What’s refreshing about Lisa Aschan’s feature length directorial debut, She Monkeys, is that unlike so many other ‘coming of age’ films the discovery of sexual identity is not the main driving force behind the drama, instead it’s dynamics of power, which makes for uneasy yet compelling viewing.
Emma (Mathilda Paradeiser) is a withdrawn girl, seemingly joyless, living a monotonous life. Cassandra (Linda Molin) is outwardly narcissistic, but deeply insecure. The two meet at a local voltige (equestrian vaulting) team and begin to forge a friendship. From here the pair seek to gain power over others in a series of episodic encounters, which gradually become more sadistic. The strength of their bond increases until they seek to gain power over each other, apparently walking a fine line between love and hatred. Throughout this, Emma’s prepubescent sister, Sara (Isabella Lindquist), starts to become aware of her own sexual identity and struggles to understand the great divide between childhood and adulthood.
One of the most striking elements of She Monkeys is the sparsity with which it’s delivered. Light on narrative and dialogue, this is a mood piece which seeks to underline the destructiveness of relationships between damaged individuals through arresting cinematography, a highly evocative yet subdued score, and two excellently restrained and macabre performances from Paradeiser and Molin. This is indeed a shocking film, not in terms of narrative content, but from the fine portrayal of the two lead characters; the subtlety of which only implies what actions their unhealthy relationship could lead them to, a technique which, as with so many great films, means the true power lies in manipulating the psychology of audience expectations. There are shades of Heavenly Creatures (Jackson, 1994) here, however unlike Heavenly Creatures, She Monkeys does not build up to a ‘payoff’. Instead Aschan chooses to leave the audience with a lingering sense of foreboding by not bringing the narrative to a neat resolution, which considering the film’s stylistic construct of muted drama was a wise and effective choice.
It could be argued that the downside of handling the film’s main themes of rivalry and co-dependency with such an arms-length approach means that the characterisations are never fully realised, that is to say that you never quite understand the underlying reasons which drive Emma and Cassandra to embroil themselves in such intense power plays, instead they operate as conduits or vessels for exploring the darker permutations of teen angst, such as isolation, need, powerlessness, jealousy, and of course anger. Such auteurism is not always successful as often the ethos of ‘style over substance’ can leave you feeling short changed, however in this case the film is so well constructed you appreciate that a hefty exploration of contributing factors would weigh it down unnecessarily. Emma and Cassandra exist, therefore, they are.
Aside from this, as with the subplot of Emma’s underage sister attempting to seduce her babysitter, you realise that aspects of the film operate more as a critique on a society that leads its youngsters to make life choices which transcend the boundaries of age and morality. The mise-en-scène consistently reinforces this, for example the use of visual motifs which juxtapose lush nature with urban degradation.
As you can gather, She Monkeys is not an emotional rollercoaster. We are deliberately distanced from the action and forced to engage with the film on a psychoanalytic level; paradoxically this distance unexpectedly emphasises the brutality of maladjusted teens, allowing us the luxury of neither sympathy or empathy or any other convenient or comfortable response. The pervading sense of unease is all Aschan will allow in this darkly meditative offering; you wonder if it’s an exploration of power between the protagonists, or power over the audience. She Monkeys does not set out to be insightful, dramatic, or even particularly entertaining; instead it postures, defiantly subverting our expectations and achieving something else in the process; something that is menacing and conversely rewarding.
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