Too often women have been characterized as femme fatales, dangerous temptresses and damsels in distress. Women such as Eve, Helen of Troy, Medusa are a few iconic examples that have appeared throughout (his)story. If a woman is not a “sinner,” a “whore,” or a “monster,” then she is represented as weak, fragile and eternally in need of saving. According to these tales, there seem to be only two types of women: one who bends men to their knees and another who falls to her own. If she has any sort of agency of her own, she is dangerous. These stories imply that the best case scenario for women is to rely on someone else’s agency to move through the world and that someone is usually a man. These out-dated and problematic representations of women find a new home in the 2020 Netflix film 365 Days (Dir. Barbara Białowąs and Tomasz Mandes).
The film, which boasts a spot on Netflix’s Top 10 Movies list, is based on a novel of the same name by Blanka Lipińska. The plot follows a woman named Laura Biel (Anna-Maria Sieklucka) whose life is dramatically altered when a Sicilian mobster named Don Massimo Torricelli (Michele Morrone) kidnaps her and gives her 365 days to fall in love with him. The twisted story grossly marries Beauty and the Beast and E.L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey, elucidating the problem in viewing women as victims of a man’s power and objects of his sexual desire.
But before Laura’s predictable and disappointing downfall, viewers witness a character that is strong, smart and strategic. When viewers are introduced to Laura, she sits in a business meeting arguing with a male co-worker. There seems to have been a mistake made by someone in her company and this aforementioned coworker makes it obvious that he believes that Laura is at fault. He goes as far as to say, in front of their boss, that Laura does not have “the balls to do [her] job.” Immediately, Laura advocates for herself, calls out her co-worker for attempting to humiliate her in front of an authority figure, and demonstrates her capacity to excel at her job. Not only did she not make a mistake, but she reveals that what she has done has benefited the company. This, she says to the co-worker, is “exactly what you need balls for.” It is a man’s world, but Laura sits at the table. She makes herself known. She is intelligent, calculated and unafraid to advocate for herself and her abilities as a professional.
Surely, this is a character who knows her worth and who will not crumble under Massimo, a megalomaniac and young leader of a Sicilian mafia. Surely, this woman will rise above the negative stereotypes that have characterized her gender both in real life and in narratives.
Throughout the first few days together, Laura seems like she just might deliver this surprising and empowering twist. For example, Laura repeatedly tells Massimo that “no one owns [her]” and that she is not “an object.” Unfortunately, these words have little meaning and offer little protection. Laura can tell Massimo that she is “not a sack of potatoes” that he can drag anywhere. However, because he is physically stronger than her, and criminally persistent, he can do exactly that, forcing her to travel with him wherever he goes. More troubling, the film suggests that what made her strong in the office and as a person is exactly what make her prime for her downfall. She may think herself determined and confident, but these attributes pale in comparison to the great Massimo. He is powerful, both materially and physically, and has the added bonus of being head of a criminal organization.
The odds are stacked against her, but Laura does not give up easily. She begins to fight back against her captor with small acts of defiance. The issue with these so called acts of defiance are that they do not draw on her power as a human being with a mind of her own. Laura’s defiant acts consist of channeling her feminine wiles. She parades around Massimo in stylish outfits, lingerie and even her naked body. Her sexualized body, framed within the context of the male gaze, is the only power that the screenwriters gave Laura to wield. After all, Massimo did make Laura a promise after he kidnapped her: he would not touch her without her consent. It is important to express that consent is not something that can be promised or granted. Having consent is a minimum requirement in any relationship. When Massimo frames consent as a promise, it implies that consent is some special reward. In truth, consent is in fact a basic human right that he does not have the capacity to break or retract.
Yet, Massimo does break his promise by molesting Laura, tying her up to watch another woman give him oral sex and grabbing her by the throat each time she “provokes” him with her womanliness. Massimo, who undoubtedly never heard the word “no” in his life, does not seem to realize that consent encompasses everything–––not just penetrative sex. Laura never tells him that he could grab her boobs, stick his hand down her pants or chain her to his bed. He does it anyway because he is a man who takes and does what he wants–––promises be damned. This is to be expected of a man who kidnaps a woman simply because he saw her face in a vision and instantly fell in “love”. This is to be expected of a man who plays a game of cat and mouse with an unwilling person. This is to be expected of a man who needs to dominate a woman in an effort to constantly establish and re-establish a sense of control.
The longer Laura and Massimo are together, the more Laura’s potential of courage and strength is undermined by the life of unimaginable riches and sexual pleasure that Massimo offers her. Massimo buys her whatever she wants: food, clothes and anything else that tickles her fancy. He also shows her “what she is missing” by forcing her to watch him shower and witness his sexual acts.
But it is the end result of one of Laura and Massimo’s many fights that causes Laura to lose the power struggle and ultimately give into Massimo. During their last and most important fight, Laura falls off a fancy yacht (that Massimo forced her to board) and plummets into the sea. After he pulls her from the ocean, Laura sees Massimo, her kidnapper, in a new light. She recasts herself as the damsel in distress and him as a prince who rescued her from a watery grave. She no longer views herself as the determined woman who is trying to escape her kidnapper. She is a fighter when she falls into the water. Tragically, she emerges from the depths a delusional victim of Stockholm syndrome. Worse, she apologies for her previous acts of defiance though she only had to resort to this behavior because Massimo kidnapped her in the first place. She also acts as if Massimo saving her life once automatically exonerates him from his previous attempts to harm her under the guise of “being in love.” She was not acting out because of pettiness, but because she wanted to survive.
Throughout the entire film, I foolishly hoped for a twist in the narrative, a change up to the seemingly predictable plot. I imagined that Laura would use her intelligence and bravery to escape Massimo and thus break free from one of the many patriarchal systems that confine women. It would have been satisfying to watch a version of the story in which she escapes her captor, bending him and his fragile masculinity to its knees. No such luck. Instead, after the rescue scene, viewers watch four minutes of what can only be likened to a very raunchy adult film. Although he is an aggressive, manipulative and abusive man, Massimo gets the girl as any prince would.
After this scene, the rest of the movie has more surprises in store in order to secure a sequel. This sequel will mostly likely be a continuation of the toxic tropes that send harmful messages to audiences about sex and a woman’s body. The fact that the original story was written by a woman makes this truth more frustrating. Despite my frustration, I continue to lose hope that Massimo will lose his grip on Laura and that he will be forced to realize that he cannot have everything he wants. When that moment comes, and Massimo must confront a major blow to his power, only one question will remain: Are you lost, baby boy?