Jennifer Lawrence has said that showing her body in Red Sparrow helped her get over the horrid invasion of her privacy that occurred when a hacker stole and distributed private nude photos of hers. Good for her. It’s completely up to Lawrence as a woman and actor to decide when she chooses to show her body. Unfortunately, Red Sparrow is not as empowering for women as it was for Lawrence. This spy adventure is not a power fantasy for women, but a sexual fantasy for men who like to think they’re feminist. (Spoilers: they aren’t, and neither is Red Sparrow.)
Lawrence stars as the beautiful Russian ballerina Dominika Egorova, whose dreams are shattered along with her tibia when a dance routine goes horribly wrong. Wounded and without a career, she doesn’t know how she will care for her sickly mother. Then her creepy uncle rolls up and offers her a job as a “sparrow.” She’s sent to a bizarre boarding school and trained to be a spy who wields sex as her ultimate weapon. And despite not listening to a single instruction from anyone in charge, she’s chosen for a special mission to squeeze information out of a trigger-happy American operative (Joel Edgerton). Then, spy stuff, sex, and painfully predictable plot twists ensue.
Don’t let the trailers fool you into thinking Red Sparrow is an action movie. If you’ve seen the trailers, you’ve seen 80 percent of its “action,” including the steamy shower scene where a totally nude Dominika is attacked. Why is she attacked? Because her fellow cadet wanted to rape her. That’s the second rape scene in the film that involves its heroine. And each time, audiences are given the chance to ogle Lawrence. First in her underwear, then as she’s thrown on a bed, begging for mercy. Later, she’s totally naked and wet. But that’s not all! She’ll get back at her second attacker by embarrassing him in front of their classmates, mocking his cock as she whips her tits out and goes spread eagle before them. But this insidious espionage drama is not content to ogle Lawrence’s body. It also wants audiences to get off on her pain.
In one torture scene, Lawrence is naked, bound, and drenched in presumably freezing water. As she screams, we’re given a view of her ass, and the side of her breasts. In another scene, she’s ruthlessly attacked, and a close-up of her agonized face focuses on the blood dripping from her lip. It’s the money shot, but instead of cum, it’s blood. And Red Sparrow knows it. Early on, Dominika studies what men want by watching porn, and her video is one of BDSM, a woman bound and groaning. It’s meant to be kinky and titillating that Red Sparrow takes its “strong female character” and repeatedly ogles her, strips her (of her clothes and power), sexually assaults her, beats her, then ogles her some more. Red Sparrow offers lip-service to feminism by having a woman fight against the patriarchal institutions that have made her a “whore” for the government. But really, this is a paper-thin excuse to leer at Lawrence whether she’s swanning around in low-cut gowns and skimpy bathing suits, or screaming naked and in terror.
What makes all this even more unnerving is that Red Sparrow is helmed by Francis Lawrence, who directed Jennifer Lawrence in the last three Hunger Games movies. It makes one wonder if Francis was waiting for his chance to get out of PG-13 fare, so he could shoot this starlet the way he’d long dreamed. Forget those grungy henleys and glorious gowns. Time for lingerie and literal torture porn! The result is grotesquely misogynistic and in no way intended for the female audience its premise pretends to empower.
For one thing, the clothing in the film is clearly intended to appease the Male Gaze and not the fantasy of fashion-inclined females. Which makes a certain level of plot sense, because Sparrows are honeypots, intended to seduce mainly men. Still. Couldn’t Francis have given us ladies some style spectacle? Atomic Blonde managed to have Charlize Theron hot as hell, sometimes naked, undeniably a force to be reckoned with, and a style goddamn icon. It’s not impossible.
When it comes to eye candy for women, Francis gives us a couple of half-hearted shots of a shirtless Edgerton. But in a sex scene between Lawrence and Edgerton, the focus is entirely on her writhing body and curves, while he is so poorly lit, silent, and still that he may as well be part of the furniture. And when he is tortured, there are no lingering shots of his pained face. The privilege of having suffering fetishized goes only to the heroine. And as April Wolfe pointed out in her Village Voice review, this movie is so blatantly uninterested in the ways of women that it contains a scene where Dominika bleaches her hair from dark brown to platinum blonde with ONE box of over-the-counter dye. AND THEN SHE GOES TO A SWIMMING POOL.
If you don’t get why that’s stupid: This wouldn’t work, and is stupid. Besides, it’d be super simple to have her walk into a salon and come out blonde. Or skip it altogether. She’s a spy, she changes her look. We get it. But no, Justin Haythe’s screenplay needed to make it super apparent how little thought was put into the lives of the women Red Sparrow pretends to understand. Sure, we’re meant to empathize with Dominika’s struggle as she delivers fiery lines about the cruel world built by cruel men. But the grossest element of this movie is that it’s finger-wagging at sexism while blatantly objectifying of its heroine, ogling over her body and making her pain its most sensual spectacle.
In a sick irony, Jennifer Lawrence in Red Sparrow is like Dominika. She is trapped in a male-created world where no matter how much of herself she sacrifices for her work, she is still regarded as a plaything for their lusts and whims.