It’s way, way down the list of the important consequences of #MeToo, but the fact that so many actresses are now also prominent activists is having a subtle effect on the way we interpret film authorship. In the traditional auteurist sense, Allure is un film de Carlos and Jason Sanchez, two prominent art photographers making their feature debut here. To my eyes, the Sanchez brothers tackle the story’s difficult themes of domestic abuse and sexual assault with sensitivity and psychological insight – but it’s still a difficult climate in which to market a movie about sexual violence against women written and directed by men. Fortunately, the film has a kind of kitemark of feminist quality in its star, Evan Rachel Wood.
A tireless activist for the rights of abuse victims, Wood has spoken about her own experience with sexual assault before the US House Judiciary Committee. Her current role as Dolores in Westworld, the android slowly becoming aware of her status as a luxury plaything, clearly invites feminist readings. In her early career, casting directors sometimes looked at Wood’s wise-beyond-her-years poise and creative fearlessness and cast her in roles other child actresses may have avoided. Not all of these films measured up to her talent. Catherine Hardwick’s rather overheated thirteen at least had sincere motivations; the smug, ugly satire Pretty Persuasion, which cast her as an underage seductress, can’t claim the same defence. For all she’s never regretted these roles, nor connected them to the abuse she suffered, there is a temptation to read Allure as Wood taking back the narrative she was often made to play, showing the horror underneath the nymphet fantasy.
Laura, her character in Allure, has some similarities to Wood, not least that she is – sing hallelujah! – a bisexual character played by a bisexual actress. (I mean, I love Rooney Mara too, but she can’t play them all) Her most prominent characteristics, though, are ones Wood must have noticed in her abusers, and her boldness in inhabiting their headspace is truly incredible. There’s no tip of the hand, no tell that Wood disapproves of what her character is doing. Following a failed attempt to control Eva, the target of her obsession, she screams and self-harms by banging her head against a wall. You understand the power of her anguish without ever feeling like she’s earned the right to this self-pity.
Wood and the Sanchez brothers do a good job making Laura understandable without making her actions excusable. Laura is an abuse survivor herself, and has internalised the idea that love and sex can only be parasitic, predatory things. Credit also has to go to the actress playing Eva, Julia Sarah Stone, whose portrayal of a deeply insecure young girl is almost painful to watch. The scene where Laura first meets Eva, slowly working out which of her boundaries she can push past, is a masterclass in performance-led horror.
In the original script, the abuser was male; it was only after being disappointed with male auditionees that the Sanchez brothers changed the character’s gender. Does it make a difference? It certainly defamiliarises the story, forces you to look more closely at the psychological dynamics of an abusive relationship rather than write it off as a situation we’re all regrettably familiar with. Sometimes, though, I wondered if Laura, despite Wood’s heavyweight performance, was a descendant of the unstable, manipulative women who populated early ’90s psychological thrillers like Single White Female and Disclosure. The omnipresent moody lighting, come-on of a title and soundtrack of Eva’s classical piano recitals also felt a little more pulpy than Wood and Stone’s raw, real turns deserved – perhaps a little pulpier than the Sanchez brothers realise, too.
The Sanchez brothers’ photography tends towards dramatic, frozen moments – a bomb going off, a man on fire. Obviously this approach can’t be replicated in a medium like film, but it would have been nice if they’d kept the deep-focus clarity of their stills work. (Another photographer who recently made her film debut, Mitra Tabrizian, managed it in Gholam). The shadowy, narrow-focus, colour-corrected look of Allure is close to standard gritty-indie visuals, but their sense of composition is mature and economical. In the argument between Eva and her mother which prompts the young girl to run away with Laura, the two figures are separated by what seems to be a wall or a window frame in the foreground. But the focus only reveals the actresses, separated by something huge, real, but frustratingly indefinable.