Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Characterization and Sexuality in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

     Several months ago, I promised a return to the analysis of this fascinating film to supplement what I said earlier about its espionage element.  It is now time to look at Valerian and Laureline as a couple.  Here, as with the earlier topic, Luc Besson departs from the usual paradigm of space opera and science fiction in general.  When women are present in the genre, which is not always the case, they assume a passive function from the earliest days of Flash Gordon or Rocky Jones serials.  They are usually simple objects of sexual desire, sighing Dale Ardens or Vena Rays waiting to be won (usually rescued from alien menace) by the heroic beefcake male leads.  This model persisted well into the 50's and 60's in the case of spacegoing women like Ann Anderson in It!The Terror From Beyond Space or “Irish” Ryan in Angry Red Planet.  There were some mild exceptions, as when Beverly Garland's Claire Anderson in It Conquered the World tries ineffectually to kill the okra-like alien or when Gloria Talbott's Marge Farrell struggles psychologically with her doppelganger husband in I Married a Monster From Outer Space.  However, it is usually men with weapons who eventually get the job done (in the latter case, with an assist from German shepherds).    The woman's options are limited, even as  Claire takes up arms in a fit of romantic jealousy and Marge tries to get help from her gynecologist.  Anne Francis's ingenue role of Altaira in Forbidden Planet and Faith Domergue's more intellectual Ruth Adams in This Island Earth still fit within this category, despite certain nuances. 

     Those women who did display sexual strength or aggressiveness in early sci fi films were often portrayed as fiendishly motivated to the point of ridicule. Cat Women of the Moon is a comical example of this, as are the more serious (?) Queen of Outer Space and Queen of Blood.  Since the latter was based on a Soviet forerunner, one can see that this pattern of female passiveness was not strictly limited to Hollywood.  Queen Cleolanta of the Rocky Jones television series and its spin-off films, while not really a man-killer, is unmistakably labeled as a freakish woman, plagued by penis envy and troubled relations with the males on her homeworld of Ophiucus (oddly pronounced on screen as something close to “officious”).  Only at the end of the plot loop and under the benign influence John Banner's Bavarro (in his pre-Sergeant Schultz days), does she do a “face turn” and assume a more properly passive approach to things.

     Of course, later movies did begin to widen the role of the spacewoman, giving her unprecedented strength, as demonstrated by Sigourney Weaver's Ridley in Alien or Helen Mirren's Tanya Kirbul in 2010.  Neither female figure, though, is really involved in an intimate relationship, so the impact of a strong female presence in the heterosexual couple is not realized.  Star Wars' Princess Leia, is certainly a special case, for her complex character evolves from adorable supplicant to tough prisoner (“Aren't you a little short to be a storm trooper?”) to worthy comrade warrior, to deliverer of Han, to slave, to Diane Fossey-like ewok-whisperer to legitimate hookup for Harrison Ford.  Despite this depth, it is the nearly porno image of Slave Leia that seems to stick most firmly in the memories of many fans, to the point that some objected to her posthumous turn as a senior stateswoman in Last of the Jedi.  In fact, it is worth noticing that other women in the latest Star Wars films have met with increasing hostility from some audiences that decry the “feminization” of the series.  This can be linked to a backlash that has grown to include certain critics of Blade Runner 2049 and even Wonder Woman.  Part of the sci fi public is unusually troubled by the tendency to present female protagonists in more realistic and multi-dimensional roles.

     It is in this context that we must consider Valerian.  Besson shaped his film uniquely and developed the comic strip original in interesting ways.  For one thing, he did not allude to Laureline's background as a time traveler from the medieval world, perhaps because Americans still see fainting damsels in distress rather than the strong, independent female figures that often appear in the real Middle Ages, from Joan of Arc to Eleanor of Aquitaine, Marie de France to Louise Labé, Héloise d'Argenteuil to Hildegard von Bingen.  Besson is able to reference Laureline from the beginning as a very matter-of-fact person who, though not unmoved by Valerian's beautiful face, rejects his status as a tombeur de filles with a huge digital black book.  She makes it clear that she will not consider consent unless he shapes up and undergoes a major psychological shift.  This effectively reverses the sex roles, making the “normal” factor of heroism irrelevant.  They will have to cooperate as equal partners in a common mission whose outcome does not necessarily entail a sexual reward for the male.  Moreover, Valerian is the one who is allotted the duty of self-examination that is normally foisted off on the object of desire.  His position is complicated by the fact that he doesn't seem to know where to begin because his previous line of conquests has been so effortless. 

     Into this dilemma comes the crucial catalyst of the shape-changer Bubble.  The dance that Bubble performs before the goggle-eyed Valerian is far more than a standard Hollywood set piece.  In fact, the numerous nods in the performance to motion picture precursors such as The Blue Angel and Cabaret only serve to underline the fact that this performance tops them all, inasmuch as it goes beyond the level of illusory seduction to hit at the very heart of desire.  Bubble is the ultimate in seduction, yet her real shape can never succeed in attracting Valerian – only offering him a ghost of pleasure.  The spy becomes aware of this through the shock of revelation and simultaneously develops the quality of compassion, as he realizes that the ultimate in sexual attractiveness is all the more painful to the seductress than to himself, the object.  Bubble's unrequited love becomes an exemplum to Valerian, leading to a discovery of humility that has more in common with chivalric romance than the explosathons of most contemporary action movies.  After Bubble's sacrificial death, Laureline can finally judge the questing knight who has shown his worthiness, not through self-realization of a predetermined destiny, but through the agonizing elective process of change. 

     Yes, this is conceptually “deep.”  It postulates a level of appreciation much more intricate than the standard fare of movies and television, just as the savoring of a fine wine requires more than the instant gustatory satisfaction of a bottle of Coke that is always going to taste the same.  It is worth the time and the effort.  If sci fi is to remain a viable, inventive genre in this rapidly changing world, it depends just as much, if not more, on this type of psychological inception as it does on the refinement of eye-catching design or special effects.