2018 Film Essays

Gazing at ‘Red Sparrow’

In a pivotal scene in director Francis Lawrence’s Red Sparrow (2018), the Matron (Charlotte Rampling), a Russian intelligence officer charged with training recruits to use sexuality to entrap potential assets, orders Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence), a former ballerina pressed into Russian espionage by her uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts) after an on-stage injury left her with a broken leg, to remove her clothes in front of the entire class of her fellow recruits. When Dominika hesitates, the Matron reminds her: “Your body now belongs to the state.”

This is just one of the film’s many difficult-to-watch moments. Dominika is raped by a Russian businessman, before that man is garroted on top of her by another intelligence officer. She is almost raped by another recruit in the training facility’s showers but violently fends him off. She must brook everyday objectification and harassment by her male handler in Budapest. She is beaten, tortured and threatened with death by Russian intelligence officers, all at the direction of her uncle, who has an incestuous interest in her.

For much of its 140-minute running time, Red Sparrow portrays the victimization of its central female character in exceedingly brutal ways. It is no wonder that the film has been divisive, with many critics arguing that the movie is an active, even gleeful participant in the long and sordid history of Hollywood films that first objectify and then punish women as a matter of routine. Add to these criticisms the current political moment, as each week seems to bring new revelations of systemic, sexually motivated abuses of power in the film business and culture writ large, and Red Sparrow can seem like a strikingly tone-deaf movie for the present.

On the other hand, maybe this is Red Sparrow’s moment, as it’s the first mainstream Hollywood film to cover this subject matter since a cascade of sexual misconduct allegations first began in the fall of 2017. For good and ill, Red Sparrow is aggressive, confrontational and ugly. Its physical and sexual violence is unflinching. However, the film’s nastiness, its hostility and its critique are not directed at Dominika, but at the men who seek to control her. In its venomous portrayal of its patriarchy, Red Sparrow presents a male world rotten clean through; men watching have no choice but to confront their own complicity in it.

In some ways, the story of Red Sparrow begins with Lawrence, whose private photos were hacked and leaked online in the summer of 2014. It was a terrible violation of her privacy, along with all the other women whose photos were shared. Lawrence has argued that Red Sparrow offered her an opportunity to reclaim some of the power she felt she lost in the aftermath of the hack. In an interview with Variety about the film and its nude scenes, she said, “The insecurity and fear of being judged for getting nude, what I went through, should that dictate decisions I make for the rest of my life? This movie changed that and I didn’t even realize how important changing that mentality was until it was done.” In a 60 Minutes interview, she elaborated: “I showed up for the first day and I did it and I felt empowered. I feel like something that was taken from me, I got back. It’s my body, it’s my art, and it’s my choice.”

On screen, mainstream Hollywood cinema has long been criticized for its depiction of the female body, especially when nude. Feminist film critics have made the argument that the camera too frequently adopts a male perspective, objectifying women as “to-be-looked-at,” rather than allowing them their own cinematic agency. Other feminist film critics have challenged those ideas over time, but the general state of cinema remains patriarchal, and women are subordinated through the systematic minimization of their representation both in front of and behind the camera.

In the case of Red Sparrow, it is easy to see how that criticism could apply — Lawrence’s Dominika is subject to sexual violation and humiliation in numerous scenes. And yet, the general narrative progression follows Dominika’s path from victim to victor, as she learns to navigate through the world, using her sexuality as a weapon. Lawrence’s nude scene comes about halfway through the film, in front of her class of peers. She strips as a way of reclaiming power from the cadet who attempted to rape her in the shower. Standing nude in front of him, she refuses to allow him to fill the role of sexual aggressor, and he is unable to perform. This scene exemplifies the kind of on-screen female nudity that typically engenders accusations of prurience or exploitation. But, the camera’s gaze in this scene is filtered by the presence of the would-be rapist. Dominika’s nudity does not objectify Lawrence — it empowers both the character and the actress, at the expense of the humiliated male character.

This nude scene is the film’s turning point because it helps Dominika (and Lawrence) self-actualize. At the conclusion of the character’s training in seduction, her uncle orders her to get close to CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) in an effort to root out a mole deep inside Russian intelligence. As Dominika grows more confident in her abilities to manipulate men, she flaunts her sexuality for their excitement, and then rips it away from them. In one scene, she offers sex to her Budapest station chief, Volontov (Douglas Hodge), before goading him into taking a swing at her beneath a surveillance camera, which she uses to blackmail him into doing what she wants. Instead of being under threat, she becomes the threat.

As her sexual power grows, so does Dominika’s awareness of the predominance of the male world around her. The film’s point of view, occasionally split between Dominika and Nash, shifts almost entirely towards her as it moves towards its conclusion. This focus accompanies her increasing control over her own fate. As she and Nash begin a sexual relationship, Dominika is in the driver’s seat, pushing him towards her in an effort to manipulate him. In the film’s final act, when the mole reveals his identity to Dominika and suggests she turn him over to the Russian authorities and take his place, she rejects his advice and executes her own plan instead. Dominika achieves validation in two key shots, both echoes of her ballet. The first comes as she is celebrated for exposing the mole. The camera is behind her, as a gathering of Russian government and intelligence officials sit applauding her in a banquet room. The second, at the same performance hall where she was injured in the film’s opening sequence, is a long shot of a staircase. The ballet on stage, which Dominika had been watching before leaving her private viewing box, concludes to thunderous applause. The camera doesn’t show the crowd, or the ballet performers. Instead, the applause is paired with Dominika, her reflection shimmering in the stone walls on either side of the stairs as she confidently descends them. In this moment, there are three Dominikas, each in control of her own fate.

The film’s moments of beauty clash with its gutter sensibilities in a way that echoes the cinema of Brian De Palma. For example, Red Sparrow’s lyrical opening sequence, which intercuts Dominika’s preparation for the ballet performance with Nash’s preparation for a drop with his Russian mole. Dominika and Nash are on parallel tracks, each moving inexorably towards failure. Dominika will end the sequence with her leg snapped by her dance partner, and Nash will blow his own cover in an effort to protect his source. It is the kind of operatically designed set piece that De Palma executes seemingly without effort. In this film, Francis Lawrence doesn’t quite nail the sequence, which lacks De Palma’s sure hand and control in building multiple narrative threads to a climactic swell.

However, the film’s opening speaks to its aspirations. No one walks the line between exploitation and ironic distance  better than De Palma, and his cinema may offer a useful point of contact for Red Sparrow. Many of De Palma’s films feature similarly sexual heroines — Nancy Allen’s Liz in Dressed To Kill (1980) or Rebecca Romijn’s Laure in Femme Fatale (2002) are useful examples. Both also use sexuality to undermine male characters who make the mistake of objectifying them. In Red Sparrow, that is who Dominika becomes. She uses what men want against them, and — in the end — she wins.

Audiences can and should expect better from mainstream cinema — popular culture is an important mirror of the everyday world, and increasing opportunities for women to tell stories of their own will benefit all viewers. More films starring women, written by women, directed by women, shot by women, and on and on, will help viewers of all backgrounds develop much-needed empathy. While this ideal is a goal worth striving for, those same audiences have to be realistic about the cinema that they do have in this current moment. It is an open question how equipped current mainstream cinema is to carry feminist ideology — probably not well. That is as good an argument as any for change. As a result, Red Sparrow is no feminist masterwork — far from it. However, in its depiction of a male world full of predators — a patriarchal system constructed to oppress, exploit and then discard women — perhaps it offers a valuable first step towards that badly needed change.

Not all men will see themselves as the subject of critique in Red Sparrow, but only if they don’t look. None of the male characters are exempt from it, even Nash, the film’s ostensible male hero. He is the best of the movie’s men, but even he makes the mistake of underestimating Dominika, driven by his patriarchal desire to protect her. In a pithy exchange between Dominika and Nash at an embassy event, Dominika explains her relationship with her uncle to the skeptical CIA man. She says, “In my country, if you do not matter to the men in power, then you do not matter. Is your country so different?”

The honest male viewer should see this as a justified provocation and challenge. While the film industry and the culture as a whole work towards a more equal, more fairly distributed future, Red Sparrow’s representation of the problem may help dislodge us from the comfort of the silent, complicit present.

Brian Brems (@BrianBrems) is an Assistant Professor of English and Film at the College of DuPage, a large two-year institution located in the western Chicago suburbs. He has a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University in English with a Film & Literature concentration. He has a wife, Genna, and two dogs, Bowie and Iggy.

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