Thursday, February 23, 2012

Finding Love within Light and Shadow

Narrative film is an illusory medium. That is, when spectators are engaged they are firmly absorbed in the story space established by the film. Successful characters are those built of dimension and contradiction; individuals that pop-off the screen with charisma and vitality. Successful characters are real people - real in the sense that we believe in their existence for the duration of the film. Throughout my life I've seen more than my fair share of classic cinema and myriad wonderful characters. Consequently, more than once I've fallen madly in love with a fictional female on screen. Below is a list that includes characters that have inspired the emotion of love within me: both wanting to give and wanting to receive love (not necessarily lust). This is not a list devised to rank the "best" characters of all time. There is no objectivity here. There is only the unbridled romance of those who've bewitched me stupid.

Note: As lighthearted as I intended this list to be I feel it is imperative to note the lack of non-white female characters here.  Granted, I am pulling solely from my viewing experience which is relegated primarily to Western cinema.  However, this list should be indicative of a larger issue within cinema: the lack of interesting non-white characters.


12. Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) - Pulp Fiction
After Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino proved he had an equal, if not more powerful, gift for writing female characters in Pulp Fiction.  Mia Wallace is an amalgam of Anna Karina from the French New Wave (see #1) as well as countless femme-fatale archetypes yet she never feels cliched.  The first in a string of amazing female characters including Jackie Brown, The Bride, and Shoshanna Dreyfus, it all began with Mia - the boss' wife.

11. Barny (Emmanuelle Riva) - Leon Morin, Priest
Dripping with sensuality yet never bubbling up to the surface, Barny is the ultimate character of female repression.  She seeks to explore her sexuality by consummating a relationship with a Catholic priest.  Her quest in turn seems more spiritually guided than carnal and her attractiveness stems from her insatiable curiosity.


10. Faye (Faye Wong) - Chungking Express
Disarmingly aloof, immature, idealistic, romantic, whimsical.  Faye Wong ellicits countless adjectives but when she breaks into the apartment of a police officer that she's fallen in love with and re-arranges his items to shake up his stale life she instantly wins our hearts as well.


9. Séverine Serizy (Catherine Deneuve) - Belle de Jour
Those who write about Deneuve's appeal always throw around the phrase "porcelian skin."  Her stunning beauty: pale and flawless skin, icy blue eyes, blonde mane of hair were assets that promoted her character in Belle de Jour as a daytime prostitute to a mainstay of French cinema with Bunuel's classic.


8. Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) - Singin' in the Rain
Singin' in the Rain is a classical Hollywood musical about the dichotomy between reality and illusion.  Gene Kelly's Don Lockwood must abandon the veil of illusion (embodied by a self-reflexive story of cinematic production) to attain the woman of his dreams: Kathy Seldon.  Her plucky and vivacious strength is matched equally by her beauty when singing "All I Do the Whole Night Through is Dream of You."

7. Lorraine Baines (Lea Thompson) - Back to the Future
An externalized visualization of the Oedipal Complex.  Her bedroom flirtation with her future son was comedic gold.  And the confusion of Marty's face is enough to prove that Lorraine Baines was a feisty female character who defied parental expectations and sought after what she wanted.  And his name was Calvin (it was written on his underwear).

6. Inga (Teri Garr) - Young Frankenstein
"What knockers? - Oh, thank you doctor."  Mel Brook's cast a young Teri Garr to inhabit the playful Inga in his Frankenstein parody.  Amazingly funny, Garr proved she had what it took to compete with the boys in this hysterical film.  She then went on to appear in virtually every other single movie of the 1970s.

5. Celine (Julie Delpy) - Before Sunrise
Celine was the idealized fantasy of every 1990's teenage intellectual.  She was the woman you could hook up with when backpacking through Europe in your flannel shirt.  Then, she'd walk around Vienna with you, make great conversation, and eventually the night would be over and the fantasy completed.  Until 9 years later in Before Sunset. 

5. Sugar Kane Kowalczyk (Marilyn Monroe) - Some Like It Hot
Sugar oozes sex.  She isn't the kind of girl you take home to meet the parents.  She plays in an all-girl nightclub band, smuggles booze on the side, and every line out of her mouth functions as a wild double-entendre.   Inhabited by Marilyn Monroe, what could have been a thankless role for any Hollywood sex kitten quickly became an iconic American character in a cinematic masterpiece.  Monroe often doesn't get enough credit for her acting abilities but Sugar is pure blissful sweetness from start to finish.

4. Frances Stevens (Grace Kelly) - To Catch a Thief
Too often people confuse Grace Kelly with her regal princess aura.  Under Hitchcock however she was a courageous actress and a ribald vixen.  Opposite Cary Grant there has never been a more charismatic couple to light up the screen.  Though To Catch a Thief is generally considered lighter Hitchcock fare when compared with notables such as Strangers on a Train, Psycho, Rear Window, etc., Grace Kelly commands the screen with stunning wardrobe, delectable dialogue, and a salacious sexuality that will bowl anyone over.


3. Cecilia (Mia Farrow) - The Purple Rose of Cairo
Like many of the entries on this list, Cecilia is a dreamer. Her desires, much like Dorothy Gale's, are rooted out of the despair and desperation of the Great Depression. Woody Allen has always been known as a master of writing parts for women. In his most effervescent albeit tragic character creation, Cecilia, love is attained through the promise of the silver screen.


2. Amélie Poulain (Audrey Tautou) - Amelie
Amelie is a larger than life heroine.  She daydreams of love with assistance from her imaginary friends while working quietly in a Parisian cafe by day.  Her waif fragility finds common friendship with a brittle neighbor from her apartment complex.   As she seeks to "do good" in life she inspires a rich warmth that doesn't get mucked down in saccharine sentimentality.


1. Marianne Renoir (Anna Karina) - Pierrot Le Fou
Godard's film is an often inscrutable yet poetic visual feast from the 60s grounded in post-modern intertexuality.  Anna Karina embodies the free-French woman of a new era; alluring and intoxicating as she and Belmondo roam the French countryside.


So now I turn it over to you? Which cinematic characters have stolen your hearts?

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