Imagine if Bridget Jones kept a pet snake, were stoned on cocaine rather than Chardonnay, and instead of being torn between two lovers just shagged anyone at the end of the night? Welcome to the world of Daphne, a new breed of movie heroine: uncompromising, difficult and just plain weird.
Television has served us up compellingly dysfunctional female characters for years, from grouchy Scandi-noir detectives in hairy jumpers, to Fleabag, to Lena Dunham’s Girls, to the bonkers revenge rampage of Dr Foster. Until recently, however, mainstream cinema has lagged pathetically behind.
Hollywood is less keen on women behaving badly, fearing a backlash at the box office, but there have been a few notable female-written exceptions including Amy Schumer’s promiscuous outing in Trainwreck, and Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids. Those both, however, ended happily ever after, thanks to a handsome man, while Daphne balks at a sugar-coated finale.
More a car-crash than a rom-com, Daphne is nonetheless blackly and bleakly funny as it explores the millennial angst of 31-year-old London sous chef Daphne Vitale, played by a red-headed Emily Beecham in the film out this week. Daphne tells it like it is, even to an astounded stranger on the bus: “I haven’t shaved my legs in months, I’m still wearing a sports bra because I can’t be arsed, and my hatchet-faced old mum’s got cancer.” She’s quite posh too, ever when staggeringly drunk: “You, Sir, are a fabulous cunt,” she says to the bouncer throwing her out of a club. A few days later she tries to bed him.
With a break-out performance by Emily Beecham, Daphne is a small step forward for womankind, particularly when compared to the recent film Mother!, a festival of old-fashioned misogyny
Unexpectedly, there are two men behind Daphne: Glaswegian director Peter Mackie Burns and writer Nico Mensinga, and their female character is fully rounded – with a lot of sharp edges. Daphne gives the cinematic finger to the shiny, bland, mainstream Hollywood rom-com, and challenges the indie-movie cliché of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, generally played by Zoe Kazan and generally written by men in a hipster-gasm of fantasy. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a bit kooky, amusingly smart, and in a super-cute way wears vintage clothes or – gasp – mismatched socks!
Indeed, Daphne’s failure to fit the Manic Pixie mould has gone down rather badly in some parts of America, with the movie magazine Variety saying: Daphne “never really shakes off her complete lack of appealing characteristics…the real mystery is why anyone wants so much as a coffee with this character.”
But the Daphnes of this world are exactly the people we want to have coffee with because they mirror our own appalling behaviour, imagined or actual. Daphne may be promiscuous, drunk and hilariously rude, but at least she has an admirable integrity and honesty, perhaps to the point of nihilism. At one point she is seen reading – and indeed, laughing at – a book by philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who wrote The Courage of Hopelessness, which just about sums up Daphne’s life as she struggles close to poverty working long hours as a sub-sous chef. Of course, were this movie about a man, say Gordon Ramsay, all Daphne’s foulmouthed stroppiness would be considered heroic.
Daphne’s atrocious behaviour provides armour as she sinks into depression and deals with an act of violence, and we British are skilled at writing those characters fighting back from the brink. Take the recent Prevenge, directed by and starring Alice Lowe as a heavily pregnant serial killer taking revenge for her partner’s death, which revelled in pitch-black humour while cleverly skewering the clichés surrounding childbirth. The new Doctor Who, Jodie Whittaker, starred in 2016 in a negative little gem worth seeking out called Adult Life Skills, about a thirtysomething woman still living in a shed in her mother’s garden.
With a break-out performance by Beecham, Daphne is a small step forward for womankind, particularly when compared to the recent film Mother!, a festival of old-fashioned misogyny in which Jennifer Lawrence plays a one-dimensional, mother-earth doormat, abused by director Darren Aronofsky on screen. Daphne could never be accused of being a doormat. Indeed, she is admirably thrawn, as the Scots say, and a sign that it is time to celebrate the funny-appalling instead of the funny-appealing heroine.