Sheila Vand and Ingrid Jungermann in “Women Who Kill.”
Morgan and Jean are your typical Brooklyn couple: They’re broken up but still live together, there’s a twee boat model displayed above their mantel, they host a podcast in their living room, they wear Army green. They’re also enthralled with female serial killers and suspect that Morgan’s new girlfriend might have killed several women, one of whom they believe she may have buried on the roof garden of their neighborhood co-op. But hey, we’ve all been there, right?
The couple is the centerpiece of Ingrid Jungermann’s first feature-length film, Women Who Kill, a dark comedy that investigates a small sampling of female serial killers in history, while also telling the story of Morgan’s inability to be truly vulnerable in relationships. Somewhere in there, the merits of Prospect Park’s gaggle of swans is debated, and bean-flicking is used as a devastating heckle at a lesbian’s softball game.
Sewed into the film’s hyper-specific lining — one that gently parodies a certain kind of Brooklyn lifestyle à la Portlandia or Girls — is a very universal feeling. As Morgan becomes more and more convinced her girlfriend is a serial killer, she retreats. Like all of us, Jungermann’s character is terrified not just of getting murdered, but of letting herself love. And sometimes, those feelings can be one and the same.
So how did lesbian bachelor parties, a fingernail-clipping serial killer, podcasting, and the baby-filled minutiae of Park Slope, Brooklyn, become such a beloved Tribeca Film Festival favorite already? Sure, New Yorkers love to see well-done parodies of themselves (Larry David as Bernie Sanders), but Women Who Kill is not just a movie that stabs at New York’s heart with a pair of nail clippers.
Its mostly female cast is imperfect and not pandering, and the issues Jungermann tackles range from the huge — should we empathize with women who kill? — to minuscule. The film’s writing is funny and curt. If we’re going to start talking about women, we may as well show us the way we really are. Women Who Kill manages to transcend the former norms to do just that.
On the phone on Tuesday, Jungermann suggested the reason Women Who Kill was connecting to her audience: “Weirdly enough the more specific you are, the more universal you can be. You put the work in.” The director wasn’t interested in spoon-feeding her audience with an expected narrative. “The more specific [the film], the more the voice of the filmmaker is there. You can get to know me as a person and what’s important to me.”
Jungermann insisted that although all the moving parts contribute to the humor of the story, the real focus is Morgan’s fear of commitment and intimacy. Aren’t the first few months of a relationship a little like potentially learning you’re dating a murderer?
“I wrote this to process certain things, my issues with intimacy and vulnerability,” she explained. Interestingly, this is similar to the theory about why women are the biggest consumers of crime novels and TV shows: Seeing our fears play out in real time is a remarkable catharsis. “I didn’t want to make a personal film where I’m making audiences sit through my process. I wanted to hide it in a genre that was fun comedy-murder-mystery thing.”
The couple’s podcast is, to use a tired expression, slightly problematic: After all, Morgan and Jean glamorize women who have committed horrific acts of violence. In the opening scene, they rate them by hotness. But Women Who Kill finds humor in the idea that sometimes we’re like this, forgiving all of us for the darkness we possess.
“In a weird way, [women serial killers] represent something that not a lot of women do,” she explained. “Women, we’re taught from a very young age what we’re supposed to be like. ‘This is a way to sit and talk.’ We’re very much not supposed to take up space. I literally was taught to sit with my legs together.”
But making a movie about women serial killers is Jungermann’s attempt at subverting that idea. “We really have to crawl out of this idea that we are secondary. I think part of that is when we see women who are doing things that we aren’t supposed to be doing, we’re really drawn to that. The more women we see who are a little bit different, [the more] we’re seeing that we don’t have to subscribe to these ridiculous rules.” Female murderers count, too.
“It’s a time where we can see ourselves in our a darker light. We are equally as imperfect [as men] and equally powerful.”