Eileen And The New Noir
The film shows how the femme fatale is far too kind to patriarchy.
In the 80s and 90s, male creators of neo-noirs like Wild Thing and The Last Seduction essentially made the femme fatale the protagonist. Strong women still were devious threats to patriarchy, using their sexual wiles to entrap unwitting bumbling men, but now you were (at least ambivalently) rooting for them. It wasn’t exactly feminism, but it was a kind of highly fetishized, sleazy feministploitation.
The huge increase in the number of women who have access to the capital to create mainstream films in the last couple of years has resulted in a fascinating reworking not just of the noir, but of the neo-noir. These interpretations are more adventurous with scrambling identification, gender, and narrative; they don’t’ just plug feminism, and anxieties of feminism into the formula, but actually comment on the genre and its patriarchal, misogynist assumptions. Emerald Lilly Fennell’s Saltburn (somewhat unsuccessfully) imagined the femme fatale as a bixexual man; Justine Triet’s (much superior) Anatomy of a Fall quietly explores how the femme fatale (whether you root for her or against her) is weaponized to demonize women.
Eileen is arguably even more ambitious. Directed by William Oldroyd from a script by Luke Goebel and Ottessa Moshfegh adapting Moshfegh’s 2015 novel, the movie merges the femme fatale with her victim, resulting in a feminist, queer critiue of patriarchal violence which peels back the noir’s hyper-sexualization, its sexism, and its glib equation of liberation with a successful heist.
The Wrong Femme Fatale
The titular character, played with a frantic repression by Thomasin McKenzie, is a 24-year-old secretary in a rural Massachusetts prison in the 1960s. In many respects, she’s a stereotypical noir mark; so sexually desperate she masturbates at her desk at work while imagining a guard ravaging her, belittled and insulted by her bullying drunk castrating police chief father (Shea Whigham.)
The difference, of course, is that she (in theory) can’t be castrated, because she’s a woman. Undissuaded, she follows through on the tropes by falling hard for a sophisticated manipulative modern woman— Rebecca (Anne Hathaway), the new prison psychologist. Female psychologists are bad news in noir, and sure enough Rebecca leads Eileen down the path of sin, encouraging her to drink martinis, smoke, and slow dance to the infectiously sensuous, innocent-but-not-innocent 60s pop soundtrack.
Eileen herself isn’t quite as innocent as the film at first suggests. McKenzie’s body language is cowed and inward-drawn, her expression meek and downcast, which makes her (not infrequent) outbursts of snark, lust, and rage come with a shock of startlement, every time. She fantasizes regularly about killing not just herself, but her father. Though she’s young, sheltered, and living at a time of intense homophobia, to say the least, she either knows already, or quickly figures out, what her feelings for Rebecca mean, and what she wants to do about them. When Rebecca asks her if she’s normal, there’s a world of knowledge, hope, and insinuation in Eileen’s answer: “Normal how?”
Some spoilers ahead for those who care about such things, and/or haven’t read the book.
Patriarchy is Uglier Than Noir
Eileen, in short, pivots from pitiful schlub seduced to the seducer. But this happens almost simultaneously with the revelation that one of Rebecca’s patients at the clinic who killed his father did so because his police officer father was abusing him, with his mother’s complicity. Eileen becomes the “femme fatale,” then, just as the script acknowledges that female violence in reality often involves, not castrating the patriarch, but facilitating the patriarchies horrific abuses.
Rebecca, the supposedly sophisticated, knowing, confident career woman, is shattered; the femme fatale tropes drop from her as Hathaway sheds her calm, cool, sexy demeanor like shuffling off a coat, leaving her with a battery of anxious jitters and a dull stare of despair.
Eileen in contrast, seems to grab ahold of her life in a new way. That’s in large part because, while we see Rebecca targeted for sexism and harassment, it’s Eileen who (at least as far as we know) has experienced this particular kind of patriarchal violence herself (there’s a hint, at least, that her father may have sexually abused her too.) Eileen already knows that the patriarchy is not a stable source of law and order to fight or bow to; it’s a nightmare for women and children, straight people and queer people alike.
The femme fatale has in the past often been celebrated as a subversion of gender roles. But in Eileen, gender roles aren’t so much subverted as fractured, so the sharp edges cut everyone unfortunate enough to wander into the family, which is also a prison. The supposedly bleak noir, with its stylish black and white edges, is revealed as an overly neat mirror image of a bloated, ugly mess; the twisty noir plots of betrayal and subterfuge, from Double Indemnity to Gone Girl, are shown up as tired and tacky evasions of the real evil of patriarchy, which is neither clever, nor fun, nor surprising, but involves the numb truth that people often harm those they’re supposed to care for simply because they can.
Eileen does manage an escape of a sort, empowered in part by her admiration of and love for the femme fatale she sees in Rebecca—a femme fatale which isn’t real, but which can nonetheless serve as an inspiring mirage of feminine power and a possible feminist alternative to patriarchy. In that sense, Eileen doesn’t entirely reject the noir, but sees it as a limited, wavering, but still useful resource. Patriarchy is all encompassing; to open the prison, we need some different dreams. The femme fatale, Oldroyd and Moshfegh suggest, was one such dream. We may finally have reached the point in film where we’re ready to find other, better ones.