This spring Chicago is offering lots of great opportunities to see movies directed by women. The Gene Siskel Film Center is almost done with its series devoted to pioneering American filmmaker Lois Weber, and next month it’ll present a retrospective of films by Lina Wertmuller; Block Cinema wraps up a Chantal Akerman series this week with a screening of From the Other Side on Thursday and a symposium about the director’s work on Friday; Doc Films is in the middle of a series called “Women by Women: Portraits by Contemporary Directors,” which has included such great films as Vagabond, Madeinusa, and Wendy and Lucy; and at the Chicago Latino Film Festival (which started last weekend at the AMC River East), almost a quarter of the narrative features showing were directed or codirected by women. As film culture has traditionally been—and in many respects remains—dominated by men, these local efforts to spotlight female perspectives are encouraging.
Unfortunately these efforts don’t reflect how things are going at the multiplexes. If you’re looking to see a movie directed by a woman at, say, the Showplace Icon (which has 12 screens), you have exactly one option: Denise Di Novi’s inaptly titled Unforgettable. The River East is a little better—over there you can see Lone Scherfig’s Their Finest as well as Unforgettable, though if you go I recommend checking out something at the Latino Film Festival instead. (Claudia Sainte-Luce’s autobiographical drama The Empty Box, which plays on Thursday and again next Monday, is particularly good.) Another nice thing about the River East is that it’s fairly easy to sneak into another movie there after you’ve already paid to see one, so if you do end up seeing Unforgettable, you might have the option of seeing something else for free afterward.
Di Novi’s movie might also work as the chaser to a better one—it’s essentially a 1950s B movie inflated to modern A-movie proportions. The plot—which finds a nice working woman terrorized by her boyfriend’s possessive ex-wife—promises a 21st-century update on the kind of dark domestic film that Hollywood did so well in the 40s and 50s. Movies like Leave Her to Heaven, Max Ophuls’s Caught and The Reckless Moment, Fritz Lang’s The Blue Gardenia, or Gerd Oswald’s Crime of Passion use the trappings of suspense films to explore female characters’ fears about domesticity, marriage, and personal fulfillment; they also deliver plenty of genre kicks, with good suspense, strong performances, and atmosphere to spare. (It was also during the late 40s and early 50s that Ida Lupino directed a run of superior noirs that includes Outrage, The Hitch-Hiker, and The Bigamist.) They’re like dark shadows cast by the “woman’s film,” blending the sensitivity and psychological concerns one associates with that genre with the style and pessimism of film noir.
And so I went into Unforgettable with good expectations when I caught up with it after seeing Joseph Cedar’s Norman the other day, only to be disappointed. The problem isn’t the premise, which could have been used to make a superior thriller. Unforgettable simply fails to deliver in terms of atmosphere and, moreover, the filmmakers fail to develop any sort of subtext from the material that might give weight to the story.
The setup is promising. The heroine, Julia (Rosario Dawson), appears in a police station, cut and bruised; a detective shows her evidence that may incriminate her in the murder of the man who once stalked her. Cut to six months earlier: Julia is attending a party thrown for her by her coworkers at a popular website, celebrating her move from the San Francisco Bay area to southern California, where she’s going to move in with her loving boyfriend. With relatively few details, Unforgettable introduces three themes that will prove to be interrelated over the course of the film: professional satisfaction, domestic happiness, and crime. I thought of Crime of Passion here, which deals with a similar thematic matrix. In that film, Barbara Stanwyck’s successful newspaper woman leaves her job in San Francisco to marry a police officer in Los Angeles. She soon chafes under the boredom of suburban life and, to keep things interesting, launches a Machiavellian plot to make her husband a bigwig on the LA police force. Eventually she turns to infidelity and even murder to realize her schemes.
Crime of Passion doesn’t spend much time considering why the antiheroine would leave her career for a marriage that’s bound to make her unhappy, yet Stanwyck is so good at dramatizing romantic desire that one instantly recognizes her longing for love and security. Besides what matters is getting this smart, goal-oriented woman into a setting that doesn’t allow her to realize her best qualities, which is the real central conflict of the film. There’s a tragic undertone to Stanwyck’s descent into criminality: it’s the psychotic symptom of a life unfulfilled. The filmmakers subtly build sympathy with her character by presenting her suburban environments as claustrophobic and unwelcoming, creating an atmosphere that makes you want to see her rebel.
I don’t want to argue that Crime of Passion is a forgotten classic—it isn’t. But it certainly looks great when compared with Unforgettable. Perhaps the biggest problems with Di Novi’s movie are that it doesn’t give any dark side to Julia, nor does it inspire much sympathy for Tessa (Katherine Heigl), the woman who makes Julia’s life hell. Where Passion presents a complicated protagonist who does bad things for sympathetic reasons, Unforgettable gives us an uncomplicated heroine and an uncomplicated villain. Its presentation of domestic life isn’t that complex either. From the beginning the filmmakers make it clear that Julia is satisfied in both her professional and home lives. Her editor cum gal pal lets her work from home so she can juggle her work responsibilities while helping her boyfriend raise his daughter. Di Novi and her crew don’t present Julia’s domestic arena as confining in any way; if anything, they make it look like something out of a department-store ad. Julia is basically perfect—and her entrepreneur boyfriend is more a perfect accessory than a character.
It might have been interesting if Julia did something to offend Tessa or otherwise implicate herself in her own unhappiness. But Tessa is pretty much unhinged from the word go—Julia’s only crime is moving in with her boyfriend and trying to take a role in his daughter’s life. The icy ex lashes out at Julia soon after meeting her, stealing the latter’s cell phone, setting up a phony Facebook account, and sending enticing messages to Julia’s onetime stalker. The filmmakers divulge nothing about what Julia’s relationship with her ex was like, making him essentially a bogeyman. When he invades the heroine’s home near the end of the film, he might as well be the killer in a horror film. In short, there’s nothing wrong with the characters’ haute bourgeois lifestyle; the terrors come from without.
At one point the filmmakers suggest that Tessa may have been driven psychotic by pressures to lead a perfect life, a theme that Gone Girl handled so well. These pressures are personified in the form of Tessa’s passive-aggressive mother (Cheryl Ladd), who shows up to criticize everything Tessa does. Ladd’s ripe line readings provide the only laughs in Unforgettable, as well as the film’s only intimations of psychological nuance. Her chilly interactions with Heigl, which suggest years of quiet belittling, do a better job at depicting a rivalry between two female characters than anything involving Dawson. Alas, these moments account for just a few minutes of the film.