Sally Jane Black’s review published on Letterboxd:
God dam god damn god damn. Here follows an arbitrary review of both Fat Girl and "Flawless," because both are on my mind:
My only complaints* are that this song still contextualizes female power through appearance and uses the term "bitches," which is problematic. Except, of course, Beyonce knows what the fuck she's doing. She's made an anthem. She knows what the best pop songwriters know (no idea if she wrote it; doesn't matter): you make the song about anyone, even when it isn't. So when she sings about being flawless, she's putting words into the mouths of her listeners. The chorus is what they're gonna sing along with most; the verses, with their specific references, allow them to be Beyonce for a moment before bellowing that victorious chorus. It's an empowerment anthem, and I bet you anything that the ones who love it most are the ones who most need it.
Breillat's controversial film is, and has been, a favorite of mine. It's blunt. She doesn't hide her intent. You can't miss it, and if you somehow manage to, the ending will drive it through your soul with bitter, transgressive humor (and it's okay to laugh, if only out of incredulity). This movie is not a screed; it's an observation, an uncomfortable statement unleashed to make you squirm worse than any piddling Guinea Pig film could imagine. And the controversial ending isn't half as uncomfortable as the first bedroom scene, which is anthill torture cringe drama. It's raw, subtextless revelation of male privilege, peer pressure, insecurity, and sexual predation. It's as clear an argument for statutory rape laws as you can get, but that's not even what it's going for. It's just a glimpse of the worst moment of an average teenager's (but not this one's) life.
I said chorus above, but that's unfair. This song isn't exactly typically structured. It's got a bridge early on, a potent feminism 101 didaction that breaks up the monstrous, anthemic chorus-like pieces. Beyonce employs percussion and bass and almost nothing else here besides voices, especially her own, which is half-snarled, half-sung, half-spoken. There's an alarm-like quality to the only non-vocal, non-bass, non-percussive part of the music--a synthetic tone that slowly but surely gets buried in the power of the rhythm and voice--which makes the whole song feel urgent, dangerous. As an anthem, this song could not be stronger. It repeatedly returns to those lines I mention above, the ones that puts the listener in the drive's seat, even if the lines change over and over, commanding them to sing along (almost literally), after having them submit at the beginning. It's huge, powerful (musically), and energizing.
The competition between sisters is an old trope, and as Chimamanda Adichie points out, it's not for anything but the attention of men. Anais and Elena describe their long running competition to each other as they bond, and as they do, it becomes clear that Anais somewhat admires her older sister. Even so, it's poisoned, tainted by complicated emotional damage deriving from their feelings of isolation brought on and exemplified by their awkward relationship with their parents, their teenage angst, their differing and unhealthy views of sex (and themselves), and their low self-esteem. They snipe at each other, and their barbs are almost always to do with sex or appearance, going back to that old competition trope. It's tragic to behold, especially because of the reality it speaks to. When the two have a moment of togetherness, it eventually dissolves over a man, in a way. There's hints of jealousy amidst Anais' concern for her sister.
It's fitting that Beyonce adorns herself in the attire of the only mainstream subgenre (stipulating that punk** and riot grrl aren't mainstream) of rock to ever toy with a strain of feminism, even if doomed from the start. Her flannel and headbanging suggest more Pearl Jam than Destiny's Child (her lower garment is a bit inexplicable to me). She looks grunge, and even though there's little doubt hours were spent on the look, it evokes a time and subgenre that professed (hypocritically, certainly) not to care about looks. And then she sings, more than almost anything else, about how she looks. Breillat lingers on the dress shopping scene, using it to show the aforementioned competition and to drive home the idea that superficial qualities like clothing and appearance are ingrained in the self-esteem of these characters, that control of one's look(s) is both playing into the hands of the patriarchy and an outlet for empowerment. Breillat's film follows this road to ruin; Beyonce defiantly uses her flawlessness to declare independence, acknowledging tacitly that self-esteem is the only tool people have.
It all builds up. Breillat constructs an awkward teenage sexual encounter predicated on lies and manipulations, then lulls the viewer into/with the unbearable car ride home. She touches on horror movie tropes of anticipation and expectation before her exclamation point ending, but it's numbness that we're left with, not horror. Breillat understands that the everyday is just as horrifying as any slasher film, and she lets us linger on it. Beyonce's song draws from the same feminist ideals and issues, but builds up to a declaration of identity, of being diamond, of being perfect. "I woke up like this" changes from a canard playing into the distorted expectations of a magazine industry/male dominated society game. It becomes an expression of self-worth, a sly acknowledgement of one's own worth. In the right mouth, it becomes a matter of defiance, no matter the pop star hypocrisies surrounding it.
Beyonce's craft is image-based; she knows how to convey an idea through her charisma, her presence, and her brand. Her feminist anthem might seem imperfect, but I can't help but watch and see calculation instead. Breillat's craft is boundary pushing. Her feminist experiment comes across as unpleasant, as uncomfortable, as intense, but she's calculated as well, and her intention is to press buttons, to make people open their eyes. If you can't handle it, that's on you.
* Other than an instinctual, territorial dislike of any song proclaiming pride for any city other than New Orleans.
** And to be fair, punk was never truly feminist. But it had subgenres within that were.