I liked Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, but I wasn’t blown away by it.
Yeah, the setpieces were cool, and while I appreciated their groundedness (except for the water tank, which felt too constructed & comic booky even for me), I had trouble getting past how stock the characters seemed. Ethan/Cruise was Tom Cruise: action spy; Benji/Pegg was a stereotypical video game-playing hacker; Luthor/Rhames played Ving Rhames: hardware guy; Brandt/Renner was Jeremy Renner. Even the villain, Solomon Lane/Harris –whose complex scheme was always two steps ahead of the IMF (Ethan’s team, the Impossible Mission Force)- just doesn’t seem like an enduring character.
There was, however, Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust.
The spy/assassin Ilsa stole every scene with her ice-cold demeanor, unpredictability, badassery, and visceral sexuality. Her enigmatic agenda and raw presence tipped the balance from stock character to a sexy, third-wave character bordering on Imperator Furiosa-level groundbreaking.
So let’s talk about that!
Let’s get one thing out of the way. Ilsa’s sexual presence is undeniable, from her leggy opera dress, to emerging from her pool like a bikini-clad Venus, Rogue Nation jumps at every opportunity to undress her. While in many cases, her sexuality is filtered through Ethan’s gaze –easily intuited as a calculated manipulation on her part- there are plenty of instances where the camera is the sole arbitrator of male gaze, which is intended specifically for the audience’s titillation.
Typically, this kind of male gaze is utterly objectifying. See Black Widow in Iron Man 2, who is objectified from her earliest scene. Ilsa, however, subverts this at every turn, providing 1. A narrative excuse, 2. A character excuse, and 3. A representation excuse (we’ll come back to this) for each shot emphasizing her physique.
From here on out, SPOILERS abound.
No two scenes spell out this three-part subversion like the torture scene and the opera-house assassination attempt.
A. THE TORTURE SCENE
We’re introduced to Ilsa in the torture scene, where, without speaking a word to the captive (topless) Ethan, she preps a series of vials for interrogation. Ignoring Ethan, she calmly places her high-heels on the table and unbuttons her blouse.
When she finally turns around to face him, her face –and intentions- are unreadable. The coding, however, is clear on several levels: SHE has the power; whatever happens is by HER demand and for HER pleasure; and SHE is playing a far larger game.
Almost immediately, the scene transforms into a brutal fight scene with Ilsa assisting in Ethan’s escape, the motivations for her undress becoming instantly apparent: she’s loosening up to kick nine kinds of ass. This “dressing-down” beat is echoed later in the opera-house assassination attempt, when Ethan (I keep wanting to call him Cruise; the character did nothing to differentiate him from Cruise’s other roles) yanks off his tie and unbuttons his shirt to fight an assassin.
The beauty of this scene is complex. 1. It establishes that every time we see Ilsa, she’s playing a larger game that’s just outside of our understanding. 2. It establishes that Ilsa’s dress, however sexual, is her choice and is in many respects her weapon. 3. It establishes that her sexuality is not “for” anyone but herself. 4. Her constant positioning to weapons, tools, and plot-foreshadowing elements establishes that she is always prepared or preparing. 5. It establishes Ethan’s sexual confusion about her. 6: It establishes that Ethan is under her control and that he is only a pawn. 7. And by virtue of 5 & 6, because the story is largely filtered through Ethan’s obsession and biases, it establishes sexual confusion and enigma in the audience’s mind about her purpose. These seven points reverberate throughout the entire movie.
B. THE OPERA HOUSE ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT
No sequence so obviously showcases Ilsa’s figure as the Opera House Assassination attempt. In short, Ethan attempts to prevent the assassination of the Austrian Prime Minister while three assassins -Ilsa-included- converge. In the ensuing struggle, the Prime Minister escapes, shot through the arm by Ethan and Ilsa escapes with Ethan only to escape again. It’s a fascinating, elegant, character-driven sequence, but Ilsa’s role, before, throughout, and after it is super interesting.
With the opera in full sway, Ilsa sashays into the opera house. The camera positions itself to maximize the full-leg slit in her dress, very nearly reaching the heights of up-skirt shots. Positioning her sniper nest in theater scenery, the camera continues to emphasize her legs as she assembles her sniper rifle and readies herself. Gratuitous? Perhaps. Enabling Ethan’s escape from torture, Ilsa only says, “We’re on the same side,” which neither Ethan or the audience can discern as a lie or not. Given Ilsa’s apparent goal of assassinating the Austrian Prime Minister, it’s hard to tell, and her sexuality being associated with danger –to the point of being positioned with weapons nearly all the time- prevents the audience from finding balance. At this point, one could call Ilsa a ‘femme fatale,’ but that’s oversimplistic, given her larger goals and inscrutability.
During the escape from the opera house, Ilsa pauses, midway sliding down a rooftop with Ethan to ask him to take off her high heels. She insists that he does this, even though they slide off easily. Why? Because this creates a false connection between her and Ethan, tying him to her sexuality. While there’s chemistry here, it’s not romantic; it’s a very subtle manipulation.
Finally, after ‘escaping’ from Ethan, Ilsa returns to Solomon Lane. Threatened by one of his goons, Ilsa takes him down in one powerful movement –one that provides a detailed look up her dress. However, male gaze as the shot is, there’s no denying that it marries Ilsa’s sexuality to power and domination, and that’s where the aforementioned “representation excuse” comes into play.
The theatrical version is shot from the front!
With respect to all body types, because everything can be beautiful, Hollywood loves its waifish female characters. They’re girlish and often aren’t connected to any kind of real physicality. In cases of employing curvy actresses like Scarlett Johansson, their figures are often downplayed. Look no further than the hilariously airbrushed poster of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, where Johansson’s waist is preposterously synched.
Rebecca Ferguson is no waif. She’s got a curvy, athletic body whose every movement conveys power and poise. Even when removing a wet shirt after the water-tank dive (more on that soon!), the camera highlights her muscular back and powerful build, just as much as reminding us that, yes, this is a topless woman. While there’s an pronounces air of having one’s cake and eating it with the male gaze (not to mention the fridged woman early in the script), there are clear elements of “different body types are sexy,” “sexuality does not negate agency,” and “sexy can mean strength.” Sure, the camera’s male-gaze-y at times, but it’s operating at a higher level than “here’s a sexy lady, boys!”
It’d be easy to call Ilsa a femme fatale and walk away, but that undercuts her character. Her sexuality is a function of her strength and ability, not the other way around.
And her strength doesn’t end there.
2. A POWERFUL WOMAN
I’ve used the word “power” repeatedly to describe Ilsa Faust because it’s accurate on so many levels. Not only is she a physical combatant to be reckoned with, but she controls Ethan as much as she negotiates the balance of power between herself her “boss,” Solomon Lane. The IMF are her pawns as much as she is Lane’s pawn –but she’s playing a different game.
As highlighted in the above section, Ilsa controls Ethan –past the point of compromising him emotionally and logically- via her sexuality and intelligence. Nearly every situation Ethan finds himself in is arbitrated by her and for her own goals. While there’s a sexual tension between the characters, there’s never a sense of a building tryst. She is not showing off for him; she’s dressing in a way that suits her. She is not his to earn (as even Ant-Man failed to circumvent with its out-of-nowhere makeout beat); he is hers to wield.
The wrinkle in this is the number of times Ilsa saves him when it’s seemingly against her better interests. She saves Ethan from torture when it might mean compromising her deep cover; she saves Ethan from drowning in the water tank when she could die in the process; and she allows Ethan to live when Lane gives her express orders to kill him. These are powerful actions in their own right, positing that a woman is every bit as capable as a man. Some might read them as romantic impulses by a woman who can’t hide her affections, but the underlying reasoning is deeper –and more powerful (there’s that word again)- than that.
Ilsa is a double agent in the employ of Britain’s MI6, and her handler, Simon McBurney’s Atlee, has charged her with infiltrating Lane’s terrorist network. To this end, Atlee implies that Ilsa is the definition of expendable and that her life doesn’t matter outside of Britain’s interests. He also suggests that she ought to stop compromising her cover by saving Ethan. However, as a disposable pawn, the last thing Ilsa wants is to make someone else a disposable pawn.
As mentioned, Ilsa’s power is also conveyed in more straightforward ways, the most interesting of this being a brutal knife fight during ROGUE NATION’s climax. It’s a small but significant thing to point out, but it’s generally uncommon to see heroic women physically fight villainous men in movies. Furious 7 is an obvious example, giving Michelle Rodriguez’s character a throwaway fight with all-female palace guards in Dubai. Not so in Rogue Nation. To give Ethan time to confront and ensnare Lane, Ilsa knife-fights “The Bone Doctor,” the movie’s heavy fighter and infamous torturer. Beyond being an absolutely vicious fight with both combatants taking slash wounds, the fight operates with the two as equals; Ilsa’s gender doesn’t factor into it. Moreover, this is THE final fight scene of the movie, leaving Ilsa with the most ass-kicking battle and Ethan the honor of out-thinking Lane.
Rogue Nation subverts typical action movie endings with Ilsa & Ethan’ closing beat. After beating Lane at his own game, Ilsa & Ethan could very well share a trope ‘smooch of victory’ (or sex of victory, we’re all adults, here), but the movie opts for a hug. Not one of sexual intimacy, but one of thanks, relief, and apology. It’s a complex action communicating Ilsa’s deep admiration and appreciation for Ethan’s role in her mission and her role in his mission (as both of their stories were important throughout this). The message here is progressive: despite her enticing dress and their mission together, Ethan is not “entitled” to her. Her body is not a given.
Finally, as she prepares to drive away from him, she simply says, “You know where to find me.” A fun callback to her previous lines in the movie where Ilsa’s left clues to her whereabouts and the next phase of the mission, it could be a reprise of that just as much as it could be an invitation for sex. The point is that her sexual favors aren’t tied to Ethan’s success, but to her agency and interest.
3. OTHER ARGUMENTS
Despite all this, I could understand anyone telling me I’m making too much of a female double-agent. I DID write that article about Marvel’s Sexy Spy/Assassin afterall, and it IS a known trope. That said, I feel like the biggest separator between Ilsa and others of her trope is her agency. Rogue Nation is every bit her story as it Ethan’s, and her agenda is very much her own. All she does in service of Ethan is repeatedly save his life. She just as often hampers him from interfering in her mission.
It all comes back to a central idea in screenwriting that every character thinks the movie is their story, but in plot-driven action movies, that can all be lost in the shuffle. It’s a testament to Rogue Nation that it doesn’t forget that notion and that it also doesn’t let Ilsa’s story overpower the narrative like Ant-Man arguably did with Hope Van Dyne.
So maybe I didn’t love Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, but it’s still a damn fine movie and more than worth your dollar.