Level 16 (2018, Canada)
Director: Danishka Esterhazy
Writer: Danishka Esterhazy
Women in the crew: Stephanie Chapelle (producer); Judy Holm (exec. producer); Sarah Jackson (line producer); Diana Magnus (production design); Thea Hollatz (set decorator); Jennifer Stroud (costume designer); Kayla Dobilas (key make up); Justine Sly (key hair design); Sarah Jackson (production manager); Aurèle Gaudet (1st assistant director); also across art, visual effects, and sound departments
Available to stream/rent/buy: Netflix and Amazon Prime UK https://www.justwatch.com/uk/movie/level-16
This review contains **SPOILERS**
Welcome back to #WomenMakeSF! Our unplanned pandemic hiatus is hopefully over.
It was back in September 2020 that I/we first watched Level 16, writer/director Danishka Esterhazy’s exploration of youth, femininity, and patriarchal values in a near-future dystopia where young women are preserved and prepared to be the future faces of their wealthy ‘sponsors’. Literally.
We talked about the film alongside Alice Waddington’s Paradise Hills in episode 6 of the podcast: Finishing Schools of Fear. It was interesting to have had several films that presented futures where young women were being educated and cared for as a front for their eventual death. In Paradise the women are copied, replaced, and the originals consumed by Mila Jocavich’s telepathic flower monster woman (obvs). Level 16 takes a far grittier gulag approach to this imagined future of replaceable or upgradable women.
Gone is the lavish candy-coloured fantasy that engulfed the girls in Paradise. Level 16 has no such pretence that this will end well for the class of ‘students’ we are introduced to. They are named for stars of the classical Hollywood era — Vivien, Greta, Sofia, Rita, Ava — a superficially glamorous themed naming system that positions these young women as helpless animals in a pound rather than privileged youth in private education. Like the women of classical Hollywood, their pasts and true identities are suppressed (or perhaps even non-existent — were they bred for this life?) to make them easier to sell.
“They put a strong emphasis on teaching us to fit in and know our place and, especially for young women, to accept a certain amount of second-class citizenship. That made me very angry as a teenager, and I haven’t forgotten that. I wanted to tap into those feelings” – Danishka Esterhazy
The ‘school’ in Level 16 is called Vestalis Academy, Vestalis meaning pertaining to Vesta, goddess of hearth and home. Interestingly/terrifyingly, Amazon have reached the “late-prototype stage” for their home robot called Vesta — another turn towards the gendering of AI and an apparent desire for smart wives to replace or at best support women who reject a “tradwife” lifestyle.. At the Academy the girls are practicing the virtues of perfect femininity so that they can be chosen. But for what? As the girls, symbolically named after controlled and contracted 1940s starlets, grow at the school they progress through the different levels. Each level purposely sounds like a school year but it is a literal ascension from subterranean levels to the surface where, if they are deemed sufficiently perfect as they have been trained to be, they will be chosen.
They will be chosen to be drugged, laid out like Victorian dolls (or a serial killer’s victims?) and presented to wealthy onlookers in a creepy AF showroom. Only the most pure are chosen — for adoption, surrogacy, sex? None of the above. This is an elaborate processing plant for fresh fleshy faces — young undamaged skin — that will be transplanted onto wealthy — and notably only — women. Their subterranean existence is part of the preservation — no sun or pollutant damage to skin that is ritualistically cleaned and cared for by girls and their carers/jailors Dr Miro (Peter Outerbridge) and Miss Brixil (Sara Canning).
Forced illiteracy and strict draconian rules that the girls repeat like commandments make the world of Level 16 align with the contemporary adaptation of Handmaid’s Tale. Like the handmaids, the Vestalis girls are framed by a transparently false care narrative intended only to make them more attractive objects to be used/reused. Miss Brixill makes for a far more glamorous keeper than Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), but where Lydia believes in the law of Gilead and the sacred reproductive purpose (child-bearing slavery) of the women trapped inside its borders, Miss Brixill is a polished saleswoman whose approach to her charges is more than a little Miss Trunchball (she even has a iron maiden/chokey).
Immaculately presented and visually reminiscent of Veronica Lake with her blonde waves and coquettish glances, Miss Brixill is the face of the operation. But it is not clear if the face she presents has always been hers, until the girls try to work out what is happening to them and tie up Brixil and force the truth from her. A telling scar on the back of Brixil’s neck proves that she is a sample of the cosmetic procedure as much as a sales manager. Inspired by recent(ish) advances in facial reconstruction and face transplants, Level 16 asks when, where, or how does this currently experimental medical procedure become cosmetic? Is Brixil more than a saleswoman and product manager? Is she trapped in the system as a subject of experimentation too?
Vivien (Katie Douglas) is the head girl in this film. She shows intelligence in her rejection of the rules and her willingness to listen to the fears of other girls about their daily vitamins (don’t drink the milk, don’t eat the apple) and what will happen to them. Restricted by lack of education and experience, Vivien can only think of one way to be saved from being flayed: self-mutilation. Although Miro suggests that she isn’t like the other girls, she knows that she is because her value to him is only skin deep. Vivien can and does defy him and escape her fate through cutting into her face because then ‘they won’t want me if I’m not beautiful.’
Most women can’t mutilate or modify their bodies enough to be left alone. We talk about women’s responsibility for their own safety and in so doing shift the blame from the abuser to the abused. To be safe women are told not to make themselves visible or distracting, but even with keys between their fingers and every precaution taken they are not safe. It isn’t what they look like (‘beautiful’), how old they are, or who they are with (‘belong’ to) and there is not much more women can do to ensure their safety. Maybe we teach our men and society as a whole that women are strong as hell and worthy of respect because their value extends far beyond appearance and their capacity to be good women.
Some reviews of Level 16 criticised the film for its heavy-handed messaging, but I would argue that its excessiveness made it more effective. Level 16 pulls together many of the fears women have — ageing, beauty, being abused, being raped, purity, being ‘enough’… Esterhazy’s film is heavy-handed to ensure that feeling of enslavement and entrapment. A feeling that (all) women and other marginalised identities often feel both inside and outside of the places where they should be safe.
What to watch next from Danishka Esterhazy:
I Was Lorena Bobbitt (2020)
The Banana Splits Movie (2019)
H & G (2013)
Black Field (2009) – also starring Sarah Canning
Esterhazy has also directed episodes from Women Make SF favourite Vagrant Queen!
Chloe Leeson (2019). ‘A Dystopian Take on the Commodification of Women’s Bodies’ – Level 16 [Film Review]. Vulture Hound. https://vulturehound.co.uk/2019/05/a-dystopian-take-on-the-commodification-of-womens-bodies-level-16-film-review/
Seana Stevenson (2019). Level 16 Interview: Danishka Esterhazy. Medium. https://medium.com/the-muff-society/level-16-interview-danishka-esterhazy-ac8919cabb10