“We’re Getting Up and We’re Getting the Hell Out”
That was the headline of Virginie Despentes’ article, published in Libération on 1st March 2020. It was the day after the controversial César awards ceremony in which Roman Polanski’s Dreyfus Affair drama An Officer and a Spy provoked angry protests and a boycott from female activists.
Since then, it has been intriguing and exciting to witness the critical and commercial success of many French female directors, to the point that one might call it a “New Wave.”
2021 was an excellent year for French cinema in the same way that 1990 was a good vintage for Bordeaux wines, although there is something more profound and pertinent about the former.
What was particularly striking in last year’s grand cru was that the two biggest awards in the film calendar were given to two French filmmakers – and both were women. Julia Ducournau won the Palme d’Or in May at Cannes for Titane, and Audrey Diwan won the Golden Lion in Venice in September for Happening.
Ducournau had already made a splash in Cannes in 2016 with her feature debut, Raw, a cannibal shocker. Five years later, she came back with a visceral whirlwind of car sex, flesh-and-metal mutations – and love. The film owes a striking debt to [David] Cronenberg’s body-horror back catalogue in general. And it is only the second Palme d’Or winner by a female director, the first being Jane Campion’s shared win with The Piano in 1993.
When Spike Lee’s jury gave Titane the Palme d’Or, Ducournau thanked them for “… recognising our hungry, visceral need for a more inclusive and fluid world, and for letting monsters in.” Titane is a visceral monster indeed – a deranged blend of thriller, nightmare horror and futuristic black comedy, an adult fairytale (rated 18 for “strong violence, horror, sex”) about love, rage and loneliness.
Last year’s top prize in Venice is also a harrowing and intense movie: Audrey Diwan’s Happening is a hard look at illegal abortions in 1960s France, a nuanced portrait of a bright young female student who faces an unwanted pregnancy at a time when abortion was considered a crime.
The film grips you with a docu-drama-like realism and a tight framing à la Dardenne brothers, Andrea Arnold or Laszlo Nemes (Son of Saul). Diwan is also not afraid to close the walls in on the viewer with a few cinematic flourishes that make the experience feel like a horror movie. Adapted from Annie Ernaux’s autobiographical novel, French-Lebanese filmmaker Diwan has emerged as one of the most exciting and relevant new voices of contemporary world cinema.
Whether or not you consider these two major distinctions as the sign of a good year for French cinema, they are certainly a recognition of women filmmakers and excellent film authors. Which brings me to the question whether or not there is what we could call a “nouvelle vague” of French female directors. If it is true that such a new wave has emerged, it has certainly not happened over the course of one year. These filmmakers have built up their strength over the course of a multi-generational transformation. For me it all started with Agnès Varda.
Often called the “godmother of the French New Wave” for her early works such as La Pointe Courte and the superb Cléo From 5 to 7, Agnès Varda won great acclaim as a feminist director with Vagabond, a drama about a drifter (Sandrine Bonnaire) whose body is found frozen in a ditch. The film also won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1985. She received an honorary Oscar in 2017 for her outstanding career and inspired so many with her method of “cine-writing” – something she described as “a stream of feelings, intuition and joy of discovering things.” She found beauty where we didn’t see it (“I am the queen of the margins,” she told the New York Times in 2009.)
A great friend of mine, I last saw Agnès in Berlin where she presented her last film, Varda by Agnès, before receiving the honorary Berlinale Camera award. I always had a deep affection for Agnès, I still consider her as a godmother, someone I look up to even now she’s gone.
I have also had the privilege to meet several other directors whose work I admire, and Claire Denis is certainly on top of that list. 17 years ago I programmed a retrospective of her films at the Ciné Lumière (London), and she has consistently remained one of the world’s greatest filmmakers: the aesthetics, the tone and the intimacy of her cinema, the exquisite way she films the body and the skin, her tortured characters, the soul of The Tindersticks music accompanying them… Sublime.
Two more major female talents of French cinema are Céline Sciamma and Mia Hansen-Løve – brilliant writer-directors with an intellectual and yet sensual cinema. In Sciamma’s films, we often follow adolescents or young adults navigating between social norms and their own desires. Her movies are not quite the usual “coming-of-age” drama, though. A teen girl uncertain of her sexuality in Water Lilies (2007), a gender-nonconforming tween (Tomboy, 2011), a Black girl living in a banlieue (Girlhood, 2014), a young boy sent to an orphanage after the death of his mother (Claude Barras’s My Life as a Courgette scripted by Céline Sciamma, 2016) or an 8-year-old girl who has just lost her beloved grandmother (Petite Maman, 2021).
In 2020, Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire became the most watched French film worldwide, with nearly a million and a half viewers. Writer Elif Batuman in the New Yorker talked about the “quiet radicalism” of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which showed how easily a romantic film could dispense with many seemingly indispensable mainstays – conflict, a musical score, men – and how a period drama can merge with a twenty-first-century political moment.
In comparison Mia Hansen-Løve films are maybe more conventional, but she has now cemented a solid reputation as a great auteur among film critics. Her big themes are mourning and loss, change, the passing of time and the potential for rebirth. Through an attention to realism, everyday moments and an authentic, naturalistic performance style, her films gradually assume a devastating emotional weight that belie their seeming simplicity. There is indeed something of Eric Rohmer in Hansen-Løve’s cinema: intelligent and dialogue led, yet with an ardent emotional core.
There is actually a horde of great talent in France, and I would also like to salute the work of Katell Quillévéré (Love Like Poison, Suzanne) and especially Deniz Gamze Erguven with the extraordinary Mustang (2015) set in rural Turkey and telling the story of five orphaned sisters.
Other names in the French filmmaking stable include Julie Delpy, Nadine Labaki, Mati Diop, Maiwenn, Emmanuelle Bercot: they are all following in the footsteps of more established filmmakers such as Anne Fontaine, Nicole Garcia or Agnès Jaoui.
French female directors have gained ground in the last 10 years and it shows. According to France’s national film board, between 2011 and 2020, the number of French films directed by women rose by 5.4% to 59%, while the number of movies directed by men dropped by 13%.
At the start of 2019 the CNC (Centre National de la Cinématographie) launched a scheme where productions that hire enough women in key roles, such as director, cinematographer and head of production, are given a 15% bonus. In 2020 and 2021 a third of French film productions received that bonus subsidy.
The Festival de Cannes is also making great efforts for a more transparent, gender-balanced selection committee focusing on promoting new voices. Everyone remembers Cate Blanchett and Agnès Varda leading the group of women filmmakers on the red carpet in 2018 when Thierry Frémaux signed the 5050 x 2020 Charter.
Meanwhile, the luxury group Kering has been presenting its annual Women In Motion programme with the aim of shining a light on women’s contribution to cinema, both in front of and behind the camera. Since 2015, the programme has expanded internationally, extending into other forms of art including photography, literature and the plastic arts.
I believe this is why we are now able to talk about a wave, there is certainly a movement, a trend and dare I say it, a shift in French cinema.
If women had been able to make their presence felt in French cinema in the past, what is new now is the type of stories that they are bringing onto the screen. I don’t think they are necessarily feminist stories even if they are often engaged.
I would argue that these films de femmes have something in common: they have a female sensitivity and a female sensibility.
Maybe it’s something to do with that “female gaze” or the look that a woman holds on their characters (and actors), with all the emotion and intimacy it requires for an author to add her own unique signature.
One could argue that “female gaze” is not about asserting female dominance on-screen, and it doesn’t mean that therefore women get to “man-jectify” men in reverse. That’s because the male gaze isn’t just about objectifying women. A male perspective doesn’t have to mean women are objectified (even though, the majority of the time, this is true). It’s a way to explain a limited male view, where the rest of the characters exist mainly to serve him, his interests, and his storyline. If the male gaze is all about what men see, then the female gaze is about making the audience feel what women see and experience.
For many, that female recognition is cause for celebration after the so-called “male gaze” has dominated cinema for so long. When asked if there is such a thing as “the female gaze” Oscar-winning director Jane Campion recently told the BBC: “It’s so hard to know how much to believe in the female gaze or the male gaze. I think, to me, it’s really the artist’s gaze, it’s about bringing your sensitivity to the story.”
This is why I would disagree with novelist, filmmaker, and punk feminist icon Virginie Despentes’ headline and would rather assert the following for the benefit of all women filmmakers:
We’re Getting Up and We’re Getting Seen!