What happens when women tell stories? Diverse and wonderful things, according to BBC Culture’s survey of film experts. It asked 368 journalists, critics, film programmers and academics to name their favourite films from female directors, and the results made fascinating reading. Jane Campion’s Oscar-winner The Piano made it to the top spot, shortly followed by Cléo from 5 to 7, the real-time drama from the late great Agnès Varda. Also featured were cult filmmaker Chantal Akerman, controversial French director Claire Denis – who’s known for her defiantly individualistic, often explicitly erotic work – British working-class heroine Andrea Arnold and Hollywood greats Sofia Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.
Read more about BBC Culture’s 100 greatest films directed by women:
The most popular genre was drama, with romance – an area women are stereotypically relegated to – falling far behind. This is about films that have resonated with critics, rather than topping the box office – there’s no Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins), Twilight (Catherine Hardwicke) or What Women Want (Nancy Meyers). The closest thing to a superhero movie is the Iranian film A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (Ana Lily Amirpour), in which a female vampire preys on exploitative men. The highest rating comedy is not a rom-com, but the farcical, surreal Toni Erdmann, directed by Maren Ade.
The German-language comedy Toni Erdmann was voted best film of 2016 by Sight and Sound magazine, and received an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film
The top 10 is populated by misfits, outcast and women – occasionally men – who are struggling to communicate and connect, just as their creators are trying to. The wider 100 includes slum children (Salaam Bombay!, Capernaum), a female vagrant (Vagabond) and a travelling hustler (Desperately Seeking Susan). It’s small wonder that these disenfranchised characters appeal to female filmmakers in a patriarchal society. And then there are the women whose apparently ‘normal’ daily lives are rendered utterly fascinating, partly because they are so rarely shown on screen. Two of these are filmed more or less in real time: Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7 and Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.
This is, by degrees, to become involved in the pattern of a life, to come to recognise the inventiveness needed to cope with dreadful confinement – Adam Roberts
“Jeanne Dielman is famously long, and famously concerned with the minute details of an ordinary housewife’s life,” says Adam Roberts, who founded with Joanna Hogg the collective A Nos Amours (dedicated to programming over-looked cinema) and curated a complete retrospective of Chantal Akerman’s films. “She peels potatoes in real time! But this is no mere treading of some aestheticised treadmill; this is, by degrees, to become involved in the pattern of a life, to come to recognise the inventiveness needed to cope with dreadful confinement. The creativity needed to hold the centre, amid such isolation and dehumanised life, is so very moving. A crisis looms of course, as the patterns fall apart, but by now we are hopelessly implicated in this vivid life: her life is our life, her crisis our crisis.”
When it was released in 1975, cult classic Jeanne Dielman was named the ‘first masterpiece of the feminine in the history of the cinema’ by The New York Times
In turn, Cléo reveals another viewpoint. “Varda’s point of view feels like that of a wise outsider because she was a photographer first. Her identity developed in a very male space,” says Mia Bays, who screens female-led films around the UK as part of the Birds Eye View ‘Reclaim The Frame’ programme and firmly believes in a ‘female gaze’. “It is the lodestar of the work of Birds’ Eye View. For us, it means who decides what goes in the frame, so that means who writes, directs or wrote the underlying story. Those have to be the work of female creatives or it’s not the female gaze.”
Becoming an adult
Bays thinks this is particularly relevant to the coming-of-age film. “The female experience, especially individuation and coming of age, is often so much more resonant when told by a conscious enlightened female gaze.” You only have to look at the many examples in the top 100 to see her point. Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank and American Honey; Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird – all demonstrate a seductive depth of understanding of burgeoning female sexuality and identity. Meanwhile, with Winter’s Bone and Leave No Trace, Debra Granik concerns herself with young girls who’ve had responsibility thrust upon them, and Lynne Ramsay embraces the complexities of traumatised working-class women in Morvern Callar, as Andrea Arnold does with Red Road – something Bays also applauds.
Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar was based on a novel by Alan Warner about a supermarket worker in Scotland; according to The Guardian, it announced the director as an auteur
“I love Ramsay and Andrea Arnold,” she says. “I admire their visual ambition; their leaning into art (usually not allowed for the working class – we’re supposed to be ‘entertainers’); and their unpredictable choices.” Film critic Pamela Hutchinson agrees. “Working-class representation in the film industry is so painfully low at the moment, that it’s so important to see women from less privileged background out there working, and also doing really great, exciting work.”
The number of non-white directors in the top 100 is also relatively low, with Iranian Forough Farrokhzad (The House is Black) and African-American Ava DuVernay (Selma, 13th) represented at numbers 24 and 26/55 respectively. Unsurprisingly, these women offer a fascinating perspective on race and culture, as does Mira Nair with the more comical Monsoon Wedding (number 29).
The only film Forough Farrokhzad directed before her death at the age of 32, The House is Black is a documentary short film about a leper colony in Iran (Credit: Golestan Films)
The concept of the ‘female gaze’ could be seen as a response to feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey’s term, the ‘male gaze’, which represents the gaze of a heterosexual male viewer along with the male character and the male creator of the film. According to Time Out’s global film editor, Phil de Semlyen: “I find the female gaze easier to define in terms of what it isn’t than what it is: it’s not about objectifying the female form or replacing fully-realised female characters with loose avatars for male sexual fantasy; it’s not framing sex scenes with tropes common to pornography aimed at men; it’s not about automatically relinquishing power and control to men in storytelling.”
The female gaze is a mighty tool for subverting genres that have traditionally been male-driven – thrillers, in particular – in really interesting ways – Phil de Semlyen
He goes on to mention the rape revenge genre, represented at number 91 by Julia Ducournau’s horror Raw. “The female gaze is a mighty tool for subverting genres that have traditionally been male-driven – thrillers, in particular – in really interesting ways. So we’re seeing revenge thrillers like Revenge and The Nightingale. You could also compare and contrast the Clint Eastwood and Sofia Coppola versions of The Beguiled for a case study in how a female and male filmmaker take the same source material and do radically different things with it – with Coppola finding far more resonance and topicality by retelling the story from females’ perspectives.”
Sofia Coppola became the second women ever to win best director at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival for The Beguiled, based on a novel by Thomas P Cullinan
Women tackling masculinity is a theme we frequently find ourselves discussing on my podcast Girls On Film, and the BBC Culture top 100 contains numerous examples, including Claire Denis’ Beau Travail. There are several from Kathryn Bigelow, still the only woman to have won the best director Oscar for The Hurt Locker, which comes in at number 7. “Hollywood loves its own and Kathryn Bigelow did her apprenticeship there,” says Bays. “She has ‘assimilated’ the male gaze, then given an expert female spin on hyper-male subjects/genres, so I think she’s been an outlier because of this.” While playing within the Hollywood system, Bigelow also tackled male mental health in Point Break (number 15), vampires in Near Dark (41) and criminals in Strange Days (59). With its story about bootleg virtual reality machines that literally put customers in other people’s positions, the latter is an interesting example of a film that specifically tackles the notion of seeing, or the gaze, echoed by the closed-circuit surveillance in Andrea Arnold’s seminal Red Road.
Following an undercover FBI agent investigating a group of bank robbers, Point Break has gained a cult following since its release in 1991
One of my personal favourites is the period drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which concerns a woman who’s hired to paint a portrait of another, and who finds her a tantalisingly elusive subject. I think director Céline Sciamma captures the intensity of sapphic love far better than Todd Haynes’ much-celebrated Carol. There is barely a speaking role for a man, and yet the spectre of arranged marriage looms ominously, inescapably, in the background as two women forge a heartbreakingly intense bond.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is one of the most recent films in the top 100; Céline Sciamma won best screenplay for it at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival
Truly seeing is truly knowing in Sciamma’s film, which hasn’t even come out yet in the UK. It’s rightfully earning comparisons to our number one, Jane Campion’s The Piano, which was voted for by 43.5% of respondents. The story of a non-speaking pianist who is sold to a man, but gradually uses her musicality and sexuality to control the men around her, The Piano is also about communication, or the challenges thereof. “It’s interesting that she’s a female artist, and yet can’t communicate in a straightforward way,” says film critic Pamela Hutchinson, who specialises in silent film. Bays points to The Piano’s other charms. “It’s about sex and eroticism and is about a woman caught between two men who we watch self-actualise – what’s not to like?!”
Sex, lies and videotape
Eroticism and seduction are explored through distinctive lenses in other charting films: The Night Porter, India Song, Le Bonheur, Eve’s Bayou, and The Meetings of Anna. Marital infidelity seems to concern many female directors, some because they have been directly affected by it: Sarah Polley’s documentary Stories We Tell asks who her real father is. While several films tackle single parenthood and paternity, pregnancy is a subject that comes up surprisingly rarely in this survey, although there have been distinctive recent releases, such as Alice Lowe’s comedy horror Prevenge, which she shot while eight months’ pregnant, and Seahorse, Jeanie Findlay’s documentary following a trans man’s pregnancy. Several films in the poll directly explore trans issues, from Boys Don’t Cry to Orlando, and in so doing, these speak to the female experience, exploring the concept of gender and the pros and cons of identifying as a woman or a man in a specific society.
While The Piano was widely liked by both sexes in the poll, a few films had a noticeable divide: Penny Marshall’s Big was almost twice as popular with men as women. It’s hardly surprising that men identify more with the story of a young boy who wakes up in a grown man’s body: this is arguably a case of a female director adopting a man’s point of view, right up to the dubious moment when he loses his virginity to an unknowing female colleague. Yet as Hutchinson says, “Women look at everything, we’re everywhere – there’s no subject a female director can’t tackle.”
And it looks like the studios – who traditionally put more fiscal trust in male directors – are finally listening. While just four of last year’s top 100 grossing films in the US were directed by women, that number looks set to have risen to 14 in 2019. There are direct efforts to raise the number of female directors in Hollywood. Stars including Tessa Thompson have taken the 4% challenge, committing to announcing one project with a female director in the next 18 months. Universal and MGM recently became the first studios to sign up to the same pledge, meaning that in a few years’ time, our voters should have even more wonderful female-led films to choose from. And here’s hoping that one day, female directors will have become so commonplace, it won’t even be a conversation at all.
Read more about BBC Culture’s 100 greatest films directed by women:
Anna Smith is a film critic and host of the podcast Girls on Film.
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