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The Falling
Maisie Williams and Florence Pugh in The FallingCourtesy of Metronome UK

Is female sexuality taboo on screen?

The Falling director Carol Morley on cinema’s problem with portraying sexuality among teenage girls

Cinema history is littered with tales of teenage boys trying to get their first piece of the pie, American or otherwise. Female desire, by contrast, simply isn’t up for discussion – at worst, girls in your typical teen flick are objects to be lusted after. At best, they’re jock-dating sensitive souls who, suddenly and inexplicably cognisant of the fact that their social clique is comprised of swaggering bullies (“Ignore those guys, they’re just jerks!”), gradually fall for the shy-guy protagonist. Either way: they’re ‘smoking-hot’, and free of any sort of recognisable inner life.

Films that seriously address the topic of teenage girls’ sexuality are vanishingly rare – The Virgin Suicides (1999), Peter Jackson’s wickedly subversive Heavenly Creatures (1994) and Jordan Scott’s recent Cracks (2009) all spring to mind – but Carol Morley’s school-set drama The Falling is a terrific addition to a too-slim canon. The fictional account of a fainting epidemic at an all-girls school in late 1960s England, it’s a haunting, enigmatic film which addresses the charge levelled by its star, Game of Thrones actress Maisie Williams, that “sexuality in girls isn’t really explored as much as it should be… Everyone gets freaked out – it’s quite a taboo thing for girls to wanna have sex.”

“I think female sexuality has a long history of being seen as threatening in one way or another,” says Morley. “Girlhood, and young female sexuality, has been so colonised by certain images and an unhealthy dose of voyeurism that it can become uncomfortable viewing, so it’s important that female directors and directors of photography get more chances to present insights into female subjectivity.”

The director, who came of age in Stockport in the 1980s, remembers how “boys (at school) would be heroic for seeing a lot of girls, whereas a girl would be called a slag.” Has anything changed? In her recent Dazed cover feature, Williams claimed that girls are made to “(feel) wrong for meeting boys and stuff” in the interview. Morley sounds wearied by the admission: “It doesn’t surprise me, but it upsets me. I suppose everyone, male or female, struggles with their changing body at adolescence, and ideas around what sexuality means to them, but I think girls feel more under scrutiny.”

The root cause of the fainting outbreak in The Falling is left deliberately vague, but Morley uses it to explore her themes of awakening and the shifting sexual mores of the era. “I think the epidemic is a visual representation of the rapture and pain that awakening female sexuality can bring,” she says. “We witness the girls’ experience, what it feels like in their heads. It’s not just looking at them, it’s experiencing what the girls are feeling.”

The film’s use of lulling, hypnotic rhythms to achieve this effect recalls Peter Weir’s 1975 classic Picnic at Hanging Rock, which creates a similar mood of latent sexual tension in its story of three teenage girls’ disappearance on a school trip to the outback in 1900. Another Aussie-set film of the 70s, Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout, makes similar use of the natural imagery to suggest primal urges at odds with the constricting forces of ‘civilisation’ – in Roeg’s film, the savage dreamscape of the Australian bush, in Morley’s, the fertile pastures of the English countryside, with all the pagan echoes they imply. Finally, Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides shares some of the film’s hallucinatory feel and sapphic overtones, drawing on the same historical period as the backdrop for its tale of closeted female desire.

“While man had landed on the moon, women could still not buy stick-on sanitary pads, and had to wear huge belts to keep them on” – Carol Morley

“I remember I had a line in the script which was, ‘You’re getting it’, as in you’re having sex,” says Morley, who worked hard to ensure The Falling’s script had an era-authentic feel. “The movement coach on the film, Sue Lefton, who was at school in 1969, said that in her day they used to say ‘You’re getting it up’, so I changed it based on her feedback. Sue said it was quite scandalous at school to go around talking about other girls ‘getting it up’. I found it interesting that, while man had landed on the moon, women could still not buy stick-on sanitary pads, and had to wear huge belts to keep them on – and that using tampons was quite taboo unless you had lost your virginity.”

That cultural tension is felt when the girls’ suggestive swooning brings them into conflict with the school’s teachers, but the film is too nuanced to make this a straightforward stand-off between the prudery of the post-war period and the ‘free love’ generation, which in any case would have been more rumour than reality for these cloistered kids. For Morley, sex is too complex a subject to frame in simple oppositional terms, a fact reflected in two more films she admires for their anarchic take on teenage desire, Roy Andersson’s A Swedish Love Story (1970) and Jane Campion’s 1984 short film A Girl’s Own Story. “(Andersson’s film) captures the passions of youth brilliantly, both young girls and boys,” she says. “(And) A Girl’s Own Story looks at the complicated lives of a group of girls, the intensity of their feelings, and their growing interest in sex and its consequences. That was definitely an influence.”

In its two young leads, especially, The Falling gives us a compelling picture of female friendship unsettled by the arrival of sex into their world. Abigail, played by newcomer Florence Pugh, is a confident, outgoing teen whose liberated sexual outlook jars with her best friend Lydia (Williams). Their relationship is an astute acknowledgement that, whatever generation they’re born into, human beings develop at their own speed. When the film takes a dark turn as it nears its climax, there’s further reminder of desire as a disruptive influence in our lives, impervious to civilising forces.

“There’s some questions got answers and some haven’t,” observes a character in Picnic at Hanging Rock when quizzed about the girls’ disappearance. It’s a sentiment that The Falling, with its insistence on mystery as an irreducible fact of human sexuality, echoes in every frame.

The Falling is out now