Historically, the depiction of female emotion on film has been constrained by how palatable it is for the male gaze. Women can laugh, but not at the expense of their poise; they can feel anger, but not if it contorts their face into something unappealing; they can experience sadness, but not before first offering emotional comfort to a man in their orbit.
After viewing both Claire Denis’ HIGH LIFE and Karyn Kusama’s DESTROYER at the Toronto International Film Festival, I was immediately struck by their similar themes: exploration of the most base and atavistic human emotions, including parental love. Although Denis’ film is distilled into the claustrophobic, hot-box environment of a spacecraft, and Kusama’s is condensed like a black kernel inside the heart of one woman, the skill both directors exhibit in their ability to withhold and release emotional tension is unique.
Navigating a patriarchal world requires a perilous balance of outer calm warring with the inherent resentment in such an arbitrary societal constraint. Our inner lives are complex and tumultuous, lurking underneath a placid exterior.
Both HIGH LIFE and DESTROYER utilize flashbacks as a mechanism for the protagonist to process past trauma, and moments of almost disarming tenderness to punctuate brutality—a jarring but effective vacillation.