A Woman's Work is Never Done

"I'm not a woman; I'm a filmmaker," Martha Fiennes told a British newspaper recently. A bit broadly stated, but one gets her point: Fiennes doesn't want to be ghettoized by her gender, even if she is the sole female director with a film (Chromophobia) in Cannes's main program this year. Contrary to conventional wisdom, however, the two designations need not be mutually exclusive, as the annual "Women with Vision" festival demonstrates with its strongest and most cohesive lineup in some time.

Now in its 12th year, "WWV" always prioritizes fledgling voices--notably with its ever-expanding "Girls in the Director's Chair" project--and the latest edition showcases several debuts. Hailed as a scarce highlight of Sundance 2005, Me and You and Everyone We Know (screening Thursday, May 12 at 9:00 p.m.) is the first feature-length film by multimedia star Miranda July, who gathers a beguiling ensemble of interlocked suburban-L.A. stories: the frazzled shoe salesman who juggles a boring job with shared custody of his internet-glued kids; the earnest artist (played by July herself) trying to nudge a foot in the door at the local gallery; a snipey pair of teen girls trying on their nascent feminine wiles and seeing how they fit; and more. Here characters verbalize their thoughts, desires, and startling whimsies without submitting them to the usual filters first; July takes in their foibles unblinkingly and folds them into a stiff but heartfelt embrace.

The childlike discursiveness of Me and You conjures a heightened reality; elsewhere in the series, an ascetic realism often prevails. First-time feature director Debra Granik expands her short "Snake Feed" in the Sundance award-winning Down to the Bone (Friday, May 13 at 7:00 p.m.), which maintains a near Dogme-like austerity in following a drug-addicted young mother of two, Irene (Vera Farmiga), as she seeks help, loses and finds work, and stumbles into a codependent relationship. The rehab arc is familiar, but honestly rendered, and Granik burrows expertly into a painfully specific time and headspace: the War on Terror-era USA. The store-bought flag cakes, the "Keeping America Safe!" grocery bags, and the massive Stars and Stripes diffusing the light through a dealer's window all amount to a wan pageant of diseased Americana.

Irene gets fired from her deadening supermarket job only after she quits cocaine and her pace at the checkout slows accordingly; the indignities and bitter ironies of working for a living are a constant refrain in "WWV." The entries from Argentina, that ever-fecund hotbed of cinema, are typically fine: Ana Pollak's Pinboy (Saturday, May 14 at 9:00 p.m.) takes a kindly Warholian interest in the assorted employees at a manually operated bowling alley; and in María Victoria Menis's riveting, beautifully photographed Little Sky (Saturday, May 7 at 9:00 p.m.), a young drifter takes farmhand work with a drunken boor and his long-suffering wife, only to develop a pivotal fatherly bond with the miserable couple's baby.

The "WWV" programmers underline the labor-pains theme with the "Working Girls" retrospective, which ranges from Lois Weber's 1916 silent rarity Shoes (screened to live musical accompaniment by Dan Newton on Wednesday, May 18 at 7:00 p.m.) and Dorothy Arzner's 1940 show-biz catfight Dance, Girl, Dance! (Thursday, May 19 at 7:00 p.m.) to Lizzie Borden's 1986 film Working Girls (Wednesday, May 18 at 9:00 p.m.). Borden's wryly observant kammerspiel is a long night's journey into day for an Ivy League-educated photographer, Molly (Louise Smith), who slogs through a punishing double shift at a New York brothel until she arrives at a hard-won epiphany.

The "Working Girls" program also hosts veteran director Stephanie Rothman, who will introduce two of her hugely enjoyable '70s sexploitation films: The Working Girls (Thursday, May 19 at 9:00 p.m.) and The Student Nurses (Friday, May 20 at 9:00 p.m.). Roger Corman produced the latter, and, according to Rothman, his only requirement was "that the nurses be very pretty and that they be naked as often as possible." The faithful result shows Rothman's raw genius for adapting the stringently budgeted exploitation-film model to her witty, rambunctious brand of sex-positive feminism.

"Take not a maiden who loses possession of herself," reads a café chalkboard in The Student Nurses. That would rule out the heroine of Histoire d'O: Whipped, chained, pierced, branded, and prostituted, O consents to epic mortification as proof of her devotion to her lover. The slender documentary-cum-reconstruction Writer of O (Saturday, May 21 at 3:00 p.m.), directed by Pola Rapaport (who'll introduce the screening), adequately recounts the unveiling of O's author, Dominique Aury, in 1994--40 years after the book's scandalous first appearance. But the movie disappoints in its workmanlike approach to the fragrant material, adding banal first-person testimony and unfortunate expressionist illustration, as when Rapaport drops in some stock footage of...um, a train entering a tunnel.

Aury met her great passion and the inspiration for Histoire d'O--French literary lion Jean Paulhan--through their work for the French Resistance, a chapter of their love story that Writer of O could have elaborated upon. Elsewhere in "WWV," war comes tearing through the front door like a marauding intruder. In the opening-night selection Brothers (introduced by director Susanne Bier on Friday, May 6 at 8:00 p.m.), it's hard to believe that siblings Michael (Danish-cinema axiom Ulrich Thomsen) and Jannick (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) come from the same genetic material, much less a shared family tree. Michael is a kindly family man, a top army officer about to leave Denmark to assist reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. (The ever-luminous Connie Nielsen plays his wife.) Jannick is a surly, frequently drunk ne'er-do-well, jobless after a prison stint. But then catastrophe intervenes to turn this paradigm of Good Brother and Bad Brother on its head.

As in her previous film, the Dogme-certified Open Hearts (2002), Bier sifts through post-traumatic fallout, but here the findings carry an inevitably political charge. The cool tones and clean lines of the compositions, the largely understated acting, and Michael's mask of white-collar presentability underscore the cognitive dissonance of enjoying serene Western comfort while swaths of the globe are burning, perhaps at your government's behest.

Set in 1983, Danielle Arbid's compelling debut feature In the Battlefields (Friday, May 13 at 9:00 p.m.) also observes twin conflicts: the war in Beirut and the implosion of an extended family, seen through the watchful eyes of 12-year-old Lina. The girl is both victimized and corrupted by her milieu, including her father, a compulsive gambler prone to violence; her cold, frazzled mother; her cruel-tongued aunt; and Auntie's alluring Syrian maid, who offers Lina rare friendship, but also uses her as cover for her many secret affairs. As bombs fall and guns pop in the distance, Arbid's bracingly assured film remains eloquently reticent and bravely grim, capturing a searing double image of brutality at home and away without a hint of contrivance.

In Sally Potter's Yes (Saturday, May 21 at 8:00 p.m.), each lover of the central romance hails from a war-torn city and ends up battling the other. Ambitious, endearing, and sometimes ridiculous, Yes tells the story of a rocky Arab-Anglo relationship entirely in iambic pentameter: Clandestine lovers Joan Allen and Simon Abkarian pitch woo, argue, and order dinner in crisp Shakespearean rhythms, and the lines often rhyme to boot. Abkarian plays a cook who worked as a surgeon in his native Beirut until he witnessed one of his patients shot dead before him; Allen (who'll introduce the closing-night screening with Potter) is a Belfast-born, American-raised molecular biologist locked in a freeze-dried marriage.

Like all of Potter's movies, Yes is expertly assembled, mixing pointillist celluloid compositions with dusky video and outfitted with an eclectic score (e.g., Kronos Quartet, Philip Glass, and Gustavo Santaolalla). The actors (among them the wondrous Shirley Henderson as the witty one-woman chorus) approach the iambic dialogue casually and comfortably, and Potter's versifying--no mere gimmick--underlines the film's rhyming patterns of roles and relationships. True enough, the reams of metaphysical pillow talk can be enervating, but more filmmakers would do well to take the formal and thematic risks that Potter hazards in Yes, which--as befits such a clear-eyed but essentially jubilant project as "Women with Vision"--does finally follow through on its affirmational title.

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