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Issue #64: Women On The Verge 😱
Deep Water + Knocking
Wow, can you believe the Oscars are over and we’re done talking about them? Let’s all pretend we live in that reality. Welcome back to a standard week on 30, Flirty & Film! This week we’re looking at two suspenseful takes on women and their boy problems. First, Zosha on the no-sizzle-no-steak erotic thriller Deep Water, and then Cate is up with the Sundance thriller Knocking.
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Zosha on Deep Water
The concept was sizzle incarnate: a well-off husband (Ben Affleck) is permissive of his wife’s (Ana de Armas) affairs and free spirit lifestyle. And yet, somewhere in his stiff politeness, secrets lurk. And danger may be just around the corner. On top of its logline and its promised genre — erotic thriller — the movie carried with it the caché of two leads who dated each other in a highly publicized relationship that burned short and bright. By the time their relationship was over, the movie still hadn’t come out and everyone involved seemed to be burying it. In short, Deep Water had the pedigree of a stallion.
Here is the thing about Deep Water, a movie so lurid, so hyped, so anticipatory that they couldn’t bear to release it for the first two whole years of the pandemic, which we all know felt like eight years of regular time: It is uneventful. To get this low-hanging fruit out of the way now, it is an erotic thriller that is neither thrilling nor erotic. And it seems like that’s because it can’t locate its female lead, taking more interest in the calculated coolness of its male hero.
This is not to undersell the performances. As Vic, Affleck is steely and composed. If his greatest performance is truly himself as an extratextual meme, then this is a role that taps into his mutability: he volleys between charming and gruff, menacing and vulnerable. When it comes to Melinda, de Armas is bubbly and effervescent, completely incandescent even when she’s being kind of a jag. These are the two pillars you would want in a movie that is about an inscrutible man getting cucked. Between them they hold up a kind of push and pull, stretching the bounds of their relationship but never too far that it would snap.
Yet it feels as if they are bringing an aspect to this relationship that the story desperately needs, but not one that it actually has at a foundational level. From the first time Vic threatens one of Melinda’s lovers — pitilessly looking him in the eye and saying he killed a past lover — it doesn’t seem like he’s kidding (and the lover certainly agrees, as he gets the hell out of dodge). The movie can’t make a compelling reason for why anyone would think he’s kidding. And with the rate that Melinda summons men to her, and the consequent rage that immediately simmers to a boil in Vic, there’s no real case for why no one had put it together sooner. The movie is so concerned with presenting Vic opaquely that it forgets to make Melinda feel whole, or well-reasoned. By the end [spoilers] it’s hard to make sense of her actions: she was prepared to leave him for killing her partners, but then doesn’t because she … likes it? Is afraid? Can’t see an option? Deep Water doesn’t have the answer because it’s too busy looking elsewhere for a story.
Which is crazy since a clear interiority seems like a crucial aspect of the erotic thriller. Basic Instinct’s Catherine is a sexualized threat because we don’t quite know what she’s up to but we do understand that she has internal logic, as does her counterpart Nick. Deep Water might try to flip the script — make the man the shark instead of the highly sexual woman — but it does so at the expense of Melinda.
And so the relationship between them is rendered somewhat inert. Melinda’s character feels hazily drawn even with the sharpness of de Armas’ performance; her impulsiveness translated to new motivations in every scene. Affleck’s character seems less like a shark, brooding and always powering forward, than a transparently furious man who the movie never makes a case for being as sneaky as it thinks he is. Together, it’s not some kinky game but a gilded cage, one in which neither seems turned on nor happy. Were it better written there might at least be some drama to the whole affair (even if their sexual games feel far from lurid), but in its battle to feel promiscuous and dangerous it feels like neither.
Cate on Knocking
The best thing about Frida Kempff’s Knocking is that it’s hard to know where to start. The Swedish filmmaker’s gripping debut follows Molly (Cecilia Milocco) as she tries to track down the source of the knocking in the walls of her new apartment. Fresh off a stay in a mental institution, and recovering from a traumatic loss, Molly doesn’t seem to be the most reliable narrator. But as her concern and terror grow into conviction and determination, the people around her are more convinced than ever that she’s the one they should be afraid of.
Molly isn’t well. Again and again, the characters in her orbit repeat this like a mantra. Stuck in her dingy apartment during a historic heatwave, the camera pulls tight into Molly’s face to force the audience into her perspective. With nothing to do to better order her days, she’s left to putter around her tiny rooms and try to sleep. But with each day, the knocking intensifies, and Molly is sure there’s a message.
It’s almost cruel the way her neighbors treat her when she first begins to investigate. Unkempt and looking slightly feral, they dismiss her concerns out of hand. Even the authorities threaten to disconnect her for calling them unnecessarily. But when the knocking becomes a voice, Kempff's strong hand guides Molly along a seemingly clear path towards hysteria, pulling in tighter and tighter as she descends into near mania.
Kempff winds the narrative through time, parsing out clues like breadcrumbs, but never indicating the full extent of the picture. Instead, she shows the way Molly is treated because of her poor mental health. Authority figures both tell her to get help and ignore her pleas for assistance. She isn’t requesting the kind of help they think she needs, and so they sidestep her.
The camerawork too plays tricks, tilting this way and that as Molly also begins to doubt her own perceptions. False starts and needless confrontations become evidence of her instability, and proof of her illness. Neighbors gossip and corner her like a wild animal, colluding to contain her instability. Things that were real become unreal again, and the audience is unwittingly made part of the gamble.
Knocking is gripping, and yet the suspense is so mundane it’s almost boring. But Kempff knows what she’s doing. Each time the audience might be inclined to drift she pulls them back in, feeding new morsels to the line. The film’s sound design rattles—and yes, knocks—pushing the short, uneasy moments of peace back into discomfort again.
But Knocking isn’t about easy scares or gory scenes. The terror is all internal—a queer woman, haunted by the tragic loss of her girlfriend refuses to let another woman’s suffering go unheard. Molly’s grief becomes the fuel she needs to keep going, even as her concerns are pushed aside and ignored. The disembodied nature of the threat casts doubt on Molly’s story right to the film’s very end, and it’s only then that we get a verdict on her sanity. Knocking takes the pains of gaslighting past the breaking point and shows in excruciating detail what we lose when we don’t believe women.
Assorted Internet Detritus
ZOSHA: OK, I have in fact read good things on the Oscars event. But also: Looking back on the first solo Beyoncé single. The world as we knew it is not coming back. VIP syndrome is ruining healthcare! And I wrote on Bridgerton season 2 and settled the Gilmore Girls debate.
CATE: The problems inherent in Pam and Tommy, Oscar winner Ariana DeBose on her path to stardom, Hey Arnold! and teaching kids about gentrification, are the Oscars good for animation? Who knows! But we’d love if the black people didn’t all turn into animals. The Batman doesn’t quite have it together on policing, but Turning Red is sublime. The problems of Zoom dysmorphia, and how to reimagine your 30s.
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