Once again, the cinema serves as my great teacher of human relations. A survey of recent movies offers a wealth of insight into the fairer sex. To wit:
1. They are complex, multi-dimensional beings with rich inner lives.
As a frustrated police inspector observes of Sharon Stone's Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct 2: "That's her art-the art of mind-fucking!" Ah, the wily, complicated woman. Take Jennifer Aniston's Olivia, the poor former teacher who now works as a maid and the odd gal out among her wealthy, married pals in Friends with Money. She seems alternately adorable, pitiable and contemptible-sometimes all at once. Gretchen Mol's Bettie Page, in The Notorious Bettie Page, comes to life most when she's posing for a camera; a joy so true and so deeply ingrained that her default gesture in an acting class is to take off her clothes. Later she reads publicly from the Bible like it's a dramatic monologue for an audition. What mysteries these women contain!
2. They come in all shapes and sizes ...
... but slender, pin-up proportions are by far the most common. "Not the corset," photographer Bunny Yeager instructs as Bettie rifles through a suitcase full of potential photo-op costumes, "I believe the female form can stand on its own." Yes ... um, Mol's especially. Meanwhile Aniston's Olivia gets involved with an unctuous fitness trainer and is required by Nicole Holofcener's screenplay to tell him she never works out. Later he has her dress up in a French maid's outfit and the joke is a little less funny in view of her perfectly tanned, perfectly toned legs. I don't mean to give her a hard time but Aniston is about as convincing as an unfit person as she is as a poor person. Finally, as for Sharon Stone's body-which is, perhaps rightly, the only thing about Basic Instinct 2 that matters to anybody-I defer to the wisdom of a friend with whom I saw it: "She may be forty-five, but those tits can't be more than five or six."
3. They're doing the best they can.
Nobody has it all figured out. Sometimes, the only way a woman knows how to get through life is to just let it happen to her. Well, okay, maybe not Ms. Tramell-but she's a risk-addicted, black-widow nympho-psychopath who has made a fortune writing trashy novels, so she's a special case. Aniston's Olivia isn't so sure what she wants at all, and Mol's Bettie certainly didn't mean to stray so far from Jesus. Hey, life is what happens when you're making other plans.
4. Men aren't helping.
Most of the men in Bettie's life are predators, with the possible exception of the teddy-bearish specialty filmmaker Irving Klaw, who requires her to be tied up and gagged for strictly professional reasons. And just when you think Bettie's boyfriend Marvin is going to be supportive of her budding career, he goes and makes a crack: "Bettie, doctors write books about this sort of thing. It's abnormal." Why shouldn't she ditch to Miami and pick up another guy on the beach? The insulated husbands of Olivia's friends don't help matters when they ask questions like, "Is that, like, hip now? Working as a maid?" Nor do her piggish suitors, who tend to treat her badly and make love-if you can call it that-without making eye contact. Meanwhile, Catherine gets stuck with a self-appointed but totally unprofessional shrink, a simp without a spine, who practically begs to be toyed with and tossed aside.
5. Movies aren't really helping either.
In what's probably the most dramatic moment in The Notorious Bettie Page, we learn that an auto-erotic mishap has accidentally caused the death of one of Bettie's fans. "There's nothing cultural about it; it's just no damned good!" the boy's father testifies of her work, anticipating by many decades the critical consensus on Basic Instinct 2. Friends with Money is, of course, another matter. Admittedly, I missed Holofcener's first two films (Lovely & Amazing, Walking and Talking), but when someone works in such an elliptical style, isn't not seeing her other movies sort of the same as seeing them-at least in some abstract mathematical way?
In spite of what Holofcener may think, running gags aren't quite character development and emotions telegraphed via trendy mood-pop bumper music are not inherently cathartic. One argument in support of Friends with Money seems to be that it's refreshing to get half-assed Woody Allen from someone other than Woody Allen. Maybe so, but if the corollary idea is that being half-assed is less a problem because a woman is responsible-well, you can see the trouble. Others, apparently having missed or forgotten about Rodrigo García's Nine Lives-another quilt of vignettes, also elliptical and feminist, but much more elegantly realized-may appreciate Friends with Money on account of its redress to the scarcity of generous parts for actresses who are no longer in their twenties. (True enough-poor Charlotte Rampling has been reduced to supporting roles in movies like Basic Instinct 2, for Christ's sake).
6. Just because you've found the G-spot, don't expect her to save your life.
Catherine drove this lesson home as she drove her sports car off a bridge and let her boy-toy drown in the first two minutes of Basic Instinct 2. Enough said.
7. In fact, learn not to have any expectations.
I wanted to think that when it came to describing America's born-again bondage sweetheart to post-Abu Ghraib audiences, filmmaker Mary Harron might have had something morally serious to say-or at least something blackly funny. Not so much. And is it just because I'm male that I found The Notorious Bettie Page strangely sexless? We learn that Bettie has suffered sexual abuse. We learn that men are always making advances. We learn that she was dating a couple of guys. We know what she looks like naked and what people probably do with her pictures. Still, there is no sex; only a lot of music for period atmosphere. Unfortunately, I must borrow a line from dear Catherine's pithy summation of psychology: "Too many answers, too many questions. Nobody gets laid." With that in mind, perhaps, I also wanted to credit Nicole Holofcener with baiting some cruel male fantasy of Jennifer Aniston as a debased pushover-her Olivia is passive, too-easily manipulated, anything but uppity-only to ultimately subvert it. Not spelling things out, not actually having stuff happen, just seems to be Holofcener's way, and I'll have to be okay with that.
As for expecting significance from Basic Instinct 2, well, I'm not stupid. I knew from that reverential opening credit-"Based on characters created by Joe Eszterhas," set against Stone's taut, shimmering silhouette-that groundwork had been laid for a light comedy of the highest order. O frisky, elusive Muses, I salute you.
Jonathan Kiefer is Maisonneuve's film flaneur. His column appears every two weeks. Read more columns by Jonathan Kiefer.