Jessica Jones: Modern Noir
BY JENI ROHWER
From the gritty illustrations and dark, evocative music of the opening sequence to the jarring camera angles and the ever-present pervasive lighting, Netflix’s Jessica Jones is neo-noir in its most obvious form. More a style and mood of film than an actual genre, film noir translates literally to ‘black film’, but ‘dark film’ is more fitting. Characterised by an emphasis on cynicism and disillusionment, multifaceted and elaborate narratives, and the technical use of low-key lighting, narration, and flashbacks, noir films often reflect the conflicts and anxieties of the time in which they are created. When this style extended past the noir period of the twentieth century, and began representing updated circumstances and content, neo-noir was born.
Season One introduces us to Jessica Jones, a severely damaged, deeply flawed – albeit effective – private investigator with a penchant for booze and dry sarcasm. Opening on grainy, shadowed shots of cheaters, accompanied by Jessica’s gravelly narration, we quickly learn of her cynicism and sardonic wit. The following twelve episodes are marked by over-narrated paranoia and guilt peppered with flashbacks and hallucinations of her past trauma. And in true noir style, it is the memory of this that drives her forward. Over the course of these flashbacks, it becomes clear that Jessica has been compelled into a non-consensual relationship with Kilgrave and is still reeling with the memories of her actions while under his control. When she’s not drunk or hungover in her claustrophobic, low-rent apartment-slash-office with no lock and venetian blinds (with car headlights dramatically streaming through the gaps, of course), Jones spends her time on dimly-lit New York streets and grimy fire escapes. The locations of this gritty noir are characteristic of classic noir films that embrace dark, gloomy interiors and rain-slicked streets.
With Jessica as our brooding anti-hero, there’s no room for her to be either the archetypical good and loving woman or the femme fatale that we so often see in noir cinema. By subverting the pessimistic, hard-hearted detective disillusioned with society that is so characteristically present, it would make sense to use another female character to fill this archetype. And so, we have Jeri Hogarth as the scheming, powerful lawyer cheating on her spouse with her secretary, and Trish Walker as the child-star turned talk show host who just barely hides her jealousy of Jessica’s powers. The answer to this femme fatale gap lies with the ‘big bad’ of the season, Kilgrave. Positioned as the personification of misogyny and sexism, Kilgrave has the power to make somebody do anything he wants, and finds particular pleasure in forcing women to smile. The truly terrifying aspect of his powers is the way he is able to influence desires, making his victims really want to do these awful things, not unlike the seductive power of the traditional femme fatale.
Kilgrave’s influence creates a strong sense of paranoia, not only in Jessica, but also in Trish and her ally Simpson, forcing us to question how we are supposed to trust the world, and especially ourselves. The fact that Jessica has to waste her time just proving that Kilgrave even exists parallels some of the difficulties so often faced by women trying to be taken seriously.
With the second season of Jessica Jones released on International Women’s Day – 8 March 2018 – it’s no surprise that the next thirteen episodes of this knockout collaboration between Marvel and Netflix give us three main female characters who all have to grapple with questions of power, control, and autonomy in order to make sense of their fractured lives. Arriving shortly after the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements, season two focuses more on issues of identity and internal conflict. Boasting a mostly female production team, including all episodes being directed by women, Jessica Jones continues to tackle the reality of misogyny and sexism. Although the visual and tonal elements are very similar between seasons, we see a deeper introspection into Jessica’s history, and this pursuit spreads into the disjointed secondary plots of Trish and Hogarth. By extending these storylines, along with Oscar Arocho’s initial mistrust, the alienation Jessica feels is highlighted, ensuring she continues to be the hard-hearted noir anti-hero we somehow still love.
Originally situated as the moral centre of Jessica’s world, Trish quickly falls further into her jealousy of Jessica’s powers, risking her own life in the process. This loss of innocence and sense of desperation, which is also mirrored in Hogarth’s diagnosis, is a classic trope in noir cinema. In the original comics, Jeri Hogarth’s character is a reasonably boring older male – Jeryn Hogarth. It is interesting to note that even though she is still the same type of character, we respond to her more because she is female. We see this powerful, in charge woman losing control of her life, and suddenly we empathise. And although representative of queer women – Jeri Hogarth is a strong alpha female who demands respect – it’s just a shame that Jessica Jones’ feminism doesn’t also encompass women of colour. Jessica’s history has also been changed quite drastically in relation to the original comics, in particular, the reason for her powers. The unsanctioned experimental surgeries performed on both Jessica and her mother give us the requisite moral ambiguity of neo-noir.
The male anti-hero of classic noir doesn’t question his role in society and how he is so easily able to straddle the two worlds of good and evil. Jessica Jones uses its female protagonist to not only question what it means to be a hero, but to examine how women can find their true identity free from the constraints of society’s expectations. Trish and Hogarth continually manipulate and damage others to change their own circumstances and ‘win’, but it is our anti-hero Jessica who faces the greatest internal conflict, while still trying to help others. By the end, she has achieved a certain level of acceptance of her own situation, echoing her mother’s words, ’Hero isn’t a bad word, Jessica. It’s just someone who gives a shit and does something about it.’