Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman has confounded expectations set up by previous entries into the DC Cinematic Universe by being coherent, light of touch, and having fully developed characters. Counter to the authoritarian worldview and oppressive visual style of Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad (both arguably contributing factors in the victory of Brexit and Donald Trump), Wonder Woman is a classically told action film that works as a superhero film, a war film, and yet more proof that probably wasn’t needed that a women can headline blockbuster cinema. Coming from DC, whose rabid, alt-right leaning fan base has been noticeably quiet in the wake of Jenkins’ success, these qualities taste all the sweeter. But there is one film that I just couldn’t get out of my mind watching this, and it might seem a reach, but watching this romp through WWI I could not stop thinking about Robert Bresson’s 1966 mediation on faith and human morality, Au Hasard Balthazar.
Au Hasard Balthazar follows the life of a donkey who suffers cruelty as he is passed from owner to owner. Aside from the spare, allegorical marriage of form and content with which Bresson presents his audience, influencing Michael Haneke and Jim Jarmusch and countless others, the remarkable feat of Bresson is to draw a captivating, empathetic performance from a donkey who would have no awareness of cameras rolling. It is through holding the camera on the animal’s face that the audience transmits their emotion at each story beat onto the donkey. Similarly, there is no real articulation to the performance and yet, Gadot’s Wonder Woman still manages to succeed because each moment has been mounted with remarkable clarity by Jenkins and her crew.
While Chris Pine (always more of an actor than a movie star) as love interest Steve Trevor reacts to being seen naked by Gadot in a stumbling comic manner, Gadot in a comparable scene is awkward in her physicality as she reveals herself in full costume. This is part of her character, unfamiliar with the western world and discovering a life she never knew, much like Neo in The Matrix. But the main difference is that Pine is milking the bit for an audience reaction while Gadot is totally straight faced. Having seen the Wonder Woman character fall flat when directed by Zack Snyder in her previous appearance It can be difficult to know what is an acting choice on the part of the performer or good directing elevating their work. Is this Gal Gadot’s comic chops or Jenkins’ skill in shooting her to draw the character from a somewhat stiff performance?
I’m not sure it matters. Bresson relied for his realism on the hiring of non-professional actors, referring to them as ‘models’. The performances in his films are understated, lacking polish; they seem real. Perhaps Jenkins is evoking a similar feeling from Gadot. When, after saving a village from German aggressors, Wonder Woman enters a crowd of grateful civilians to shake their hands and be one with the people, it is as though she is a model meeting her fans. It is the best moment of the film: superheroes are so prone to flying off to the next adventure that they never seem to meet the actual people they have saved. What is so special about Wonder Woman is that she is of the people as much as she is for the people (even if she’s a God). Jenkins evokes this by shooting Gadot from afar interacting with extras, a toned down, non-actorly moment that I’m not sure Downey Jr’s Iron Man could pull off, for example.
Admittedly, Gadot’s acting career is lacking in range so it may be unfair to call out her lack of skill. I am making the assumption that as a model turned actor she is lacking in technique. But if performances are crafted as much by the way they are shot and edited as what the actor delivers on set, then how can we judge acting on the accepted wisdom of a good or bad performance? Gadot is Wonder Woman, and for a blockbuster as satisfying as this, surely that is all that matters.