Spectre Fails To Deliver The Bond Heroine We Deserve

Back in September, Monica Bellucci told The Guardian that in Spectre, she plays a “Bond woman,” not a “Bond girl.”

But after seeing the movie last week, that declaration feels to me less like a renunciation of the old sexist ways of 007 films and more like a matter of semantics. At 51, Bellucci may be Bond’s oldest paramour, but her character is easily discarded, another addition to the long list of ladies with whom Bond has had quickies. Spectre isn't particularly retrograde, but it's not a miraculously feminist Bond movie, either.

Bellucci plays Lucia, the widow of a man Bond killed. Her interaction with 007 goes something like this: They meet at her husband’s funeral, he saves her from being assassinated, they make out while she gives him vital information, and he leaves after implied sex to go deal with some villains. A Cassandra in a bustier, she warns him of the danger in his future. Lucia essentially serves as sexposition, which is disappointing for an actress of Bellucci’s caliber.

Léa Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann fares a little better. The daughter of recurring villain Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), Madeleine is an Oxford- and Sorbonne-educated doctor. She is a match for Bond in smarts and can wield a weapon if necessary, even though she tries to avoid the violence that characterizes her father’s world. Yet Madeleine falls for Bond almost as quickly as she rebuffs him, and ultimately needs to be saved by him. (Spoiler alert: The film’s climax involves Bond rescuing Madeleine after she has been tied up in a building that’s about to be demolished. What, did train tracks seem too obvious?)

The three most recent 007 films, with Craig in the licensed-to-kill lead, ushered in a different sort of Bond girl. Eva Green's Vesper Lynd from Casino Royale has a devastating arc. Skyfall is light on romance, and instead focuses on the almost-familial relationship between Bond and Judi Dench’s M. The other prominent woman in that film, Naomie Harris’ Eve, is revealed to be Bond’s platonic, if flirty work friend, Moneypenny. Alyssa Rosenberg at Slate hailed Skyfall as “the end of the Bond girl and the rise of the Bond woman,” writing, “There's no clearer sign that we're in a great new Bond era than it's now just as much fun to watch Bond talk to a woman as it is to see him take one to bed.” Writing for Time, Lily Rothman explained that Eve was the “latest example of how Bond Girls have become less likely to need Bond to save them and more likely to be capable of saving Bond.” Just this summer, Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson argued that the “death of the Bond girl” led to the rise of female action heroes in spy flicks, like Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) in Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation.

But perhaps it’s because of characters like Ilsa that Lucia and Madeleine seem so underserved by Spectre. After a summer of blockbusters that featured women defying expectations onscreen, it’s a bummer that the latest Bond installment fails to live up to those standards, especially with such talented actresses in the roles.

Director Sam Mendes seems to know that crafting a female character who's Bond’s true equal is more easily said than done. “I know it’s the cliché now to stoke up the roles of women in large commercial movies by saying ‘They’re so strong’ and ‘They’re his equal’ and stuff,” he told Vanity Fair. “It’s actually quite difficult to construct roles that actually conform to that. But in their case, I think the combination of the roles and their authority as actresses, and their relative maturity — and I don’t mean in years, I mean in experience — help, massively, the feeling that they’ve lived lives before meeting him, and they’re not simply adjuncts.” Mendes hopes that the sheer presence of Seydoux and Bellucci — European actresses, each with a stellar body of work — will lend their characters the depth the script doesn’t.

In this day and age, that's not quite enough.

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