Moving Pictures
Mar 12, 2024, 06:26AM

In Damsel, the Bloody Anti-Cinderella Genre Goes Mainstream

Stabbing the patriarchy, for a bigger audience.

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There’s a mini-genre boom in anti-Cinderella stories—narratives in which a woman’s wealthy ideal suitor turns out to be the opposite of a savior, and empowerment comes not through marriage, but through (bloody) divorce. Christopher Murphy’s 2019 Ready Or Not was a vicious, breakneck horror/comedy set in the present day; Le-Van Keit’s 2022 The Princess was a giddy medieval fantasy martial arts comedy. And now Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s dark fantasy Netflix film Damsel, with Millie Bobbie Brown as Princess Elodie going toe to claw with an extremely irritated dragon (voiced with incomparably husky menace by Shohreh Aghdashloo).

Details: Elodie’s kingdom is in the grip of famine when the kingdom of Aurea offers a lifeline—wealth and riches in return for her marriage to Aurea’s Prince Henry (Nick Robinson). Elodie’s reluctant, but decides the union is necessary to protect her people. Then she finds out there’s a catch; she’s not actually wanted as a bride, but as a sacrifice to propitiate that dragon. Tossed into the cave as dragon-bait she has to save herself—and inevitably her younger sister, Floria (Brooke Carter.)

The appeal of the anti-Cinderella sub-genre is obvious enough; the Cinderella story suggests that women can only self-actualize through marriage to some powerful patriarch. The hero of the story is the Prince; Cinderella’s role is just to dress pretty and wait around for the Prince to put the right shoe on her. The anti-Cinderella stories don’t just reject that; they portray it as a calculated trap. Men seductively offers comfort and wealth if women embrace their disempowerment. The anti-Cinderella reveals patriarchy as a duplicitous, life-destroying cage, and make them the protagonists of their own lives. With swords.

Damsel lacks the fight choreography and brutal fun of Princess. Nor is it elevated by the wicked mean-spiritedness of Ready or Not. It’s also oddly unfocused in comparison to its predecessors. The film, bafflingly, makes its main villain not the prince, but his mother, Queen Isabella (Robin Wright).

Nor does its narrative go straight for the kill. Instead  it meanders through the dragon’s cave, pausing and vacillating and doubling back on itself with various revelations, surprises, and false escapes. There are a few plot holes along the way too—it’s hard to believe that the powerful and ancient dragon is as easily fooled as the movie makes her out to be.

But the real problem is that part of the joy of these anti-Cinderella stories is the simplicity of brute revenge; the scythe swoops down, the scythe swoops back. You don’t want to put too many barriers in the way of the arc. Still, that anti-Cinderella story is pretty sturdy, and while Damsel isn’t a great example, it works well enough. Millie Bobbie Brown has great presence and charisma, and it’s hard not to cheer when she straps that sword to her back. The CGI dragon is designed with loving detail, and Fresnadillo is canny about concealing her early on in ways that build suspense.

I also enjoyed the way the film plays with the evil stepmother trope. Lady Bayford (Angela Bassett) initially seems shallow and status-seeking; per the Cinderella myth, you expect her to be the villain colluding in the plan to do away with Elodie. But she soon reveals more depths—as does the film’s other impressive surprise stepmother. Female solidarity under patriarchy is powerful and unexpected.

In a lot of ways, Damsel is the mainstream, bigger-budget, watered-down version of a narrative which has bubbled up from the margins of scuzzy B-movie genres like horror and martial arts. It’s not that watered-down, though, and while not as much fun as its blueprints, it manages to capture the bloody triumph of turning a clichéd and in many ways pernicious myth on its head, and then cutting that head off. If you liked Princess or Ready Or Not, you’ll probably find something to enjoy in Damsel. And if you liked Damsel, watch those other princes get theirs.


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