In general, online stars tend to adopt a smiley persona to entertain their viewers. However, the short film Fragile.com—streamed to both German and international audiences in this year’s virtual Final Girls Berlin Film Festival—imagines an alternate universe where sad girls are celebrated for exhibiting their misery on camera.
As she sits sobbing in a cafe after getting rejected by her crush, high-schooler Mara (Carly Stewart) is poached by the enigmatic Duco (Colin Woodell). He’s the mastermind behind the website that gives the film its title. His name, apparently inspired by the Latin word for “I lead’, is an apt choice for his slimy character. A pied piper of sorts, he sweet-talks Mara into live-streaming herself crying for an audience on his site each week. At first, she is ecstatic, pocketing a thousand dollars per session. Though, when things take a dark turn, she loses her grip on her reality, sanity and identity.
On the surface, Fragile.com, directed by Alison-Eve Hammersley, is pretty tame for a horror film. However, its preference for subtlety is in fact its greatest triumph. This is because the true horror of the film lies in its treatment of a terrifyingly real issue: the objectification of women. The film’s opening line sets the tone for this central message. In a performance of an amateur play, that Mara and her friends—including her crush, Tristan (Nick Fink)—are all acting in, a female character says to her male lover, “I love you, but you are death”. This line is repeated later on in the film. This line encapsulates the catch-22 situation faced by heterosexual women in particular. Men are the objects of their romantic desire, yet also the main perpetrators of female objectification.
Duco’s character embodies this dilemma. Mara and her friends lust after him, but it’s clear from the start that he views women as commodities. He’s certainly particular in his requirements for the performers on fragile.com. They must be girls, pretty and most importantly, they must be sad. Seemingly then, the perfect concoction to construct a damsel in distress, straight out of the heterosexual male fantasy.
But the film does not only explore how men like Duco encourage the objectification of women. Arguably, even more sinisterly, it also shows how women—particularly young women like Mara—unknowingly internalise the male gaze and view their appearance as social currency for male pleasure. This is clear from Mara’s first live-stream. Caught off guard when the client asks her what’s wrong: “Is it a boy? Well, he didn’t deserve you anyway,” the client reassures her. She relays this somewhat angrily to Duco on the phone during their debrief afterwards. “I didn’t know that he would talk to me,” she says. Here, she’s disconcerted that the viewer actually cared about her feelings.
After Duco transfers her first payment, the focus shifts to a computer screen showing Mara smiling into the webcam, happy with the seemingly positive change in her fortunes. Suddenly, the image of her smiling face becomes pixelated and fractured on the screen—a disturbing omen of what’s to come. As the weeks go on, we soon see Mara crack under the pressure of the gaze of her male viewers, going to extreme lengths to satisfy their desires and secure their fickle attention.
Interestingly, the film-makers also use the pixelation effect on Mara in real life. This technique complements the dreamlike, hallucinatory quality of the film. It’s as if her online fantasy persona “Star” (a name given to her by Duco) and the real-life Mara are blurring into one. This blurring of imagination and reality is in fact a pervasive motif of the film, which in turn reinforces the central concept of the objectification of women. Particularly, how women are not viewed as real human beings with complex thoughts and feelings. Also, how imaginary women are more digestible than the real thing. For example, Tristan asks Mara to kiss him in the play, even though this is not in the script. Later on, when she plucks up the courage to ask him out afterwards (and, in doing so, shatters the damsel in distress illusion), he claims he was only acting.
Furthermore, Duco seems to fictionalise Mara’s heartbreak in their first meeting: “Why don’t we pretend this is a movie and you’re the writer—what’s my line?” he asks her. A line which he repeats whenever she is upset. Later on, he even calls her a “magical fairy” and sometimes calls her by her stage name on fragile.com, Star. The message is clear: Mara is attractive to the men around her when she’s playing a character. Only when she’s passive rather than assertive, kept at arm’s length, merely a pretty image viewed through a screen. To them, she’s akin to a mythical creature, whose misery is more tolerable when it’s fictionalised and sold for their pleasure, without all the baggage that comes with it.
With superb acting, a believable script (written by Brittany Menjivar), gorgeously surreal cinematography (the work of Lauren Guiteras) and a disturbing take on a pertinent issue, it’s hard to fault Fragile.com. The only gripe is that its 20 minutes runtime is too short, as the story and its themes would be stronger if further developed. I can easily see this film being taken up and expanded by Netflix’s Black Mirror.
Fragile.com earns a well-deserved spot in this year’s virtual Final Girls Berlin Film Festival, with its unique and unsettling exploration of the objectification and commodification of women according to heterosexual male fantasies.
Fragile.com was streamed in the Final Girls Berlin Film Festival from 4 to 7 February 2021.
You can watch Fragile.com here.
Words by Reem Ahmed
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