica and Ashley’s worlds collide – again. Apparently there’s bad blood between them; friends in college, they parted ways after Ashley came out and Veronica decided her, and her “art thing”, weren’t worth wasting time on.
The main theme (which hits you over the head again and again and again) is reversal. The first instance is the classic rags to riches story turned on its head. Veronica, after catfight #1 with Ashley, finds herself without money, family or a place to live after she awakens from a two-year coma (these are not hair-pulling pillow fights).
Penniless and alone, she ends up sleeping on the sofa of her former employee, Donna (Myra Lucretia Taylor). In a film starring mostly women, you might expect more of the traditional lady clichés: sisterly love and all that. In fact, the opposite is true and almost all the female characters have it out for each other at some point; it’s more Mean Girls than Golden Girls.
But it think that’s missing the point. This film isn’t here to reinforce overused and worn out stereotypes of female cooperation. It’s doing something different. And, importantly, it’s doing it while passing the Bechdel Test.
To pass this test, developed by Liz Wallace and Alison Bechdel in 1985, a movie must do three things: 1) have at least two named women, 2) who talk to each other, 3) about something besides a man.
About 42% of films fail completely, so the fact that Catfight passes all three points with flying colours is something to celebrate. Sandra Oh and Anne Heche lead a stunning cast of women, they all talk to each other while discussing art, politics, success, family, war, work, nature and more. In fact, I think there are only two instances in the film where the male characters speak to each other.
For such a pro-feminist movie, you’d assume that at its core – with its explicit physical fighting ala Bourne or Bond – something may not ring true. How could it betray itself with such macho posturing?
Maybe, in a way, Catfight is a reflection of the frustrations women feel in this world. We’re told to not talk, to stay home (Veronica’s husband does this a lot). We’re told that our opinions and feelings are wrong (The male art collector when he dismisses Ashley’s work). We’re told what to do and when to do it and to just shut up already.
Maybe the feral, bone-crunching fighting that drives Catfight is that frustration being unleashed. And it’s released upon other women, because that’s the space this film has created – a world where women are the protagonists, the action-drivers and decision makers.
That’s not to say that this world is only populated and directed by women. The TV host explains things to us. The president starts a war. Sons get drafted. Although the action around this male-driven “new” war on terror, may help to move the plot, it does not control it.
Luckily, the film is funny enough that the whole thing doesn’t get dragged down into some deep dark hole of hatred and violence. The consistent use of classical music throughout keeps the ridiculous elements of the story at arms-length, as if we’re viewing a painting in a posh gallery instead of a real-life version of Rubens’ Massacre of the Innocents.
With Veronica’s reversal comes some sort of redemption. She eventually moves out into the middle of nowhere to meditate, go for walks and hang out with her crazy aunt Charlie who names and talks to trees (“that’s Donald – he’s an asshole”).
Ashley’s reversals aren’t so well managed. After vicious catfight #2, she ends up as a funhouse mirror reflection of Veronica’s two-year coma (even down to the same hospital room with the same horrid wallpaper and the same monotone doctor). Ashley goes from somebody to nobody. But where Veronica actively tries to move on, there’s still such a rage in Ashley that you wonder why you even liked (or pitied her) in the first place.
However, there is one big plot point that just doesn’t add up: how can these two people hate each other so much, after so much time, to the point where they are willing to self-destruct in order to take the other one out? If their backstory was so disastrous, why do they keep seeking out one another? Surely it would be better to live and let live – but I guess that’s not how the song goes.
The last scene leaves the viewer wondering what happens after yet another brawl (catfight #3), this one devolving into slinging sticks and stones. Is it a commentary on the cycle of never-ending violence? Is such brutality true to human nature, whether male or female?
Horrible and hilarious, Catfight is relevant not only as a mirror of the current socio-political climate, but as a commentary on the futility of continually fighting one other. It’s a must watch for anyone who thinks Donald is an asshole and diverse women deserve a voice. Or, you know, if you’re into fart jokes. 4/5
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