Monday, April 18, 2011

recommendation: "Red Riding Hood" (2011 movie)

Red Riding Hood surprised me. The only marketing for it that I caught emphasized a love triangle and... and... um, not much else. Love triangle mashed into the Red Riding Hood fairytale. And sure, this was indeed enough to snare me. I like a good love triangle (emphasis on good love triangle); I like fairytales: done.

But I was expecting only a semi-realized fantasy, with a mopey, whiny love triangle and some half-assed worldbuilding. I wasn't expecting a lush, mysterious dark fantasy with astonishingly lovely visuals, beautiful costuming, a wicked cool soundtrack, and a strong plot centered around a strong woman. And that's what Red Riding Hood turned out to be.

Valerie (Red Riding Hood, played wonderfully by Amanda Seyfried) is not in love with two men and as such there is no real love triangle. She loves one man, and both of the men interested in her ultimately respect that (despite moments of understandably human disappointment and/or demandingness). Valerie is also no damsel in distress. The small forest village in which she and her family live is a hunting ground: for as far back as she can remember, a wolf has stalked its inhabitants, but she is still not afraid to venture out into the woods. The movie begins with the death of Valerie's sister at the wolf's hand (um, paw) and suddenly Valerie's problems are bigger than just her arranged marriage to the man she doesn't love.

And Valerie realizes this, and deals with it without running away from it. Yes, she still longs to be with her beloved, but this is only part of her story, part of her life. Her story encompasses more than romance, but the fact that it does encompass romance is important. A badass chick can be badass and still long to love and be loved.

But there's a time for love and a time for badassery, and Valerie tackles both. (This is an explicit point made by the movie: one of the first scenes alludes to Valerie killing a rabbit in the company of her best friend/future lover, and one of the final scenes depicts her handling a human corpse--in the company of her lover.) As the villagers struggle to identify and kill the wolf, whom they suspect is a werewolf and probably one of them,* Valerie struggles, too--to deal with her grief, her concern for the safety of her loved ones (especially her grandmother, who lives just outside the village), and the way the villagers turn on her when they suspect she is connected to the wolf.

However, Valerie doesn't just fight, in the sense of flailing around wildly with nunchucks/a giant mace/whatever because that's what badass chicks are supposed to do. When she has no opportunity to escape, she accepts her fate with dignity. When she does have the chance to escape, she accepts help with grace. When she has a choice, she takes what actions she can, trying to protect and preserve her family and friends, not just her own desires.

And she doesn't have superduper magical smackdown powers; she is just a girl. This is so important. She isn't strong in spite of being a girl, and she doesn't need to be a Supergirl to be strong, either. She is strong because she is female and because of her limitations and because she is a person with very little except a powerful heart, mind and spirit. Because to be strong, that's all you need.

In fact, Valerie is a grown woman with (here comes more feminist theory**) agency, who makes her choices according to one guiding virtue: honesty. She is honest with herself, with those who love her, and she faces tough truths without bowing to her very real fear. Bravery is not measured by fearlessness; it is measured by action in the face of fear, and so Valerie is an exceptionally brave character. And, in a story with such a frightening current of Trust No One, Valerie is truly our heroine because she always trusts herself, and is always true to herself.

Now this is a fairytale I believe in.

The movie does have its flaws. The story could have been resolved in multiple ways; I don't think I would have chosen the existing conclusion, though I wasn't terribly unhappy with it.*** There were many moments where the story could have been pushed further, into more sensuous, gorier, crueler realms. But there'd have to be a non-PG-rated cut if I was to get all the symbolic explorations of blood, sacrifice, lust and consumption that I always want (especially in a tale about Red!). The humiliation via iron wolf mask is just one such gorgeous, troubling metaphor in a torrent of much bigger questions about identity, otherness, and betrayal, and I'm so glad it was included and even briefly dwelt on, but oh my, I really wanted to see so much more in the unsettling vein of Eat me up!

But that's what imagination is for. And Red Riding Hood is visual candy for the imagination. The setting, costuming, and cinematography all combine to create a fairytale world that looks like the "real world," but not quite, inspired by medieval Europe, but not trying to be "accurate." Unsurprisingly, I'm sure, I think it would be fabulous to be Valerie for Hallowe'en, in one of her beautiful long soft pale woolen dresses and her armwarmers and her sweeping red cloak. Some of the shots of her in particular are just breathtaking, all red and snow and moon. The soundtrack, with two songs by Fever Ray (one [below] for a crazy awesome paganesque bonfire dance party), is totally fabulous, both uneasy and dreamy.

The style and feel of Red Riding Hood is ultimately richer than its substance, but all of it together created for me a place of bliss and wonder and peace (weirdly enough). Basically, this movie took the Happy Place of Faerymagickalness out of my dreams and made it real, and this totally made me cry--because it made me super happy. My inner five-year-old and fifteen-year-old were as delighted as my current self. This is something to be celebrated. Fairytales aren't really for adults just like they aren't really for children. They're simply for people--people open to adventure and to fantasy and to belief.

People who, like Valerie, may feel trapped and insignificant, but who still walk through the world dressed in red, eating everything up.

[The official site has a lot of lovely behind-the-scenes stuff, high-res desktop wallpapers, and other pretty things.]

* I thought this mystery was well done, though I'm a superbly gullible moviegoer and can't usually figure out the villain/perpetrator/wolf/etc anyway, even if s/he hits me in the face repeatedly.
** Note that I'm not trying to argue that this is a feminist movie, because "feminist" doesn't work that way. It isn't an adjective; it's a lens through which we can view things. Like movies. And I think that this version of Red Riding Hood is particularly ripe for feminist analysis, especially when compared to its source (but that would be some other post).
*** Not really a spoiler, but I'll make it tiny: I wanted the whole village to become werewolves and run around doing wolfy things together forever, but hey, there's always room for a sequel, if only in my head.

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