Withnail with Girls: Female Hedonism in Animals
While often the role of a woman has been restricted to that of a docile +1, stories like Emma Jane Unsworth’s Animals show they don’t have to be. Following in the footsteps of Withnail as much as Mark Renton, the two best friends now on screen in Sophie Hyde’s film show how this world has more than enough room for some more female hedonists.
“Baby, I’ve got work at seven tomorrow every day for the rest of my life, serving mochafuckingchickenlattes to people counting off the days in little coffee stamps. What gives? Only the fact that there are nights in between…”
Every generation needs a film about getting fucked up. Withnail & I (1987), Trainspotting (1996) The Hangover (2009). Each of these plays out a primal, Bacchanalian urge to get wasted and exist outside of our consciousness – but from the safe position of cinema-going spectator. With a healthy glug of celebration and just a dash of admonition, such films follow their inebriated anti-heroes as they stumble into scrapes and lick the last of the (metaphorical and literal) whisky bottle.
And it is usually anti-heroes, and not anti-heroines. Female characters are usually foils to the men, stereotyped as a binary of nagging stay-at-home wives or permanently up-for-it party girls.
A few films, however, showcase female hedonist characters, breaking free of the phallic-shaped vodka jelly mould. Sometimes it seems as if cinema is divided into two time periods, B.B. and A.B.: Before Bridesmaids and After Bridesmaids, when film producers finally realised that a female-centric comedy, that wasn’t a rom-com, could still smash all kinds of box office records.
Bridesmaids (2011) wasn’t necessarily a film about hedonism, but it did usher in a new wave of raucous ‘girls gone wild’ comedies with female hedonism at their core – Bachelorette (2012), Trainwreck (2015) and How To Be Single (2016) followed in this tradition, featuring female protagonists that indulged in as much sex and booze as the boys. But, as Hollywood ‘vom-coms’ with gross-out humour masking a core conservatism, these films tend to follow a formulaic narrative. They revel in the pantomimic behaviours of their protagonists, before ultimately offering absolution if they disregard their wild ways of old, towards a life of steady moderation.
Younger female characters are beginning to punch their way through the two-dimensional ceiling, with Lady Bird (2017) and Booksmart (2019) giving hope for the future of gender-balanced filmmaking. Female hedonists on the small screen have long existed in a state of plurality, neither drunken demons nor sober saints: Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s sex-obsessed Fleabag (2016); outrageous Emma in Sally4Ever (2018); drug-munching Effie (and practically all of the female characters) in Skins (2007). These are flawed women, romping their way through sexual encounters, alcohol, drugs or a potent cocktail of all three without a need for absolution, just as their male cinematic counterparts have long been allowed to.
It is in this alcohol-filled vein that Animals follows. Originally a novel by Emma Jane Unsworth, the film is the drunken anecdote of best friends and co-dependents Laura (Holliday Grainger) and Tyler (Alia Shawkat) as they fall out of the bars and house parties of Dublin. Tyler seems content with her life of benders punctuated by the occasional waitressing job, but Laura yearns to start work on her novel without the all too alluring distraction of a hundredth night out. When Laura gets engaged, her relationships with Tyler, with booze and with sex all have to be re-examined as she beings to wonder if the party is finally coming to an end.
This blurb doesn’t do Animals justice – it sounds too much like the kind of story we’ve heard before. Girl meets girl. Girl meets boy. Girl has to decide between girl and boy. When you lay the skeleton bones of the plot bare, it resembles the vom-coms above. But Animals is worlds away from this, elevated through nuanced writing, directing and acting and an empathetic crew of mostly women.
Feminist journalist Caitlin Moran described Animals as “Withnail with girls” in her 2014 Guardian review of the novel. It sounds like a glib comparison, but can a comparison to such a multi-layered character be reductive? It’s easy to write Withnail off as an alcoholic buffoon, downing lighter fluid and spouting eminently quotable one-liners, including “We'll miss out on Monday but come up smiling Tuesday morning.”
But Withnail is as tragic as he is comedic. Broken by his frustration at not getting work as an actor and sensing his raison d’etre slipping through his fingers, he drinks (as so many hedonists do) to anaesthetise a reality he can’t swallow. His final Hamlet soliloquy is heartbreaking, as he cries to a pen of wolves (the only audience he can muster): “I have of late, wherefore I know not, lost all of my mirth”. So when Caitlin Moran compares Animals to Withnail & I, she acknowledges not only what a fun drink-fuelled romp it is, but also that the female characters are allowed to be many things at once.
In Animals, the highs and crushing comedowns of a life of hedonism are explored equally and without judgement. The thrill of chasing an unforgettable night out is write large in all its glittering glory. Dancing with strangers, running through empty streets, feeling so completely in love with your best friend that you worry your heart will explode. But then, inevitably, the dawn comes. A particularly excruciating morning-after epitomises this as Laura, still rolling from the night before, goes to her fiancé’s sophisticated piano recital.
Any high the audience may have been empathetically feeling immediately snaps away, as we watch Laura pull on her too short glittery dress and talk ten to the dozen about absolutely nothing to aloof strangers who can’t hide their side-eye. A one night stand morphs from dizzying erotic thrills into something that is weird, uncomfortable and finally the worst of all: boring. Laura’s engagement is shown to present a dichotomy too; safe and sexy and samey and comforting and new and old all at the same time. It becomes clear that someone can hold you back and push you forwards, drag you down and lift you up, isolate you but also be so vitally on your team that you can’t possibly live without them.
Of course, Animals isn’t the solution to all of our Bechdel woes. If you put the female hedonists mentioned above in a line-up, you’d see a startling lack of diversity. Mostly white, cis-gendered, straight-ish, with enough money to mean they’ll never truly be financially desperate, these are the only women currently afforded the complexity of a hedonistic life. As Rebecca Liu asks in her Another Gaze exploration of the Millennial Woman archetype: “Who gets to be an individual to the Western public? Who gets to be complex?”.
Animals succeeds because the film never looks down on its inextricably *female* characters. While hedonists aren’t necessarily to be emulated (although you know, you do you) they should inspire us to seize life by the neck of the bottle and drain every last drop. Here is a film in which women are allowed to be three-dimensional. Not cartoon drunken wastrels, not sex mad nymphomaniacs, not angelic figures saving others from a life of inebriation.
So here’s to more female hedonists, more female fuck-ups. Here’s to Fear and Loathing with girls and Taxi Driver with girls and Clockwork Orange with girls. Here’s to every fucking film with girls we can think of.
Jenny Novitzky (@jinkynovs) is a freelance writer from Sheffield. Her first novel was shortlisted for Penguin's Write Now award and she was selected to be on Vault Festival's young writer's programme. Since studying Film and Drama she has worked as a circus performer, opened her own restaurant and been featured on The Antiques Roadshow. And they said a drama degree was useless.