The first in a series I’m currently calling ‘women deserve better’.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement and the disruption it caused in Hollywood, it would not be unreasonable to expect a conscious effort to reconsider how the female body is represented in cinema. In anticipation of this year’s awards season I decided to view a range of movies from across the spectrum of film, but repeatedly left the cinema with a bitter taste in my mouth and feeling the keen sting of disappointment in how my gender had been represented on screen. The film that perhaps bothered me most was Uncut Gems, an ‘indie’ favourite which was nominated for thirteen awards. This film was praised for Adam Sandler’s performance as the lead, for the style of direction, for being a ‘monumental thriller’ (Nick De Semlyen, Empire) and pushing boundaries even further than the Safdie brothers have ever before in a ‘full-blown assault’ (Wendy Ide, The Observer). Yet I struggle to recognise the merits of this film without also considering its significant down falls. In a truly concerning scene, Sandler’s character Howard hides in a closet while texting his ‘mistress’ Julia that he’s not yet home, in order to watch her undressing and begin masturbating in response to his texts. This is already problematic, as it suggests that female sexual pleasure is designed for the enjoyment of men. What makes it even more uncomfortable for the female viewer is that the female character feels so inauthentic; the texts Julia and Howard exchange feel so blatantly written by a man fulfilling a sexual power fantasy. The most frustrating aspect of this scene is that it pretends to display female sexual agency, while in fact undermining it. While it can be argued that this scene is deliberately sleazy because it fits with Howard’s character the scene adds nothing to the film and seems to only be included for the sake of exposing the female body, especially as the scene is all too familiar. It is boring to see over and over again scenes which demean women and their sexuality under the justification of developing a male character. At this point it is just too obviously an excuse to include female nudity on screen.
Despite Howard’s poor treatment of Julia, publicly humiliating her and kicking her out of their shared apartment, she blames herself entirely for the rift in their relationship and considers Howard her hero at the close of the film. The only prominent female characters in the film are Howard’s love interests, neither of which are given any character development beyond their relationship with him. Both women fall into stereotypes, but Julia especially is characterised as slutty and stupid, entirely dependent on Howard. When Julia does begin to establish a career for herself Howard ruins it with his jealousy which for some reason Julia forgives and then begs Howard to come back to her, only becoming more desperate to remain in a relationship with him. Their relationship honestly makes no sense to me, Howard is in no way an appealing character. He’s decades older than Julia and doesn’t understand her interests. Even if she were theoretically interested in him for financial reasons (again a boring trait to employ as a women’s defining characteristic), Howard is constantly struggling for money and in no position to support the desires of a ‘gold digger’ (to be clear, I find this term derogatory, hence why it appears in parenthesis). Once again Howard and Julia’s relationship appears to be serving the misogynistic fantasies of an insecure middle aged man. Repeatedly male directors are praised for pushing boundaries because they exploit women on screen, but what they’re doing is the opposite of new and ground breaking.
It should not be overlooked that Julia (portrayed by Julia Fox) is a breakout actor, who found her first major role in Uncut Gems. There is here a power dynamic which restricts Fox’s autonomy over the role she is playing, specifically her ability to question the creators of the film about how they are choosing to portray her character, the female lead of the film. As evidence of this, I cite the report that Sandler changed the name of the romantic female lead from ‘Sadie’ to ‘Julia’ on the grounds that Sadie is the name of his daughter and it was therefore too uncomfortable for him (Isla Williams, Metro). Yet he was willing to change the name of Fox’s character to Julia, the real name of the actress. How is it acceptable to change a character’s name for Sandler’s comfort, only to have Fox play an oppressed character who shares her name? Here the line between the real and fictional treatment of women blurs, exemplifying how the treatment of the fictional Julia is not just founded in building Howard’s character. This demonstrates a real disrespect for the comfort of the most predominant female actress in Uncut Gems.
Howard’s comeuppance in the film (spoiler alert: he’s shot in the head) does nothing to address his mistreatment of both Julia and his wife, while allowing Howard to die without having to question his own actions. Howard dies without any recognition of his flaws, believing himself to be a champion. This leads me into my other main disappointment in the film (once I was able to consider the film beyond my- quite rightly- disappointed feminist disposition), which is the many unexplored plot lines of Uncut Gems. The film opens with miners finding the gem which is the focus of the film. A shot of the gem which closes in on magnificent colours, only to zoom out so that the audience finds themselves experiencing Howard’s colonoscopy, is an undeniably excellently filmed piece of cinema. Yet these two incredibly interesting threads, the story of the miners and Howard’s confrontation with inescapable mortality, are brushed aside for the rest of the film. To me this feels like an incredible waste of potential. These would have made incredibly human stories which played in dramatic contrast with Howard’s feeling of invincibility in regard to his gambling and money borrowing. Instead this set up seems to bear no relevance to the rest of the film; it almost feels as if they changed the plot of the film having made those scenes and decided they might as well include them anyway.
If you couldn’t tell, for me Uncut Gems was truly disappointing. The exploration of the male ego was not new or interesting, but rather a rehash of so many other films about male psychology -such as Scorsese’s Goodfellas- done in a far less interesting way. While we might forgive the objectification of women in some of the beloved films of the 80s and 90s, in 2020, with the critical thinking surrounding the representation of the female body, it is inexcusable and frankly lazy to write women in this way. What frustrates me more is the praise that Uncut Gems has received, no doubt I will be considered a silly girl who simply couldn’t understand the brilliance of the film by many I express this opinion to. I am not denying that it was directed in an interesting way, but Uncut Gems struck me as a waste of potential. The Safdie brothers had the opportunity to create something truly fascinating with the premise of this film, but sadly that opportunity slipped through their fingertips.