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Girls Just Want to Get Even

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BROKEN MIRRORS

** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Marleen Gorris

With Lineke Rijxman and Henrietta Tol.

Suppose you go to a movie with a friend of the opposite sex. Soon your friend is laughing in the most unseemly fashion at humor that leaves you cold, and that furthermore seems calculated to insult anyone of your gender. Suppose you go to another movie, a serious drama this time, and a fantasy is being played out that feeds directly into your friend's most cherished gender-specific prejudices. You get the point, but you don't fall for it on an emotional level. If you're a woman, being on the outside looking into a man's world at the movies has happened to you a lot, since the majority of films exhibited in the United States are still made from the point of view of a white, heterosexual male. If you're a man, it may be a whole new experience to be an outsider at the movies -- to go to a film and encounter snide female jokes about the size of your sexual organs or unflattering caricatures of your gender in no-win situations with infinitely more humanized women characters. As increasing numbers of films directed by women show up in mainstream theaters rather than in the exclusive confines of women's film festivals -- Doris Dorrie's Men, Lizzie Borden's Working Girls, and Susan Seidelman's Making Mr. Right, to name a few recent ones -- for the first time a general audience must begin to take into account not just a woman's point of view, but a woman's bias.

A biased point of view, one that doesn't admit the validity of another side, isn't necessarily a bad thing. It has long been a tool of underdog filmmaking. As in viewing any fiction, you temporarily abandon yourself to the premises set up by the filmmaker. If ultimately the film does not describe the world as you know it, then in letting yourself be taken in for a time you may come to understand something of the world as others know it or want it to be. Of course the pitfall is that while simplified politics and too narrow a vision may make a useful didactic film or an offensive rant, less frequently they produce a complex work of art.

Several women directors currently working make selective use of a female-biased point of view to stingingly funny effect. In Making Mr. Right, Susan Seidelman asserts in various ways that any woman's "Mr. Right" is necessarily equipped with a huge penis. Many women will laughingly recognize an abstract fantasy perpetuated in their conversations with girlfriends, while men may find so crass an emphasis on bodily proportion a disturbing dose of their own medicine. Lizzie Borden's thumbnail sketches of brothel clients in Working Girls compose a hilarious and pathetic catalog of male insecurities that both sexes may recognize as one-sidedly accurate.

In Broken Mirrors, also a film set in a brothel, controversial Dutch director Marleen Gorris takes an extreme stance of hostility toward men to portray women who have had Enough. This was also the theme of Gorris's earlier feature A Question of Silence, which depicted the circumstances surrounding the trial of three women accused of the apparently motiveless murder of a shopkeeper. The controversiality of Gorris's work stems from her advocacy of violent revolution on a personal scale. The three women in A Question of Silence did in fact kill the man for a reason that any court of law would consider trivial, a minor insult. However, each woman had, on the day of the murder, come irrevocably to the end of her tolerance for men and their social and moral codes, a development that Gorris meticulously chronicles. It sounds dismissably simpleminded, yet she gave this plot a complex emotional appeal that particularly works for women through the relentlessly detailed accuracy of her depiction of everyday insult and oppression in the lives of middle-class women. There is a brilliant climax when it all comes together and, for a moment, a rebellion that transcends moral codes makes perfect sense. The aims of Broken Mirrors are similar yet more modest. The brutality of men toward women is clear-cut and on a grander scale, yet the self-realization by women that results is less significant.

Broken Mirrors is mainly set in an Amsterdam brothel, Club Happy House. The eight or so women who work there get along with each other tolerably while, predictably, hating their work. Each has a pressing economic reason for choosing this line of work above any other. Although they seldom discuss the reasons, several have children to support. Dora (Henrietta Tol), the most levelheaded, cynical, and seemingly well adjusted of the women, has, in a moment of weakness, told Diane (Lineke Rijxman), a young woman she met in a bar, that there is a job opening at Happy House. Like her coworkers, Dora abhors the thought of another woman choosing this way of life, while understanding the reasons too well. Diane is in desperate financial need, with a small baby and a heroin-addict husband, and she's stoically determined. Quickly Diane learns the routine and fits in, but she's smart and outspoken, and neither the sheer drudgery of the job nor the money dulls her anger.

Gorris emphasizes the physical dimensions of brothel life, but hardly the sexual ones. Working at Club Happy House seems a cross between working as a hospital orderly and shoveling out manure in a barnyard. A sinkful of vomit the morning after is one of the first Happy House images she shows. From then on there are periodically recurring scenes of sheets being changed, used condoms being picked out of the shag carpet, messes of one kind or another being wiped up, and frequent references to plumbing problems. The men who patronize this establishment are as anonymous as the condoms they have discarded. They are either paunchy and balding or young and dark haired; beyond that they are interchangeable. Unlike Lizzie Borden, Gorris doesn't individualize the men, but makes them cold and sinister in their anonymity, photographing them mostly from the back or from angles that obscure them.

Concurrently with the brothel story, Gorris develops a plot around Bea, a middle-aged mother of two who is stalked and eventually kidnapped by a man who knocks her unconscious and hauls her away in the trunk of his car. She awakes chained to a bed in a basement cell. Her silent captor visits her for a few minutes each day to listen to her cry and plead, and takes photos of her that he mounts on the wall under those of her predecessor, the disposal of whose body is the opening scene of the film. The remainder of the time she is chained in the dark with no food or water and cannot even get off the bed. Gorris gives this man total anonymity as well, identifying him only by his gloves, while revealing his comfortable home life with a pleasant, doting wife.

Gorris is a straightforwardly heavy-handed filmmaker; that is her way. There is no self consciousness in the excess of misfortunes that befalls the women of Club Happy House, from the sexual diseases to the routine battering, the attempted suicide, the successful suicide, and the casually inflicted life-threatening violence that the women suffer at the hands of clients. There is no irony in the fact that the only "good" man in Broken Mirrors is a crusty old geezer in a squatter's shack whom Dora befriends. He is no less anonymous than the other men, known only by his voice and hands, and gets hauled away by authorities in the name of middle-class propriety.

The lack of irony and the careful dramatic seriousness with which Broken Mirrors is laid out keep it from collapsing under its excesses. The women are personable, sympathetic, and natural, never appearing as fronts for ideology. Gorris gives them some fine realistic scenes, like the hectic night when one woman is so tired that a can of hair spray falls from her hand as she prepares for the next of many clients, and another falls asleep on a stairway landing.

If Broken Mirrors is too sincere to become ludicrous, it is also too contrived to transcend its mechanics as A Question of Silence did. When, after an astounding chain of matter-of-factly presented coincidences, Diane sits unknowingly in the car of Bea's murderer and hears of the discovery of Bea's body over the car radio, she says something to the effect that it hardly matters whether you're a housewife or a whore, you're unsafe just the same. You want to ask, "Is that it -- the big revelation?"

That by itself is not "it." Bea, Dora, and Diane each come to the realization that they have the power to deny men what they want and thereby control their destinies. Of course it doesn't do Bea much good; she's just the film's sacrifice to enlightenment. After all the brutalization of women (and Gorris's brutalization of men) that went into this discovery, it doesn't seem like enough. There is no brilliant instant when the film's various sacrifices seem worth it, when Gorris's manipulation of male and female images and Bea's life add up to what it takes to make two women leave a brothel.

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