Artists and their Muses: “Mistress America” review

Mistress America is about many things. It is a screwball comedy refracted through the Woody Allen hall of mirrors.  It is a study in the dynamics of desire and exploitation in female friendship. It is a biography of a muse according to the object of her inspiration. It is an account of the early days of college life just as the imperative to “discover yourself” feels simultaneously, paradoxically, crucial and passé. It is a portrait of the artist as a young co-ed.

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It follows 18-year-old Tracy (Lola Kirke) through her first days at Barnard as she navigates the social quagmire of early college life and the uncertainty of discovering a place for herself in the city. Uninvited to parties, unselected by the pretentious lit mag posse she had hoped to make her people, and passively rejected by the one boy with whom she has made a shaky connection, she finally decides to take her mother’s advice and call her soon-to-be step-sister Brooke (Greta Gerwig), a 30-something SoulCycle instructor and aspiring restaurateur. Brooke invites Tracy to Times Square to show her the city and then proceeds to talk about herself all night. This night inspires Tracy to begin writing a story based on Brooke’s magnetic self-absorption.

Tracy’s first days at college are a disappointment. She discovers what a lot of smart young women before her have discovered – what Brooke herself already knows: it’s not that the world is hostile to smart young women, but rather that the world doesn’t much care. The lesson of young adult life for a lot of smart women is the lesson of loneliness. One of the truest things about Mistress America for me was the way it treats those early college days before you learn how to properly be alone with yourself. You do a lot of solitary roaming, a lot of cellphone contact surfing during solo meals, and you realize that it’s difficult to be yourself around others if you can’t be alone with yourself.

Tracy discovers that discovering herself isn’t the brash, extraordinary adventure she had imagined. It’s actually mostly sitting alone in restaurants and getting rejected by boys and finding the things that look dreamy and glamorous in movies actually feel pretty mundane and hollow in real life. The romance of self-discovery isn’t so romantic, and so she discovers Brooke instead.

Brooke is the heroine of a screwball comedy surrounded by characters more suited to a Zach Braff project. She is brilliant, provocative, narcissistic, vainglorious, and irresistible. She just glows. She is that girl you hate for always talking about herself even though you never want her to stop. Most of the charm of this movie springs from the aphorism-laden monologues that, coming from Brooke, pass for conversation.

Brooke captivates Tracy. Her spark sparks an answering something in Tracy that both makes her more herself and pulls her more into the world. Their relationship is built on this strange exchange in which Brooke is validated by Tracy’s attention while Tracy mines Brooke for usable quips. It seems at first that Brooke is taking advantage of Tracy’s youth and loneliness to shore up her own image of herself through the eyes of naïve admiration, but it becomes increasingly clear that exploitation between these women goes both ways. Brooke’s ego might require Tracy’s fresh-faced homage, but Tracy can only transform Brooke into a character in her fiction by forgetting her humanity.

And it is this dynamic that is ultimately so fascinating and so disturbing. This is not the kind of female friendship that we like to affirm as feminist. The ambiguities and vacillations of power make it increasingly unclear who is being exploited, and what exploitation even looks like in a relationship between women. This is the toxic muse/artist relationship that has spawned so many boy-feels movies, and if Tracy were a man we would all be regurgitating think pieces about the manic pixie dream girl. But when it’s about two women, and an artist who is younger than her muse, at that? How do you separate admiration from desire? The “do I want to be you or do I want to put you in my art?” question is one that I suspect many smart young women have grappled with, and one that I think this movie confronts pretty fearlessly.

Perhaps the reason this dynamic is so uncomfortable is because we think of female artists as essentially and persistently autobiographical. Sylvia Plath wrote confessional poetry, Frida Kahlo painted self-portraits, Kim Kardashian takes selfies. But Tracy doesn’t write from her own experience. Her inspiration is drawn from her vision of another woman. This is a commonplace of masculine artistic production – but when sexual desire is removed from the equation we are suddenly confronted with the discomfort of the process that transforms muse into art. The movie doesn’t ask us to condemn Tracy, but to take seriously the problem of power and desire in the process of making art.

This is objectively a pretty good movie, but like a lot of other Noah Baumbach productions it left me feeling really really uncomfortable. Partly this is because the film asks us to read its characters ironically even as it seems fundamentally to believe the things they believe about themselves. Brooke may be self-involved and myopic but she is also the most interesting person in the world. This problem seems to be the inevitable by-product of a film about a muse who is played by the director’s real life muse and girlfriend. This film’s saving grace is that Baumbach doesn’t turn Tracy into himself.

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