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Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck in ‘Gone Girl’

The sex war was supposed to be over. Even the phrase itself seems to summon a bygone era in which men and women squared off over the vacuum cleaner, arms crossed like fuming Norman Rockwell figures.

Feminism had won the moral, political and cultural arguments, leaving only the law to catch up. On campuses across America, young people of both sexes sport T-shirts reading, “This is what a feminist looks like.” It has become culturally ubiquitous, a pop cultural cliché, and while first-generation feminists may turn up their noses at the sight of Beyoncé dancing in front of a giant, lit-up “Feminist” banner at the MTV Video Music Awards, such ubiquity is a sign of how far their arguments have become part of the mainstream.

And then came Gone Girl. Gillian Flynn’s book became a feminist flashpoint as well as a bestseller when it was published in 2012; and this week it arrives in cinemas trailing its own sulphur cloud, thanks to an adaptation by David Fincher, Hollywood’s reigning prince of darkness. The film stars Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, who loses his job as a magazine writer in New York and has to move back to his home town in Missouri, only to become the number one suspect in a murder investigation when his wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike, goes missing. Taking its cue from the grisly domestic murder trials that have held US cable viewers goggle-eyed – Scott Peterson, Casey Anthony and, of course, OJ Simpson – the story unfolds in a glare of flashbulbs, TV lights and smartphone image grabs, as two-bit pop psychologists and body language experts deduce innocence or guilt from a passing smirk.

As played by the burly, shifty-looking Affleck in jackets just a shade too tight for him, Nick is one of those guys who is most insincere when telling the truth and picks up suspicion like a stone gathers moss – a media whipping boy par excellence. That’s the film’s hook: how easy it is to frame someone in the court of public opinion. But after its premiere at the New York Film Festival last week, Affleck noted that it also seemed to act like a gender Rorschach test. “Most women journalists are like, ‘What’s it like playing a jerk.’ Most of the men just go, ‘Yeah.’ ”

But that is only half the story. To describe the half that has kicked up controversy is not just to risk spoilers but to embrace them with open arms. The movie’s many twists and turns eventually reveal a sociopathic villainess who is the architect of Nick’s downfall and whose modus operandi, when not framing innocent lunkheads for murder, is fabricating charges of rape. This is what landed Flynn in the crosshairs of feminist critics who have charged the author with peddling “misogynist caricatures”, and “a deep animosity towards women”.

Flynn, who also wrote the screenplay, has defended herself, writing on her website: “I’ve grown quite weary of the spunky heroines, brave rape victims, soul-searching fashionistas that stock so many books. I particularly mourn the lack of female villains – good, potent female villains . . . The point is, women have spent so many years girl-powering ourselves – to the point of almost parodic encouragement – we’ve left no room to acknowledge our dark side.”

Depending on your point of view, Hollywood’s timing could not be worse, or better – the movie arrives in the middle of an ongoing conversation about sexual assault in the US military and on college campuses, where what millennials quaintly refer to as “rape culture” has prompted petitions demanding the cancellation of a Robin Thicke concert because the lyrics of his song “Blurred Lines” celebrate “systemic patriarchy and sexual oppression”. The song has already been banned at more than 20 British universities. At Wellesley College, in Massachusetts, activists recently demanded that administrators remove a statue of a naked sleepwalking man that they said could “trigger” memories of sexual assault for victims.

“To bring up a conversation about rape sets off everybody’s discomfort buttons,” says Rebecca Traister, author of Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women (2011). “Rape is one of those crimes that generally includes only two witnesses, which makes it very fertile for imaginative fiction, especially interpersonal drama. It’s like two-person Rashomon – the ultimate he-said, she-said. To see the monster we all have within us, to show our little sexual monsters, is uncomfortable. We can have our brand new feminist ideas about workplace economics, equality, about reproductive rights, and so on, we can have all those ideas, but still have this voice within us telling us these really old ideas about how sex works between men and women. I’m not condemning the book, I read it right to the end. But it becomes far less liberating when you understand that they are trading on very, very old ideas about the power that women have to sexually, emotionally manipulate men. When you boil women down to only that, it’s troubling.”

At the same time, says Traister, “Gone Girl explodes marriage – precisely, the one kind of marriage that is still idealised, between white, urban, sophisticated people that meet in mid-life. That is the picture of marriage that is sold to us, the one we all must desire. And that is the one it vandalises. So there is a subversive argument being advanced about marriage in the film – that it’s not an institution that can tame women any longer.”

Not for nothing is one of the clues to the murder mystery a pair of Punch and Judy puppets. “We’re so cute that I want to punch us in the face,” says Amy of their picture-perfect marriage, and punch them in the face is precisely what the movie proceeds to do, as this gilded New York couple are both laid off from their jobs, forced to sell their brownstone and to move back to Nick’s native Missouri, a ghost town of shuttered streets where the cracks in their relationship start to spread.

“Marrying has always been a story that, in order for it to be of any interest, you have to destroy it,” says Jeanine Basinger, author of I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies. “You have to create a conflict so that the two people make war on one another or have some kind of crisis together or fall out of love or whatever. That’s the whole thing about marriage. Nobody gets what anyone else’s is really about. It’s a secret relationship, really. ”

Michael Douglas and Glenn Close in ‘Fatal Attraction’

In some ways the Gone Girl debate resembles the arguments over Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction, released in 1987, just as the Aids epidemic had rendered sex dangerous again, and one year after Newsweek’s controversial cover story, “The Marriage Crunch”, claimed that women over 40 were statistically more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to marry. Alex Forrest, the single career woman played by Glenn Close in the movie, is 36. Aggressive and predatory, with a high-powered job going shoulder pad to shoulder pad with men, Alex was originally conceived by screenwriter James Dearden as “an essentially tragic, lonely figure, worthy of our sympathy”.

It was only after test screenings – a relatively new concept at the time – that a different ending was added, in which Alex is blown away, to audience whoops and hollers, by Michael Douglas’s warmly maternal wife, played by Anne Archer. As Susan Faludi wrote of the film in Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (1991): “Women’s lives were framed as morality tales in which the ‘good mother’ wins and the independent woman gets punished.” Viewed today, however, Alex is the only three-dimensional figure in the film and, that ending aside, she remains one of Close’s juiciest roles. Traister says: “I remember seeing [the film] as an adult and sort of thinking Alex had a point. It tells us a lot about our shifting ideas about marriage. I do think that [now] it would be much harder to get sympathy for the Michael Douglas character, and deny it Glenn Close, than it was when it was released.”

The same is true of many of the classic femmes fatales – Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944), Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946) and The Lady From Shan­ghai (1947) – all of whom have benefited from revisionist readings in which they are viewed, sympathetically, as women trapped in loveless marriages and unable to extricate or support themselves except by utilising the one tool they had at their disposal at the time, their sexuality. “He wouldn’t give me a divorce,” says Phyllis, Stanwyck’s spiderwoman at the centre of the web in Double Indemnity. “And I wanted a home.”

In these films, the femmes fatales are duly punished, as they must be according to the Hays Code morality of the era. But what the audience actually sees is a powerful woman calling the shots as men dash themselves at her feet, like waves at the base of a lighthouse. According to Basinger, “What you see in the old days, in a way, is the woman being in control. What is interesting is that as the culture shifts these images shift. What does it mean to have femme fatale characters in a time when it’s no longer necessary for a women to be fatal, so to speak, in order to accomplish her goals? So, today, we have Scarlett Johansson in Lucy, or Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games, taking up physical action and shooting men with bows and arrows. Are they femmes fatales? Women characters have become these powerful, destructive superheroes. It will be interesting to see how people respond to Gone Girl. Are they going to see this as a social document, as gender politics or are we going to see this as a cracking murder mystery? I know what the film-makers are hoping.”

Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas in ‘The War of the Roses’

Interestingly, in its transition to the screen, Flynn’s book has picked up elements of black comedy. The audience at the New York Film Festival last week hooted and cackled over what played like a kind of horror movie about modern marriage, which Fincher anatomises with the cool clinicism he once brought to the trail of corpses in his serial killer dramas, Se7en (1995) and Zodiac (2007). In Fatal Attraction, it’s just Glenn Close who gets blown away. In Gone Girl, it’s the institution of marriage itself. In this sense, maybe it owes more to War of the Roses (1989) than to Fatal Attraction, if we are to have our pick of Michael Douglas films. And, beyond that, the films of Neil LaBute and Mike Nichols, whose Carnal Knowledge (1971) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) took advantage of relaxed censorship in the 1960s and 1970s and turned their flayed honesty into its own marquee draw: see the fur fly in the battle between the sexes.

Now, that same battle is recommenced, but for a generation that is marrying much later than their parents and bringing to marriage a whole raft of expectations that are the direct result of their extended holiday on the premarital dating circuit. These illusions are nourished by Hollywood romcoms that thrill to the chase but stop just short of the altar. Who can keep up that level of charm?

Amy’s speech in which she unpicks her “cool girl” façade has already spawned much internet commentary. “Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? ‘She’s a cool girl’. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding.” That’s where Gone Girl stands to connect most forcefully with audiences – as the romcom’s evil, dark twin, telling the truth about what happens after a couple says, “I do.”

Tom Shone’s ‘Scorsese: A Retrospective’ is published this month (Thames Hudson)

Photographs: 20th Century Fox; United Archives/Alamy; Allstar

This article has been amended since publication. It originally stated that Wellesley College is in Connecticut; in fact it is in Massachusetts.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.