Friday, 9 November 2012

Skyfall: the new Bond Girls.

Previously: Skyfall: Bond as a blunt instrument. 

In the form of Judi Dench's M, Skyfall gave us two things I never thought I'd see in a Bond film: an awesome female character who is emphatically not a Bond Girl, and a secondary character who has real impact on the plot. The latter is almost more surprising than the former, because Bond movies are by nature such a one-man show. The formula is simple: someone melodramatic, weird, and probably foreign wants to torpedo the world economy and/or build a giant space-laser, and Bond has to stop them. Along the way, Bond is helped or hindered (in the case of most Bond Girls, usually both at once) by various other characters, but ultimately he's a lone wolf. Skyfall is the only movie I can think of where a secondary character receives so much screentime and is so clearly vital both to the story and to Bond as a character.
Judi Dench's M was partly inspired by real-life MI5 director general Stella Rimington, the first woman to hold the job and the first to have her identity revealed to the general public. While Rimington served from 1992-1996, Judi Dench's M was in the job from 1995 (GoldenEye) until the present day, making her 77 years old at the time of her decision to fight Javier Bardem's campy cyber-terrorist supervillain using home-made nail bombs and a sawn-off shotgun. If you don't think that this is the best thing ever, then you're clearly a slug, because, well... do you know how many old ladies you see in roles like this? The list pretty much begins and ends with Helen Mirren in RED. And before you all rush to the comments section with your various Favourite Old Ladies Who Get Shit Done (although obviously I would very much appreciate that list), remember that for every fifty Dumbledores in popular culture, we get maybe one or two Professor McGonagalls. M's role in the earlier movies was mostly that of a generic representation of The Man rather than a person with much background of his own, but Judi Dench's M grew into a fully-fledged character in her own right -- in many ways, an antihero as compelling as 007 himself.

Judi Dench is the one actor who appears in the "old" Bond movies as well as the post-Casino Royale reboot series. M's characterisation as a calculating, rational leader provided a counterpoint to Bond's rebellious streak, even as Bond transformed from slick, charming Pierce Brosnan to the rather more aggressive Daniel Craig. Skyfall gave M a far greater role than before, however, as she provides the motivation behind the villain's mania as well as a link between Bond's glamourous world of espionage and the more mundane problem of the government enquiry into MI6.
Although Eve and Sévérine are the most nuanced and interesting Bond Girls the franchise has seen so far, their characters are very old-school. Classic Bond Girls typically fall into one of two categories: helpful, independent women (often spies) like the Mary Goodnight character in the novels, and disturbed and/or morally ambiguous sexpots who either betray Bond after they sleep together, or die. While these two stereotypes are founded in Ian Fleming's rather formulaic writing, Eve and Sévérine are both much more than the sum of their parts. I already wrote a bit in my previous post about how satisified I was with Eve's transition from badass action hero to Miss Moneypenny (which was very much in-keeping with the film's overall theme of the blurring definition of what it means to be an "active" agent), but Sévérine's role, though smaller, was just as interesting.
Female sexuality in Bond films has always been slightly incomprehensible because one of Bond's defining characteristics is that he's totally 100% irresistable. In the past, this particular detail has lead to all sorts of charming scenes such as Sean Connery wrestling Honor Blackman's previously-lesbian Pussy Galore into submission (Goldfinger, 1964). Up until very recently the Bond franchise was a transparently misogynistic series about an even more misogynistic character, but we've finally reached the point where the filmmakers have worked out that it's possible to keep Bond in-character without the film itself being sexist. The scene between Sévérine and Bond in the casino was my favourite example of this.

Sévérine could easily have been created by Ian Fleming himself. Beautiful, mysterious, and troubled, she grew up in the sex industry and spends her life trapped and used by evil men like Javier Bardem's Silva. Bond may be able to help her but she can't fully trust anyone, and in the end Bond's priority is saving the world (and M), even though he finds time to sleep with Sévérine on the way. But instead of this being a case of a sexy Bond Girl stereotype falling into bed with Bond, Sévérine's actions seem far more like an act of desperation rather than her just being another notch in Bond's bedpost, and her death was the first time I've ever actually cared about the demise about one of Bond's seemingly disposable love-interests. Bérénice Marlohe made impressive use of her limited screentime, ramping up the visibly crazy-eyed pessimism as she tried to broker a deal with Bond in front of a horde of armed guards.
Unfortunately, Sévérine was the focus of my least favourite scene in the movie; the one scene where I was truly disappointed in Skyfall's ability to tell a feminist James Bond story. Fifty years ago, Bond walking in on a woman in the shower wouldn't have raised an eyebrow because Connery's (and Ian Fleming's) Bond was, quite frankly, rather rapey -- plus he existed in a far less "realistic" world than Daniel Craig's. But this time round, even though there was a kind of tacit agreement between Bond and Sévérine, I was still pretty weirded. The way the scene was edited made it look like he'd just shown up and stepped into her shower unnanounced, which is particularly worrying when you realise that the only thing Bond really knows about Sévérine is that she's functionally a prisoner in her own home. I suspect, or at least hope, that the creepy subtext there was unintentional, since it actually seems a little out og character for 21st-century Bond. While Daniel Craig's Bond is significantly more brutal than many of his predecessors, he's also written as having more emotional intelligence (not to be confused with actual emotion, for all that Daniel Craig admits to having cried over the Skyfall theme song) than his 20th-century counterparts. Although the Bond we see in Skyfall has learnt from his "mistakes" in Casino Royale, he doesn't seem like someone who'd exploit an civilian victim for personal vain -- although he would prioritise the mission above helping her, if necessary.
I feel like Skyfall has really moved the Bond universe past the gender roles it's been relying upon for the past half-century. Not in a "sexism is over!!" way because, uh, no, but but more in the sense that the division between field and desk agents is highlighted rather than the division between Bond (as action hero) and his love-interests. In the past, Miss Moneypenny was Bond's anchor to a more comforting view of MI6 -- a friendly face to act as buffer between his action-filled existence and the sometimes stuffy environment of M's office. But while scenes set in MI6 Headquarters used to centre around exposition and Bond's various clashes with government beaurocracy, Eve Moneypenny and Ben Whishaw's Q show us a different side of "office work". For the first time we get to see Q (in a very different incarnation from the avuncular Desmond Llewelyn) in an active, frontline role. Balancing out Bond's return to old-fashioned, stripped-down violence, Q's job as MI6's resident computer expert means he's the only person who can fight Silva on his own terms. And Ralph Fiennes' Mallory, originally introduced as something of an antagonist to our beloved M, turns out to be much more than the conservative bureaurocrat he first appears.
Silva's infiltration and destruction of MI6 HQ proved that there's really no such thing as a safe desk job any more. Although Eve was clearly uncomfortable with her role in Bond's injuries and the subsequent loss of M's hard-drive, she was still a badass and capable agent, holding her own when Silva attacked the government enquiry near the end of the film. Her transition from field agent to M's bodyguard/personal assistant is the living embodiment of the blurring lines between what counts as a "dangerous" job in MI6. And if anything, it highlights Bond's role as the last of the true field agents, the ones whose job is purely that of a Licence To Kill rather than having to deal with the politics of the London offices.

Part 3: The Costumes.

5 comments:

  1. I'm starting to think I missed something when I watched the film, because I was utterly unimpressed with Bérénice Marlohe and her whole character. (And on a more shallow note, I personally found her make-up in the first scene pretty bad.) I totally agree about the shower scene, it creeped me out a bit.

    I was much more happy with Eve, who is awesome. I'm looking forward to seeing her again. And who knows, maybe if Idris Elba really becomes the next Bond, there might suddenly be two people of colour in the centre of this huge franchise.

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  2. I think Sévérine worked, too, because her life has been effectively ruined (and then ended) by a character who is explicitly a Bond alter-ego or doppelganger - obviously Bond's not as nasty as Silva to women (or as nasty in... any other respect...) but I think that character is not supposed to make you congratulate Bond for being slightly less awful, but rather to expose the monster Bond could easily be or become. And Bond effectively functions as an ambassador of an old-school misogynistic culture of which Silva is the extreme, grotesque incarnation - so Sévérine is really being held captive by the same structures to which he is so intimately tied. Obviously Bond is not literally responsible for her situation or her death, but I think his feeling of guilt about it has an undertone of culpability. So she's not just eye-candy but a criticism of the old-school approach the series had to women.

    Plus, I agree that Marlohe was fantastic - and did a really good job of telegraphing absolute terror to the audience before anything else, including desire. (The shower scene, I agree, was a misstep, but I saw it as a kind of dumb misstep typical for the franchise and not any kind of dealbreaker.) And the movie is so psychological in such a sophisticated way that I was happy to give them the benefit of the doubt with her character because I assumed that there was a compelling reason for her to be in the story and to seem to embody the damsel in distress archetype, which I think there was.

    And ugh, YES, Judi Dench is magnificent. Plus now I always think about the fact that she is BASICALLY BLIND and memorizes her lines without being able to actually, you know, SEE THE SCRIPT, which increases her badassery by a factor of, like, ten. (AT LEAST.)

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  3. [". I already wrote a bit in my previous post about how satisified I was with Eve's transition from badass action hero to Miss Moneypenny (which was very much in-keeping with the film's overall theme of the blurring definition of what it means to be an "active" agent), but Sévérine's role, though smaller, was just as interesting."]

    You were "satisfied" with Eve's transition from action hero to secretary? You were satisfied? Oh . . . my . . . God! This is too horrible to contemplate.

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  4. I completely agree with you about the lack of older women in interesting action parts.

    On Sévérine, I was disturbed by the notion of Bond sexually using a sex abuse victim. Then again, Bond is not a feminist, so there's that. I do think that Daniel Craig's gritty reboot of the character is often mistaken to mean that he's also the meanest. He fights and he kills meaner than anyone before him, but he's also the most sensitive Bond, especially where women are concerned. He's REALLY nicer to women than any of the others.



    I will disagree with you that "Eve and Sévérine are the most nuanced and interesting Bond Girls the franchise has seen so far". For me, that's Vesper.

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  5. I agree with everything about M. She was kickass and awesome. There was nothing about her I didn't like. Although, possibly my favourite scene was at the beginning in M's house when Bond returned. And, my favourite moment was the bit in new MI6 when Bond asked her if there was anything else she wanted to tell him. Just the look that accompanied that question.

    With Eve, I'm both bothered and not all that bothered with what they did with her. I'm not a fan of her going from field agent to secretary. Because, while I get why she'd not want to be like Bond and Silva, I didn't think they necessarily conveyed her reasons well enough. But that could just be me. And I was disappointed that there seemed to only be field agent and secretary as Eve's options. But, having watched it, well, several times, and discussing it with people, I'm open to seeing what they do with Eve in later movies, because they could definitely increase her role and make it more than secretary.

    But there was that Bond fan in me that was ridiculously excited to see the beginning of Moneypenny and for the office they go into being the one from the old films. I totally dug that.

    I was very uncomfortable with what Bond did with Severine, however. And it wasn't necessarily that he had sex with her. I think it was the way it was framed. Because, Bond knew that she was a sex worker, had traded her body since she was 12/13, and was used to negotiating with it. And he sneaked into the shower with her. Just. Ick.

    Plus, I really didn't get any notion of attraction from her towards Bond. It really seemed to me like she saw it as a swapping of services and that sat badly with me. Probably because I do see Craig's Bond as being better with women and this seemed out of character in a way.

    I feel as though they could have framed it differently - I dunno, having him sit on the bed and her inviting him into the shower or something. Just, anything to make it less rapey.

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