Catherine Called Birdy Review: Lena Dunham’s Medieval Coming-of-Age Musings

Catherine Called Birdy Review: Lena Dunham’s Medieval Coming-of-Age Musings

After a 12-year hiatus from film-making after her film break small furniture, Lena Dunham has donned her writer/director cap again for two very different films, both released this year. First, sharp stick, is about 26-year-old Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth) who underwent a radical hysterectomy during her teenage years, leading to delayed sexual arousal (and subsequent affair with her employer’s husband). The second, an adaptation of Karen Cushman’s 1994 children’s novel, Catherine called Birdy follows a 14-year-old girl (Bella Ramsey) as she comes of age in 13th century England and tries to avoid being subjected to a financially driven arranged marriage. Though sharp stick it is staunchly adult in its history compared to the essential formula of coming of age birdie Both films, then, are perfect distillations of the filmmaker’s mature artistic musings, particularly as it relates to Dunham’s personal musings on pregnancy, motherhood, and bodily autonomy, facets of her own life that were irrevocably altered afterward. that she underwent a hysterectomy in 2018.

We meet Catherine (Ramsey) for the first time in the middle of an afternoon of games rolling around in the mud, returning home to a gentle scolding from her nanny Morwenna (Lesley Sharp). As the only daughter of Lord Rollo (Andrew Scott) and Lady Aislinn (Billie Piper), there is a looming expectation that Catherine (affectionately nicknamed Birdy due to her formidable collection of pet birds) will marry as soon as she crosses the threshold of womanhood. with the arrival of their “monthly tithes”. With the family fortune nearly depleted, her father begins to search for possible suitors, eager for the financial relief that a generous dowry for a virginal wife would provide. Strongly opposed to leaving her family and the comfort of her home in “the town of Stonebridge, in the county of Lincoln, in the country of England, in the hands of God,” Birdy is predictably unsettled when she finally experiences menarche (her first period). ), opting to hide the bloody rags under the floorboards to keep her parents in the dark. After all, if she theoretically can’t bear children for a husband, she can’t be sold as a viable wife.

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Though sharp stick premiered in January at Sundance, Dunham had been putting together the TIFF-premiere birdie for much longer, spending a decade vying for the chance to adapt Cushman’s novel, which she first read and cherished as a 10-year-old. It seemed like her passion project was finally about to come to fruition in 2020, but of course, COVID shut down the film’s production just six weeks before shooting. It was during this break birdie that Dunham had the idea of sharp stick, writing the script in just one week and shooting the entire film in two. As such, the films are inextricably linked, providing an intriguing thesis on the director’s ever-developing feminist perspective: increasingly interested in examining the female (cis) reproductive cycle and the societal expectations that are immediately placed on someone who may have children, as well as the apparent biological transgression of those whose wombs are unable or unwilling to fulfill this function: a hysterectomy alters Sarah Jo’s sexual self-esteem in sharp stick; the prospect of having sex and having children deeply repels Birdy, while his mother, Lady Aislinn, deals with multiple stillborn children, her seemingly inhospitable womb.

There are other stark similarities between the two films, from Dunham’s greater focus on casting black actresses in supporting roles (Taylour Paige as Sarah Jo’s adoptive sister Treina in sharp stickSophie Okonedo and Mimi Ndiweni as the Black Wives of the White Lords in birdie) to the emotional overlap between the two protagonists of the film. Surely the racial policy of birdie— which falls under “colorblind” casting as opposed to its contemporary successor, “color-aware” casting — will be a subject of scrutiny for those who have long commented on its constant oversight when it comes to diversity. Nevertheless, birdie feels comparatively thoughtful in this regard, the general omission of racial politicking is a welcome reprieve from a filmmaker who constantly sticks his foot in his mouth.

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As far as Sarah Jo and Birdy are concerned, they feel like fated complements: On a superficial level, they both sport long strands of light brown hair and widespread anxieties around their roles (and “purposes”) as sexually aroused women. Of course, Sarah Jo’s trajectory is messy and explicit, while Birdy’s feels like a natural tension that a lot of people can genuinely relate to. Though sharp stick remains a divisively audacious film, there’s no denying that Dunham’s experience in making it provided a new perspective for birdie after COVID restrictions were lifted and filming finally started in 2021.”sharp stick would never exist if I hadn’t been trying to do birdie for 10 years,” Dunham told me in an interview to coincide with the release of the first. “Y birdie it wouldn’t be the movie it is if it hadn’t gotten to make it sharp stick two and a half months before.”

the tone of birdie it’s perfectly congruent with Dunham’s established comic sensibilities, a testament to her overall prowess as a writer. She carefully imbues Cushman’s source story with her own observational bias, deftly handling the fart jokes and naive bird-and-bee assumptions without ever slipping into unnecessary crudeness. As a creative who has unabashedly explored the ugly side of human (often sexual) connection, it’s heartening to see her cultivate a precocious childish sensibility rather than languish among spoiled, stunted adults.

Yes Catherine called Birdy he hesitates at some point, it is during the conclusion of the film. Although Dunham took several liberties in adapting Cushman’s novel, his altered ending feels almost inappropriate in the context of the original work’s historical commentary. Birdy’s fate in the film is much less steeped in medieval reality, which is ultimately a detriment to Cushman’s carefully researched and authentic assessment of the era. Furthermore, the adoption of an outright feminine resolution undermines the film’s feminist potential, unable to reconcile the hopeful fantasies of childhood with the harrowing devastation of living in a misogynistic reality. Perhaps this culmination is Dunham’s attempt to distance herself from the grimly repellent humor that made her career, choosing instead to leave room for one girl’s unlikely triumph against the odds stacked against her. While that may seem broadly appealing and a surefire way to instill a fair sense of satisfaction in young viewers, it also robs them of the fascinating context Cushman originally provided: that teenage girls in the 1390s and 1990s had very different daily experiences, but unfortunately similar positions in a persevering patriarchal society. By lightening this blow with an inflated fairy tale ending, Dunham avoids dealing with a harsh truth that would otherwise have been suitable to navigate.

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Director: Lena Dunham
Writer: Lena Dunham
Stars: Bella Ramsey, Andrew Scott, Billie Piper, Joe Alwyn, Dean-Charles Chapman, Ralph Ineson, Russell Brand
Release date: September 23, 2022 (Amazon)

Natalia Keogan is the web editor for Filmmaker Magazine and regularly contributes independent film reviews here at Paste. Her writing has also appeared in Blood Knife Magazine, SlashFilm, and Daily Grindhouse, among others. She lives in Queens with her big orange cat. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan

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