Women in Control

Writer/directors Sandra Nettelbeck and Julie Davis talk about their new films, Mostly Martha and Amy's Orgasm

Mostly Martha

Germany/et al., 2001. Rated PG. 107 minutes.

Cast: Martina Gedeck, Sergio Castellitto, Maxime Foerste, Ulrich Thomsen, August Zirner, Sibylle Canonica, Katja Studt
Writer: Sandra Nettelbeck
Director: Sandra Nettelbeck

Amy's Orgasm

USA, 2001. Rated R. 85 minutes.

Cast: Julie Davis, Nick Chinlund, Caroline Aaron, Mitchell Whitfield, Jennifer Bransford, Jeff Cesario
Writer: Julie Davis
Director: Julie Davis

Feature and interviews by Carlo Cavagna

• Carlo's review of Mostly Martha    • Carlo's review of Amy's Orgasm

• Related materials and links

O nce upon a time, gender roles were clear and love stories were easy. A heroine pines for her one true love, falls victim to evil, and lies around--sometimes literally--waiting for her prince to come. With the sexual revolution, fairy tales gave way to stories of navel-gazing self-discovery or heedless sexcapades. Then came the backlash. Its two-pronged attack set the classic fairy tale against the darker modern fable of the obsessive career woman and the psychotic nanny. Our modern age is, perhaps, a more enlightened time where, regardless of sex, everyone has a tough time finding love. No longer the peculiar weakness of men, control-at-all-costs workaholism that alienates one's feelings is open to women as well.

Mostly Martha, a delicate drama from German writer/director Sandra Nettelbeck, and Amy's Orgasm, a raunchy romantic comedy from writer/director/star Julie Davis, both explore this idea. They acknowledge that many women have paid a steep price for their success, leading emotionally barren lives. They agree that success without passion is not success at all. They argue that success and emotional vulnerability can co-exist. The modern woman can have her cake and eat it, too.

This lesson is learned by the titular protagonists Martha Klein (Martina Gedeck) and Amy Mandell (Davis herself), two accomplished women who think they have it all figured out.
Sandra Nettelbeck
Sandra Nettelbeck, writer
and director of Mostly Martha.

Martha is the perfectionist head chef at a ritzy restaurant in Hamburg, where she presides dictatorially over her spotless kitchen and argues with philistine customers over her perfectly prepared foie gras. According to German-born Nettelbeck, who speaks better English than most native speakers (she attended film school at San Francisco State), being a chef is a tough job for which workaholism is a sine qua non. "It's physically exhausting; it takes all your time, effort, and energy. No room for kids, no social life to speak of. I've met a few chefs, and they are the sweetest people, but they're so wrapped up in their world. Outside stuff doesn't seem to register, and they generally don't like their customers very much." With regard to Martha herself, Nettelbeck observes, "I wanted to see a woman who is set in her ways. She's a great achiever. She's perfectly content, and she feels like a well-adjusted, sane person. She doesn't realize that she's crazy and obsessive."

The notion of a woman being a loveless workaholic can seem odd even today, in 2002. A male version of Martha would seem plausible, even normal, but a female? It's tempting to think, oh, there must be something wrong with her. There must be some reason she is this way. Nettelbeck, however, wasn't trying to turn Martha into a psychological case study. She sought simply to create a believable human being. "When you invent a character, you don't ask yourself, why are they like that? You ask yourself, what are they like?"

Nettelbeck was intrigued by a character who has passion for her profession and yet knows nothing about pleasure, which is particularly poignant in the case of a chef. "I think there's something inherently sad, in cooking, because you create these masterpieces, and then they're gone," Nettelbeck explains. "You can't mount them on the wall. You make them for hours and hours, sometimes days, and then they're eaten in half an hour, and that's it--destroyed."

Amy Mandell of Amy's Orgasm is, like Martha, an enormously successful professional--a self-help author who preaches female emancipation. Women should remain single, stay celibate, and establish their self-worth without men. (Okay, they may have to purchase a vibrator.) Amy knows women can do this because it's how she has lived her own life, and look at her! She's a famous self-help author. Amy makes a circular argument (her success is based on preaching that her lifestyle brings success), but she's satisfied. Is she happy, though? The fact that Amy hasn't had sex in four years is a warning sign that, as Amy's friends put it, somebody needs to get laid.
Julie Davis
Julie Davis, writer, director,
and star of Amy's Orgasm.

Davis, who cites Woody Allen as an influence, admits that Amy is a projection of herself. "Amy is completely based on me. I wrote the script based on a relationship I was going through at the time. I was really conflicted, so I started writing the script to deal with all my issues." When asked if she exaggerated her personality and her life in order to create the unpredictable, sexually frank Amy, Davis kids, "Well, what if I told you I had to take it down a few notches? I probably did, I swear. I couldn't capture how completely crazy I am on paper."

Martha and Amy's parallel roads to emotional fulfillment begin, as most journeys do, with unexpected change. When Martha's sister is killed, Martha must adopt her headstrong eight-year-old Lina (played movingly by old soul Maxime Foerste) until she locates Lina's long-lost Italian father. None of Martha's training has prepared her for this. She can't get Lina to eat. She can't get Lina to school on time. She most certainly can't get Lina to open up. At the same time, men are also appearing in her life. There's downstairs neighbor and single father Sam (Ulrich Thomsen), who helps her mind Lina. There's Italian sous chef Mario (Sergio Castellitto), whose exuberant culinary style and campaign to add gnocchi to the menu threatens Martha's authority. Yet morose Lina, perhaps thinking of her own absent Italian father, seems to come to life only around the Italian interloper.

For Amy, change comes in the person of shock-jock Matthew Star, a man she is prepared to hate and yet can't seem to get out of her head--particularly her vivid sexual fantasies. In person, Matthew is nothing like his show-your-tits radio persona. He is direct, but also considerate and thoughtful. What is Amy to think? Can she give into repressed sexual desires without repudiating everything she stands for?

Martha and Amy are losing control, and it frightens and confuses them. In adjusting, they must overcome the formidable obstacles of their own deeply set preconceptions. Martha's idea of what Italians are like prevents her from accepting Mario. His colorful entrance into the kitchen, singing and telling stories about his mother on her deathbed (she got better), fuels Martha's fear of an Italian cliché intent on stealing her job. As Mario begins to refute the stereotype, Martha is still a slave to her first impression.
Gedeck, Foerste, Studt, and Castellitto
Martina Gedeck, Maxime Foerste,
Katja Studt, and Sergio Castellitto
in Mostly Martha.

Interestingly, Nettelbeck encountered the same problem during development. "There were quite a few people who said, 'Oh, but Mario's such a cliché!' I had to fight that," she remembers. Fortunately, Castellitto, a star in Italy, immediately grasped what Nettelbeck wanted. When the director first met with him, she was warned not to expect the busy actor to have reviewed the script and that he was almost certainly going to turn down the part. "Everybody got me really nervous. We were late--he hates people being late. We got there, and he said, 'I read your script, and I love it, and if you want me to do it, I'll do it.' Everyone fell over backwards." This was a major victory for Nettelbeck. "That was so gratifying. He said he wanted to play the character because he loves how the script plays with the cliché of the Italian. Martha totally falls for it when he goes into the whole thing about his dead mother. He knows it's a total joke… Sergio, being an Italian, totally got it. It was so perfect."

In Amy's Orgasm, Amy can't reconcile what Matthew does for a living to the person she sees. He's the perfect boyfriend, except he's Howard Stern. Explains Davis, "It's an act, but it's not who he really is. It's not how he treats her in the relationship." Unlike Amy, however, Matthew has no trouble keeping his public and private personae separate. "She's the one who has this veneer of who she is that she presents to the public, and it really isn't who she is. She doesn't think that women are better off alone, that they don't need men, and she doesn't take that veneer down with him. She's really the one who's lying, and he's much more honest." Amy clings to her preconceived ideas. Once she finally begins to trust Matthew, his brother, in a fit of jealousy, sets things back by insisting that the radio host is the real Matthew. "That scene was there to magnify her inner fears. What if he really is that guy? He's going to fuck me over...He's going to fuck me over. The brother is her inner fear."

Like Nettelbeck, Davis overcame preconceptions to get Amy's Orgasm made, and encounters them still during her press tour, answering a barrage of questions. Do women really talk in the sexually explicit way they do in this film? "We all have unique voices. Nobody can look at my movie and say women don't talk like that because I talk like that and people I know talk like that." You blow the feminine mystique out of the pond with this movie. Do you think that's a good thing? "I think it's a great thing! I think women need to be honest about who they are." Do you think Amy's Orgasm will appeal to men? "I hope so." Don't you think they will perceive it as a so-called chick-flick? She finds that term offensive. "There's no such thing as a guy's flick. Women go see Rambo. We go see [Vin] Diesel. Why aren't men interested in what women have to say?" How do you overcome that, as a filmmaker? "We didn't have a lot of money." Just five hundred thousand, in fact. "With the limited resources we've made a trailer. I said, 'Just make sure the trailer is a lot better than the movie.'" She laughs. "We think we made a really good trailer. That was all we had money to do. The trailer really attracts men." Davis continues, "I want men to feel like they're getting to see how women think, and they can laugh at it."

Davis doesn't think all the stereotypes are wrong, though. "A man can walk away from a couple tosses in the sack, and he'll say, 'Well, at least I had good sex.' But a woman is not gonna walk away and say, 'Well, at least I had great sex.' She's gonna cry. Or at least be more affected by it emotionally."

Both heroines learn that giving up a little control and adopting a little open-mindedness can mean richer living. The message is that love is always unexpected, and it defies all clichés. One mustn't be afraid of vulnerability. "You just have to open your heart. And be willing to be hurt," declares Davis.

Do Nettelbeck and Davis live by this philosophy in their own lives? Or are they, like Amy, unable to practice what they preach? They are, after all, themselves women used to being in control. Nettelbeck, who comes from a television background, both writes and directs her feature film debut, and even appears briefly in it, as the dead sister. Davis did even more, producing and editing her second feature in addition to writing and directing it. Yet neither woman appears to be a control freak.

Nettelbeck talks glowingly about how much she trusts the people she hires to do their jobs, from the costume and set designers to the cast. Nettelbeck's confidence in her lead performer, Gedeck, stemmed from her refusal to cast Martha until she was absolutely certain she had found the right person. "When I was writing the script, I didn't know who I was going to cast. I was terrified. I met with a couple of actresses, but it didn't really click. Then I went to the Munich Film Fest, and I saw Martina in a movie, and it was so easy. 'That's it, that's her, that's the one!' Apart from being a great actress, her chemistry works so well with Martha. There's so much of Martina in Martha."
Julie Davis and Nick Chinlund
Julie Davis and Nick Chinlund
in Amy's Orgasm.

Nettelbeck had even more faith in Castellitto, placing his comfort above her own. Castellitto recited all his lines in Italian, which Nettelbeck does not speak. She explains, "I didn't want Sergio to be inhibited by a language barrier. He did try to do it in German, but it was impossible. German--you have to know it. Otherwise you sound like Charlie Chaplin. Afterwards I edited the whole film with him in Italian, and I ended up dubbing him." Nettelbeck thinks the film works better because of her decision. Gedeck and Castellitto's inability to communicate verbally forced them to express themselves in other ways. "It's not what they say, but how they say it, and how they are with each other."

Foreign film connoisseurs may notice that the biggest star in Mostly Martha is Ulrich Thomsen from The Celebration, who plays Sam, the neighbor with whom Martha might click if only they could spend more than a few minutes together. Despite the excellence of the rest of the cast, Nettelbeck says that Thomsen is the most incredible actor she has ever worked with. One particular moment of genius was when Thomsen decided that Sam, a single father, should answer the door wearing a fake arrow through his head. That stroke of inspiration speaks volumes about who Sam is, communicating things the script does not spell out. Nettelbeck is grateful for what Thomsen brought to the film in just three days of shooting and three scenes.

For her part, Davis asserts that the many jobs she performed on Amy's Orgasm were out of necessity, not a desire to micromanage. "I didn't have enough money to hire people, which is why I ended up doing too many jobs on the movie." Editing herself was horrible, she says. "I shouldn't even admit it--it's such vanity--but I hated to cut things where I looked good." Davis finally realized editing was one job she could not do. "I did fire myself. I fired myself, and I hired this incredible editor [Glenn Garland], and I said, 'Do not invite me to the editing room. Just be ruthless.' He did a great job."

What of the commitment and control issues Davis was trying to work out in writing the script? Davis happily reports that she is now married to the man in question, and that they now have a baby. She hints that she has more to say, as a filmmaker, on the subject of relationships. "It's the type of movie I could write better now, because now I'm married, and I'm lot calmer." Will she try to do that? "Well," Davis hesitates, "I'll write it from a different point of view." Her next project, however, is a program for Showtime based on her experiences as a soft-porn video editor, early in her career. "It was a place I could be immersed with sex and not have sex. It was a great job for two months, and then it was the most depressing job in the world. It was so boring," Davis says.

As for Nettelbeck, she has no interest in revisiting the ground covered by Mostly Martha. If a Hollywood studio asked her to remake Mostly Martha in English, she is emphatic. She would not do it. "I've done it. Why would I do it again?" What would she say if they just wanted to buy the rights to remake it themselves? Though she notes that such a decision is up to the production company, she laughs. "They can buy the rights. Go ahead, because I need money. I don't know… It's like, if I can pay my rent!"

• Carlo's review of Mostly Martha    • Carlo's review of Amy's Orgasm

Feature and interviews © September 2002 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2001 Paramount Classics and Catch Light Films. All Rights Reserved.

Related Materials:  

  Talk about this feature on the boards
  Official Mostly Martha site
  Official Amy's Orgasm site
  IMDB page for Mostly Martha
  IMDB page for Amy's Orgasm
  Rotten Tomatoes - Mostly Martha
  Rotten Tomatoes - Amy's Orgasm