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The Best and Worst Portrayals of Women from the Toronto International Film Festival

We put TIFF films starring the likes of Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams, Ellen Page, and Catherine Keener (among others) to the Bechdel test.

Kristen Stewart in 'Personal Shopper'

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The 2016 Toronto International Film Festival is currently smiling down upon all cinema-insomniacs right now with a week of art-house premieres, well-stocked blockbusters, and celebrity sightings. Many films are already garnering Oscar buzz with a variety of them featuring diverse casts, women in the director's chair, and inclusive, intersectional stories. Yet while TIFF has always prided itself on inclusivity, the only way to really prove this claim is via the Bechdel test: a quick four-question process to gauge whether or not a movie is in fact portraying well-rounded women characters.


1. Are there more than two women characters in this film?
2. Do they have names?
3. Do they talk to each other?
4. As they talk to each other, do they speak about topics other than the men in their lives?

If a film cannot fulfill these tiny four requirements, then you know it is not a film that actually fosters female voices, narratives, and inclusivity. Now that doesn't mean a film is automatically a bad film. You'd be surprised how many masterpieces of our generation that feature strong female characters didn't pass muster. Everything from Run Lola Run, Lord of the Rings, The Little Mermaid, Avatar, and even IMDB darling The Shawshank Redemption fail the Bechdel test.

Here is a cross-section of 2016 TIFF films that do, and do not, make the grade.

Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Starring Isabelle Huppert
Grade: FAIL

This is a surprising Bechdel fail, seeing as how Elle is all about a woman who is raped and sets out to not only find her rapist, but turn the tables on him. Isabelle Huppert plays brash and brazen Michèle, a woman who runs her own video-gaming corporation, lives in an affluent Paris neighborhood, and naturally garners respect from every encounter she has. The violent sexual assault, which is the scene that opens the film, sets the tone for a dark exploration in the ways in which exploitation and victimization can be internalized and later manifested in everyday life. But Verhoeven (Basic Instinct, Black Book, Starship Troopers) is not a director known for portraying women in a multifaceted light, rather favoring style over substance. In fact, it could be argued his films notoriously depict women who enjoy their subjugation and take it as a compliment. Here we see Michèle asking her rapist if he enjoyed it. What? Michèle has many interactions with women in this film, all of whom have names. But they do not discuss anything other than the men in her life. She gripes to her colleagues about her male subordinates. She fights with her mother over the reputation of her incarcerated father. She listens to her best friend woefully talk about her suspicions that her husband is cheating on her, only to reveal that she is in fact his mistress. I don't know what kind of women Verhoeven is surrounding himself with, but strong-willed, fierce women don't innately hate each other. Michèle says, "Shame isn't a strong enough emotion to stop us from doing what we want." And that's why this film was made, folks.


Personal Shopper
Directed by Olivier Assayas
Starring Kirsten Stewart
Grade: PASS

In her second outing with director Assayas, Stewart plays an American personal shopper in Paris, running between fashion houses to pick up the fancy threads for a vacuous supermodel. However, her twin brother has just died of heart failure, and she has the same heart malformation. Believing that she has the powers of a medium, she tries to make contact with her brother. This film easily passes the Bechdel test, as all the women have names, and they speak to one another about loss and mourning rather than men. But this film is a bit bewildering for what we are offered: a ghost story, a psychological thriller, a murder mystery, a family drama? It's all those things, and perhaps it needs to hone in one and make that its focus, because it's hard to believe the CGI ghost effects when, in the next scene, she's at Cartier trying on dangly earrings. Stewart is an enthralling actress, and her performance is worth the price of a TIFF badge alone.

I, Daniel Blake
Directed by Ken Loach
Starring Dave Johns, Hayley Squires
Grade: FAIL

Having won the Palme D'or at the Cannes Film Festival should be an indicator of just how wonderful this film is. A stirring, quiet, contemplative, and understated film about a man with a heart condition who is given the runaround by the government dole and benefits scheme. He encounters young mother Kattie (Squires), who is also facing hard times, and they form an unlikely kinship. This film is emotionally gripping from beginning to end. At the press screening I attended, which was populated by ornery, grumpy film critics who all look like Silent Bob, everyone walked away glassy-eyed. But does it pass the Bechdel test? Nope. Kattie is the only character with a name that we know of. She meets no other women and speaks to no other women. This is truly a shame because it shows that out of all the characters in this film, any one of them could easily have been written as a woman instead of a man. If this film was called, I, Daniella Blake instead, it would have changed nothing about the story, or the character's traits, or the narrative arc. It was also wouldn't have changed the outcome.


Manchester By the Sea
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
Starring Casey Affleck, Gretchen Moll, Michelle Williams, Matthew Broderick

Here's a perfect example of a wonderful film written by a man who clearly hates women. Casey Affleck plays Lee, a Boston janitor who must return to his hometown when his brother dies to take care of his teenage nephew Patrick. The performances by the entire cast are stellar and will rip your guts with each subtle facial expression. From the outset, the audience feels like they're given a window into the lives of characters who are so well-rounded and nuanced, it puts our real lives to shame. But that's praise reserved only for the male characters (aka all but two of the cast). Gretchen Moll plays as a selfish, neurotic drunk without a care for her grieving son, and Michelle Williams plays a nagging, sour-faced, misanthropic hoser. Women and even teenage girls in this movie are portrayed as annoyances, cruel, cold, and even the butt of jokes. They are the buffoons of the story, not to be trusted nor granted dignity. And not a single one of them ever speak to one another. This is what happens when men write women. There is no reason why Lee had to be a man. If Lee had been portrayed by Parker Posey or Samantha Morton, it wouldn't have changed one iota of the narrative arc.

The Eagle Huntress
Directed by Otto Bell
Grade: PASS

This delightful documentary set in the Altai mountains of Mongolia follows 13-year-old Aisholpan as her father trains her to become the first female eagle hunter. For centuries, the tradition of capturing eagles and training them to hunt has passed from father to son, and in a village run by elders who do not see the value of women behind domestic duties, Aisholpan surprisingly comes from a family whose support for her is unwavering. We see a cunning Aisholpan wrestle boys to the ground or best them at chess, all the while training for the great eagle-hunter festival that she is hellbent on winning. This ethereal film, with mountainous landscapes that take your breath away, passes the Bechdel test easily. We see Aisholpan's classmates cheering her on, we see her sisters talking about how proud they are of her, and her mother proud that she is "as brave as any man." The only conversations about men in this film are the ones men have among themselves of their superiority to women, which provides the lone comic relief. This is a breathtaking documentary that shows when we encourage our daughters, amazing things happen.


Window Horses
Directed by Ann Marie Fleming
Starring Sandra Oh, Ellen Page, Don McKellar
Grade: PASS

This colorful Canadian animated feature follows Rose Ming (Sandra Oh), a self-published Vancouver poet who is invited to a poetry festival in Shiraz, Iran, and on a whim, actually attends. We learn that Rosie is half Persian and never knew her Persian father, and so this journey to the poetry capital of Iran—where Hafiz wrote his most famous works 800 years ago—is also a journey through Rosie's family tapestry. The animation uses different textures, styles, and motifs to tell this story, and it is a feast for the eyes. The vermillion sky, the ochre trees, the violet horses all add to the funny script. And naturally, it passes the Bechdel test. Rosie's conversations with other women envelop poetry, family, friendship, loneliness, longing, mourning, healing, hope, and all the good stuff. At one point, she asks the festival organizer, Mehrnaz, "How is it everyone here knows everything about everything?" to which the reply is, "Rosie! We're Persian." There actually isn't much room for men in Rosie's life, except for maybe the stolid German poet Dietmar (McKellar), who displays so much Germanic stoicism that even when he weeps, he says, "I'm not crying, I have angst."

Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Starring Adam Driver
Grade: FAIL

Paterson is one of those typical Jarmusch outings where you walk out of the cinema wondering if you've just had a stroke. What was the point of that? Who knows! But it was infuriatingly twee, so you can't hate on it too much. Driver plays a man named Paterson who lives in Paterson, New Jersey. OH THAT WACKY JARMUSCH. He drives a bus for a living, he writes saccharine, lame-duck poetry, and he has a country-music-loving wife who paints everything in their house in monochrome, including their cupcakes. His dog hates him, and all the people at his local watering hole know his name. There. That's the movie. There is no central conflict to speak of. Nothing of note actually happens. Jarmusch litters each scene with visual gags that I think only he is supposed to get. Why are there twins everywhere? Why are the kids dragging the strip in their lowrider so concerned for the dog's safety? Why is Method Man rapping along to his laundry at the local laundromat? ONLY JARMUSCH KNOWS. And there are only two women and one girl in this movie. None of them speak to one another, and frankly, Paterson's wife is written as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. This film is oddly charming for a slow-moving concept, but if you're gonna pay for Jarmusch, Jarmusch is what you get.

Directed by Alan Giselnan
Starring Catherine Keener
Grade: PASS

Don't get excited. This film passes the Bechdel test with flying colors, as almost all the characters are women, they all have names, and they talk about everything and anything except the men in their lives. Amazing! Except this film, based on a novel by the late, great Carol Shields, is a slow-moving emofest that seems to exist inside the surrealist nightmare of a Kandinsky painting. Catherine Keener plays Reta, a woman struggling to understand why her daughter has without explanation become catatonic, started panhandling, and living on the streets of Toronto while holding a sign that says, "Goodness." Goodness grief. TIFF fans will delight in the fact that the entirety of this film was shot in Toronto. The film has all its major scenes in and around the famous Bloor and Bathurst gaudy warehouse depot, even filming down Honest Ed's Alley, but the nondescript problem that this family faces is just too abstract to actually make us give a damn. When the audience finally finds out the reason behind the daughter's strange behavior, it's deeply unsatisfying and verges on being comically ridiculous. One of Honest Ed's famous slogans could most aptly describe Unless: Come in and get lost.

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