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The notorious Mary Harron

American Psycho director tackes intense, uncomfortable material

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If any film director could be said to march to the beat of her own drum, that would be Mary Harron.

The 59-year-old Canadian-born Harron (for a time best known as the daughter of Canadian comic actor Don Harron) has been at the helm of adult TV drama such as Oz, Six Feet Under and The L Word. But she maintains a feature film career, which signalled a contrarian sensibility early on. Her first film was I Shot Andy Warhol, a 1996 biopic of Valerie Solanas, the crazed ultra-radical feminist writer who came close to ending the life of the famous pop artist.

Harron followed that up with her most notorious film, American Psycho (2000), a deceptively deft adaptation of the brutal-satirical novel by Bret Easton Ellis about a Wall Street player whose immaculately tended surface hides mind-boggling depravity. With an amazing star turn by a young Christian Bale in the role of Patrick Bateman, it's a surprisingly witty, eminently quotable movie that considerably toned down the sickening violence of Ellis's book.

Her third feature returned Harron to the off-centre biopic with The Notorious Bettie Page (2005), an affectionate but unblinking account of the life of the most compelling pin-up model of the allegedly innocent 1950s.

Harron comes to Winnipeg's Cinematheque this weekend to screen both Bettie Page and American Psycho, as well as screen her new film The Moth Diaries in advance of its April release in Canada. The trailer for Moth Diaries seems to be aimed at the Twilight demographic with its setting of a boarding school for teen girls, a hunky teacher (Scott Speedman) discussing vampirism, and a pale teenager (Lily Cole) with a vibe of goth bloodsucker.

But of course, appearances can be deceiving.

"It has some of the elements of the teen vampire thing, but I hope it's quite different," Harron says over the phone from New York, where she is dutifully waiting for one of her two daughters to finish a piano lesson.

Indeed, upon closer scrutiny, it would appear the Moth Diaries is to Twilight what Midnight Cowboy is to a buddy comedy.

"It's not a romance... well, it is a romance, but it's about how the girls feel about each other," she says. "It's about those friendships girls have when they aren't really ready for boys, so they rehearse. And they want to break away from their families, but they're not ready for the outside world.

"It's really a drama about teenage girls and their intense, crazy friendships, more than anything else," Harron says. "It's like a modern, gothic coming-of-age movie. To me, it's a million miles away from Twilight."

The retrospective element of Cinematheque's program may facilitate a reconsideration of her film American Psycho, which was widely reviled upon its initial release in 2000. But in the intervening decade, it's a film that has won the respect of audiences, whether fans of the horror genre or not. Certainly, the figure of a monstrous, blood-lusting Wall Street player seems more pertinent than ever in the shadow of the corporate malfeasance of the subprime mortgage crisis and the Occupy Wall Street movement.

"I don't know why it took so long. It certainly didn't have that reaction at first," she says. "Obviously it helped that Christian go to be very famous, but it initially had a very mixed response, as all my films do.

"When it came out, people fixated on the '80s (trappings), but I thought it wasn't really about the '80s," she says. "The satire is about the '80s, but really it's about business and modern life. And it's not like anything's changed."

Harron confesses she is nonplussed at the talk about current plans to remake American Psycho.

"They usually wait 25 or 30 years before they remake something. It's so bizarre," she says.

"I guess it did very well and it made them a lot of money, but it's completely weird to me that you would do that when the film was done in recent memory," she says. "If it was up to me, I'd say, 'Don't do it.'

"But I have no say in it. Obviously, I would like mine to be the definitive one, and they already did a stupid sequel, but what can I do? It's out of my hands."

During her time in Winnipeg, Harron will sit down on Saturday afternoon with respected Winnipeg filmmaker Norma Bailey to discuss her career, and it seems likely the subject of gender will be addressed. Despite the comparative scarcity of female directors compared to male, Harron sees slow signs of progress beyond the milestone moment when Kathryn Bigelow won her Oscar for directing The Hurt Locker in 2009.

"I think there's obviously a general trend where it is getting better," she says. "You have to look at it over a 30-, 40-year graph. If you just look at it year to year, you won't see anything revealing really -- one film might get an Oscar, or a film like Monster gets a lot of attention.

"But to see an overview, you have to see how many women were making movies in the 1950s and '60s and then you'll see there is a big change."

Harron acknowledges that she finds herself an inspiration to young would-be female filmmakers, which she accepts with understanding.

"If I had known of other women directors when I was growing up and starting out, obviously it would have made a difference," Harron says. "It would seem more attainable."

Mary Harron screenings

and workshop

at Cinematheque

The Notorious Bettie Page screens Friday at 7 p.m.

Master Class Q&A with Norma Bailey, Saturday at 2 p.m.

The Moth Diaries preview screens Saturday at 7 p.m.

American Psycho screens Saturday at 9 p.m.

Tickets to the Q&A are $25.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 1, 2012 E8

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