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bechdel taser: jump into the sea to avoid this engagement

If Terence Davies’ film The Deep Blue Sea were the apex of a pyramid, it would be one of those faulty food ones. I’m not going to try to stretch that metaphor further, because I was just looking for an example of a flaw-riddled pyramid, and I don’t want to draw saturated fat comparisons.

Rachel Weisz is Hester Collyer. The film opens on Hester attempting suicide. It is 1950 and she has left a safe marriage with an older man, a judge, for an affair with an ex-RAF pilot whose feelings are far less amorous than hers. That could be an interesting story, but Hester Collyer is often insipid. Insipid in the sense that she reminded me of the cheerleader character begging for cock in any number of videos on pornhub.

The ex-pilot is Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston). He does ole jolly English-lad things which wouldn’t look uncomfortable on Hugh Laurie’s Bernie Wooster, and she swoons. She is not given an ounce of strength against his apparently indefatigable charisma. The suicide attempt occurs after he forgets her birthday.

Yeah.

The thing is, Hester should not be stupid. She delivers lines to characters including her mother-in-law, which jab like a ballerina’s en-pointe toe diving into the floor. She likes fine art. She apparently has a brain, yet for no reason explained in The Deep Blue Sea’s mess, she has lost it to a nincompoop. Rather than establishing why he may be worthy of temporary lobotomisation, the film explores her attempt to keep him close and re-interest him. It’s only in the moments she doesn’t that the film is interesting for more than its pretty design.

Though, technically, it passes Bechdel muster, The Deep Blue Sea deserves to have points revoked for how many scenes Hester spends pleading to a ratbag dude. I’m not suggesting emotions should always make sense, that women in the real world never enamour themselves with arseholes, or that depression is a moral failing. But its interlinking treatment here fails to ring true.

This was adapted from a play written in 1953, and it would have been reasonably edgy then. Affairs, suicide, an ex-doctor on society’s fringe for being a ‘mo, and a borderline alcoholic hero of the Second World War in the role of complex antagonist.

These issues aren’t new now, and the approach is as insipid as Hester.

After a film in which a woman spends her time pining, and pining, and pining after unrequited love, I was psyched for something where it was reciprocal. You know how a romantic comedy is going to end. Either it’s a wedding, a baby, or a big gesture of the effects of oxytocin.

Everyone knows this. You look at the heteros on the front – maybe even in the name – and you feel certain of their happiness before you go in.

This doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Genre movies, no matter the genre, have a bucket of potential. Too often it ends up being a bucket of vomit instead. Rather than letting the opportunity provided by an assured solution go into creative characters, diabolic dialogue and edified editing, you get binary reaffirming, turgid toss.

The Five Year Engagement is just so goddamn long. It does not need to be so long, and it feels even longer than it is. It starts with potential and momentum – he proposes, she agrees, his friend is Parks and Recreation’s Chris Pratt and her sister is Community/Mad Men’s Alison Brie. They have an engagement party and there are good natured/slightly problematic stereotypes. She is offered a job in Michigan and he agrees to go with her.

Look, I can’t remember the characters’ names and I can’t be bothered googling them. Alison Brie is introduced tipsy, crying, and giving a speech about how she doesn’t believe in marriage or children but is very happy for her sister. The emotionality has a nice way about it… of undercutting the message. And BAM she’s pregnant and married to Chris Pratt. She has a kid, she has another kid, she says some stuff about how she likes being a mother and needs a break.

Jackie Weaver, Emily Blunt’s mother, liked being married and is bitter now that she isn’t. Jason Segel’s mother at one point admits a vaginal reconstruction. Ladies, this is you.

The film moves its leads away from their wacky seconds. Silly move. They’re given new foils in Michigan but the reason romantic comedies work is that the leads each have someone close to them with whom to share pains. It’s escapist and utopian, and it works. Their friends are replaced with co-workers. Which doesn’t work.

They move to Michigan for Blunt’s post-grad position. She’s not painted as a villain, and neither is he. His resentment grows, as he can’t find a chef-ing position that matches his talent, and he ends up with some questionable facial hair and passive aggression. If she were portrayed as anything but lovely, I’d have more to say… but it’s just dull. She’s intelligent and creative in her improbable position, and Mindy Kaling is sweet as one of her co-workers, in spite of the character’s one-dimensionality and habit of crying at The Notebook.

Does it pass the Bechdel Test? Sort of. She speaks to her sister about her career, and moving, and not wanting to be just a mum, and of course it turns to Segel. And in group conversations about work-shiz (social psychology), she and Kaling have non-man-centric words exchanged. But it is a romantic comedy – the bulk of it is about that relationship. The conflict between career and relationship is constantly on the nerve for both characters; they’re just not interesting enough to pull off the feat. I considered leaving the cinema because I really felt I could be doing better things, and have no problem telling you what happened next.

Oh, also obesity is linked to “bad decisions”, the African American character (yes, singular) is constantly trying to stage experiments with masturbation, and Segel at one point says “I am a man and men and women are different. We don’t have to sit around and talk about our feelings.”

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