(Note: This piece contains specific plot details about recent films The Invisible Man, Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, Harley Quinn: Birds Of Prey, and The Assistant.)
Of the films released in the early months of 2020—consequently, some of the only films to receive theatrical runs so far this year—many focused on compelling female characters. Harley Quinn: Birds Of Prey follows the titular Suicide Squad supervillain (Margot Robbie), freshly out of her unhealthy relationship with the Joker and dealing with a criminal underworld that feels it can finally take shots at her now that she’s no longer dating Gotham’s most feared crime boss. The Assistant details a single, grueling day in the life of Jane, a hard-working assistant (Julia Garner) to a film producer who mirrors Harvey Weinstein in power and predatory behavior. Portrait Of A Lady On Fire traces the tragic romance between artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), the woman she’s been hired to paint.
What’s so noteworthy about these films—what bands them together across lines of genre, tone, and language—isn’t whose stories we’re seeing told. It’s the characters we’re not seeing: The people these characters are being pitted against are uniformly male, and uniformly offscreen.
The most obvious example of this trend is The Invisible Man, which is about… an invisible man. The film employs the premise of H.G. Wells’ century-old science-fiction novel as a metaphor for domestic abuse, highlighting victims’ struggle to have the claims believed and the PTSD with which they may be plagued. In this telling of the story, Elisabeth Moss plays Cecilia Kass, who flees an abusive relationship with tech whiz Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), only for Adrian to follow the example of the Wells character who shares his surname and disappear from sight in order to continue his monstrous deeds.
And yet, it’s a less extreme execution than that of Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, in which Héloïse’s betrothed—the intended recipient of Marianne’s painting—remains offscreen for the entirety of the film, yet remains its most consequential antagonistic force. The Assistant, meanwhile, takes a stylistic approach with its invisible man, with “the boss” only being glimpsed while out of focus and in the background, but his voice is very much heard on the phone calls in which he berates Jane. The film very much wants its audience to notice that they haven’t fully seen the boss. And while Birds Of Prey casts Ewan McGregor and Chris Messina as two visible male antagonists, the Joker acts as an omnipresent villain as well, so much so that Harley even mentions him by name in her climatic speech.
As a storytelling device, this isn’t reinventing the wheel: It’s a popular horror- film trope, with plenty of hostile paranormal forces never manifesting onscreen. The Invisible Man’s lineage runs through loose adaptations of Wells’ novel like 2000’s Hollow Man, a number of televised iterations, and the 1933 Claude Rains vehicle that added the character to the ranks of the Universal Classic Monsters. Yet Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, The Assistant, and Harley Quinn— a period piece, drama, and superhero film, respectively— employ their invisible men to the same ends as The Invisible Man, suggesting that what one cannot see is scarier than what one does see.
In recent years, there’s been a demand for and shift toward more onscreen representation. Logic would suggest that shifting narratives to be more inclusive might result in less screen time for those once afforded a disproportionate amount, but such a shift doesn’t necessarily suggest these characters are any less powerful within narratives. In the case of these four films, those afforded less screen time included a wealthy tech guru, a Milanese nobleman, a Hollywood heavy hitter, and a legendary criminal. Within the particular worlds in which they exist, they still command extraordinary power and their lack of screen times doesn’t diminish their influence. In fact, they wield such power that their visibility would be redundant. As it is, they still inform every scene of their respective films. In a way, this translates to the real-world idea that those with wealth and power often lobby to stay hidden from the public eye, so as to pull the strings of the universe without anyone knowing to hold them accountable.
While these films shifted the narrative focus onto their female characters, they didn’t reimagine their worlds into matriarchal utopias. Instead they’re acutely aware of the patriarchal forces dictating their lives. And in many cases, those forces are the victor. Héloïse marries her betrothed, with whom she has a child. Jane seemingly goes home to return to work tomorrow. Neither are completely defeated, but the systems they exist within seem to have bested them.
Harley Quinn doesn’t ultimately face off against the Joker, but her ending feels less compromising than Héloïse’s, Marianne’s, or Jane’s. Cecilia kills Adrian—the most definitive victory in any of these films—but she does so by adopting his tactics: She gets the upper-hand by stealing one of his invisibility suits. That’s the thing about these antagonists being off screen: They still make the rules by which those onscreen must play.
Taking the men out of the picture gives the women they’re antagonizing more space to take up, and Robbie, Moss, Garner, Merlant, and Haenel were lauded for the performances they gave in that space. But there’s a difference between taking up space in a narrative and taking up space within that narrative’s world—the former didn’t change the latter. These female characters still exist in deeply patriarchal societies, in which the same types of characters, without visible or physical presence, hold most of the power. This offers an examination of power that wastes little to no time fetishizing the privileges of the dominant rather devoting that time to the accommodations others make to bend themselves to the will of the mighty. In that way, The Invisible Man, Harley Quinn, The Assistant, and Portrait Of A Lady On Fire examine power better than many films with onscreen antagonists. They don’t showcase who’s wearing the boot. They showcase the pressure that boot is putting on various necks.