From Spencer to Licorice Pizza: why are women suddenly running on film?

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From Spencer to Licorice Pizza: why are women suddenly running on film?
© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Kasper Tuxen/AP

There is a moment in Spencer, Pablo Larraín’s imagining of an ill-fated weekend at Sandringham for Diana, Princess of Wales (Kristen Stewart), when Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) tells his wife, “You have to be able to make your body do things you hate. For the good of the country.” Diana grips the edge of a billiards table as if trying to hold herself together; behind white knuckles, satin, and perfect hair, untapped rage is seething.

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Diana’s fight to contain herself – to remain statue-like, elegant, and prim – repeatedly threatens to boil over. When it does, she does not take Charles’s advice. Instead, she runs as if her life depends on it. In a surreal montage of her past and present selves, Larraín shows a 12-year-old Diana chasing her friends on the lawn, then at 17, flying past in a school uniform, and at 20, tripping on the hem of her wedding dress, but hurtling on regardless. She is wild, unrestrained, luminous, and free, and the sequence is one of the film’s most moving and exuberant moments – one that precipitates Diana’s decision to live on her own terms, not those of the royal family.

Flurries of movement such as this one have acted as a signpost for freedom since the start of film. Yet in the past couple of months, a slew of new movies have made emphasised one kind of movement in particular, with scenes of women running. Since Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza was released, social media has been populated with gifs of its star Alana Haim running through Los Angeles – arms pumping, hair blowing, grinning widely (Haim has joked about becoming “so fit” on set). In the forthcoming Norwegian drama The Worst Person in the World, directed by Joachim Trier, the protagonist Julie (Renate Reinsve) runs down the middle of the street euphorically in a scene that is spotlighted by the film’s poster. Both Haim and Reinsve are relative newcomers to the big screen; the beauty of their performances lies in how unvarnished they feel, and running, specifically (unlike other kinds of movement, such as dance), adds to this uncalculated feeling – it’s more about letting go than looking good.

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From Spencer to Licorice Pizza: why are women suddenly running on film?
© Provided by The Guardian ‘It’s more about letting go than looking good’ … Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim in Licorice Pizza. Photograph: Courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer/AP

Gallery: 19 TV scenarios that could never happen in real life (Espresso)

From Spencer to Licorice Pizza: why are women suddenly running on film?

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In visual terms, running has an inherently cinematic quality: film is, after all, a medium that celebrates movement. But as Richard Dyer wrote in 1994 about the action movie Speed, the freedom to move and traverse space unquestioned involves a privilege “that is coded as male (and straight and white, too) but to which all humans need access” (we should add non-disabled to his list). He noted that the pattern of thrilling audiences with sensational movement was common to films that celebrated male power or machismo, and that therefore took bodily freedom as a given.

For female performers, on-screen movement has tended to be more limited, often bound to stereotypes of docility and submission, or slowed-down moments of erotic display. In her 1975 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, film theorist Laura Mulvey wrote that “in a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female.” This division has a physical dimension – the requirement that a woman’s “beauty” be available to the camera might have interfered with any possibility of moving too quickly or freely. For instance, Léa Seydoux spent much of her screen time in Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch naked, posing for a portrait by contorting herself into impossible shape after impossible shape, dangling above hot radiators and hovering on a stool, constantly struggling to keep still. As Anderson’s film cheekily concedes, inertia has, for centuries, been the essential style of women in visual culture, or as John Berger wrote 50 years ago, “Men act and women appear.”

For the most part, however, women have finally begun to play a much more (literally) active role in film. The shift towards women who explode into movement suggests an important turning point in the culture of images that normalise, sanction, and direct ideas about gender, especially those that have so often limited the female body to the status of ornament. Women are now fronting superhero films such as Wonder Woman and Birds of Prey and even giving James Bond much needed back-up in No Time to Die. Watching women’s bodies in the throes of action, whether running, fighting, or flying, has a cathartic effect. However, this movement tends to be more spectacular – the product of a rigorously trained, aestheticised body – than realistic. To reduce this feeling of empowerment to moments of violence and combat, and in the context of films that otherwise say very little about gender or feminism more broadly, feels like a return to the problems raised by Dyer, in other words, to a reification of bodily power without acknowledgment of politics, or to a celebration of capacity carte blanche. If women now have more freedom to move on screen, what might they move towards?

In Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiographical sequel, The Souvenir Part II, young film-maker, Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), struggles to complete her thesis film, plagued by trauma from a past relationship, creative indecision and professors who fail to understand her vision. When we finally get to see her completed project, she takes us on a surreal, singular journey through grief and heartbreak that triumphantly bursts into life as she sprints across a field, only stopping to pick up a Super 8 camera. Whereas Julie had been reticent to move forward, she now runs towards what she wants – that is, to make films, and to make them her way.

The final leg of Spencer is likewise something of a marathon, replete with scene after vivid scene of running. Diana’s physical transformation, from highly surveilled by her handlers and wrapped in ornate gowns and jewellery, to sweatshirt-clad and sprinting, is a rejection of the obedient performance of wealth and hyper-femininity that she is conscripted to show to the world, as well as a symbolic escape from her fraught marriage. In new films such as these, the heroines aren’t simply running down well-trodden paths; rather, they mark a turn – or perhaps, a sprint – away from them.

Physical movement precipitates larger departures, changes, or victories in these narratives; if running is meant to signify freedom, this also means freedom from the narrow ways in which gender gets embodied on screen, and other compulsory expectations that keep women figuratively and actually standing still, or following tired, normative scripts. At the end of Hogg’s film, Julie is advised by a director friend, Patrick (Richard Ayoade), to go “Onward. That’s my direction.” He then gestures down the street, but instead of following him, she stops and says decisively (perhaps for the first time in the film), “I’m this way.” Patrick pauses and adds, “Good decision.” They depart in opposite directions; Julie takes her own path.

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