By Sol Astrid Giraldo E.
It’s tempting to call Franco-Brazilian filmmaker Vivian Altman’s animated heroines “little women.” We have met them in productions like Boa noite, Martha (Goodnight, Martha), Espelho meu (Mirror, Mirror), and Tandem (recent prizewinner at the Anima Mundi Festival), among other films in her extensive filmography. The women are delicate and speak softly; they are wide-eyed and have every hair in place. They are middle-aged married women with children, inconsequential jobs, and banal stories. We always see them under flowered coverlets or rushing to take a shower on gray mornings.
They grudgingly carry their purses overflowing with brushes, make-up, hair dryers, etc. They go from home to the office, from the office to the children’s school, and from there to the kitchen. They wear high-necked wool sweaters in winter and insipid red dresses with black polka-dots in summer. They patter about on high heels, breathlessly, like characters in a videogame where every move is life or death, but the points they rack up in their daily competitions never take them to the next level.
Quite the opposite. Every evening they return from taxing jobs, desks awash with papers, through suffocating big-city traffic, to the bed of a tender husband who does not look at them, to empty upholstered sofas, to distracted cats, to infinite labyrinths of crochet. Time and again they engage in losing battles with the mirrors that always hang in wait for them at the end of the day. This implacable judge unblinkingly weighs their sagging breasts, the unconcealable bags under their eyes, the insistent wrinkles, the incipient bulge around their waists, the increasingly common insult of a gray hair in their tresses.
But, as Altman warns: Don’t let them have any dreams! The mirror might shatter and so might the little women. Then they grow. They listen to their inner voices, previously stifled by urban legends, traditions, and neighborhood whisperings. Like full-fledged women, they answer the call of the jungle that waits, dormant, in their bellies. They float above the everyday barrenness in soap bubbles. The cleavage of their polka-dot dresses plunges to the very cores of their bodies. Glasses of milk transmute into cheery glasses of wine. They laugh with greedy mouths and pointy teeth that could swallow the world. They let their hair down over their faces. They raise their arms and legs. They turn off the warm lamps on the bedside tables and shine dazzling lights on their skin. They take off their dishwashing gloves and slip on Rita Hayworth’s velvet gloves. They rule their bodies like a kingdom that admits no one.
And, finally, they make it to the next level. They rip up their sweaters. They water the wilted plants on the patio and make them flower again.
They dance the tango. On the outside, their husbands know nothing about it. Nor does anyone else. Everything happens in a fraction of a second: inside the bathroom, under the covers, behind their eyelids. For the first time, they look into a mirror that shows them a clean, naked image instead of sullying them with its smarmy tyrant’s gaze. There they dream. They resist. And they dream again before opening the door to reality.
Complicated plots, epic dramas, and conventional happy endings may be absent in these narratives, but Vivian Altman still manages to get to the heart of modern life. Realistic and perhaps despairing, but brimming with humor and whimsicality, she looks at women’s lives through a woman’s eyes. It is a luxury accorded to her as a maker of animated films in an arena still dominated by male production and the male gaze. She stealthily approaches the dead ends of her anonymous characters. She recognizes that, while these ordinary lives may not be the great battles of history, they endure the no less complex adventure of daily life, with its modest victories and setbacks.
Looking at these women, trapped in their double shifts of work and family, in immemorial and fixed stereotypes, in romantic relationships with no magic, in prejudices that try to keep them submissive, with no desires or life of their own, Altman wonders what, in the end, constitutes a modern woman. What is she made of? A miniskirt in Spain, a turban in Mozambique, a burka in Iran? Is there anything else? Who controls the mirrors? How can they be reclaimed?
Altman does not have an answer. She merely observes women from here and there: Latin America, Europe, and Africa. She pries into their finely-tuned workings. She unpeels layers with a scalpel-like precision and recognizes women’s doubts, mistakes, desires, and fears. She watches them bear the moral, social, aesthetic, and emotional pressures of their time and place. She delights in their numerous clever survival strategies. Simply put, she understands their weariness. Her films thus wish them —as we see with Martha, Altman’s iconic character— the simple miracle of a boa noite (good night). She cannot go on without them.