You’ve heard of the Bechdel test, right? To pass it, a movie must show at least two women having at least one conversation about something other than a man. It’s a fun exercise — does the last movie you saw get a passing grade? Go ahead! Try!
“The Past,” out today, fails. Going just from memory, there are three women in the film (pass), two of them talk to each other (still a pass!) but their major conversation — in fact, their relationship for the entirety of the film — is defined by one’s relationship with a man. So, the movie fails feminism.
Except not — not at all. Berenice Bejo plays Marie, the central female character, and Marie is problematic. She’s a little messed up and pretty manipulative but sometimes really nice, and it’s kind of understandable when she loses her temper with her kids because who doesn’t, right? Marie isn’t perfect but she’s not awful, and she’s not particularly likable but she’s not evil. What Marie is is unmistakably human.
Movies that pass the Bechdel test are rare; what might be even rarer are movies in which the women are as multidimensional as the men who surround them.
There is no “you must be this feminist to ride” measuring stick for a film. The only way to see if a movie treats women as human beings is to ask the following questions: Do the women in the movie act as though they are human beings? Do they make choices a human being might make? (This does not mean “do they make choices that you agree with?”) Are they naked in a situation where a human could expect to be naked; do they have sex at times a human might have sex and in a manner at least approximating the manner in which a human might? Are they treated as humans by the other people in the movie and, when they are not, do they point that out?
The Bechdel test is a good test of gender representation, but it’s not the only test. “The Past” fails on the Bechdel level, but it succeeds so well at giving us a realistic, nuanced woman that the failing grade doesn’t really matter.