Lisa Aschan’s debut feature film She Monkeys won the award for Best Narrative Feature at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival and has been heralded as a thrilling subversion of the coming-of-age genre. She first garnered attention whilst studying film at The National Film School of Denmark for a controversial collection of shorts entitled Fuck the Rapist which challenged conventional taboos surrounding female sexuality, identity and feminine acts of violence.
She Monkeys, in part, revisits these ideas of female sexual behaviours and explores perceptions of women performing what Aschan describes as “brutal actions”. She Monkeys is a complexly woven and adeptly detailed exploration of sexuality, gender performance, innocence, power and control. Aschan’s show-don’t-tell approach to film-making creates a deeply immersive and astutely emotive universe of understated teenage angst. In this sense, the film is a story of growing up and forming identities. However, Aschan’s expansive examination of young sexual identity in this film challenges wider taboos around self-identification and learned behaviours.
When Emma (Mathilda Paradeiser) begins training to join her local voltige team, she meets the spirited and attractive – though somewhat spiteful – Cassandra (Linda Molin); they soon become close friends and bid for one another’s attention in increasingly wicked and daring acts. Before long, their mutual but muddled feelings of sexual attraction and jealousy begin to test the boundaries of their friendship. Meanwhile, Emma’s little sister Sara (Isabella Lindquist) idolises the behaviour of her sister whilst searching to understand her own sexual identity.
The exploration of learned behaviour and the concept of gendered sexuality as a performance are two of the most visually apparent themes throughout the narrative. As Emma’s frustrations and disappointments emerge, she is portrayed with her highly trained dog, teaching him tricks in the woods. When her little sister, Sara, asks how the dog knows what to do, Emma explains the clicking device she has used to train him. “The click tells him he has done the right thing,” she says. “It forms his behaviour.” Later, when a swimming teacher asks little Sara where the top piece of her swimming outfit is, she immediately forms the previously unrealised desire for a bikini – much to the dismay and discomfort of her father. But, as the film goes on, it becomes crushingly clear that understanding one’s own behaviours, reactions and emotions is not simple.
Aschan has brilliantly portrayed the formation of adolescent identities through the characters of Emma and Cassandra – and, again, by showing us their actions simply and objectively, Aschan has forced a kind of darkly comic recognition together with melancholic adult hindsight. Though Cassandra, as the more outwardly confident and physically attractive of the pair, may seem the most self-reliant and self-aware, it soon becomes unclear which of the girls has a better grasp on their own sense of self. Emma is consistently told to perform better, to put on a better show and to be more aware of the way she appears. Aschan boldly shows the internalisation of these instructions and the palpable way these begin to shape Emma’s behaviour.
Aschan has described her approach to film-making as a means of exploring the world – as such, She Monkeys is not a feminist film with a directly female agenda. Rather, it is an exploration of self-identification which intelligently separates sexual identity from gender identity. Neither one is the main focus; both are shown as pieces of a much more complex psychology, which connects to a world which pulls between power and passivity.
By the end of the film, Emma’s reactions are distinctly ambiguous; neither a grasping of total autonomy nor entirely passive. How do action and inaction affect selfhood? How do control and power play into sexuality? How are the behaviours that form our sense of ourselves learned? Can we control them? These are just a few questions posed by She Monkeys and just as Emma and Cassandra have to think up the answers for themselves, so do we.
Watch the trailer for She Monkeys here