The Female Gaze
US DVD: 7 Oct 2014
You don’t have to be a film theorist to understand the key concepts behind the term “male gaze”. Mainstream American films tend to assume the point of view of a heterosexual male, with female characters objectified, defined in terms of the male characters, and frequently portrayed as sexual objects, even in children’s entertainment. This pervasive cultural mindset explains the existence of the Bechdel test, devised by writer Alison Bechdel: does a film include at least two female characters with names who talk to each other about something other than a man? The male gaze also explains the category of the “Because… Um?” Girl, identified by Sady Doyle, wherein a female character that is a pure product of male wish fulfillment, exhibit A being the smart, successful and beautiful woman improbably attracted to a plain loser male. See any number of Judd Apatow films for examples of the latter trope in action.
There’s not much point in complaining about how commercial movies treat female characters, because business is business and there’s clearly a huge market for this stuff, although it never hurts to call such films on their omissions. A more constructive approach is to seek out better films, by venturing beyond the multiplex to find films directed by women and with central female characters. If you write about, teach, or study film, you owe it to yourself and your audience to make the effort, particularly since we’re living in a golden age of movie access, with DVDs and VOD providing ready access to many great films that will never draw a mass audience. There are plenty of films out there right now that don’t assume female characters should be confined to the role of eye candy or treated as mere plot points in the stories of the male characters.
But with so many films available, where to begin? One possibility is to start with a curated collection, such as the seven films included in the DVD box set The Female Gaze from Film Movement, a film-of-the-month club specializing in independent and foreign films. These films, all of which were directed by women and have female protagonists, don’t claim to be the best or the most representative women’s films, but each does make a strong claim that it is worth your viewing time. As a group, they also offer variety in terms of setting and language, although thematically they have a lot in common (often focusing on a period in the late childhood/early maturity of the lead characters, for instance). While most of these films have been well-received internationally, they aren’t exactly household names, so this collection is also a good way to experience some directors and films you might not otherwise encounter.
Foreign Letters, written and directed by Ela Thier, offers a clear-eyed look back at Thier’s preteen self shortly after migrating from Israel to the United States with her parents. A sixth-grader, Ellie (Noa Rotstein) struggles to learn English and to comprehend a new set of cultural rules. She also finds herself essentially alone, confiding most of her thoughts and feelings to her best friend back in Israel, until striking up a friendship with another outsider, the Vietnamese-American Thuy (Dalena Le). It’s a beautiful, quiet film about growing up and learning how you fit in the world, and making mistakes along the way. Thier appreciates that a childhood friendship can be as intense as the most grown-up love affair, and allows her young heroine room to contemplate and breathe as she navigates the process of becoming herself.
Olivia Silver’s Arcadia also focuses on a tween girl learning to deal with a disruptive life circumstance. Greta (Ryan Simpkins) is crammed into the family station wagon with her father (John Hawkes), older sister (Kendal Toole), younger brother (Ty Simpkins), and their possessions as they move across the country to what their father promises will be a better life. Their mother is conspicuously absent, and Dad’s repeated assurances that she will join them in California ring increasingly hollow to Greta, while the forced togetherness of the trip force other family tensions to the surface. The road trip in Arcadia does what road trips in movies usually do: it provides the structure for a learning experience by the characters, with particular focus on twelve-year-old Greta learning some basic truths about her family and about living in a world of imperfect humans.
The heroine of Madeinusa, one of the better-known films in this collection, is a young woman in a remote Peruvian village. The film begins on the eve of an annual Easter festival during which time, the villagers believe, anything goes because God is dead from sundown on Good Friday until sunup on Easter Sunday. Madeinusa (Magaly Solier) has been chosen to portray the Virgin Mary in the festival pageant, triggering the jealousy of her sister Chale (Yiliana Chong), but she has an even bigger problem to deal with. Her father (Ubaldo Huaman) is determined to take her virginity during the festival period, because if God can’t see them, what does it matter? Into this already-volatile mix comes a young miner from Lima (Carlos De La Torre), who gets stranded in the town and is promptly locked up by the mayor, who has no use for outsiders at this particular time of year. Directed by Claudio Llosa and shot by Raul Perez Ureta, Madeinusa is an amazingly beautiful film, with long dialogue-free stretches in which the visuals tell you everything you need to know about life in this isolated village.
Maren Ade’s Forest for the Trees was shot on video, giving it the feel of a low-budget television production. Once you adjust to the image quality, however, this film has a lot to offer as perhaps the most realistic portrait ever of teaching in public school. Forest for the Trees is no heroic tale of an inspiring teaching overcoming the odds to reach her disadvantaged students, but a simple story about an ordinary school in an ordinary German city and a substitute teacher who is well-meaning but not particularly suited to the job. The new teacher, Melanie (Eva Löbau), is unsure and socially awkward, disinclined to take the good advice offered her by more experienced staff members, and seemingly clueless about how to read social signals. The results are both predictable and painful, and it’s a brave portrayal of some basic truths that usually don’t make it to the big screen.
Long periods of stillness create an appropriate mood in Watchtower, set in a remote region in north-central Turkey in which it seems that nothing much ever happens. Nihat (Olgun Simsek) has recently begun a job spotting forest fires and resides alone in the watchtower of the title, while Seher (Nilay Erdonmez) works as a bus hostess based in a nearby small town. Writer-director Pelin Esmer slowly reveals that there’s more going on than immediately meets the eye, as both Nihat and Seher are harboring secrets, and their paths will cross in a way significant to both. Esmer uses their stories to shed light on certain aspects of Turkish society, and despite some predictable elements in the story, Watchtower generally avoids drawing on Hollywood-style clichés.
The bilingual title of Inch’Allah Dimanche (“Sunday, God willing”) expressed the cultural clash and colonial legacy central to Yamina Benguigui’s film. Inch’Allah Dimanche focuses on a young Algerian wife moving to France to rejoin her husband, who emigrated ten years previously. A bit of context is useful: following World War II, male Algerians were allowed to move to France to work, but their families were not permitted to join them. This policy was changed in the mid ‘70s, and family reunification led to wives and children often undergoing rapid cultural shock as they not only had to become used to living a very different culture, but also had to get reacquainted with a husband and father that had not been part of their daily existence for years. The radiant Fejria Deliba plays Zouina, who must leave her own mother behind and adapt to life in a household including a mother-in-law (a frightening Rabia Mokeddem) who finds fault with everything she does and a husband (Zinedine Soualem) who beats her regularly, because he can. Benguigui is less successful in portraying the French characters in this film, who tend to fall into easy stereotypes, but there’s a sequence near the end that will absolutely break your heart.
The tone of Queen of Hearts starring, written and directed by Valérie Donzelli, is somewhere between romantic comedy and sex farce, with a good dash of melodrama thrown in as well. It begins with the heroine, Adèle (Donzelli) having a no good very bad day: among other things, her boyfriend breaks up with her, she can’t pay for her groceries, she misses the bus, the last rent-a-bike is taken, and a stranger knocks her ice cream cone into her face. Temporarily put up by her cousin Rachel (Béatrice de Staël), she embarks on a series of affairs (four of her lovers are played by the same actor, Jérémie Elkaïm) and misadventures punctuated by song breaks. Donzelli is a gifted director and actress, but this film remains strangely uninvolving and thus neither particularly insightful nor entertaining.
Each feature in The Female Gaze is paired with a short film that complements it. In some cases, the pairings are inspired: for instance, Arcadia and Foreign Letters are both paired with the short that was later expanded into the feature. In other cases, the connection is hard to see (for instance, pairing Estes Avenue with The Forest for the Trees), but at a minimum each short is worth seeing for its own sake. Other extras standard on the discs include biographies of key personnel, information about Film Movement trailers (for the film in question and other Film Movement films), a few paragraphs about the film and filmmaker on the case liner, and, sometimes, additional bonus features such as an interview with the director and her childhood best friend (the inspiration for the film) for Foreign Letters.