It’s been almost two months now since Luc Besson’s new movie came out and the reception to Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets has been mixed. Currently sitting at 51% on Rotten Tomatoes, the movie isn’t near the poor ratings of the most recent The Mummy or The Emoji Movie, but a sci-fi movie by the director of The Fifth Element could have hoped for a better score.
Not that I disagree with it in any way. If anything, I personally didn’t enjoy this movie. Valerian is, if anything, an interesting movie, in its weird and clunky way. There is a logic to this movie and how it tries to resemble huge Hollywood Science-Fiction blockbusters, while also having its own style.
If you didn’t get it from those first paragraphs, I think it failed or, at least, that the result is extremely flawed. I want to examine how this movie tried to approach its story and characters, and how it didn’t succeed, starting today with only one element. But the most important according to this movie: its titular character.
I’ll try to keep everything general, but spoiler alert for the entirety of Valerian and the city of a thousand planets.
What’s with this character?
To analyze a character, we should look at their whole story, their arc if they have one. What it brings to the overall movie and how their themes fit the whole picture. In the case of Valerian, let’s start with its introduction. From the first scenes with him, what are we supposed to know about him, and what kind of emotion is he supposed to make you feel?
The first two sequences of scenes in the movie aren’t dedicated to our main character at all. One of them centers around the creation of the “City of a Thousand Planets” from its debut as the ISS to what is known as Alpha. It’s a beautiful, simple sequence, that quickly establish the context and offers us a rare sight: a first contact of humans with aliens that goes pretty well. The second shows us a new species, living in harmony and joy on their world, before the apocalypse destroy their homes and their planet.
Only after that are we allowed our first look at our main character. We discover him on the beach, relaxing before a mission. Said mission will be the first true action scene of this movie. So, before it starts, the movie is going to dump some information on its viewer about the main characters. Here’s what we know of Valerian, from his dialogues with Laureline and with a superior.
- Valerian is both a competent agent, and extremely confident in his capacities. He doesn’t seem to be taking this new mission seriously, only reading the assignment after they land. He makes it clear to Laureline that it’s not going to be a problem and reminds her that he has some kind of perfect memory.
- Valerian is quite the ladies man, and he apparently keeps a playlist, which I’m going to assume are music he associates with every girl he’s ever been with. We briefly see one or two walls covered in pictures, all humans or humanoid corresponding to our beauty standard, so everything is fine on that end, don’t worry.
- Similar to his over confidence, our main character doesn’t take things seriously in general, which seems to have impacted his relationship with his colleague, Laureline, who can’t trust him when he asks to marry her. (They’re not dating yet, so it’s probably wise of her)
From there, we already have a pretty good idea of the kind of character Valerian is. I have a feeling it wasn’t meant to be subtle; he’s a pretty straight-forward kind of guy. Valerian, in this movie, is a combination of two pretty common archetypes. First, there is the bad boy: old school, kind of dark, pretty boy, usually selfish or uncaring. He’s good with the ladies and never hesitates to use that skill. He’s supposed to be charming, witty, and a bit dismissive of everyone.
On the other end of the spectrum is what I call “The Asshole Protagonist,” an archetype that has become popular much more recently. Don’t worry, you know them. You’ve probably seen one in Iron Man or Iron Man but with magic, or in pretty much every “Sherlock Holmes”-styled character since House MD. It’s a character who knows what he’s doing, and is often the best at his job, or anybody’s job. However, his superior ability somehow prevented him from learning proper behavior and politeness, so he often acts like a dick to everyone, either voluntarily or not. You’ve probably heard of him as “The Sociopathic Protagonist” but let’s be real, they’re just assholes most of the time.
You may think Valerian isn’t the worst at that, and it’s true, but a lot of aspects in his characterization make me think the writer tried to give him that archetype. Namely his overconfidence about the success of his various missions and the fact that he keeps reminding us about his photographic memory. (A cheat code often used by this archetype.) Plus, keep in mind that later in the movie, at least two scenes clearly establish that Valerian is a very good agent, capable of destroying wave after wave of enemies without breaking a sweat.
The Bad Boy and the Asshole Protagonist are usually, like the average serial killer, white males between 25 and 40 years old. They are white because, you know, protagonist, and male because if they acted the same way as a female they’d be described as “Kind of a bossy bitch” (because sexism, yay). Valerian fits this description, although he looks young in this movie.
Both those archetypes are often played, especially in movies, with the idea of a redemption arc, or at least the character learning a lesson by the end. That’s also the case in this movie, as I’m going to detail later. But now that we have a pretty good idea of what this character is supposed to be, let’s see how it’s handled in this movie.
Introductions are important
I brushed over the first scenes with our protagonist quickly, and that’s not so much to make a point as it is because there isn’t a lot to say. In a movie like this, focusing heavily on the action and on its world’s beauty, it was vital to introduce the characters in a simple yet clear way. They aren’t meant to be deeply complicated human beings. Yet, they managed to hit a wall with Valerian.
You see, it’s hard for an audience to really feel sympathy for a guy who acts like an ass all the time. One of the first thing you want to show in a situation like this is how good he is at his job. Then, everyone can think, “Yeah, he’s an ass, but at least he’s doing good things.” It’s simple, but it works. We like Sherlock because despite being a dick, he solves crimes and, through that, can help a family. It’s even easier with House who literally saves lives while being an horrible human being.
For an action hero, seeing him in action is a great way to demonstrate his talent and therefore shut down criticism of his behavior after that. Or, if you want to push him toward his arc already, he can have some form of ironic comeuppance.
The first scene of Valerian is him relaxing. Then he gets ready for a mission in the laziest way possible, all while reminding everyone of how good he is. The movie had two options: either the first mission was a complete disaster, to set Valerian on the right path, or it was a resounding success, demonstrating the protagonist’s skills.
We had neither. Sure, the mission succeeded but not exactly with flying colors. The whole idea of this sequence was amazing, for sure, and Valerian demonstrated a talent for improvisation. But compared with two of the fight scenes Valerian takes part later in the movie? Not really impressive. Especially since this mission ends in the death of the crew that was supposed to work with our agents. (Something neither of the protagonists even acknowledge, by the way.)
Here, the movie hits its first dissonance. We’ve been told Valerian was good at his job, but what we saw was a butchered mission where he would have been killed without Laureline, and also managed to lose his team in the process. Something that could be framed as a lesson to him, a slap in the face he would have to recover from.
But no, the characters don’t think about it like that, and the movie doesn’t frame it like that. It’s a relative success for the character’s mission and, as such, a clear failure in the introduction of those characters. The movie took its time to create its universe and present it to us. This weird mission involving two different dimensions was meant to solidify it and show us what could be done with it. Unfortunately, it had been used only as that, and not an opportunity to establish characters.
Now, here’s where I have a problem. I can’t tell if this sequence was meant to not impact Valerian’s character, or if it was meant to be a failure for him and the movie just forgot to show us that. Considering how the movie treats Valerian’s arc, it could very well be both. In any case, from this very first mission and the scenes that precede it, the audience will likely come out with this conclusion about Valerian: he’s a pretentious prick that isn’t even that good at his job, and doesn’t even seem to realize it.
Not a good start.
On arcs and changes
Up until now, it wasn’t a great start, but it wasn’t a complete waste either. Valerian didn’t seem all that sympathetic, but maybe that was never the point. As the movie goes on though, it’s slowly apparent that the writers forgot another important part of their job: giving this character any kind of arc.
Now, I don’t want to say that giving characters an arc is an absolute and complete necessity in any given story or movie. But, in this case, it did seem necessary in order to make us appreciate this guy, since his introduction really didn’t do the job. Some may think that he did have an arc, and that’s thanks to one of the final scene of the movie, a scene that attempts to give depth to this character and his partner Laureline.
Quick summary: after many twists and turns of their story, Valerian and Laureline have finally uncovered the truth. The Obvious Bad Guy is a bad guy, and he hurt the Na’vi of this universe (The Pearls). Now, they have defeated him and got back the MacGuffin that the Na’vi wanted to retrieve. Laureline wants to give it to them, and suddenly Valerian refuse because it’s… government property?
This scene is where the movie completely crumbled to me. This is the textual definition of useless drama. Valerian suddenly caring that much about the hierarchy and the orders he was given come out of nowhere. At this point, it sounds like a cheap way to introduce a conversation between our protagonists just so Laureline can start talking about love and how important and beautiful and strong it is compared to any force in the universe.
Let’s be fair. Knowing this is coming, if you watch the movie again, you’ll start to notice that it doesn’t come entirely out of thin air. Valerian plays with his rank more than once, remind Laureline of her place by giving order to her. We never got the idea that he was that focused on military rules, but it’s not a complete stretch. However, it does seem strange from a guy who, at the start of the movie, didn’t seem that concerned with doing the job right.
Why would Valerian care if this thing gets resolved “by the rules” or not?
That’s where the few elements of characterization we had seen before come into conflict with what we currently see on our screen. Bad boys are, by sheer definition, not adept at following the rules. And Assholes Protagonists usually have no respect for hierarchy and rules, preferring to follow their own instincts to get the job done. To pretty much everyone, Valerian fits one or both of those categories. He should have just handed over the MacGuffin, no discussion needed.
If he had done that, though, we wouldn’t have had any big scenes for our romantic subplot. Because yeah, we have that, remember? Valerian keeps asking his partner to marry him. Well, this scene at the end is made for the romantic subplot to make at least some sense. We finally see Laureline telling this guy that he doesn’t believe in the power of love. The point is, there is some progress.
This clearly should have been the culmination of Valerian’s character arc, ending with him learning something about the world and how to interact with it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that he needs to respect others or “try to be nice” sometimes, or even act responsibly when on mission, no. It was believing in the power of love, something that wasn’t seeded in any way and that comes out as cliché and simplistic as possible.
This is the writers admitting they didn’t have any arc for this character and just dropped the “Power of Love” into this to pretend there was some resolution.
If we truly look at it, what we have at the start of the movie is an asshole who showed no respect to anyone and is pathetically trying to get a girl by screaming that “he changed and is different now” and by the end, he gets the girl…after she took some time to scream at him for being heartless or something? He doesn’t even really get her, I suppose because they want to keep this subplot rolling for the next parts of this great story.
Ultimately, it’s not a character arc. It’s not even a resolution to the romantic subplot either; it’s drama added to the final scene just so it wouldn’t be “that simple” and our characters can have a discussion about it, even if it sounds really stupid.
Acknowledging your protagonist’s personality
When I first wrote this, the last section was called “Punishment and reward” and I wanted to talk about the fact that Valerian’s behavior never got punished by the narrative. I planned on drawing comparisons to the other kinds of Asshole Protagonists that I used as examples earlier.
The thing is, most of them are usually rewarded by the narrative in some way, because they are protagonists. But still, they also get challenged in different ways.
See, Marvel movies have a lot of entitled white guys as protagonists; Captain America is an exception in this universe, not the rule. You probably saw people calling out Marvel for their jokes that deflate all tension in their movies, and I can understand that, but notice how half the jokes are played against the protagonist of the story. Whether it is Starlord desperately trying to get people to remember his name or Stephen Strange getting his ass kicked by magic right after being so smug about science.
Same with “Sherlock”-type characters. Only they aren’t so much mocked as they are challenged by the narrative and the other characters. Take House. In the first episode it’s clearly stated that he “rarely meets with patient” because he doesn’t believe they have anything interesting to say (to be short). What does he also do in the first episode? Meet the patient. It’s not stupid, nor is it a mistake of the writers. It’s them telling you that this story will be about challenging the worldview of this particular character, even if, as the protagonist, he will often end up on top.
Now, I don’t want to say those movies and TV shows are perfect in the treatment they inflict upon their characters for being assholes. But at least they acknowledge the issue and actually try to challenge them, even if they are only pretending to.
Here’s the thing though, to challenge your character, you first must acknowledge he has an issue. Basic really, but look back at Valerian with that fact in mind, and suddenly a lot starts to make sense.
Valerian, the character, is never challenged by anyone outside of Laureline. Nobody seem to acknowledge the fact that he kind of acts like a jerk. Laureline gives him shit for it, but for all we know, it could very well be because he keeps a playlist of all the girls he slept with, or because he doesn’t believe in the power of love. Either way, it’s related to the romantic subplot, not his behavior outside of it.
At no point in the movie is Valerian made fun of because he acts smug. At no point does anyone react to it, apart from Laureline and the occasional sighs from his superiors. (Among them, the bad guy, which doesn’t help.)
The real dissonance of this movie lies here, with Valerian’s characterization. Seeing how wonderful and detailed the ideas can be in this movie, it sounds weird that its protagonist’s personality never got looked at twice. For Valerian to have an arc or even a proper introduction, the movie would have to know what this character is and what it wants to do with it. Apparently, it does not.
This has tremendous effects on the feeling Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets creates in its viewer. Its main character seems to have been written with a specific personality, but in a movie that wasn’t meant to involve a character with such a personality. As a result, it’s difficult to watch this movie and truly consider it Valerian’s story, which is a problem since his name is in the title. (And unlike a certain Mad Max, we don’t have another character to label the protagonist.)
I talked about Valerian, the character, a lot more than I thought, so I’m going to get back to the movie next time. In the next article, I will compare it with another sci-fi movie, one beautiful and filled with ethereal aliens living in harmony with nature and one that got a much better reception than Valerian did.
Oh, and this one has Na’vi as well.
Images courtesy of EuropaCorp, Paramount Entertainment, Heel & Toe films, and Hartswood Films
Sith Inquisitor’s Journey to Freedom
Minor spoilers for the Sith Inquisitor class quest chain; minor spoilers for the Knights of the Fallen Empire/Eternal Throne DLCs
It is a great part of RPG experience, and even a greater part of RPG enjoyment, to like your character. And by “RPG” I mean any RPG whatsoever, from LARP to tabletop to video game. Which is only natural, as you can’t really relate to the character you don’t like. And what is RPG if not relating to a character so that you can share its fictional experience?
Which, mind you, doesn’t mean that person should be likable. More like, they should be interesting. An interesting piece of shit, after all, has a much bigger chance to win over your emotions than a bland, shallow Stainless Hero. Like, when you watch The Thief and The Cobbler (the recobbled cut, of course, not that abomination), you sympathize with the first much more than the latter. What a perfect role model he is! But I digress.
When I first set out to play Star Wars: The Old Republic, I was highly unsure if I really wanted to do so. I’ve always had problems with video games in the sense that they don’t actually let you create your character. You get a not-so-wide variety of characters and must choose one to try to empathize with. This makes every game a hit-or-miss case for me: either it’s love at the first sight, or it’s “who are those people and why should I have anything to do with them.”
Meeting the Sith Inquisitor
I confess, I made my initial character choice based on my desire to shoot lightning. I thought it would compensate for the lack of emotional involvement I expected. Luckily, I was mistaken!
The story was captivating right from the start because it had questions to ask. And those questions were directed to me, a player. It was me who had to answer them for myself. It was me who had to choose for myself. Because my course of action depended not on what were my plot goals and neither on my gameplay preferences. It depended on my opinion on certain problems.
Basically, you start in a very unprivileged position, that of a slave. An alien slave, if you really want to experience this story in its full power. You finish in a rather privileged position, that of a Dark Council member. On the surface this seems like a typical rags-to-riches story. However, the action/adventure story is only a minor part of the experience. The main part is the inner path—looking back to your past to create your own future and, more importantly, your future self.
In a nutshell, it is a story exploring how you deal with the trauma from past abuse: do you internalize the point of view of the abuser or the abused? As a survivor myself, I can only praise the way this narrative was given and framed in-game.
Dealing with the Trauma
So, you are a slave. You spend half your Prologue experiencing constant verbal and physical abuse from your sort-of teacher. He wants to get rid of you so that a free, Sith Pureblood candidate will win the golden ticket. But justice is served, and the ticket is finally yours. You are no more a slave, but a Sith—a person in the position of power above all non-Sith. What do you do now? And more importantly, how do you do it?
The game has a Light/Dark Side system in it. Before it was totally remade (broken, I’d rather say) it worked like Paragon/Renegade system in Mass Effect games: you choose one of two alternatives, you get certain amount of Side points, you become more attuned with a certain side of the Force. Or sometimes there is a neutral way, that’s neither. It doesn’t give you any points, but still is important in this storyline.
Your first encounter with Dark vs. Light presents a very typical kill the baby/save the baby dilemma: you can torture a witness to extract the criminal’s name, or you can talk to him and exchange help for information. A very easy choice, is it not? The next encounter is the one that gets under your skin.
It is with the evil mentor who wanted to kill you, who humiliated you, who was your abuser. You can scorn him now that you are free and a Sith in service of a Lord far above your former teacher’s station. You have every reason to hate this man, you have to wish to humiliate him in return. The first option is to threaten him, and while taking it would be extremely understandable, it is not a neutral option–it’s Dark Side. It is still playing along the rules of the system: might is right; you now have both, he has neither.
The Light Side option is to thank him, to break those unholy rules. You may not forget it, and you may be quite bitter later on about your early experience. You may never actually forgive him. Yet you refuse petty revenge, you refuse the power play. Because evil can’t mend or undo another evil.
I swear, something in my heart trembled when that rat of a man smiled to my character in return and thanked him. Because at last I saw the real Dark vs Light narrative, where Light begets more light–and Dark begets more dark.
Thus I understood that I really want to experience that story up to the end.
While both versions of the Sith Inquisitor’s class story present him dealing with his trauma, I could never get myself to try the Dark one. It was really, really dark; the story of a person broken and driven to the edges of sanity, who would never let anyone have anything that person was once denied. I really couldn’t help pity the creature that person would eventually become. It’s not that this story is exactly bad, but I think it is somewhat toxic and too much in line with “being tortured makes you evil” narrative. Not exactly the trope that is in any way helpful for abuse survivors.
The Neutral path—what you tread if you don’t follow any consistent course of action—was less devastating on the personal level. It is more of a quest for identit-y than anything else. Your character does eventually give in to the darker side of their nature, but also eventually does something truly and genuinely good and selfless. In the end they receive the name Occulus, for being a mystery to everyone , including themselves. Because they really don’t know themselves. After all, the Sith Inquisitor is presumed to be very young; somewhere in their early twenties.
I really loved the third option, the Light Side. It is a path of empathy, a path of true freedom. It is also the path most difficult both for your character and for you as a player, for it consciously sets you against certain old tropes and easy decisions.
Good Is Not Easy
Many games try to “convince” you to do right thing by making good choices less hard than bad ones. In general, this game is no exception; if you were to take the Dark route as a Jedi Knight, it would require more time and work from you than the opposite. But on this route it’s the other way around. Being a good person here is not—just as in real life—easy. It is hard.
I can’t describe Light!Sith Inquisitor as anything but a Suffering Empath. Having experienced much trauma in the past, this Sith Inquisitor struggles their best to shield others from the same trauma, even when it doesn’t benefit themselves. Even when it means direct harm to themselves.
For example, their power is based on that of the restless spirits they’ve bound to their soul. Letting those spirits go means the Sith Inquisitor goes back to the start, where they are fairly ordinary a Sith and no match for the truly mighty ones. It means a real threat to their life or, at the very least, their well-being. But because it is right, they fulfill their promise and let the spirits go and find peace.
In another instance, they encounter a racist, foul-mouthed, self-infatuated prick, and they don’t kill him. They choose this because that abominable creature is someone else’s loved person. and your own (both player’s and character’s) desire to punish him cannot be given a higher priority than someone else’s love and anxiety.
This route is hard, because it requires additional quests and lines of dialogue. It is hard, because sometimes you really want to teach someone the hard way, to vent your own (player’s) disgust and rage, to punish the bad guys. But as long as you remember the “two wrongs don’t make right” rule, you can really enjoy that story.
Well, “enjoy” is not exactly the right word, but you get it.
This story is about real freedom; that is, spiritual freedom.
One of the easiest paths to achieve your goals in Star Wars universe is by using Mind Trick. You simply make the other person do and think what you wish them to. It is often used as, well, an easy and harmless workaround. It is often marked as a Light Side option in the Jedi class stories (the Dark option being to fight).
But on this route it is never a offer as a good option—usually neutral, but sometimes even bad. Because, y’know, it’s about freedom. What is more abusive, after all, than to deny a person that person’s free will?
I cannot fathom an action more free of will, of an agency more openly expressed, than denying a whole system of oppression while being raised as a part of it. But the Sith Inquisitor does just that.
Every time they eschew their own in favor of someone else’s, they deny that system. Every time they refuse to acquire more power because it would others more dearly, they deny that system. Every time they choose to respect the free will of the others, even if it means problems for themselves, they deny that system.
What I really wanted to do, right from the beginning, was to thank the author.
Rebecca Harwick created a fascinating story that works perfectly for a genre that requires deep emotional connection with your character. RPG is about living other lives, those we can never experience IRL but those still having an impact on us and our life. We all know that stories matter, and I think we need more stories like that.
And it is a highly satisfying story. You really feel it by the end, that peace and glory that come with being righteous.
Personally, it helped me deal with my own trauma and helped me sort out things and realize that some options are not really an option—that giving in to the abuser’s point of view would really keep me stuck in that trauma forever.
That, while trying to be a good person is often hard, it’s worth it.
P.S.: And Then They Ruined It…
When you experience something that great, you want more of it, do you? Well, I wanted. So I went on to playing DLCs that are supposed to cover the later life of the same hero.
Sadly, the story-line there was clearly written as a continuation of the Jedi Knight’s class story, and any difference in dialogue was purely cosmetic. This actually came out bad for many classes, but the Sith Inquisitor suffers not only plot-and-logic-wise, but also thematically and, I daresay, problematically.
You see, it is generally okay if a privileged golden boy of a Jedi, who was always treated as someone special and a Chosen One, gets a lecture from those still above him about him not being special and his real role being a mere gear in a much greater machine. It serves him right and it even has some thematic significance. I am, of course, referring to the Jedi Knight—the supposed Anakin-done-right hero, the most obviously coded as male and most irritatingly problematic in and of himself.
This kind of lecture is certainly not okay when delivered by two uber-privileged guys (a Jedi Grandmaster and a Head of the Dark Council) to a former slave. They tell this slave to be nothing more than a cogwheel, that freedom is overrated and that they need to subjugate themselves to someone or something greater. They directly say, “you are weak because you fight for your freedom, become a willing slave (to the Force, but still) and you’ll be strong.”
It is problematic, isn’t it?
It really ruined the thing for me. The narrative that was centered around freedom, around acquiring it, understanding it and using it right…it was thrown away in favor of a rather lazy “we all are slaves of the Fate” plot device. And that’s only when we talk themes and not slavery per se, and the narrative completely forgetting about it.
My only solace is, it was written by another person.
Images courtesy EA Entertainment
Will Has a Women Problem
Love him or hate him, you have to admit William Shakespeare wrote some of literature’s most iconic women. Queens such as Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, and Titania; tragic heroines like Cordelia, Juliet, and Ophelia; the outspoken self-advocates Beatrice, Katherina and Paulina. While only some of Shakespeare’s women wield legitimate, authoritative power, all of them are powerful figures on stage: women of devastating conviction, integrity, and passion At a time in history where women had few legal rights—and couldn’t legally appear on a stage—Shakespeare’s women stood as monuments to women’s potential and women’s reality.
It’s unfortunate, then, that Will, TNT’s ten-episode period drama, does its women a disservice. This is not to say that Will’s women are bad characters. On the contrary, Alice Burbage, Anne Hathaway/Shakespeare, Emilia Bassano and Apelina are powerful, bringing some of the most poignant emotional experiences to the show. Unfortunately, those performances don’t happen for the sake of their own characters’ individual growth. Frustratingly, Will’s women instead end up as tried-and-true tools shaping men’s destinies.
As Will’s love interest, Alice Burbage is the woman most affected by Will’s underlying misogyny (although she’s not the most insidious example). From her first appearance in “The Play’s the Thing,” when she leans out of her window, breasts just short of dropping out of her bodice, Alice is set up as a sexual object for Will’s attention. But it is her brilliance and dedication to the theater that draw Will to her as a lover and intellectual soulmate.
Alice is an “educated woman,” her learning much more advanced than the supposed average early modern daughter or housewife (who actually had to have a decent bit of learning in order to maintain the household, but suspension of disbelief and all that). She can read and write well enough to provide clean copies of scripts for the actors of her father’s theater, and has enough business savvy to help her family with the theater business.
Alice’s intelligence doesn’t exist for herself, though. Rather, it exists for Will. A blossoming-playwright with no experience, Will is a really terrible addition to the Theatre. He has talent with words but little else; he barely understands how theaters and theater-going works. For Will, there is only “the art,” which finally bites him in episode 3, “The Two Gentlemen.” No one will buy Will’s newest play, a complicated piece of poetry with nothing to appeal to an audience. Once he admits Alice is right and he needs her help, though, Alice gives Will access to all the plays in her father’s repertoire and then helps him hit upon the then-not-so-novel idea of stealing the overarching idea.
Once that’s in hand—with Alice guiding him in the selection and the theft—Alice helps him write.
“To him she must be like day, like night, like light. Like light.”
Even when Alice is asleep, her presence is the thing that spurs Will to continue to write, his eyes fixated on her as he writes passionate speeches for Sylvia. When James discovers them in the morning, it’s Alice’s fury and insistent on its quality—quality she oversaw—that gets it performed.
Alice does the same for Henry VI pt 2. After encouraging Will to write the histories out of order, she gives Will the title for the play:
“Henry VI: The Rise of the Dauphin Menace. When I was reading the histories, I discovered the Dauphin, Charles II, joined forces with Joan of Arc.” (Episode 6)
The pair of them function like this for most of the season: Will comes to Alice with the seeds of a play, the words that are his signature, and Alice provides the necessary structure to see the play succeed and Will’s star rise. She coins the term“prequel” for Henry VI pt 2, decides on the overall plot of that same play, and, perhaps most importantly, suggests Will humanize Richard in Richard III, making his actions more horrific by highlighting the humanity still lurking in the monster. Without that crucial character change, the endgame against Topcliffe would have failed.
Alice, however, never receives recognition for her significant, life-altering contributions. Will, of course, praises her genius and recognizes that without her, his writing stagnates. But he makes no effort to inform her father, mother, brother or any of the company about her crucial contributions to the plays that have made them and him, so popular. Instead, he sits proud and preening over the work she improved, enjoying her labors and her love until he is forced to end their relationship.
This is perhaps why Alice switches intellectual loyalties—Father Southwell gives her credit. The more entwined Alice becomes in his Catholic plot, the more Southwell praises her devotion and willingness to endanger herself. Southwell, however, is no better than Will, using Alice’s brilliance, grief, and determination to further his cause. As his newest convert, Alice is best suited for smuggling messages since she is thus far unknown to any of Topcliffe’s informants; moreover, her connections to the theater, frequented by one of the Queen’s advisers, give Southwell noble connections he needs to deliver his manifesto to the Queen. Alice, then, is Southwell’s newest and best instrument in his Catholic war. She’s also the one he loses most quickly.
In the end, everyone loses Alice; her destiny finally to leave the world she loved and desired in the hands of a man she can’t stop loving. Her suffering at Topcliffe’s hands encourages the company to perform Richard III (thus altering the torturer’s destiny) and cements Will’s undying love for her—none of which she can share. Instead, Alice must go, freeing herself and Shakespeare from a love she now knows could never be and no longer wants. It is only through that pain, apparently, that Will can go on to right the greatest love story: Romeo and Juliet, where his “bright angel” will shine again.
Alice is just one woman robbed of a life or dream for men’s sake. Another, set up against Alice, is Anne Hathaway. Never one to get a fair treatment in adaptations, Anne is everything Alice isn’t: an obstacle to his art and an intellectual inferior. From her opening line, Anne is portrayed as shrewish and incapable of seeing Will’s greatness: “Who will want a play by William Shakespeare?” (“The Play’s the Thing”). Anne is incapable of seeing Will’s art, and clouds his genius with mundane concerns like the survival of his family.
Is the sarcasm evident?
Anne’s demotion to a tool of Will’s destiny is briefer than Alice’s but just as unfair because she deserves better, from both Will and Will. However, her dire situation is never taken seriously. When Anne brings Will’s children to London to visit him, and learns about his affair with Alice, her hurt is shown as unjustified. Alice understands Will in a way Anne simply can’t; how dare Anne reject Will for something as simple as a connection with an intellectual equal?
Moreover, when Anne finally admits to Will her situation in Stratford, he cannot fully recognize or accept her pain or the fear that fuels her inability to believe in him. Living as a servant to his parents, with the threat of homelessness and beggardom, Anne physically can’t believe in his dream because a dream can’t help them now. It can’t provide them food or shelter. It can’t give them a livelihood and future. The money Will makes as a writer isn’t enough to ensure her and her children’s safety if they are forced out by his family and his father’s poor business practices. But Will sees her insistence that he take responsibility for them, that he look after them as he promised to, as manipulative and cruel.
All of this is heartbreaking because Anne loves, or at least loved, Will, and at some point, Will loved her. At the tavern, after she’s accepted by the company even after her fumbles, Anne and Will dance, smile and laugh. As they walk home and speak of the early days of their relationship, there is genuine warmth and affection in the shared memories. But domesticity chafes Will. It suffocates him in a way Anne is able to—and has to—endure, and he can no longer return the love she still extends to him. At his distress over Topcliffe’s threats against his family and Southwell’s inability to understand his situation, Anne reaches out to him,
“Yet you do not talk of your struggles with me. I am here to listen and to ease your burdens, as a wife should. If you would share with me.”
For her pains—for her labor, emotional and physical—all she gets in return is Will insistence he can’t, and won’t, share with her.
“I cannot speak of what’s inside of me. That is why I write.”
But Anne can’t read. Will’s writing—his plays, his dreams—is an impassable barrier between them, one which Will doesn’t bother to pull down and which Anne eventually accepts.
That’s Anne’s destiny: acceptance of being not even second best. “It’s not about the girl,” Anne tells him in episode 6, “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” as she piles their children in a carriage bound for Stratford. Anne is Alice’s inferior, but more than that, Anne is not theater. She is not the escape, the support and the adoration Will craves and now enjoys in the London theater. Anne is just the mother of his children, a burden to his art. Although it clearly pains her to realize it, she has to step aside; her only purpose left in his life is, as she says, “to leave you free to be who you wish to be” and fade quietly into a lonely life, awaiting money and the occasional letter.
Anne’s grieved blessing and disappearance are required. No longer a figure in Will’s life or thoughts—she’s referenced not even a handful of times after her departure and is never seen again—Anne no longer obstructs his art or his destiny. With this freedom, Will is able to put his pen and his talent to bringing the Theatre up and tearing Topcliffe down with one of his most powerful plays. He can take the first steps into the fame that will follow him for centuries.
Alice and Anne’s roles as destiny-tools are specific: they shape Will, and to a lesser extent Topcliffe and Southwell, into who they are meant to be. Emilia Bassano and Apelina don’t operate in quite the same way. Although they also, indirectly, affect Will’s destiny, their characters exist as more generalized comments on the role of women in Will’s narrative world.
At her first appearance in “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” Emilia Bassano seems to be a noble woman. Alice, however, breaks that illusion. She reveals that Emilia is Lord Hunsdon’s newest mistress—replacing the one from episode one—and although she was once nobility, she’s fallen on hard times. The daughter of a Venetian musician and “impoverished Moroccan royalty,” Emilia has taken up residence with Lord Hunsdon as a companion skilled in conversation and poetry.
She has absolutely no illusions about her purpose and position. “Thou art sorely misguided,” she tells Will in episode seven, “What Dreams May Come,” “None of this is mine. It belongs to Lord Hunsdon, just as I do.” Emilia is property, dressed up in the finest the Queen’s advisor and cousin can offer but with the knowledge that she is no longer her own. Emilia is a thing now, a thing as pretty as her dresses and jewelry, but expected to perform certain duties and services or suffer unspoken consequences.
Her status as high-class property affords Emilia some freedom, but nearly all of it is used to serve others, most often as facilitator. She puts Will in touch with Lord Fortuscue, whose commission for A Midsummer Night’s Dream saves the Theatre from closing. She overhears Lord Hunsdon’s conversations and then shares important details about Topcliffe’s promotion and Alice’s increasing role in Southwell’s plot with Will. But Emilia also provides what she can, especially when Will rescues Alice from Topcliffe’s clutches. She opens Lord Hunsdon’s house to them and gives them access to her own personal physician, even knowing the danger it puts her in.
As Emilia said, nothing she owns is hers. If Lord Hunsdon, cousin of the Queen cousin and–until the last episode–Topcliffe supporter, learns of her aiding and harboring Catholics plotting against him, her life could be in danger. But no one ever addresses or acknowledges this. Emilia is not important enough for fear. Convenient when she is needed, shelved when she is not, the precariousness of her situation—a situation Will brings her into with a well-written sonnet—is never given serious consideration by anyone.
Nor is Apelina’s, although she is confronted with the danger of her choices almost daily. Her situation, in many ways, mimics Emilia’s: they’re both owned, although by different classes of people. Emilia is a nobleman’s mistress, Apelina a peasant sex worker. Apelina has a nearby brother to consider while Emilia is separated from apparently all she’s ever known (but never seems bothered by that fact). However, the most important difference between these two women is that Apelina is given no identity within the narrative.
From her first appearance in “The Play’s the Thing” to her death in “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” Apelina has no personal identity or discernible history apart from “motherless whore,” “dirt-some punk,” and Presto’s sister. Her name is never even mentioned in the show; it only ever appears in the ending credits, a brief half-second flash near the end of the cast list. Without an identity, Apelina occupies the lowest space for women in Will: a complete and total object, to be used, cast aside, and then briefly mourned, if she’s lucky.
She is somewhat “lucky,” in that regard. Her brother Presto is clearly devoted to her, or at least to the idea of her being free. He takes up thieving to pay for her freedom and tortures himself with every day she suffers under Doll’s thumb. Apelina shares that love, and fully verbalizes it when Doll tries to sell Presto to Topcliffe. She helps him escape and undergoes torture to keep him safe. When Presto is caught and agrees to prostitution, she tries to make it as easy as she can for him, giving him alcohol to ease the pain and offering him a compartmentalization technique that has always helped her.
None of this, though, is for her.
Everything Apelina does is as Presto’s sister; everything she does, and says, and is, is for Presto’s growth. Presto needs to suffer, needs to steal from the Theatre and then feel the intense grief and pain to move him into position for Will’s final endgame. But unlike Alice’s case, it is a private grief. No one apart from Presto and Will ever know about Apelina and her role, and even they speak of it only in passing.
In a way, it makes sense that the women in this period drama are so suppressed. Will focuses on the downside of pursuing dreams: the things lost when dreams become obsessions and are followed without any sort of consideration for the lives affected. Yet, Will never took the opportunity to explore the women’s dreams. Alice could have been shown learning that she would never inherit the Theatre and then working to change that reality. Anne could have turned her attention to a different destiny than the happy, stable marriage she once desired. Emilia could have looked for ways to restore her status, or to bring unmentioned family to her side. We could have seen Apelina dreaming of a life of freedom, a home for herself and her brother.
But Will doesn’t care about women’s dreams and women’s destinies; there are dozens of women in Will, named and unnamed alike, and none of them exceed Alice’s crucial instrumentality or Apelina’s limited use. Even Queen Elizabeth I is only referenced, never seen. Will’s world is a man’s world, and male destinies, desires, and hopes are the only ones that matter. Women—their needs, their livelihood, their lives, their bodies—are considered only so far as they work to further or hinder men’s destinies. They are tools, sharpened for use and discarded when no longer needed.
Instead of characters, they are caricatures.
Images courtesy of TNT Productions
The Source deals with Feminism and Intersectionality
A common criticism of feminism is that, as it exists today, it tends to forget the most vulnerable of women, i.e., those that are not wealthy, white, cisgendered, able-bodied, neurotypical, or straight. The response to this has been to draw increasing attention to the principle of intersectionality, that is how one oppression interacts with and complicates others (if you are non-white, neurodivergent, and also LGBTQ+, for example). Similarly, intersectionality seeks to investigate how privilege might interact with oppression (if you are a woman but also white, or if you are a POC but also rich, etc).
Despite the fact that intersectionality has become a common tools of analysis in the social sciences, cultural productions haven’t kept up. Sure, we talk more and more about oppressed demographics, but typically one at the time. We don’t want to strain a muscle, I guess.
And it’s true that even if lately we’ve saw an increase in feminist productions, they tend to primarily cater to one, maybe two demographics (when they actually manage to be feminist at all and not just an exercise in faux-feminism, but that’s another problem). And those demographics aren’t always intersectional.
That maybe why The Source, a feminist movie focused on poor Arab women in a country who suffered colonization, strikes me as special in today’s cultural landscape.
The Source or The Women’s Source
The Source is a 2011 French movie (original title La Source des Femmes literally The Women’s Source) that presented at the Cannes Film Festival the same year. Radu Mihaileanu wrote and directed it, taking inspiration from the classical play Lysistrata and from an actual women’s revolt in Turkey.
The story follows a community of women in a tiny village, nowadays in an unnamed muslim country that used to be a colony. In this village, it is the tradition that women bring the water to their family. The source is, and has always been, at the top of a mountain.
One day, one woman falls while coming down and miscarries. For Leila, who has herself miscarried under such conditions, it is too much. She organizes a strike to persuade the men to do something to bring the water directly to the village. This strike is of a special kind, though; it is a love strike. With time the strike unleashes a debate way larger than the access to water, namely, on the condition of women vis-a-vis traditions.
The movie is supposed to be a dramatic-comedy, and you will laugh yes, but way less than you might have anticipated. And, if you plan a light evening of good fun, I recommend you postpone watching this movie.
So before we move on to the themes, it’s worth summarizing the main characters:
- Leila– clearly the main protagonist, she didn’t grow in the village but came to live there when she married. She is not completely accepted there.
- Vieux Fusils– (literally Old Riffle), among the elders of the village, she supports Leila in her idea immediately. Married when she was a child to a violent man, now that she is a widow recognized for her wisdom.
- Loubna/Esmeralda– teenage sister-in-law of Leila. Madly in love with a boy from another village and has decided to marry only for love. Fan of a telenovelas and therefore nicknamed Esmeralda by the other women.
- Rachida– Leila’s mother-in-law. Hostile to Leila and her strike.
- Sami– Leila’s husband and teacher at the local school. In favor of the strike, but maybe more in favor of a peaceful village.
There are of course a lot of other characters, in favor of or against the strike, but these are the most important to the story.
A Feminine Feminist Revolution
The way Leila and the other women decide to lead their ‘revolution’ might at first appear artificial and even a tad insulting. Is a woman’s only influence on the world through her sexuality? But the fact is that this women don’t have the choice. To have water in the village the government must pay for important construction works, and for this to happen you have to face the AdministrationTM. And the administration has a directive to do nothing if not absolutely necessary, which typically means having time, connections, money, and education.
No woman in this village has all of that. Not even the entire group of women can gather all of those things. To tell the truth, the men don’t have them either. Their lot is better than that of women, but in front of a disinterested government they are as powerless as the women are. To gain what they want, the entire village must work together.
The women don’t want to penalize the village. The want the men to realize that they are suffering for nothing, and that if they love and value them they should help them do something about the condition of the water supply.
They do not reject femininity for the sake of it. But they reject thousand-year-old traditions that are outdated or were wrong to begin with. For example, going up the mountain to carry back water when running water could be installed. But as I previously said, the debate about water brings other questions, like that of the relation between men and women. The husbands think it is their right to sleep with their wife, so due to the strike, eventually practices such as marital rape and child marriage are also denounced.
There is something that grabbed my attention about The Source. In Lysistrata, one of the inspirations behind the movie, the title character (whose name literally means ‘Army Disbander’) wants to stop a war by not sleeping with men and making the other women do the same.
And there is this conversation in The Source:
Hussein (Leila’s father-in-law): Don’t belittle men. My grand-father and my father waged war on the colons and on our neighbors. In order to defend our tribe, our village, our family, and to defend our source of water. During those times women and children stayed at home, sheltered. A lot of us died. Men hunted (…). You realized it was never easy
Leila: They were all warriors.
Hussein: Valiant warriors of great courage (…). We never asked you to do our work in our place. It is for your protection and it is the tradition. The cycle of life. (…) But with the drought there is no more work.
Leila: And no more war.
The Source talks about changes in the society. How the men fell out of employment and how, if they could, they would follow the traditional role they were assigned but they can’t. And the answer given is that maybe it is for the best. Maybe we are best without the violence that exist in the traditional roles of men.
When men have it bad women have it worse
Now on to other subjects tackled by the movie that fit into the idea of intersectionality. Women suffer in this village because they are women, but also because the majority of the village suffers too. If girls barely go to school, boys don’t have a possibility to achieve their dreams either. Women don’t have it bad, per se, they have it worse.
The village is isolated. The climate has changed and agriculture has became impossible. The people in the village as a whole are stuck in there, without a chance to access a better life. The women in the village are stuck in homes they didn’t choose without a chance to access a better life. Worse, the little they have—food, respect, a roof above their head, their children—can be taken from them at any moment if they step out of line
And they are people who don’t want things to change. Some men abuse their wives at their will and use the bad situation to do virtually nothing with their lives. The government doesn’t want change either. It is shown as corrupt and not in any hurry to do anything to better the lives of its citizens. That’s why it doesn’t want to help this village. Because if it does listen to the demand of the women, the most fragile demographic of their country, they might have to listen to other oppressed voices.
A parenthesis on western ‘humanitarian’ tourists
The Source is nearly free of western, white characters. The only ones in it are humanitarian tourists, and oh boy is it glorious! If you are not aware there is currently a backlash against a certain type of humanitarian work. The one that is way more performative than effective and reeks of neo-colonialism. When rich young people pay to have ‘humanitarian’ trips and do to work they are untrained for (but I guess are naturally experts at through the sheer power of whiteness), in order to discover the Real Meaning of LifeTM and add a line to their CV. Just a new rebranding of the good old White Savior.
Well our westerners are those humanitarians. Well I guess they are not that bad because they bring money and don’t receive or offer life lessons. But seeing clueless Europeans watching a show made for them (to show gratitude) while the tensions of the village unfold in front of them is so nice. They can’t understand it, since they don’t speak Arabic, but long story short, The Source makes a point explaining that you can’t be the hero of people you don’t understand.
Of Hope and Love
Gloriously, the movie never becomes nihilistic. Sure, there is despair in our world. There is apathy, oppression, violence, and people who will stand for it. But it doesn’t mean that all hope in mankind must be forsaken. There is love in this world, and love conquers all.
That’s what Loubna’s story represents. Everything is possible when you believe in love, even when the object of your love is proven to be disappointing. Because as long as you believe in the idea of love you can muster the courage to move forward, and maybe find someone more worthy of your love. Like Leila did.
To truly love and be loved you must be worthy of this love, and eventually both Sami and Leila are.
It is also important to love your neighbor, as Vieux Fussil does. She might not have children of her own but she takes care of every young women in the village because they need love and support. Because to turn into the best version of yourself, you need love. Love is like water, it brings life.
And that’s what the women ultimately bring to the village: Love and Life.
The Source isn’t a perfect movie; it has its flaws. It is probably a bit too theatrical, but it is inspired by a play after all. It’s a bit Manichean too, though while not stigmatizing Islam. (The fact that the imam refuses to move against the women because he has been convinced by them is touching.) But it is important to remember that the movie is a fable. It was never intended to be a realistic social movie.
It’s a tale about women and their emancipation. It’s a tale about change and its benefits, and it’s a tale about love. It’s different, and in the end, it’s enjoyable to watch. So I would say that The Source did its job fairly well.