Level 16, Paradise Hills, and the Horror of Misogynist Dystopias

Hello, everyone! I recently watched the films Level 16 (2018) and Paradise Hills (2019), which share more than a few similarities. Both movies were written and directed by women, both movies have an almost entirely female cast, and both movies center around stories about imprisoned women living in mysterious dystopias. Since female-directed movies are still such a rarity, with women directing only 10% of the top 100 grossing films in 2019, watching a female-led film can sometimes feel like sensing tremors of an earthquake that’s yet to come. The tremors in Level 16 and Paradise Hills express the unique female fears of losing one’s mental and physical autonomy to a patriarchal government, and even though both movies take place in the future, it’s clear that this fear is grounded in our present reality.

Level 16 and Paradise Hills are two faces of the same coin. The former, written and directed by Danishka Esterhazy, tells the story of a group of girls raised in a prison-like boarding school. Taught the virtues of cleanliness and obedience, the girls believe that they have been saved from a toxic world in order to be brought up into the type of perfect women who are worthy of adoption. Underpinning their ordered lives, however, is the constant threat of “punishment,” and when two girls, Vivien and Sophia, begin to question the status quo, they realize that their entire existence has been a lie.

Filmed in an old police station, the movie’s somber color palette and claustrophobic interiors emphasize the bleak monotony of the characters’ lives. Forbidden from questioning authority, and subject to invasive medical treatments, the girls’ minds and bodies are equally imprisoned. The film’s subtle reveal of the girls’ illiteracy, perhaps an homage to The Handmaid’s Tale, further demonstrates that the girls live in a society which views them as objects, rather than as human beings.

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Paradise Hills is Level 16’s candy-coated sister, a movie so drenched in pastel femininity that it almost loses its message. The movie centers on the story of Uma, a girl sent to the Paradise Hills reform school after refusing to marry a rich man. A place for so-called feminine improvement, the girls spend their days exercising, primping, and following carefully prescribed diets, all while the elegant Duchess instructs them in the feminine virtues. It’s only when Uma skips her nightly glass of milk that she realizes that the school is drugging its students, and using them for sinister purposes.

Where Level 16 languishes in its gloomy aesthetic, Paradise Hills relishes in its vivacity, with every frame an explosion of cutesy color and post-modern Rococo style. Neither the stilted acting nor the bizarre plot of the film can compete with Level 16‘s, but Paradise Hills’ deeper exploration of the commodification of female bodies, and society’s intolerance of women who violate the status quo, shows that both movies stem from the same school of thought. While Level 16 delivers its message in a no-nonsense fashion, Paradise Hills wraps its commentary in an uber-feminine aesthetic, perhaps aware that it’s easier to catch flies with honey than vinegar.

The theme of female imprisonment isn’t a novel concept, but both movies zero in on the objectification of women’s bodies, and how that objectification can lead to dehumanization and violence. In Level 16, the girls discover that they have been raised like livestock for their skin, which is sold to wealthy buyers, and in Paradise Hills, the girls learn that their “education” has been a pretense for the school to copy the girl’s bodies, kill them, and replace them with clones.

Beneath both outlandish twists lie grains of truth. Throughout history, society has forced women who violated the societal norms of the time into obedience through the use of institutionalization or violence. Women were considered men’s legal property in the United States until the late 1800s, and women couldn’t even get their own credit cards until as recently as the 1970s. While movies like Level 16 and Paradise Hills can seem like fantasies, they are a reminder that women’s societal equality is a relatively recent phenomenon. You could even view these movies as warnings; blaring sirens telling Millennial and Gen Z women to take stock of their current freedoms, and gain a new awareness of how easily those freedoms could be taken away. If we take one thing away from these films, it’s the idea that women’s bodies are political, and awareness of this fact is the first step towards resistance.

let's go lesbians — Katie Douglas in Level 16 (2018)

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