Myths often attempt to structure things that humanity considers inexplicable, and for some reason women have often been placed in this category. Misogyny has shaped religious and cultural beliefs around the world, turning mythological women into figures of fear and disaster. Pandora’s curiosity prompts her to open a box that unleashes evil and despair in a previously innocent world. Horrific characters like the succubus and the gello are linked to male fear of female sexuality and societal expectations of female fertility, respectively. And mermaids have long been presented as deceptive figures who turn against themselves the supposedly natural tendency of men to protect and assist each other, luring sailors to their deaths. Nobody will think about the poor besieged guys surrounded by female predators ?!
Karen Cinorre’s independent fantasy film Help is aware of the calamities that fables often link to women, and he deliberately positions himself in conversation with this tension. Narratively and thematically similar to Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch, but without the masculine look (or the tiny outfits) that Sucker Punch used as a stylish bomb, Help also focuses on a young woman struggling with abuse and objectification. After falling into what appears to be an alternate world, she joins a group of others who have banded together against the men. In a modernized version of a siren song, they attract sailors and pilots with a radio distress signal. They pose as unhappy girls who need help. And when the so-called white knights come in to lend a hand, they’re like fish in a barrel.
There is a ton of narrative potential to Help, and the idea of a fantastic twist on the proven action setup of women getting revenge on men. (This summer has certainly seen an array of simple riffs on this formula: Milkshakes with powder, Shaking, The protected, Kate.) Help had a whole compass of directions in which it could expand and develop. What brought women to this place? What are its geographic limits? Have women traveled backward or forward in time? What are conversations with their fellow students around the world like and how do they strategize for an endless war of the sexes? What is their long-term endgame? What does a world without men look like?
So it’s a disappointment when Help Rather sticks to a narrow, character-driven plot rather than indulging in the world-building necessary to contextualize the fantasy. In an unnamed coastal town in a vaguely mid-century era, Ana (Grace Van Patten) works as a waiter at a wedding venue. The work is demanding. She has only one friend, her colleague Dimitri (Théodore Pellerin). And she is harassed and abused by a superior. In a devastating moment, Ana walks over to the kitchen walk-in freezer, and her boss follows her and corner her. The scene is already oppressively uncertain, thanks to cinematographer Sam Levy keeping the audience’s perspective outside the room, and Ana begging him “No!” Heard when the man opens and closes the door, only makes matters worse.
But vicious men are the norm in Help. The chief of the place said to him with a sneer: “The last girl did not succeed.” The bride (Mia Goth) at the wedding where Ana works arrives in tears, thanks to her jerking and screaming husband. And the unfazed way the restroom attendant June (Juliette Lewis) reacts to all that trauma is a telltale sign in itself: “It looks like a nightmare. It’s normal, ”she tells Ana and the bride. Living under the thumb of violent men seems like an inescapable and inevitable trap – until Ana is suddenly transported. With complementary hues of blue and orange, flickering lights and a Sylvia Plath-like journey through an oven and then an ocean, Cinorre creates a dreamlike sequence reminiscent of Alice falling in Wonderland.
When Ana surfaces, she is at the forefront of an endless war, with each battle being fought by the charming and zealous Marsha (still Goth). With a cheerful smile and unwavering moral certainty, Marsha introduces Ana to other young women Bea (Havana Rose Liu) and Gert (French musician and actress Soko), who all live together in an abandoned submarine – and all band together. to attract and kill men. They attract pilots and sailors with distress signals, then drag them into storms, so their boats sink, or wait for them to parachute onto the beach and shoot them. Ana does not remember her previous life and does not know if she is dreaming or in the afterlife, but her new friends reassure her: “It is better that the girls are dead, because now we are. free. “
What women are free to do, however, becomes repetitive quite quickly (lure, shoot, repeat), and Help does not do much to differentiate these sequences. On the one hand, this limited focus allows the performances of Van Patten and Goth to take center stage, and Goth is particularly fascinating: she has always been good at conveying bitter angst and ethical turmoil, of A cure of well-being at Suspiria at High life. Marsha enters a vibrant and subversive life in the hands of Goth, especially in a scene where she lazily lights a cigarette, sends out a distress signal, jokes “We don’t have one” when the man she is with Talks asks how many souls are on her ship, listens to the destruction of her ship after she sends him the wrong coordinates, then casually asks Ana, “Do you like the radio?” This daring, freewheeling bravado energizes Help, and a cult leader role should materialize in Goth’s future.
On the other hand, Cinorre limits the understanding viewers have of these characters by skimping on the conditions that brought them here and rushing through the frictions that ultimately put them at odds. Other elements also seem out of place (a scene that mimics 1950s musicals; a recurring bird motif), and Help thwarts any attempt at understanding by shifting its focus from women struggling against men to women struggling with each other. This last one approaches, and how it leads to the false “You go, my girl!” The energy of lines like “You fight like a girl!” Is not as subversive as Cinorre might think. Still, Goth is a scene thief, and some of Levy’s visuals are memorable for their otherworldly quality. Cinorre’s initially provocative vision of revenge makes it at least Help worth a look.
Help opens in limited theaters and on VOD on October 1, 2021.