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Thursday, November 8, 2007

Canadian Film Review: Punch (2002)

Director: Guy Bennett
Starring: Sonja Bennett, Michael Riley, Meredith McGeachie, Marcia Laskowski

“Do you know what the sign out there says? Topless. Female. Boxing. That makes me the entertainment.” So says Julie (McGeachie), a boxer and anger management candidate in Guy Bennett’s intense drama Punch. Julie finds her job empowering and gets some satisfaction out of the fact that she’s never lost a match. However, there’s little doubt about why the patrons of the bar come to watch her, and it isn’t to appreciate her athleticism. Is she empowered or exploited? And, more importantly, is the film itself about female empowerment, or simply about exploitation?

The story centers on Ariel (Bennett), a teenager who has been expelled from school for fighting, and who has a relationship with her widower father, Sam (Riley), that’s just a little too close for comfort. When Sam brings Mary (Laskowski), whom he’s been quietly dating, home to meet Ariel, tensions mount until finally exploding when Ariel punches Mary in the face. Julie, Mary’s sister, is initially bent on revenge but is willing to settle for an apology – from both Sam and Ariel – to Mary. How the terms of the apology are met, or fail to be met, brings about the climax of the film, which culminates with two knock down, drag out fights.

The strength of this film is not in its story – which is thin in places – but in its characters. Ariel is angry and resentful (more so than most teenagers), but not without reason. The circumstances of her mother’s death, and the way that her father has allowed her to become accustomed to being the only woman in his life for so long, contribute to the ways in which she lashes out with physical violence, and with inappropriate sexual advances (at one point she talks Sam, who is a doctor, into performing a breast examination on her; at another, she crudely attempts to seduce her tutor in Sam’s bed). Julie, too, has a reason for her anger, though she channels it better, if not necessarily more constructively, than Ariel does. She also intends, at some point, to stop whereas Ariel seems intent on being angry forever. Julie informs Mary that she’ll stop boxing as soon as she loses. “You and your rules,” Mary replies, shaking her head. As for Mary and Sam, they’re both essentially good, nice people who find themselves overpowered by the stronger personalities possessed by Julie and Ariel. The trajectory of their relationship is believable, given the circumstances of the film. Also believable is the way that Ariel and Julie resolve their differences. Ariel makes a proposition which Julie declines – not because she doesn’t want to accept, but because she’s come to recognize the unhealthy patterns in her own life. The only thing left for them to do is fight it out in what proves to be an incredibly brutal scene.

The film is interesting in the way that it balances power amongst its characters. Julie and Ariel are the most active and dominant characters, while the primary male characters, Sam and Irwin, the bartender where Julie boxes, are passive characters who take on caretaking roles with their families. Sam, certainly, is not a fighter. In a confrontation with Julie, he threatens to find his bat rather than imply that he’d be a match for her in hand-to-hand combat. This is a film that is continually subverting traditional gender roles.

It is also a film that uses nudity and sexuality to challenge the audience. One of the hurdles that must be overcome in watching this film is the knowledge that Guy Bennett and Sonja Bennett aren’t a director and an actress who coincidentally share the same last name. This is a drama about a girl who has sexually confused feelings about her father, in which the lead actress is being directed by her father. Knowing that will make you uncomfortable, but even when you don’t (as I didn’t before seeing the film), the film will still make you uncomfortable. Initially I thought that this was because there was a lot of nudity in the film. However, upon reflection I’ve realized that it isn’t the quantity of it, but the in-your-face quality of it. There is a certain degree of brutality in the way Ariel disrobes for her attempted seduction, and (obviously) in the boxing scenes. Women aren’t “supposed” to behave like this and to see it at all, let alone in a film written and directed by a man, is somewhat shocking. This isn’t a film that’s concerned with being “sexy” or that exploits the female body by teasing and titillating. This is a film that deals with its nudity in a very matter of fact way, almost daring you to find something about it that could be taken as a turn on.

This isn’t an easy film – it challenges the viewer, and the viewer’s expectations, in many ways – but it is a good, albeit flawed, one. It’s the sort of film that stays with you after you’ve seen it, which is exactly how you should judge it: not immediately, but after taking a few days to consider it.

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