He Said/She Said

Damsels in Distress Debate: The New ‘Twilight Saga’ vs. ‘Anna Karenina’

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 2 and Anna Karenina opened in theaters Friday. Does the final in the Twilight series or the latest adaptation of the Tolstoy classic handle the damsel-in-distress theme better? Our critics debate.

This weekend pits two damsels in distress against one another at the multiplex. There’s Kristen Stewart’s vampire-loving teen, Bella Swan, in the final Twilight film, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 2, and Keira Knightley as the aristocratic title character in Anna Karenina, the latest movie adaptation of Tolstoy’s classic novel. But which film is better ... or more awful? Our critics, Anna Klassen and Marlow Stern, debate.

Marlow: Let’s kick things off with The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 2—say that five times fast!—the final entry in the emo-teen-vampire blockbuster franchise based on Stephenie Meyer’s bestselling YA novels, since it’s fresher in our minds. Whereas the last Twilight film was a colossal bore that spent the majority of its running time tracking Bella (Kristin Stewart) in a fancy condo struggling with losing her V-card, and her subsequent baby vampire pregnancy, the final Twilight revels in its own absurdity. The worst films in the series were the ones that were too somber and self-serious (Twilight, New Moon, Breaking Dawn—Part 1), whereas the best have recognized that these films are pure camp and milked that for all it’s worth (Eclipse, with its Brokeback Mountain tent scene). Part 2 is a fun lil’ romp, with the Cullen clan—and Bella—rounding up a motley crew of ridiculously costumed vampires from around the globe, including Amazons, a Middle Easterner who can control the elements, two Italians who talk like Super Mario and Luigi, and Lee Pace deliciously overacting as a N’awlins vampire. They’re assembling the Vampire Avengers because the vampire high council, the Volturi, wishes to destroy Bella and Edward’s (Robert Pattinson) gifted vamp/human daughter, Renesmee, whom they believe to be immortal—apparently a huge no-no in vampire circles. All-in-all, it’s a gay ol’ time.

Anna: A gay ol’ time, it is not. If it wasn’t for a handful of enjoyable cameos (Taken’s Maggie Grace, The Master’s eternally cheery Rami Malek, and Pushing Daisies’ Lee Pace) I would have been asleep before the Volturi snapped off its first vampire head. But aside from the unimproved CGI and cheesy dialogue (or lack thereof), the plot itself is absurd: after Bella gives birth to a seemingly demonic child that nearly destroyed her from the inside out (as we saw in many graphic, unnecessary sequences) in 2011’s Breaking Dawn: Part 1, the child is transformed into a miniature protagonist in Part 2. Renesmee, the almost entirely computer-generated spawn of Edward and Bella’s violent, unintentionally S&M bang sesh in Part 1, poses as the love interest for resident werewolf Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner). While Bella may have blossomed from her doe-eyed wallflower status of the first four films, her daughter, fresh from the womb, has already been “imprinted on” (read: claimed) by a man who is sometimes a wolf. Jacob’s usual testiness in the first four films has been traded for a (creepy) protectiveness over the newborn baby of the woman he once loved (Bella). Because he wants to make babies with her one day. (We are of course supposed to assume that the feeling is mutual, and Renesmee is totally cool with bestiality). Ugh.

Marlow: There’s no bestiality in the world of Twilight; it’s all fair game! Plus, the scenes of Jacob fawning over the lil’ girl are really played up for laughs in a “so-ridiculous-it’s-funny” type of way, similar to an earlier scene where Jacob Black does an impromptu strip-down in front of Bella’s dad. Since the final novel allegedly (Disclaimer: I did not read any of the books) ends anti-climactically, director Bill Condon and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg did a nice job of tiptoeing around that and including an epic battle royale sequence, replete with vampires getting decapitated and burned alive. Wasn’t it awfully violent, too? Between vampire teens ripping Volturi heads off here and The Hunger Games’ kids-slaughtering-kids scenes, I’m not sure what qualifies for an “R-rating” anymore in the violence department.

Anna: As someone who is sensitive to violence in film (I couldn’t even stomach Ang Lee’s PG-rated Life of Pi), I didn’t mind the violence in this one. Since vampires (according to Meyer’s many rules) technically have no blood running through their veins, the beheadings left no residue on the killers’ fingers or my memory bank of bloody scenes. Killing a vampire is kind of like twisting the stem off an apple, you turn it hard enough and it just pops off.

Marlow: Really? I’m completely insensitive to violence having grown up with stuff like I Spit on Your Grave, but I still thought all the decapitations and arm tearing was a little much for a 10-year-old girl to handle. Plus, it was nice to see Kristen Stewart’s Bella be less emo in this flick and be the aggressor, kicking the crap out of Lautner and breaking some skulls. I thought the final Twilight film was FAR more enjoyable than another woe-is-me-damsel-in-distress flick, Anna Karenina, which was, in my opinion, a colossal failure on just about every level.

Anna: I’m glad you brought up Anna Karenina, Joe Wright’s self-aware adaptation of Tolstoy’s Russian satire starring Keira Knightley. I think it’s important to note that today marks a rare but momentous occasion for women in film. For the majority of cinema’s short history, women have taken a back seat to cowboys, gangsters, and other male archetypes that use women as background fillers or sultry sidekicks. But today, the two biggest flicks to hit theaters revolve around two heroines—and regardless of how terrible their films might be, this is something to be applauded.

Marlow: Definitely applause-worthy. Furthermore, Silver Linings Playbook opens Friday in limited release, and it stars Jennifer Lawrence who, with Kristen Stewart, might be the one of the two biggest movie stars—of either gender—on the planet right now. But let’s get to Anna Karenina, which is a huge misfire. In terms of quality, this is on par with The Soloist—Joe Wright’s other cinematic calamity. While Shakespeare famously wrote, “All the world’s a stage,” Wright took this quote literally by framing Anna Karenina as a play-within-a-film, meaning there are stage setups and rotations between each scene. Like his terribly long tracking shot at Dunkirk in Atonement, it’s a look how clever we are conceit that revels in its own cleverness and adds nothing of substance to the picture. One of my favorite scenes in cinema is the dream sequence in Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, where the aristocratic group suddenly finds itself seated at a dining-room table onstage during a theatrical performance. That was a clever bit of satire. This is smoke and mirrors, plain and simple … albeit a clever cost-cutting device! Anna Karenina is an epic tragedy set in Russia that served as a scathing critique of aristocratic life, while championing an agrarian lifestyle. So to set the exhaustive proceedings on rotating stages deprives the story of the breadth of its message.

Anna: You know how much I love Atonement, Marlow! Stop trashing a perfectly decent film! Anna Karenina, however, left much to be desired. A sensory overload of frills and frosting, Karenina acts as a sugar high for its viewers, feeding us cupcakes and toffee twisted in shiny wrappers—only to deprive us of any actual substance. But riddle me this: why does Tolstoy’s story, a classic tale of the fallen woman (like Madame Bovary or The Scarlet Letter), where women meet their (literal or figurative) demise because of their societal disobedience, demand to be remade over and over? Have we not evolved past this kind of cautionary storytelling? Twilight’s Bella, on the other hand, might actually have some badass to boot (if only in the final film).

Marlow: Atonement is bad … like throwing the worst parts of Titanic (framing device), Pride & Prejudice (melodramatic love scenes), and A Very Long Engagement (self-indulgent shots) into a blender. And you’re right-on labeling Anna Karenina “sensory overload.” Between the soap opera–quality performances, overly elaborate set pieces, and vexing score, I thought I was watching an endless string of perfume commercials … starring Keira Knightley. However, given some of the crazy, misogynistic shit that came out of the mouths of certain members of the GOP during this election cycle, I’m afraid these tales of women succumbing to the iniquities of a severely misguided society aren’t so dated. But yes, I’m all for more strong, kick-ass women in movies (and real life) who, through their tenacity and guile, work their way to the top of the food chain. More of this, please!