The Handmaid’s Tale and Its Film Noir Influences

Handmaid's Tale S3Ep11 Femme Fatale June

As The Handmaid’s Tale has shifted away from its season 1 dependence on the original book’s plot line, it’s frequently drawn from the dark, mature themes of the 1940s and 50s films of the Film Noir genre. Nick, June, Fred and Serena in particular tend to be involved in Film Noir plotlines, with an emphasis on mystery, crime, betrayal, murder, loyalty, regret, femmes fatales and sinful excess.

In an old school Film Noir, Nick would be the main character- his role as an Eye is close to the typical role of an investigator. He has connections in the community, a morally ambiguous, mysterious past and is conflicted in the present, making him the perfect Film Noir anti-hero. June would normally serve as the love interest or femme fatale who needs Nick’s help and either saves him or leads him astray- or possibly both.

The other characters frequently treat her as if she is a femme fatale, a seductive woman who leads her admirers into actions they wouldn’t otherwise take.

But in this show, June is the main character, not a side character whose story only serves that of the men. She plays a typical female role for a Noir, but she’s been moved to center stage and her motives for using whatever tools are available to her, including her sexual allure, are explained and shown to be reasonable under the circumstances. As with almost any femme fatale (other than the occasional blackmailer, or Serena), June has no significant power over anyone- those who listen to her make their own choices. What June does have is leadership skills, charisma and a talent for making her thoughts understandable to others, which often makes them sympathetic to her.

Hypnotizing potential lovers with sex isn’t actually a thing. It’s an excuse that allows the other partner to shift blame.

Nick and June’s relationship is compelling because they are classic star-crossed lovers, frequently found in Noirs, but they also break the mold. They’re not immature young adults planning to run away together at the first opportunity or criminals involved in a dodgy scheme. They’re mature adults whose eyes are open to the risks they’re taking. They each have a life full of adult responsibilities they can’t or won’t abandon. Their future is uncertain because they both put their causes before their relationship, similar to couples in some of the great classic love stories, but especially in WW2 stories, where the world’s problems were bigger than the couple’s relationship (see: Casablanca).

Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) in Casablanca (1942).

Nick & June in Casablanca
Nick Blaine (Max Minghella) and June Osborne (Elizabeth Moss) in The Handmaid’s Tale.

Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) and the Second Mrs de Winter (Joan Fontaine) in Rebecca (1940).

It’s no accident that Nick is dressed and shot like he’s in a 40s Noir. Has he ever entered through a front door or hung around a brightly lit area when he was alone? Though he’s not a criminal, he’s patterned after a common Noir anti-hero, the morally ambiguous authority figure who prefers to stay out of the spotlight and could be the murderer/villain, could be the hero or could be both (see: Rebecca).

June has changed while in Gilead, but by necessity rather than choice. Noirs explore the guilty darkness within the human spirit and the intersection between desire and morality (see: The Lady from Shanghai or Gilda or almost any Noir). While Luke is the symbol of the happy life June lost, Nick represents the darkness within her that she’s had to tap in order to survive Gilead.

June’s guilty choices lie in the ways she copes with her bleak situation and her regrets when her decisions lead to others getting hurt. Nick chose to join the Sons of Jacob when he was desperate to support his family. He now understands how much pain and suffering that choice helped cause. His priority is keeping June and Hannah safe, but he was involved with Mayday even before he met her, so he’s also been looking for redemption for a while.

Characters in Noirs are usually punished for their sins, often by circumstances rather than by the law (see: The Postman Always Rings Twice). Sometimes their criminal or unjust actions catch up to them, sometimes the odds catch up to them based on a continued pattern of irresponsible behavior. We’re seeing this happen in The Handmaid’s Tale as the leaders of Gilead are in a constant churn, with the more responsible administrators like Pryce, Lawrence and Lydia either dead or sidelined in favor of dolts like Putnam. Meanwhile, Fred finds that there’s no way out of punishment by the international community for him.

Handmaid's Tale S4Ep2 Fred & Serena

Before Gilead, Serena Joy was a star. She’s still famous, or infamous, out in the rest of the world. Much of her despair stems from the loss of her fame and fortune since Gilead’s rules for women turned out to be much more oppressive than the reforms she called for in her books. Before Gilead, Fred was her adoring supporter. He then turned around and took everything away from her as soon as Gilead provided him with a bit of power.

Tuello was fascinated by Serena and used her fame to draw her into conversation when he approached her for the first time in S2Ep9. There are echoes of Sunset Boulevard in their story, especially when Serena has been shown rattling around various empty mansions, longing for the fame she’s lost or other women’s children. Tuello presents himself in much the same way that the character of Joe Gillis does, as a helpful outsider who reveals his darker side over time.

The strength of The Handmaid’s Tale as Film Noir lies in its dedication to women’s stories told from their own point of view. Though women have been featured as an integral part of the genre from the beginning, we’ve only rarely seen women as point of view characters, protagonists and sympathetic anti-heroes.

They are ready for their close ups.

Handmaid's Tale S1Ep6 Serena at Diplomat's Dinner
Serena Joy Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski) Presents the Handmaids to Mexican Diplomats

Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) Makes a Grand Entrance in Sunset Blvd

Images courtesy of Hulu, except for film photos, which belong to the owners of the rights to the films.

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