Crossing the Line: Power Dynamics in Fall Films
In the long arc of time, history is written by the victors. But in the day-to-day lives of the rest of us? Lines are drawn by the powerful. Lines demarcate power, enclosing those who have it within their bubbles and preventing others from getting in. Lines distinguish Them from Us – it doesn’t matter who “they” are or who “we” are, so long as one has something that the other does not. Most importantly, the powerful draw lines just to make sure the powerless know their place.
Warning: this article contains discussions of plot elements in Parasite, The Lighthouse, Knives Out, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Nowhere has this insidious exercise of control been more painfully reflected back at us than in the movies of the Fall of 2019. The lines have been different. Some have been corporeal: literal, physical manifestations of boundaries. Others have been “so metaphorical,” to quote the down-on-his-luck father of Parasite, Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho). They’ve been logical and illogical tools for power grabbing and grappling, both permanent fixtures in a wealthy family’s exercise of control and flickering attempts to hold onto a shifting status quo. In all their gory glory, these lines – along with those who cross them – have defined the last two months of cinema.
In Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, the wealthy Park family weaponizes a very simple concept: do not get to know the help. As the lowly (both in status and in geography) Kim family slowly invades their lives and their home, Park Dong-ik, the CEO of a tech company and the source of the family’s wealth, becomes stricter in resisting a personal connection. When Kim Ki-taek tries to talk to him about his wife and his marriage, the magnate sternly and explicitly reminds him not to cross the line. It’s a commentary on not letting a business relationship become a personal one, but as Park Dong-ik sits comfortably in the backseat, there’s also a clear physical segregation. Bong and his crew draw lines – with the framing,the lighting, and the production design – to emphasize those drawn by the characters. More than just setting the boundaries, the Park patriarch takes a perverse pleasure in constantly talking about them. He doesn’t just refuse to go from boss to friend, he repeatedly reminds the Kim family where the line is, and calls them out every time they toe just a bit too close to it. For Park Dong-ik, line-drawing is less about avoiding personal connection with the Kims, and more about the very act of drawing the line – and pointing it out – in the first place. It doesn’t matter where the line is; it matters that those with wealth, status, and power get to set it, and those without must abide.
It’s that similar arbitrary act of boundary-setting that invades The Lighthouse, Robert Eggers’ moody two-hander that pits a newly employed wickie, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), against his increasingly unstable boss and companion, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). Over the course of the film, Wake crosses every imaginable line – he gets hammered with Winslow then he screams at him; shares intimate details with him and then scolds him for “spill[ing] yer beans.” Wake is a mess of contradictions that makes clear relationship boundaries impossible, but he nonetheless establishes his control over Winslow through their work. He’s a capricious boss, indiscriminately assigning Winslow menial and seemingly pointless tasks just to show he can: dispose of the chamber pots, scrub the floors, refuel the light, scrub the floors again. Wake refuses to let Winslow tend to the light – as in Parasite, Eggers makes physical what the characters experience internally, positioning Wake consistently above Winslow in the frame. The Lighthouse is partially a movie about shifting power dynamics, and it highlights the increasingly desperate reliance on line-drawing as that control begins to slip away from Wake. As the powerful flail and begin to lose their grip, distinguishing themselves from others becomes a last gasp effort to reclaim that to which they feel entitled. In Wake’s case, he leans into his whims, forcing Winslow to continue cleaning even as the lighthouse begins to fall apart. In both Parasite and The Lighthouse, the powerless become increasingly emboldened, and as the lines begin to blur and fade, there’s no stopping the inevitable shift, the gradual but unceasing loss of control. And as centuries of human history has taught us: nobody loses power in peace.
Especially not the Thrombey family. If The Lighthouse transports viewers back to another time and place, Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is a portrait of power and privilege in an extremely 2019 world. The Thrombey clan has it all: the “self-made” heir who ignores the million-dollar building block to her success; the spiritual guru with faux-philosophical depth; and the not-so-casual racism. But, most importantly, they have money. A lot of it. And with that money comes kindness. Genuine or not, and certainly with a strong hint of Kipling’s White Man’s Burden, most of the Thrombey family treats Marta (Ana de Armas), their deceased father’s nurse, with magnanimity. They offer to “take care” of her. They claim they thought she should have been at the funeral. All this comes from a place of patronization, of course – as with the Park family in Parasite, wealth and power make it much easier to be generous. But when that power starts to slip away, the knives – or, in this case, the lines – start to come out. When the Thrombey inheritance is stripped from this entitled bunch in favor of Marta, it immediately turns into an Us vs. Them battle. The family pointedly and repeatedly notes that Marta was never really family, never really one of them. Not blood, at least. Richard highlights that she’s an immigrant, hurling her mother’s “other” status at her in a shower of threatening words and gestures. Let them maintain the status quo, and you can be one of them. But come for the throne? Then you’re the enemy. It’s no coincidence that in all of these movies, the powerful end up in various states of ruin. It’s a simple lesson: the bolder they draw lines between themselves and others, and the tighter they grip those arbitrary distinctions, the more quickly they slip into a downward spiral, losing any control they once had.
The missing ingredient for all them – the Parks, the Thrombeys, and Wake – is empathy. Its importance is crucial to one of the most beautiful films of the year, Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The film centers around Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a young painter hired to act as the wealthy Héloïse’s (Adèle Haenel) companion while painting her in secret, in preparation for Héloïse’s arranged marriage. The two occupy a large manor on the French island of Brittany with only one other person: Héloïse’s maid, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami). Portrait circles around three women resting in a clear class structure – wealthy heiress, working-class painter, lower-class servant – but it removes the oppressive burden of power. More than anything, Héloïse, Marianne, and Sophie empathize with each other as women in a men-first world that has given them little choice in love, in work, and in life. The lines are still there, but Héloïse does not use them to exert her power over Marianne. Nor do either of them abuse those lines to exercise control over Sophie. In fact, it’s the opposite. The closer Héloïse moves toward losing control over her life, the more the lines between these women blur, as they rely on rather than turn on each other. The last hour of Portrait goes barely 10 minutes without depicting another radical act of solidarity. The power dynamics across Parasite, The Lighthouse, Knives Out, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire reflect back a world in the throes of instability. As those who have had centuries of supremacy begin to lose their grip, they tend to hold on tighter, exercising control through more and more arbitrary shows of power. Their downfall is imminent, of course, but the greater the resistance, the more everyone suffers. We can only hope the women of Céline Sciamma’s masterpiece serve as a guiding empathetic light for us all.