This blog will contain mild spoilers about Nocturnal Animals.
Yesterday The Observer published a piece of apparent film criticism by not-a-film critic Victoria Coren-Mitchell, deciding to spoil the Tom Ford film Nocturnal Animals because she was so outraged by it. She only recently watched it after it received 9 BAFTA nominations (the film was released in UK cinemas Oct. 14th 2016).
Coren-Mitchell’s main concern is the film’s “gynophobic” depiction of women, from the opening art-show scene to the fictional-within-the-film depiction of the deaths of Laura and India Hastings, who are characters in a book written by real-within-the-film’s Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal) and read by Amy Adam’s Susan Morrow.
Her point of view isn’t exactly invalid. As she seems to out-right fail to acknowledge, plenty of other critics have also expressed similar views, only she seemingly didn’t bother to seek them out previously, even though she wishes she’d “read a column with a spoiler in it, because then” she wouldn’t have watched the film.
Personally, I enjoyed the film. I don’t think it’s a feminist masterpiece, but it’s hardly trying to be one (have you seen Tom Ford’s perfume adverts?). Coren-Mitchell compares the opening scene of over-weight women performing at an art show – which we’re supposedly meant to find grotesque – and the beautiful presentation of Laura and India Hastings’ bodies when they’re found – which we’re supposedly meant to find beautiful. I couldn’t disagree more, personally, with her reading of the film. I think the opening sequence is beautiful and confrontational, while the prettily presented bodies of Laura and India are just as grotesque as if they’d been found tastefully covered up or gorily flayed. That’s my reading of the film, and I don’t believe Tom Ford is quite so much the air-headed aesthete that he’s made out to be by Coren-Mitchell here.
For me, Coren-Mitchell’s article is just yet another in a countless line of would-be tastemakers espousing about the perils of ‘some people’ who enjoy ‘this sort of thing’. Coren-Mitchell writes a lengthy, snooty paragraph at this apparently monolithic mass of audience that “is excited by dead, naked women” as though such a thing actually exists. I watch a lot of films which feature dead and naked women, but do they excite me? No. Do I like all those films I watch? No. Was I the sort of person Coren-Mitchell was envisioning when she wrote that paragraph? Probably not.
The most obvious comparison I can make to Coren-Mitchell’s article is James Quandt’s article in ArtForum which coined the phrase of ‘New French Extremity’. While that phrase came to be associated with all manner of gory French films in the 00s and beyond, Quandt’s particular gripe was that his beloved ‘art cinema’ was increasingly making use of tropes found in horror or action films – such as extreme sex and violence. He cites filmmakers like Bruno Dumont and Catherine Breillat, and of course Gaspar Noe, in his argument, wondering why these talented filmmakers needed to resort to such filth. Similarly, Coren-Mitchell is not beyond acknowledging that “everybody involved in this film is talented”, she just wishes she’d “been watching them do something else”. Well, there you have it. You don’t like that you were hood-winked into watching a Southern Gothic thriller in what you thought was going to be an artful domestic drama, when really it can happily be both at the same time because genre is fluid and a film can be many things to many people.
Coren-Mitchell’s argument isn’t exactly helped by her silly comparison of Nocturnal Animals to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which she claims “never got these back-slaps”. Fine – Tobe Hooper’s classic didn’t get 9 BAFTA nominations nor 5-star after 5-star review. But what it did get was a UK premiere at the London Film Festival, where it was hand-picked and presented by three major (and mainstream) film critics, Alexander Walker, Nigel Andrews and Derek Malcolm. Reviews of the film were mixed, not vitriolic, and it was the BBFC that fervently objected to the film. Coren-Mitchell seems to be confusing film critics with censors, which likely says a lot about her attitude towards film. If she wanted to provide a more pertinent example, she could have chosen Straw Dogs, which a number of UK film critics (in 1971 at least) really did want censored. But Straw Dogs is likely too respectable a film, by now, to have popped into her mind as a throw-away example in a rant about a film she didn’t like.
Ultimately, it seems Coren-Mitchell’s biggest gripe is with the reviewers and awards-givers who have been heaping praise upon a film that she personally sees and “gynophobic death-porn” (an opinion she’s entitled to). Well, perhaps here the problem then is not that Nocturnal Animals is intrinsically “repulsive,” but maybe that Victoria Coren-Mitchell might want to invest less in the importance of awards shows (I didn’t like Birdman much but I can’t say I felt outraged at its 10 BAFTA nominations), and try taking an interest in a more diverse range of film reviewers other than the white men found in British broadsheets (the only ones she quotes in her article). Maybe then she’d have seen all of the things she wanted months ago, when other people were writing about them, much more eloquently than she’s done now.