The only intertitle in the film is presented before it even starts. It’s rather long, and a message from DuLac herself. She presents her basic plot, a woman who goes to a bar, meets a man but he leaves her when he finds out he has a child. She then adds, that her intention with this piece is to create a world through images, this is a film of the mind, an extension of her character’s feelings and desires, and words would only disrupt that flow.
Much like her earlier work, this film is very much a work of feminist filmmaking. It channels the loneliness of femininity especially as a wife and mother. The trapped sensation of being confined by home and responsibility, that even beyond the walls of her prison, she is trapped by her own mind and the expectations that they bring. The sailors of the bar represent a sort of freedom, they ask young women to come on journeys with them, but it’s under the pretext of sexual favours, a sort of slavery. For some though, this is the only escape. There is no escape from the world of men, they rule all.
The fantasy sequences are filled with a sexualized desire, brooding seas, isolated and romantic ships and a chance at companionship. The fantasy of the male sailor is not as subtle, the images are dominated by “victory”, “war” and blatant sex.
The film also uses music in an interesting way, though a silent film… there is a huge emphasis on the female musicians playing at the particular bar. DuLac associates the arts and the musical instruments with a personal freedom, a freedom of the soul. It’s no surprise that in her earlier film I’ve seen, The Smiling Madame Beudet, the only joy in Beudet’s life is her piano.
The sailor doesn’t mind the fact that she is married in the least, he finds her attractive and perhaps sees it as an issue of another man, not his own, if the wife is unfaithful. Her child though, is something he is unwilling to deal with. Is it an issue of ownership and personal responsibility? He would not be minding the child, but it’s presence alone might be an unhappy reminder that his mistress is not carrying his own child.
It also points to how marriage is one kind of prison, but add a child, and the woman is completely undesirable. The female protagonist is once again propelled into loneliness, abandoned by her husband and then her prospective lover. The sailor also shows no shame, as he parades his new lover in front of her. He teases and shames her, making her feel completely unwanted. It’s his own revenge for the child he never met. However, even this is met with a sort of sad yearning for her. His desire overpowers his “common sense” as a male figure in society. She seems to inspires in him a desire to settle down with a family and home, without quite realising that is the very thing she is trying to escape.
Textually interesting, the film works best as a document of early feminist doctrine than anything else. The imagery may be compelling, but it’s not nearly as effective as it could be. At it’s best, the film channels a strong sense of loneliness and isolation, but I’m not sure if it’s enough to sustain interest throughout the relatively short running time.
I decided to make this list, because often looking at consensus and canonical lists, the film is dominated by films exploring or interested mostly in male protagonists. This is no surprise, as most filmmakers are men and we still live in a largely patriarchal world. Art especially seems to still have a masculine slant, though there have been a lot of changes in the last few years. I am hardly an expert, and my own knowledge of film still feels too limited to put together anything that seems like a definite list. For this reason, I’d like to be a flexible list, and I’d like to update it at least once a year.
That’s where you come in, I’d like both recommendations and criticism for some of my choices. I’m not trying to choose films that only celebrate women or femininity, whatever that means… but at the same time, I think some of my choices skirt exploitation and are perhaps too much the “victim” of the male gaze. Also, since this is an ongoing project I’d like any suggestions you might have in terms of presentation, or ordering. As is, I’m only presenting the list in alphabetical order, two at a time. I’m also limiting my write-ups, they will for the most part description heavy, perhaps with a brief idea on why it’s being included. I’m also trying to focus as much as possible, on films that feature a female protagonist rather than a strong female supporting role. It eliminates a few films that might otherwise make it, but I think it comes closer to my own intentions for this project.
I As is, I’m not entirely satisfied with the selection, but I feel that if I’d spend my entire life waiting if I were to see everything I think I should before presenting my list. At the moment, it’s a little too heavy on American film for my taste. It’s especially lacking in Asian cinema, which is dominated by anime. As this is a work in progress, I not only appreciate recommendations, I expect it. Also, there are a few films here that I’m not entirely sure quite fit. If you have any objections, or quibbles with some selections, let me know and hopefully we can discuss it Also, the list is heavily slanted towards a few directors. While it’s clearly because a large part of their filmography explores women in an interesting way, in the future I’d like to keep each director down to one or two films, at the very least, for the sake of diversity.
I’m still not sure what I qualify an “essential” film about women, I hope my list presents a huge cross-section of different kinds of women and experiences, but at the very least I’m looking for films that have at least one female protagonist, which rules out a lot of films that may have interesting or strong female supporting characters and roles unfortunately. I’m also not attempting to paint only a positive portrait of womanhood, I think many of these film reveal many imperfect, even downright cruel women… but that is part of a reality.
For “fun”, part of what inspired the list, the films I personally consider to be about women from both the AFI top 100 list, and the 100 Best films from They Shoot Pictures. Some are tricky honestly, but I think I’m being more than generous… there are a few of these that I think are great films, but are even too much about a couple to really consider it for my own list.
AFI Top 100
6. Gone with the Wind
10. The Wizard of Oz
25. To Kill a Mockingbird
28. All About Eve
24. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
35. Annie Hall
40. The Sound of Music
42. Bonnie and Clyde
44. The Philadelphia Story (It’s been a while since I’ve seen this, I’m not sure)
46. It Happened One Night
47. A Streetcar Named Desire
51. West Side Story
65. The African Queen
67. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
74. The Silence of the Lambs
88. Bringing Up Baby
90. Swing Time
91. Sophie’s Choice
They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? Top 100
42. Jules et Jim
50. La Strada
60. Gone with the Wind
61. Au Hasard Bathazar (I think?)
62. The Wizard of OZ
71. To Be or Not to Be
72. All About Eve
73. Once Upon a Time in the West
77. Letter from an Unknown Woman
78. Madame de..
79. Bringing Up Baby
89. Last Year at Marienbad (I think?)
96. Hiroshima, mon amour
A Room with a View (James Ivory, 1986)
Based on the novel by E.M. Forster, A Room with a View, is the story of Lucy Honeychurch’s chaperoned vacation in Italy where she meets an eccentric man who will change her life. Set in the early 1900s, this film is an understated film about a time of change in history, though pressured into a marriage to an uninteresting man, Lucy does have a choice. The values are rigid, and the expectations are heavy slanted to her choosing the man her family has chosen. As a quiet and obedient daughter, the choice between love and duty is not quite so evident, and the film is very much about Lucy’s first experience with real affection and rebellion. Starring Helena Bonham Carter, this is a beautiful coming of age story that uses the pretence of old world culture as the means for a new world, of new opportunities for young women.
A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan, 1951)
Few writers have created as many interesting roles for women as American playwright, Tennessee Williams. A Streetcar Named Desire sees Blanche Dubois, a broken southern Belle, who visits her sister and their brutish husband in New Orleans. Blanche Dubois is fragile, raised as an aristocratic, she saw her family lose their wealth and home in the span of her lifetime. Also, as a young girl, confronted with a shocking revelation about her young husband, her psychological state is hanging by a thread. Blanche is in complete denial of her age and has something of a victim complex. Her sister, though physically stronger, finds herself in a similar cycle of abuse that she cannot escape. Though both are well educated and well raised, they cannot escape their condition, and endure a huge amount of physical and psychological abuse. The film reveals a terrible double standards society harbours about women, especially relating to sex.
Agnes of God (Norman Jewison, 1985)
Set in Montreal, Quebec, during what I assume is the late 1970s/early 1980s. The film makes a point to emphasize the modernity of the situation to estrange the nuns further from what we know as the real world. It is essential that the audience understands the events, potential miracles of God, under the circumstances of secular life. The film is centered around the mystery of a strangled newborn, whose mother is young Agnes, a novice-nun. It quickly becomes apparent that she is not quite in her right mind, and her understanding of the events are blurred and twisted by her unusual perception of the world around her. Enter state assigned psychiatrist Dr. Martha Livingston, to evaluate whether Agnes is responsible for her actions. The film is centered entirely on women, and their own interactions with the church, spirituality and life. It struggles especially with the idea of woman’s place within organized religion, offering many perspectives on a very complex ideological and ethical issue.
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974)
Well into middle age, Emmi finds a second life in a love affair with a much younger man, Ali. When the pair decide to marry, they’re met with a huge amount of ridicule and even disgust, as their relationship is viewed as unnatural by their friends and family. It explores especially Emmi’s interaction with her children, as they claim to be only looking out for her own happiness and well being, when they’re really concerned about their own reputation and ideas about the life their mother should live. Fassbinder creates a very real relationship between Emmi and Ali, it’s tender and giving, while their struggles against both family and society become a very real threat to their happiness. Even after things calm down, the seeds of uncertainty have been planted and they both question their relationship.
All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950)
The entertainment business is cut-throat especially for women, as the pressures to be younger and prettier are always hanging over the head of even the best actors. Margo, brought to life by the ever brilliant Bette Davis, is a woman pushing middle age who bemoans that she is constantly forced into playing women half her age. Her insecurity further emphasized because of a relationship with a younger man, and the up and coming talent. Eve is her main competition, a young woman who cons her way into the theatre and through her manipulation gets her shot on the stage. Few films offer as many strong roles for women as this, as well as giving a legitimate outlet for their insecurities in the cut throat world of entertainment. Even in it’s supporting cast, the film offers through characters like Miss Casswell (Marilyn Monroe), the expected roles different women are supposed to live up to in society based solely on their physical appearance.
All that Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1955)
Before a very recent resurgence in popularity and appreciation, Douglas Sirk has always been dismissed because of the melodramatic nature of his films. Looking at little closer, he is perhaps the greatest director of “women’s” pictures Hollywood has ever seen, and the nature of the critical dismissal of his work probably lies deeper than appearances suggest. All that Heaven Allows made it’s impression though, especially on filmmakers like Almodovar and Fassbinder, the latter who did a loose re-imagining in his film Ali: Fear eats the Soul, nearly 20 years later. All that Heaven Allows is a middle aged woman living alone in “suburban bliss”. She hires a gardener to tend to her garden, and falls in love with him. She is met with a huge amount of scorn and criticism from her neighbours and family, and the pressure is so overwhelming that she breaks off her relationship. The film is especially interesting in context of a growing number of suburban housewives who had everything they were expected to want, but still felt an unhappy void that they could not explain and was not understood by mostly male psychologists of the time.
Amelie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001)
A visually intense film about a young woman inspired by the death of Princess Diana to go out and the world and make people happy. Shy and eccentric, she connects with them in often unexpected way, making their lives better with often the simplest gesture. This sudden outburst of emotion and ambition, eventually connects her with a man, though only from afar… the film soon becomes a quest for her own happiness and the potential of a relationship. One of the most popular foreign language films of the last decade, there isn’t much to say that hasn’t already been said. Though at times overbearing, Jeunet’s style is perfectly suited to the magical world that Amelie inhabits, and no actress could have filled the role with the same offbeat beauty and charm as the wonderful Audrey Tautou.
Baby Doll (Kazan, 1956)
Another Tennessee Williams penned work, this is his only original screenplay, and perhaps the best adaptation of his work. The young “Baby Doll”, finds herself married to a disgusting older man who fails to live up to his promise to make a better life for her. The premise is simple, essentially sold as collateral by her husband before his death, she was to live to marry this man, but he was not allowed to touch her until her 19th birthday. Just a few days away, her husband can’t seem to wait. The story is further complicated by the Sicilian businessman, who sees his cotton gin mill burned down, and he suspects Archie Lee is behind it. His revenge is to take away his wife, and most of the film is a seduction of the young girl. Naive and virginal, Baby Doll is excited by the lecherous foreigner and his promises of sex and a better life. This film is as much about a sexual awakening, as it is about games of love and life. It’s exploration of a crumbling South seem especially familiar in context of Williams’ other works.
Baby Face (Alfred E. Green, 1933)
Few periods in American film history had so many interesting roles for women as the pre-code era. Many great films came out during this period, some that would still make 21st century audiences blush. None were perhaps as controversial or shocking as Alfred E. Green’s film Baby Face. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, the film is about a woman who finds herself in an undesirable situation and decides to pull her way out from it the best way she knows how, using her sexual appeal. The film chronicles her figurative rise to the top through very literal imagery of her rising up one floor at a time a huge big city skyscraper. The film stresses the hopelessness of her initial situation, and how kindness and good intentions will not pull her out from the bottom. This film was the final nail in the coffin of pre-code cinema, perhaps because it’s blatant sexuality, and the fact that it doesn’t condemn or judge Lily Powers. Though it does offer the idea that perhaps her attitude is reckless, the film does hold her up very highly. What was perhaps especially shocking for 1930s audiences, was how she usurps societal expectations of her gender to suit her own needs. She does not rise the top like a man, but as a woman.
Band of Outsiders (Jean-Luc Godard, 1964)
Though perhaps the story is more about the two friends, Franz and Arthur, determining the protagonist through the idea of the “essential” character, it’s no doubt Odile. Young, pretty and innocent, her inclusion in their little criminal gang is the ingredient they need to go the next level in their adventures. Godard employs the idea that to make a successful film, all you need is a girl and a gun, and there are few girls as charming and likeable as Anna Karina. Like many of his early films, Band of Outsiders is about youth dealing with a world that is new and exciting, though they are unequipped to really understand and cope with it because of a lack of parental guidance. They learn all they know from the movies, and attempt to live the life they say, regardless of consequence. Odile is charmed by their attention, and allows herself to be manipulated into a heist. Though Godard was never short in roles for women, they were always problematic in that he always manages to put his women in a position of weakness, Karina especially lending her talents to the often frail and stupid characters of his films. At the same time, in cases like Vivre sa vie, the choice seems very conscious as a commentary on Hollywood cinema’s gender roles.
Belle de Jour (Luis Bunuel, 1967)
I think Luis Bunuel understood how much sex, especially beyond the confines of missionary copulation within marriage, was in itself an attack on the structures of society he himself riled against for the majority of his career. The mystery of female sexuality especially was alluring, how divisive and chaste it was supposed to be, and how threatening it was to the church and the largely male rulers of society. Séverine Serizy is a young housewife with an impotent husband, who on what seems like a whim decides to be a day-time prostitute. She seems happy with her life, but her husband cannot supply her with the sexual release that she so desires. Bunuel highlights her often bizarre and fetish oriented desire through dream sequences and creative sound editing. The film is about the imagination of sex, and therefore the strength of the mind over the body. It’s an important distinction in understanding true eroticism and for a political and surreal filmmaker like Bunuel, it was more than just about sex, it was about revolution.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Russ Meyer, 1970)
This might be my most controversial pick for the list, it teeters an incredibly soft line between art and exploitation, and that’s without taking into account it’s portrayal of women as objects, or something more. Meyer will always be a tricky figure in this regard, his reverence for the female form often as empowering as it is objectifying. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is about an all female rock band that finds it’s way in Hollywood. They go from playing the local high school prom to the biggest show on television in no time at all, but their success doesn’t last long. Before long, they fall into decadence and see their friendship and happiness slip away. The film is a re-invention of the novel/film, The Valley of the Dolls, which showcases the darker side of the entertainment business. This film satirizes the self-seriousness of the previous work, while also taking a playful poke at the free love 60s attitudes that seemed to lack any consequential insight. As for it’s portrayal of women, the film has a huge amount of gratuitous violence and more than a few women meet an untimely end. On the other hand, it shows the comforts of female companionship, especially in a lesbian relationship between two of the characters, though that too meets a bloody finale.
Black Book (Paul Verhoeven, 2006)
Was there ever a heroine as exciting, daring and sexy as Rachel Stein? With her classical good looks, Carice Van Houten channels the greatest actresses of the Golden Hollywood, while emulating their male stars’ heroics. Rachel is a Jew in the Netherlands at the height of the second world war, as her hiding place is bombed she suddenly finds herself on the run from the Nazis. After seeing her family brutally murdered, she infiltrates the Gestapo incognito as a singer and dancer. Satirical and tongue and cheek, only a filmmaker like Verhoeven would dare to take a sacred cow of the Holocaust and treat it with anything less than awe-filled reverence, and he even dares to add a few shades of grey to the heroes. Rachel uses her sex and intelligence to get ahead in a world that only wants to tear her down, easily one of the very best characters of the last decade.
Black Christmas (Bob Clark, 1974)
As far as horror is concerned, the slasher subgenre has always been the least kind to women. They are always the victims, and more so than their male counterparts, are judged far more cruelly on a moral level. Black Christmas is perhaps the anomaly, turning the genre’s stereotypes on it’s head far before the genre took fire in 1978 with the release of Halloween. It’s near Christmas and for the past few weeks, a sorority house have been receiving a string of truly disturbing obscene phone calls. After one girl disappears, they contact the police, but it’s quickly dismissed as the antics of a home sick or wild college student. Meanwhile, Jess confronts her boyfriend about an unwanted pregnancy and that she will be having an abortion, which upsets him greatly. Unlike your typical slasher fair, these characters are smart and clever. The tone is not moral as much as it is bleak and cruel, offering little hope to these young women as they’re picked off one bye one. The film stresses the ineffectiveness of the police force, especially in face against sexually motivated crimes. Few horror films are as frighteningly claustrophobic as this, and unlike your typical gore fest the audience feels a huge amount of sympathy for even the most minor characters.
Black Narcissus (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1947)
Films about convents and nuns should be inherently exciting for the film fan. The life of a nun is unnatural, it’s about repressing base desires and existing without an identity. Black Narcissus transplants a group of Anglican nuns from the safety of England to a spiritually dangerous palace in the Himalayas. The new setting not only challenges the comfort of their western life, but their understanding of why they’ve chosen this life. The wind is always remarked upon, a classical tool in literature to signify spiritual and emotional unrest. The nuns are especially challenged by the masculine presence of Mr. Dean, and the sensuous young Kanchi, who betrays their ideas of chastity. One by one, they fall victim to their new life, some requesting transfers, while others fall deeper into insanity. The film’s idea of “insane” is less a mental imbalance, but how far the characters fall from the standard of normality. However, in such a repressed and confined life, normality is an inherent abnormality, raising a whole slew of questions about religious faith and sexuality.
But I’m a Cheerleader (Jamie Babbit, 1998)
Megan is a cheerleader, she’s popular and she’s dating the star of the football team, she is the perfect American girl… but something is wrong and she doesn’t even know about it! Within the first ten minutes, her family and friends have an intervention because they fear she is a lesbian. She is baffled, completely in denial of her attraction, but is promptly sent of to a camp that’s meant to redirect her “confused” sexuality and cure her. Obviously tongue and cheek, this film is both funny and surprisingly tender for a film of it’s type. Megan adjusts well to the life at camp, though she is still confused as to why she is there. Here she meets Graham, a lesbian who does not want to change, but her parents keep sending her to camp after camp in hopes of changing who she is. Megan quickly falls for Graham, and in a subdued but no less surprising masturbation scene, she discovers the possibilities of her true sexual nature. The cast is excellent, especially Natasha Lyonne as Megan, who is beyond sweet but also has a huge amount of emotional depth.
Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942)
A strange thriller horror, Cat People is about the beautiful Serbian born Irena who is now living in New York City. While in the zoo sketching some panthers, she meets a young man who is immediately taken by her exotic beauty and peculiar forthcomingness. They marry not long after their first meeting, and things quickly turn sour. Irena is terrified of a myth from her village that said that if aroused, women would turn into a giant cat and kill the man in her presence. Months of an unconsummated marriage driver Oliver to infidelity, engaging in an emotional affair with his co-worker. This drives Irena to new heights, and she turns from meek young woman to hunter, stalking both her husband and this new woman into the night. Horror has always explored and exploited female sexuality for it’s tension, as even today it seems like an unknowable and mysterious taboo that is the source of danger and fear. Simone Simon as the exotic Irina is both vulnerable and threatening in her environment, subverting the American feminine ideal while also being convinced of her own danger. The atmosphere will have chills running down your spine, as less is always more in this low key horror film.
Christmas in Connecticut (Peter Godfrey, 1945)
The war-time setting is exploited in this Christmas timed screwball comedy, as an exploration for the changing roles of women. Journalist Elizabeth Lane is the country’s most famous food critic, and the stories of her perfect home in Connecticut are published weekly and read by hundreds of thousands. The true story is that Elizabeth Lane not only lives in a small drafty apartment in New York City but can’t cook a lick. When an injured soldier asks to meet her, an elaborate ploy is set up to save her career and she tries to play the role of the perfect housewife. The film is subversive in how it does not let any of the characters do what you would expect, and the eventual revelations are on one hand shocking, but also met with understanding that would only dissipate once again by the middle of the next decade. Stanwyck stars in yet another film on my list, but it’s no surprise, as she brings a particular brand of intelligent wit and sexiness that was unparalleled. Even today, she is the prototype of the modern woman, someone who could take care of herself, and only marries for true love, and never at the compromise of her own ideals and life.
Cleo 5 a 7 (Agnes Varda, 1962)
Cleo is a beautiful French singer waiting for the results from a doctor’s test that might determine if she has cancer or not. Grappling with her own mortality, Cleo’s greatest fears are linked to the loss of her beauty and youth. The film is told within the span of a few hours, and we are brought from place to place as she can’t seem to settle still before she is forced to face her fate. Agnes Varda (alongside perhaps Marguerite Duras, though she mostly worked in other capacities beyond director) was the sole director that was a member of the New Wave, her background was not in les Cahiers du Cinema, but rather photography and documentary filmmaking, which is reflected in the very polished look of her work. Cleo 5 a 7 is one of the strongest reflections of the female experience in the modern world, and I find it especially interesting how it’s often dismissed for it’s shallow protagonist, neither here nor there in film criticism. The film captures the anxiety and the superficiality of her life, but also offers some moments of real tenderness.
Cluny Brown (Ernst Lubitsch, 1946)
Ernst Lubitsch’s final film, is an ode to individuality and the freedom of personal expression. Despite her uncle’s desires, Cluny Brown follows her plumbing ambitions one day while he is out, and this is where she meets on the run professor who falls for her immediately. She is punished for her disobedience and forced to act as a servant in a country estate, a ploy for her to better understand her place in society… as both a woman and as someone in lower society. Time and time again, Cluny refuses to fit into these expectations, not necessarily by a natural sense of rebellion, but the confidence of someone who understands who they are. Though still young and naive, she is unprepared to truly accept that, and as a result falls for a boring pharmacist who doesn’t make her happy and tries to squash all expression she has. Her relationship with Adam Belinski, is the only time she is allowed to express all her innermost thoughts and desires, but she cannot understand the scope of this freedom. He never pushes her, though there is no doubt he harbours jealousy and frustration at her blindness towards his affections. If only all classic romances were as sweet as this, stressing the equality and the freedom of being who you are within a relationship.
Cries and Whispers (Ingmar Bergman, 1972)
The gut wrenching story of a family brought together by the imminent death of one of three sisters, Agnes, who is dying of cancer. Also present is the servant Anna, who has been more of a mother and a sibling than Agnes’ own family. She is the only person capable of warmth as the other characters frigidity stems from a variety of different factors relating to their own self-perception and the nature of their romantic relationships. The intensity of the scarlet walls and their contrast against the white sheets, reveals the very confines of the soul… or as Ingmar Bergman argued, it was an expression of the very literal blood that courses through our veins. The visual style lends to the anxiety and discomfort that the viewer is put through, it heightens the emotional struggle. The cancer is far more than just a disease, it’s an expression of all our fears and desires, our wants for comfort and the worry that we may only have one chance.
Dark Victory (Edmund Goulding, 1939)
Most of Bette Davis’ films in the later part of the 1930s and early part of the 1940s were weepy chick flicks, and perhaps the weepiest and chickiest was Dark Victory. Davis stars Judith, a young and beautiful socialite suffering from painful headaches and double vision, and when she finally goes to the doctor, she is diagnosed with a brain tumour. There is one shot though, a surgery to remove her tumour. The film is melodramatic, but that’s a huge amount of it’s charm. Judith’s plight with life and death, extends far beyond her own mortality but forces her to grapple with her ideas of love and happiness. This is one of Davis’ strongest performances, and she channels the carefree attitude of a socialite, and the eventual psychological grappling that comes with her illness.
Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (Jacques Demy & Agnès Varda, 1967)
Perhaps the happiest film ever made, this jubilant musical is about two singing and dancing sisters living in Rochefort. They both are happy with their life teaching dance and music in their bright apartment overseeing a square. One day both have their lives changed forever as they both meet two men, and fall in love. The film is less about the simple plot as it is about the euphoric feelings of love and passion that pervade every shot. The film is a very French homage to the Hollywood musicals of the 1950s, even featuring Gene Kelly in one of the romantic roles. It seems unbelievable, but husband and wife team Demy and Varda actually best the work they are so drawing from. The bubble gum pastel set and costumes lend to a wholly jubilant environment, this is one of those films that dares the audience not to smile, it’s beyond charming.
Diary of a Chambermaid (Luis Bunuel, 1964)
Luis Bunuel remakes Jean Renoir in the 1964 attack on the bourgeoisie and social cultures. Jeanne Moreau is Céléstine, a maid that has a new job in the country for a group of eccentric and out of touch aristocrats. Céléstine indulges in their fetishes and neurosis as a means of getting ahead. Things take a turn for the worse when the old man dies a child is raped and murdered. This is perhaps Bunuel’s most straightforward film, and a good introduction to his work. It still contains many of his favourite themes and ideas, exploring the seedier side of the human condition and criticizing the ideals and inhibitions put on by society. Jeanne Moreau perfectly embodies the role of the Chambermaid, she is calm, calculated and intelligent, standing above those around, at least for a while… Bunuel demonstrates contempt especially for religion, and through his narrative shows how the religious especially can get away with murder.
Diary of a Lost Girl (G.W. Pabst, 1929)
Louise Brooks is Thymiane, a young innocent girl drapped in white for her communion, on this very day she is raped by the clerk who works in her father’s store. She gets pregnant, and so as not to bring shame to the family she is sent away to a horrid “school” for girls. Pabst reveals the hypocrisy of the situation, and the damnation of female victims because of terrible double standards. Pabst very successfully establishes the fact that Thymiane is not only innocent (the white flowers, dress, her naivety) but also that she is adored by her family. It makes their decision all the more frightening. On the other hand the clerk who commits the crime continues to advance in life while she is thrown at the sidelines of society. Thyamiane’s life takes her down a road of depravity, and she becomes a prostitute because of the hopelessness of her situation. Eventually though, she is able to pull herself out of the situation with the help of a friend and decides to make changes. The film also reinforces message that woman have to help themselves and each other.
Easy Living (Mitchell Leisen, 1937)
With Preston Sturges manning the screenplay and Jean Arthur in the starring role, Easy Living had me expecting something great before the film even started. Though Sturges is no doubt at his best when directing his own films, there is no denying that this film owes everything to his quick-wit and talent for turning chaste Hollywood into something bawdy and unexpected. This film plays with expectations and misunderstandings wonderfully, highlighting a banker who cannot count and an innocent working girl who cannot say no, who’s paths cross by chance and both their lives change forever. I cannot say enough about Jean Arthur who is without a doubt one of the screen’s best comedians, even when she isn’t delivering dialogue, it’s difficult to take your eyes off her. Though this film feels more like a test run for Sullivan’s Travels and The Palm Beach Story, it’s no less one of the great screwballs of Hollywood’s golden age.
Faces (John Cassavetes, 1968)
Though far more of an ensemble piece, the strength of both Jeannie and Maria as characters, make the inclusion of this film essential. This film is not about Hollywood, though it easily could be, the posturing and the acting of everyday life are at the forefront diverting attention from the real life people hiding beneath. As one imagines an actor performing as an expressed desire of wanting to be loved, one can understand the characters in Faces as doing the very same. Instead of trying to please an audience they are working on individuals. Pleasing one man at a time, or one woman. Though the exterior is meant to appease to as many people as possible, the focus is very individual and the results always fleeting. We watch Gena Rowlands laugh and smile, and then we see a crack. A brief moment where she seems to pull her smile a bit, force it, because though laughing and singing, she’s broken inside. The most startling images though are of Lynn Carlin’s face as she’s washed away by the cold shower. All her make-up gone, and her hair flat and wet, she is startling beautiful… and incredibly vulnerable. The affectations she bears around everyone else disappear, as she is left with absolutely nothing but her life. It’s a moment of complete and utter dependability and vulnerability, one that she could never have wilfully consented to.
Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002)
Borrowing visually and thematically from Douglas Sirk, Todd Haynes brings to life a largely cinematic version of the 1950s, and the crisis that lie beyond the seamless facade. Cathy is the perfect housewife with the perfect life whose life suddenly spirals out of control when she interrupts her husband while he is kissing another man. In one full swoop, the fabric of her identity begins to crumble, as she not only questions her marriage but her happiness and the life she lives. She finds solace in a friendship with her African American gardener, who is an intelligent, charming and clever man. The social taboo of interracial relationships, and divorce prevents her from fully engaging but their relationship does continue to escalate emotionally. Julianne Moore delivers a career performance in the lead role, able to maintain the dignity and artificiality of the film’s needed stylistic embellishments, while offering a wide range of emotional and psychological depth.
Ginger Snaps (John Fawcett, 2000)
This darkly humorous horror film about two sisters who dread the prospect of being normal. Days after her sixteenth birthday, Ginger is attacked by a werewolf on a full moon, which happens simultaneous to her first period. The film equates the monstrosity of classic horror to the hormonal comings of womanhood, the alienation and binding quality it evokes in these young girls. Brigitte and Ginger are far from the typical horror or even cinematic heroines, and that’s a large part of why this film is so exciting. They are morbid, clever and creative, yearning to make their mark with the hopes of escaping their suburban nightmare, even if it means death. Few films capture the terror and pain of female adolescence as evocatively as this, and though my own experience was never as extreme as growing a tale, the film captures that angst and fearfulness better than any I’ve seen. The events that take place put the sisters lives on the line, forcing them to grow up and die. Brigitte’s growth from childhood into adulthood is especially strong, as she is forced to take on new responsibility and take charge of her identity, while Ginger’s more physical changes is not equated with the same mental and psychological development as her younger sister.
Gold Diggers of 1933 (Mervyn LeRoy, 1933)
Abstracting and celebrating the female form, Busby Berkeley’s eye opening and revolutionary choreography are at their best in Gold Diggers of 1933. Channelling the desperation of the depression, the film begins as a new Broadway show closes before it opens… a mouthful. Three chorus girls, no without jobs and a pay check search their minds for any source of income so they don’t starve or end up on the streets. Hearing the rumours that a new show is opening they head on down to the studio, but also help secure some backers money with their womanly charms. The film has the most effective plot and comedy of all the Berkeley musicals. The musical scenes themselves are stunning, most of them channelling a sort of escapist feeling that many people would go to the movies to see during the decade. The exception is Joan Blondell’s number My Forgotten Man, a mournful song about the World War One veterans who were now impoverished, on the street, forgotten and abused by society. This is also the movie that Bonnie watches in Bonnie and Clyde, picking up on the opening number “We’re in the Money”.
Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939)
Scarlett O’Hara might be the biggest bitch the screen has ever seen, and that’s why this film is here. She would not let war or famine or sickness tear her down, and that’s not even touching on the numerous social conditions and expectations that oppressed women at the time. Scarlett lives on a plantation with her family, she is in love with a man named Ashley but soon finds out he is engaged to his cousin Melanie. Infuriated, Scarlett accepts to marry an uninteresting and frail young man who dies during the civil war. She gets married a few times, helps deliver a baby, escapes from a burning city before eventually deciding to marry Rhett Butler, the only man that could love her for who she is. Scarlett’s greed and stubbornness is what keeps her alive during the film, she may be a dislikeable character, but it’s difficult not to admire how she continually perseverance in face of the most difficult physical and emotional conditions. She is a survivor, more so than any other character in the film, though it’s only in those last few minutes that she truly comes to terms with this idea… understanding that she has the will to get whatever it is she wants, she just didn’t know what it was.
Grey Gardens (Ellen Hovde & Albert Maysles, 1975)
The only documentary on the list, Grey Gardens is the name of a decaying 28 room mansion where Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Edie Beale live. Aunt and cousin to Jacqueline Onassis, they both received a lot of press during the 1970s, as they are threatened with eviction unless they clean up their East Hampton home. Told in episodic vignettes, the film reveals the many layers to the two eccentric women’s lives as they ham up to the ever present lens. Both women hang on to their past, often harping about their lost opportunities, while also mindlessly hoping to return to the lives they dropped off decades ago. They live in complete squalor, secluded to a few rooms of their mansion that are filled with garbage and animal feces. Though constantly arguing, the two are protective of each other and untrusting of the outside world. Somewhat pitiful, but largely entertaining the two women seem to enjoy the attention of the lens. They tell their stories and perform their dances and songs as if they were in a Hollywood film. This film was followed decades later by The Beales of Grey Gardens (2006), which took footage unused in the first film, and assembled a further portrait of the two women. Also look out for a 2009 film based on the lives of these women starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange.
Hannah and her Sisters (Woody Allen, 1986)
Three sisters…I have two sisters, which means three daughters, which means three personalities and three different lives. Hannah and her Sisters is about three sisters, maybe not unlike how me and my sisters will grow up to be. There is Lee, the lover of Frederick, a much older artist. She is defined by her relationship with him, and he has shaped her into the woman she is now. Though, as the film begins the cracks are becoming evident, and the two are almost forced to acknowledge the fall of their relationship. Holly doesn’t know who she is, and her ambitions change with the wind. One day she is a writer, the next an actress… she can’t seem to decide. Finally there is Hannah, the perfect sibling that holds them all together. Unlike the other two, she seems to know who she is and what she wants. Nothing that’s perfect lasts though, and soon she sees even her marriage and life begin to fall apart. Like most Allen films, Hannah and her Sisters is quick witted, examining the many questions that drive our lives and our relationships, one of his best films.
Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh, 2008)
There is an underlying sadness in Poppy’s actions though, I think the conversation Poppy has with her sister, about being happy. Poppy says she is, and I’m willing to believe her… but at the same time, there is that quiver of doubt in her voice, it’s not an easy answer, and it’s not black and white either. I think it’s one moment, among a few others, where there is an unconscious revelation that Poppy is not always acting on pure impulse but is being very deliberate in her actions as a means of helping others. Also speaking to her friend Zoe, she’s told that she can’t make everyone happy, to which she answers, “There’s no harm in trying that Zoe, is there?”. Happy-Go-Lucky is the story of Poppy, a jubilant school teacher living in London who’s cheery demeanour exasperates as many as she charms.
Heathers (Michael Lehmann, 1988)
There are few people crueller than teenage girls, and Heathers exploits these cruel antics for one of the darkest teen comedies. The high school clique of popular girls at Westerberg High are three girls who all share the same first name. Recently they’ve been anointing a new member, the sharp and pretty Veronica who is not sure if being popular is worth the effort of spending time with these cruel and selfish teens. When she starts dating the dangerous, Jack Nicholson-esque Jason Dean, she soon realises she has to be careful what she says… because after wishing the Heather’s deaths, they soon start to show up dead. This film is full on 80s fashion and music, and has the absolutely charming Winona Ryder in the lead role. The film takes high school drama to new extremes, while also creating a thrilling and hilarious language that’s a delicious heightened interpretation of adolescent communications.
Hiroshima, mon amour (Alain Resnais, 1959)
Though the story of two lovers, Hiroshima, Mon Amour is more invested in the story of the woman than her male lover. Penned by writer/filmmaker Marguerite Duras, an actress is in Japan making a film about Peace, and she spends the night with a Japanese man she meets there. Something about him evokes her first love and she tells him the story of that first affair. Hiroshima, mon amour explores the nature of memory, especially in relation to time and place. Hiroshima as a location evokes a drastic global change, not only in the perception of life and death, but time itself. The woman’s own story is heartbreaking, breathtakingly feminine and self-sacrificing, and highlight’s the film’s strength in subjectivite storytelling.
House of Mirth (Terence Davies, 2000)
One of the greatest novels about the struggle of women translates beautifully to the big screen thanks to Gillian Anderson’s eye opening performance and Davies’ restrained direction. Lily Bart is a beautiful socialite reaching an age where she will no longer be young enough to catch a desirable wife to a wealthy husband. Her gambling puts her in debt, and a jealous rival ruins her reputation. The film chronicles how ill equipped women were for the work force, and for someone like Lily Bart who does not have enough money to support herself, nor the skills to take care of herself she feels herself dropping lower and lower on the social scale. A heartbreaking film that reveals the darker side of aristocracy, and the precarious nature of an unmarried woman in the early part of the 20th century.
‘I Know Where I’m Going!’ (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1945)
An understated and simple story about a young woman, Joan, who knows what she wants from life. She knows where she comes from, where she is and where she is going. She has decided to marry a wealthy industrialist at his home in Scotland, in a small place called Kiloran island. The weather strands her on a nearby island, Mull, where Joan meets a handsome naval officer Torquil McNeil. He entertains her stay at Mull, and she finds herself falling for his charming demeanour, though she continues to deny the impulses of her heart, insisting that she needs to get to Kiloran to meet her future husband. A beautiful film, it uses the beauty of the Scottish landscape and culture to highlight the beauty of impulse and the desires of the soul.
Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959)
A box-office smash that was dismissed by critics as a melodramatic soap opera, Imitation of Life has enjoyed a resurgence among critics in recent years and is finally getting it’s due as one America’s best films. Sirk’s rigid formalism and grand emotions have to be seen to be believed, few filmmakers have fully exploited the tools of his craft to manipulate and stretch the potential of cinema. In 1947, Lora Meredith meets a fellow single mother, the black and unemployed Annie. Though also desperate, she hires Annie as a maid, and together they raise their young daughters in their small apartment. When Lora gets her career on the road they move into a bigger home, but the happiness of their early lives begin to fade away. Annie’s daughter Sarah Jane uses her fair skin to pass as white, resenting her black mother and her role as the daughter of a servant, while Lora becomes more and mores detached from her home life as she dedicates her life to her career. Sirk uses colour and mise-en-scene to emphasis Lora’s coldness and Annie’s warmth, while also heightening through his lavish style, the emotional pay-offs.
Inland Empire (David Lynch, 2006)
What is Inland Empire? At the very least it’s about an aging actresses’ crumbling reality in the face of a new film role. Lynch bends reality and objective perceptions in an exploration of the artistic process, and the pressures of the entertainment business for women. Laura Dern is Nikki Grace, an actress preparing for her next big role, a remake of a cursed Polish film. As filming starts, she starts to have doubts as to what is her real life, and what is her film work. Lynch explores old themes and motifs, like female sexuality and Hollywood values through his surreal and jarring visual style. Highlights include a rabbit sitcom, the locomotion and a red lamp.
Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954)
Often described as a camp classic, the title denies the film it’s passion and anger. The film’s central conflict pits two women against each other, the first is Vienna the owner of a saloon and the second, is Emma Small, the woman who wants her out of town. Headed by Small, the townsfolk pressure Vienna to leave town so that a railroad can be built, but the saloon owner stands tall, not allowing them to infringe on all her hard work. All the tension and action is centered on their hatred for each other, and though both in relationships with men, their repartee is often tinted with repressed and angry sexual politics. It’s rare to see two strong female presences on the screen, and though the two adopt in many ways the roles of men, they are both undeniably feminine.
Kill Bill Vol. 1 (Quentin Tarantino, 2003)
Tarantino’s muse, Uma Thurman, was born to be The Bride. Not quite beautiful but undeniably attractive, her height and confidence are perfectly suited for the role. Kill Bill Vol. 1 is a kinetic and exciting kung-fu revenge film, that is brought to life with Tarantino’s delicious pop art sensibility. The Bride wakes from a coma after being nearly murdered several years before, left for dead, her husband and baby killed, she decides to get her revenge by murdering the group of assassins that failed to finish the job several years before. More than your average female helmed chick flick, this film does not exploit the Bride’s sexuality and cement her very much as a woman, rather than a girl playing a boy’s part in a form fitting suit.
La Cérémonie (1995)
Often called the French Hitchcock, Claude Chabrol used the premise of thriller and mystery plots to explore fundamental human relationships. La Cérémonie is about an intimate friendship between two women that goes terribly wrong. The quiet and shy, Sophie, takes the job as a live-in maid at a country home. She does her job well, and manages to hide a crucial secret (or two) that threatens her livelyhood. It’s at this job where she meets the outgoing and stubborn Jeanne, a woman who works at the local post-office. Both women become close friends, but the influence of Jeanne soon begins to threaten Sophie’s work ethic, and her employers begin to think they may need to hire someone else. This film uses their friendship to explore systems and human power plays, on both personal and higher levels.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928)
In 1962, Anna Karina as Nana sits in a Paris theatre and watches The Passion of Joan of Arc. As the Saint prepares for her trial and death, tears run down her face, and Godard cuts to the crying Nana. From one cinematic saint to another, we see a changing world, and a changing view of women. What is still so striking about the Passion of Joan of Arc, is not about it’s religious inspiration, but about the beauty of humanity, especially the range of emotion and the power of human will. Joan’s decisiveness is met with accusations of witchcraft, and lunacy but as the audience, looking into her eyes you see the doubt and fear. She is not sure of her decision, she is only sure in her beliefs. Watch as her face turns to the heavens, imploring for a voice and guidance. This is a woman who communicated with God, who had guidance to lead the French to victory, and now at the time of her greatest need she hears nothing. The power of Maria Falconetti’s performance is enhanced by Dreyer’s adoring lens, keeping her face in almost constant close-up. This is perhaps the most harrowing and profound examinations of faith ever committed to celluloid, a truly unforgettable experience.
Last Summer (Frank Perry, 1969)
Last Summer is a surprising film that paints an honest portrait of adolescence. There is no cutesy nostalgia on display, but a wide range of changing and evolving emotions, a huge amount of insecurity and self-doubt and the wandering adventure of new experiences. The film begins as the story of a budding friendship between Sandy, Peter and Dan. They are on vacation on Long Island, and they have an entire summer ahead of them. Sandy is striking, and immediately draws the boys in. She is the same age as they are, but seems to exude confidence and intelligence. She seems older than she is, something that young woman almost always hold over young man. A fourth teen is introduced, one who seems immediately more vulnerable than the others. Her name is Sandy, and superficially, she is not as attractive as the others and she seems a great deal more insecure. As shy as Rhoda is, her loneliness motivates her to make herself the fourth member of their group. They accept her in part because she won’t go away, but also because they take a cruel pleasure in mocking and exploiting her. They accept her only on the condition that she reveals a great secret about her, and in one of the most stirring monologues I’ve ever seen on screen, she recounts her mother’s death by drowning. The film juxtaposes two adolescent stereotypes through their female characters, as a premise to explore the cruelty of human nature.
L’Avventura (Antonioni, 1960)
There is a huge concern for space in L’Avventura, an obsessive need to distance and alienate the characters through positioning. The land and surroundings often seem more alive than the characters, though serving equally as a metaphor for our cold, detached existence. Is life a series of repetitive and meaningless encounters? How can two islands meet, but for an accidental calling? When Claudia rings the bells in the church, purely by accident, she finds a strong joy in the response from a similar tower across. She looks over and rings again, met by yet another response. There is actually a small amount of joy that hangs around after this scene, even amidst moments of hopelessness. It seems to instigate passion, if only momentarily. She has made contact with the world, at last. Vicci’s beauty is as enduring as the spaces she occupies. Though modernity seems plagued with an indecisive impermanence, on celluloid her face occupies is immortalized. Is art the real key to immortality? Our only root passage into the future? If nothing’s meant to last, why can’t we hold onto those precious moments, instead lingering on the ones we’ve lost, or else the ones we’re going to lose. At it’s heart, this is a film about two women, one who is lost physically, the other emotionally… both trapped alone on their island, never able to escape.
Le Bonheur (Varda, 1965)
Le Bonheur examines in a provocative and singular way the effect of an affair on two women. Varda’s style is detached, filled with games and experimentation, highlighting the unpredictability of life. Francois is a young and handsome carpenter with a beautiful young wife and two beautiful young children. One day he meets Emilie, a girl who works at the post-office and they become lovers. It’s a film about a man who is perfectly happy, and he decides to marginalize his wife’s happiness so that he can have an affair. His mood rarely, if ever alters, but the effect is grim and cold. He destroys in his wife what was different than him… for a man constantly harping about his love for his wife and his mistress, the only thing he really loved or cared about was his own well being and happiness. It’s a film that only a woman could tell, using a great amount of irony and revealing a darker side of double standards. The film is eerily disturbing in it’s unwavering cheery tone.
Les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955)
Reportedly Alfred Hitchcock wanted to buy the rights to this film, losing out to Clouzot by just a couple of hours. With that in mind, it should be no surprise that this is a thriller/horror with a murder at the core. The wife and mistress of a severe headmaster plot together to murder him and be free of his controlling nature. They set an elaborate plan that also involves ridding themselves of the body in the school pool. When unexpectedly the pool is drained several days later, they’re surprised when there is no corpse. Christina, his wife, is especially perturbed and she feels haunted by her dead husband at all times. The film quickly transforms into a tense psychological thriller, as we watch Christina become increasingly paranoid and increasingly frail. Even after death she is haunted and hounded by her sadistic husband, never able to escape his grasp.
Little Women (George Cukor, 1933)
The episodic nature of this adaptation of the classic novel of young girls coming of age during the civil war lends to a lived in feel, snippets of a life pasted together by a careful matriarch or a grandmother remembering moments of a lost childhood. It is the story of four sisters who are raised by their mother while their father fights during the civil war. We watch as they grow, taking on their identity and learning from the everyday experiences that shape them. It’s a film that’s singularly feminine, emphasizing the importance of the struggles and victories of the home life, and the fears and anxieties that pre-occupy a teenage mind. The film explores their virtues and vices, their healths and illnesses, and of course their failed and successful romances. It’s a beautiful film, one that you wouldn’t necessarily expect from the early 1930s. George Cukor, often noted as the best woman’s director of classic Hollywood, draws star making performances from all players in a cast that includes young Katharine Hepburn and Joan Bennett.
Madame de… (Max Ophuls, 1953)
One of the best directors of the lives of women, Max Ophuls’s best known film is Madame de… the story of a general’s wife who sells her earrings behind her husbands’ back, telling him that she lost them. He soon discovers her deceit and a series of terrible misunderstandings and duplicity begins. The Countess also falls in love with an Italian diplomat, a meeting of chance, and one that will change the course of her life. Like Ophuls’ other films, this emphasizes the circular nature of emotion and living, as well as the unpredictability of human emotion and the strong belief in chance and fate. The ever roaming and spinning camera channels all these ideas, bringing one night into the next because the lovers are only true alive when they are together, everything in between doesn’t exist, or at least doesn’t matter. The Countess’s evolution from spoiled and satisfied to humbled and selfless is an incredible transformation in such a short running time, but because of all of Ophuls’ flourishes and the belief in the transformative quality of true love, the film stands as one of the great screen romances.
Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola, 2006)
Coppola’s film about the Queen of France, captures effectively the frivolity of Versailles court without ever lampooning Marie Antoinette herself. It’s an interesting balance that reveals a very shallow and fruitless existence, but justifies audience sympathy through it’s characters aimless disappointment at their redundant existence. It is reflection of a generation of women lost in a world of glamour, not given anything to think or live for, only their appearance and their superficial needs. It’s fair to see that as a Queen, Marie Antoinette was ineffective and disconnected from the real plight of her suffering people, but she was never taught otherwise… she was raised to make babies, and enjoy a life of decadence in between. This is also a life without privacy or intimacy, as every torrid secret of her private life takes center stage, as her role as entertainer and breeder are of national interest. Coppola’s direction isolates Marie Antoinette from this world, setting up physical and visual metaphors that keep her disconnected from real feeling and real life. The one true key to reality is through her daughter, as Marie Antoinette suddenly has meaning. It’s not so much that she finally lives up to her duty as queen, but is inspired by life itself, and understands the true scope of her responsibility as a leader and mother.
Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli, 1944)
Instead of spectacle and wide ranging conflict, Minnelli’s decision to make a story of the experiences of one family and their everyday struggles truly innovative at the time of it’s release. . He introduced a new kind of musical, where the music is the expression of a emotional states rather than a means of spectacle and escape. The Smith family is a well off family living in St. Louis in 1904, one year before the World’s Fair, and the film’s conflict and drama comes with the everyday conflicts and tribulations that would plague any family. Are the daughters early enough to go to a dance on their own? A scraped knee, a forgotten chore, or a night of new experiences. Though the family ranges from young child to elderly grandfather, most of the film’s focus is on the three daughters, especially the two budding teens who are moving into young adulthood. It’s tender and emotional, nostalgic for memories of perfect childhoods that don’t quite exist. It is hardly a sugar coated look at family life, but the warmth and closeness that is felt in this home makes it seem as though the worst can happen and everything will still be okay.
Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945)
Perhaps Joan Crawford’s best performance, she is Mildred Pierce, a single mother whose husband just ran away with a woman he was having an affair with and is now left to raise her two young daughters on very little money. She dotes on her daughter, giving them everything she can afford, and more but this does not satisfy her eldest daughter, Veda. Even as a child, Veda complains about the lack of money and the apparently insufficient efforts of her mother. Mildred cannot see her daughter for who she is though, and takes the responsibility onto herself by opening a restaurant. Mildred finds success, but when her daughter pretends to be pregnant to extort money from a wealthy businessman, she banishes her from her life and becomes very unhappy. This is a film about a selfless mother, and a woman who raises herself up from nothing to be independent and self-sufficient. Her daughter, on the other hand, is probably one of the most repugnant and selfish characters the screen has ever seen. One of the few film noirs about mothers, it’s an exception well worth seeing.
Mother Joan of the Angels (Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 1961)
Inspired by the supposed possession of the Loudou nuns in 1634, Mother Joan of the Angels tells the tale of a Mother Superior possessed by eight demons and the man who tries to save her. By the standards of modern films like the Exorcist, the trials and tribulations that Mother Joan and the sisters go through are rather tame. She doesn’t’t spew profanities, or vomit, or physically transform in any way… it casts a reasonable amount of doubt on the events, but also serves to remind the viewer that even dance and song are forbidden to a pious nun, making even the only nun untouched by evil, an exception that would raise an eyebrow or two. Mother Joan is an enigmatic woman, beautiful and commanding. Her strength is palpable, as is her frustration. She yearns for saintly perfection, but cannot achieve it. Instead she opens her heart and soul to demons, because if one cannot be a saint, we might as well be damned. There is a desire to be seen, to be loved, but her life in a convent prevents that. One even wonders how a woman so young, and clearly troubled could climb the ranks to become a Mother Superior, but I think this is intentional, a hint at her charismatic yearning to be remembered. Mother Joan of the Angels is a great story of unrequited love, romantic and otherwise, and great faith. It puts into question dogmatic practise and religious devotion and practise as repressive, and a shield against the pains and trials of the real world.
Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001)
An intro that draws on a relatively obscure satire on Hollywood, Frank Tashlin’s 1956 film The Girl Can’t Help It, Lynch creates the premise of an unbalanced and unsure life of fraud and uncertainty. The colour of musicals, the appeal of LA and the bright eyes does of budding starlets. It’s a world of candy coloured scapes and dreams that come true, even murder seems little more than a game that people play. One without consequence and filled with romance. Something dark lies beneath the surface though and slowly the layers of illusion are peeled away. Lynch creates a world where reality is only an extension of the subjective mind, where dreams and nightmares are as real and as palpable as life itself. The film paints a dark look at the competitive nature of the Hollywood system, especially in it’s treatment and portrayal of women. The film feels right at home with Bergman’s Persona, as both bend even the lines between body and soul.
My Neighbor Totoro (Hayao Miyazaki, 1988)
Perhaps the best film made for children, My Neighbor Totoro does not rely on pitting children against adult, or on the traditional formulaic villains of most children’s classics. It’s the story of two young sisters who move with their father to a house in the country to be closer to the hospital where the mother is being treated for an undisclosed illness. Both under pre-adolescent, they don’t quite grasp the severity of the situation, but do understand the pain and sadness of the hospital, as well as an absent parental figure. Their day to day lives though, are sparkled with enormous joy and happiness. They are lively children, constant giggling and exploring the world around them. The youngest while exploring the nearby forest, discovers that it is inhabited by forest creatures and spirits and she soon befriends them. The spirits seem to be a guide of comfort for the young girls, bringing hope and alleviating fear in difficult and troublesome circumstances.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Hayao Miyazaki, 1984)
A film set in a dystopian future, where the world has been slowly destroyed by a toxic jungle caused by pollution and nuclear combat. Small pockets of humanity continue to exist, including the Valley of the Wind, where the unique meteorological conditions prevent the toxic spores from spreading. It’s here where Princess Nausicaa lives, a truly remarkable individual, she is a pacifist and believes in understanding the changed environment instead of railing against it. The valley is attacked by the Tolmekian people, who plan to raise “the great warriors”, that brought upon the terrors of the earth. Perhaps the best animated film ever made, it explores the nature of human conflict and our self-destructive nature. Nausicaa is presented as an intelligent, caring and almost matriarchal figure, an almost literal mother earth as she attempts to preserve the world and perhaps reverse the toxicity of the ever spreading jungle.
Nights of Cabiria (Federico Fellini, 1957)
The episodic journey of the Chaplinesque and naive prostitute, Cabiria, is one of Fellini’s best efforts. Cabiria is a streetwalker who leads an extraordinary life, during the span of several nights and days. Among other things, she nearly drowns, gets taken home by a movie star, gets hypnotized and meets a man who may love her for who she really is. Nights of Cabiria is as funny as it is heartbreaking, the story of a woman who doesn’t fit in, not even among the other whores. Many of the sequences see her nearly escape her life, for better or for worse, only to have her expectations dashed. What is so wonderful about her, is what seems like unwavering optimism, though with each day we begin to see cracks of vulnerability, dreams of a different life, stability and happiness. Giulietta Masina stars and delivers a brilliant and layered performance that ranks with Chaplin as the tramp. They both seem to touch on the same emotions and desires with those characters
Pandora’s Box (G.W. Pabst, 1929)
Men find Lulu irresistible, and she can’t help giving in. Unfortunately all the men she has romantic liaisons with meet an untimely demise. It’s never really her fault, and she can’t help it. It’s all in her nature, she’s a force to be reckoned with although she has no express desire to destroy. The film never suggests she’s evil, and in many ways it’s the men around her who are dumb, cruel and they bring their own doom. They treat her badly, and have made her what she is. Lulu is throughout the film a heroine, and the camera loves her like a goddess or a saint. Lulu is a young and beautiful woman who falls under the influence of powerful men, or more aptly… they fall under her spell. She has a huge control over their lives, though her naivety seems to suggest that she is unaware or passive to her manipulative quality and passion. Like Diary of a Lost Girl, Pabst shows how society demonizes and victimizes women. The film’s title referring to the Grecian myth of Pandora, the woman who unleashed all the evils of onto the world, is mostly ironic, a twist on common conceptions about gender identity and culpability. An interesting note is that the film also features what is commonly believed as the screen’s first lesbian character, and like Lulu, she is seen in a light of adoration as opposed to cruel condemnation. It’s interesting that a film decades before the sexual revolution and the rise of feminism, offers such an enlightened view on women and non-traditional sexuality (both same sex relationships, casual sex and even prostitution).
Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975)
An eerie dream-like film about the disappearance of three students and a teacher at hanging rock in Australia. The film is set at the turn of the century, a group of students from a very strict girl’s boarding school go on a picnic at the famed hanging rock. During an afternoon nap, some girls and a teacher disappear into the rock. First an accident is suspected, but eventually the blame shifts on some men, apparent the last people to see the girl’s. Few films are as eerie or as disturbing as this, it’s filled with tension and mysteries of an ancient world. Though subtle, the film is very much about female sexuality, the lure of the virgin and the fear of strong female friendships. The film is deliberate and visually repetitive, scenes and sequences are repeated, and even liberal use of slow motion to deify these girls. The focus on their garments, and movement. How limited they are by their conservative dress, and how freeing it is to abandon their skirt or even their shoes. The rumour that the teacher disappeared in only her underwear was more of a scandal than her missing body. The rock itself is presented as something otherworldly, and more than just disappearing into thin air, it’s as if they’ve retreated back to the earth.
Queen Christina (Rouben Mamoulian, 1933)
There was a time when Greta Garbo was one of the biggest stars in the world, second only to perhaps Charlie Chaplin. Though there are still many of her films I personally need to see, in my experience, this is her greatest film and her greatest performance. Bringing to life the androgynous Queen Christina of Sweden, Garbo brings strength and a commanding dignity to one of Europe’s greatest Queens. During her reign Sweden became a dominant force in Europe, notably because of it’s involvement in the 30 year war. The film though, is more focused on her political marriage and affair with an emissary from Spain. The film handles sexuality in a very fluid way, inviting a huge amount of homosexual subtext. From the famed lip to lip kiss between Christina and a female servant, and the palpable homosexual attraction between herself and Antonio when he believes her to be a man, the film uses the subversion of traditional relationships to complicate our understanding of traditional female roles. The film is notable especially for it’s remarkably powerful final shot.
Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme, 2008)
The film begins as Kym is released from rehab for drugs, this is one of the many she has been in over the course of a decade. Instead of returning home to the peace and comfort of family, she is forced to reckon with her sister Rachel’s imminent wedding. The film is very much about the relationship between three female family members, Kym, her sister, Rachel and their mother, Abby. Kym is very much the black sheep of the family, a drug addict with no apparent affinity for music. She harbours a huge amount of guilt over a childhood accident, and it seems her family hasn’t been able to forgive her either. Kym’s hectic and self-destructive nature has made Rachel feel neglected, and she sees her wedding as an opportunity for the attention to be finally focused on her, and her success. It’s no surprise that the two clash, unable and unwilling to accommodate or understand the other. The mother fits in as the person who doesn’t fit in, the one who pretends nothing wrong and runs away when things get too difficult to ignore. A heart wrenching film, it’s very much about relationships, especially within families and between sisters.
Repulsion (Roman Polanski, 1965)
Carol is a beautiful Belgian girl working in a London salon as a manicurist. She lives at home with her sister and her boyfriend in a small apartment. One day while having lunch, a handsome man approaches her and asks her out. She rebuffs him and runs away, a pattern is being developed. When her sister and boyfriend go on a short vacation, she becomes ill, and is terrorized by hallucinations of cracking walls and a bear like figure that rapes her. Day after day she falls deeper into madness, and barely leaves her apartment. Basically a one woman show, the film is a deeply disturbing psychological thriller about a woman grappling with her confused sexuality. Repulsed and attracted by men, her repression boils into violence.
Roman Holiday (William Wyler, 1953)
Princess Ann is on a tour of Europe, her life is heavily regimented and she has little freedom to establish her individual idenity. One night, she sneaks out of her room to explore Rome, but things don’t go quite as she expected. She is found by American journalist Joe Bradley, who finds her a place to sleep for the night, and promises to show her the city. The film rides heavily on the charms of Audrey Hepburn, who is effortlessly youthful and enthusiastic. The 24 hours they spend discovering Rome is magical, and watching the two fall for each other makes for one of the best romances the screen has ever seen. The film depicts the transformation of a woman, we see her letting loose and finding who she is. The film features and unexpected ending, absolutely bittersweet.
Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968)
The middle entry in Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy, Rosemary’s Baby is about a young couple that moves into a new apartment, and shortly thereafter, Rosemary becomes pregnant. The circumstances are strange, as the night of conception Rosemary has strange dreams of herself being raped by a demon as neighbours hold her down. When she awakes, the revelation was that it wasn’t a demon, but rather her husband who didn’t want to miss a night of copulation because of their desire to have children. The film is very much about all the fears and doubts that come with pregnancy, that things don’t always go well, or that something is amiss. Their is even that distrust of those around you that perhaps they don’t have the best intentions in mind, and the film even ventures into a sort of post-partum exploration of the aftermath. Mia Farrow is incredible in the lead role, she looks so incredibly fragile and delicate, but doesn’t let that hold her back when she really is in fear for her and her baby’s life.
Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock, 1943)
Though Alfred Hitchcock was never short on female roles in his films, their presence and portrayal was always somewhat problematic. They were idealized and cold, often suffered at the hands of villains and men. There are some exceptions, like Grace Kelly in Rear Window (more or less), and of course Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt. Young Charlie, brought to life by Teresa Wright, stands out in his filmography as a strong, capable and intelligent woman. She is not the most beautiful of his leads, nor does she aspire to be. She also lacks that femme fatale attitude that draws men in, she seems refreshingly human and without ulterior motive. Perhaps it’s her age, too young to be tossed around by life, she is still trusting and confidant. The film is about the visit of an uncle, who she adores, but soon begins to suspect is a serial killer. She is extremely clever, and evolves emotionally over the course of the film, as she comes to understand the value of life and family.
Silkwood (Mike Nichols, 1983)
Based on the true story of Karen Silkwood, an employee at a Nuclear facility who tried to expose the dangerous safety violations at the plant. By Hollywood standards, Karen Silkwood is not the ideal feminine hero. She lives in sin with her boyfriend, has two children but doesn’t have full custody, and drinks, swears and smokes. However, her empathy and desire for change motivates her to take on the corporate power in seek of change. It’s not a desire for more money or shorter hours, it’s for the fundamental right for safety in the workplace. Her friends are getting contaminated, some of which, are dying of cancer. She herself is exposed numerous times, and even begins to suspect it might be purposeful. The film is very much focused on Karen’s drive, her ambition and the birth of an activist. This is perhaps Streep’s strongest performance, as she brings real weight and life to the character. The interactions between the three (eventually four) occupants of the little house are also fascinating, and we get a great cross-section of interpersonal relationships and the outside pursuits of the character’s interfering with that life.
Spirit of the Beehive (Víctor Erice, 1973)
An all-together magical film about a young girl, Ana, growing up in rural Spanish town during the Spanish Civil War. One day she watches the 1931 Frankenstein film in the village, and is profoundly affected by the film’s imagery and story. She begins questioning her older sister on issues of life and death, and begins to fall deep into a world of fantasy. Her older sister both indulges and exploits this fascination, telling her sister the monster is not dead, but lives as a spirit that is in a nearby barn. She also plays on her sister’s fear of death in several truly surprising and disturbing sequences. Ana eventually discovers a wounded loyalist soldier living in the barn where she believes Frankenstein lives, and thinks he is the monster. However, instead of running away, she decides to take care of him, very much at the peril of her own life.
Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)
Another film where a child disappears into a fantasy world, the young Chihiro, are moving to a new house in a new town. Chihiro is unhappy because she is leaving all her friends behind and resent’s what she perceives as her parent’s selfishness. Along the way they stop at what appears to be an abandoned amusement park, and her parents soon stuff their faces with food, only to turn into oversized pigs as the sun sets. The amusement park comes to life with spirits and creatures when night falls and Chihiro tries to escape but cannot. In her attempt to escape she ends up working for the bathhouse while she attempts to find a way to break the spell that has imprisoned her parents in the body of gluttonies pigs. A wildly imaginative film, it channels the understanding of the world from a child’s POV.
State Fair (Walter Lang, 1945)
State Fair is not one of the all time great musicals, but it’s one of the tender, sweet ones that Minnelli had pioneered just a year before. It’s not about spectacle, riches or stage, it’s about family and the lives of every day people. The magic and tribulations of every day life. Not much happens in the film, at least not in terms of action, emotionally we run through what feels like a lifetime of emotions and every one of them is as sweet and sincere as the last. Living the small time life is leaving young Margy yearning for more. She has the affection of a kind, but boring young man, who she is expected to marry one day and live the same life her mother did. When they go to the State Fair she meets a big city reporter, and they fall in love. A film of strong emotions, the doubt that this is only a short venture that will only leave her more unhappy with her life.
Stella Dallas (King Vidor, 1937)
Stella Dallas uses all her feminine talents to marry up in life in hopes of living the life of luxury. Her husband has a much different idea as to what their relationship should be, and frowns upon her uncouth behaviour and disregard for his personal values. When she has a child to appease him, her life takes on a major change, as she soon finds all her joy from taking care of her daughter. The pair divorce, but thanks to child support and Stella’s care, her daughter Laurel gets the best possible upbringing. Few films show a mother as dedicated and passionate about their child’s life as this, though rough around the edges, Stella Dallas is probably everything a parent should be. The film reaches emotionally shattering proportions when Stella comes to a heartbreaking decision as to what sacrifice she must make in order to make her daughter truly happy in life.
The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)
Melanie Daniels is a socialite who gets what she wants in life, even men. While buying some birds in a pet shop, she meets a man who she decides she must have, and even goes so far as to track him down in an obscure bay city along the cost of California. Though she meant to only take a day trip, she is sidetracked in the town where strange things start happening. It also starts with a surprise collision with a seagull while on a boat. This sets into motion a strange events, as birds all over town start attacking people for seemingly no reason whatsoever. A sort of apocalyptic film, The Birds is very much about female sexuality and relationships. It’s Melanie’s apparent feminine sexuality and modernity that sets in motion the attacks, however, and it seems to be an attack on her very way of life. In a revealing exchange, one character chimes, “Back to your gilded cage Melanie Daniels”, referencing a painting by Evelyn De Morgan, that serves as an allegory for female captivity. The violence railed against Melanie quite literally tears her down, in a sequence that has been compared to a kind of rape. By the end, she is a frail shadow, and calm is restored… at least temporarily.
The Curse of the Cat People (Gunther von Fritsch & Robert Wise, 1944)
It can hardly be called a sequel or even a horror film, but the Curse of the Cat People is perhaps the best Val Lewton’s best film… and his strangest. The only thing that connects this film to it’s more famous predecessor is that we see the two lovebirds from the first film married, and now with a child. Their daughter, Amy, is an extremely imaginative and neurotic child who struggles differentiating her fantasies from reality. She has no friends, and is often teased, even her father thinks she is strange, and fights constantly to make her “normal”. Amy is not completely alone though, she has an imaginary friend, who just so happens to be her father’s dead wife Irena, and an aging actress who lives in an old mansion. The film is very much about a struggle for normality, at least on the part of the parents. They cannot seem to handle the idea that their daughter is not like all the other children, and even fear that perhaps she will be like Irena… who in the first film, because a symbol for “otherness” and a dangerous feminine presence.
The Double Life of Veronique (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1991)
The beautiful film about two women living in two different cities, with two different lives, but are inexplicably connected by something beyond common understanding. They seem to feel and breath the same air, the same emotions, and even have the same passions. Reflective surfaces emphasize the fragmented nature of their souls, and lives, and the eventual break in their connection. The film is very much about the delicacy and interwoven nature of human relationships, how we are inexplicably drawn to other people, even those we may never even meet. Veronique is a woman of strong passions and her sudden decision to drop her career in music leaves everyone baffled. Even she is unsure of what it means, and she seeks to find the answer to the emptiness in her life. This film defies words and explanation, relying instead on strong emotions and strong images.
The Heiress (Wyler, 1949)
Catherine Sloper is a naive and fragile young woman who lives with her domineering father who won’t let her take control of her life. Her personality seems appropriately subdued and muted in face of the grand personalities that surround her. However, at a local get-together, Catherine is wooed and seduced by a handsome and caring gentlemen, Morris Townsend. Her father is suspicious of the courting because his daughter is by his own account plain and uninteresting, he believes the young man only wants her money. Despite her father’s fears, she persists, and this only drives her father to take matters into his own hands. The film is shot with claustrophobic and alienating deep focus, that seems to both tighten the space and push away the figures in the shot. Few characters are allowed to flourish and evolve like Catherine, in what is perhaps Olivia De Havilland’s best screen performance. She is by all accounts a weak person, but through a series of trials and tribulations, is forced to affirm her identity.
The House that Screamed (Narciso Ibáñez Serrador, 1969)
A Spanish horror film set at an all girl’s reform school, Theresa is a new student with a sordid past who soon realises something is amiss in the school. It’s clear from the onset that conventional methods of discipline are not being used in the school, and the students who “run away”, may actually be disappearing. The film it at it’s best when the students are interacting with each other, playing power games in a sort of mock hierarchy. There is a huge amount of sexual tension between the students, and it plays within these roles of power. The film takes a rather subdued approach to a persisting fascination with female sexuality, and female relationships in art. It seems to be especially prominent in horror films, where female desires and anatomy are often the source of the horror itself.
The Misfits (John Huston, 1961)
Though more of an ensemble piece, the film is centered on Roslyn, a voluptuous woman, who is in Reno to get a divorce. Here she meets Guido and Gay who invite her to visit their house in the country. Infatuated at first by her beauty, the two soon fall in love with her, and fight mental games to win her affections. Another character is introduced, the broken down, Perce, who doesn’t quite fall for Roslyn but appreciates her almost motherly doting on his fragile body and soul. The film does live up to it’s title, in that, these are people who for one reason or another are not comfortable in the real world. They take refuge in the country so they can be who they are, without the pressures and expectations of normal society. Their relationships reach an intense catalyst when they go to the mountains to catch some wild mustangs.
The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005)
When we first meet Pocahontas, she is little more than a teenager, and by the time she dies, she is just barely a woman. From blissful ignorance, to that first love, and the eventual abandonment of her family, to the creation of her own, she experiences a lifetime and more of love, relationships and change in just a handful of years. The film is about the clashing of worlds. More than just the discovery of North America by the Europeans, it’s about the encounter and understanding of new experiences, feelings and settings. About how suddenly, a relationship or thought or experience, can complete transform how one understands what surrounds us; our very existence. It’s an incredible journey into the emotional development of a young woman, and one of the most beautiful films ever made.
The Nun’s Story (Fred Zinnemann, 1959)
In 1930 Gabrielle Van Der Mal decides to give up everything she has to become a nun. This means forsaking not only her possessions and family, but even her name, dreams and desires. Her journey is filled with doubt and temptation, as perhaps her desires for cloistered life are motivated not for her dedication to God, but her own wants and desires to pursue a medical profession. She constantly battles with her vows, struggling to remain loyal, chaste, and impoverished, but continues to persist for many years. Her greatest struggle though, is perhaps, a battle with humility. She is too proud to let her talents and identity slip away, which is against the very nature of convent life. When she finally is sent for missionary work in Congo as a medical assistant, she is able to live her dream, but she cannot escape all the fears and doubts as she finds herself attracted to the Doctor there. The film shows a much less romanticized vision of the life of a nun, focusing on the many struggles it brings, as well as how innately unnatural this life is.
The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993)
The Piano is a film as much about passion as it is about love. Though sometimes used interchangeably, the words have different meanings and are explored thoroughly in this film. Holly Hunter plays a mute, Ada, who had the resolve as a six year old to never speak again, and lives her life through her unwavering passions. Her greatest love is her piano: not only her voice, but a reflection of her very soul. People can’t help commenting on her playing, calling it unnatural and penetrating. It disturbs them that someone’s playing could possibly have such an effect on their body and mind. She arrives in New Zealand to meet her husband to be, but she reviles him and all he represents. Her passion attracts a worker, George, who tries to win over her love through her piano. The film demonstrates a strong appreciation for Ada’s strength as a human being, and her resolve, as well as showcasing a relationship built on mutual respect and appreciation. It might have somewhat shaky beginnings, but that is soon rejected because George realises this is just not the right approach to relationships.
The Reckless Moment (Max Ophuls, 1949)
Lucia is far from the prototypical mother figure of the screen. She is cold, distant and even awkward. Her relationship with her children, though not strained, is difficult because of her nature. However, when she discovers her daughter might have murdered a man, she does her best to conceal the evidence, including the body. Things don’t work out as cleanly as she would hope though, and soon she is being blackmailed by an Irish gangster, Martin Donnelly. The film is a fusion between film noir, romance and melodrama. It makes the best of Ophul’s talents in an American setting, using chaotic relationships and chance meetings for one of the very best films of the year. The attraction between Lucia and Donnelly is undeniable, and it complicates the nature of their criminal “relationship”. The film is also very much about the relationship between mother and daughter, and Lucia’s yearning for a husband that is never home.
The Red Shoes (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1948)
A loose adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale of the same name, The Red Shoes is about the struggle between love and art, and it’s effects on Victoria Page, a young dancer. Told in broad strokes, the film maintains it’s fairy tale beginnings in the sweeping theatricality of the visuals and the broad emotions that mask the conflicting and complicated true nature of it’s characters. The urgency of Page’s need for decision is pulled against the two men in her life, one who wants her to give up her dreams for love, and the other who won’t let her love because it will compromise her art. Though logic dictates a healthy balance would be necessary, the nature of the circumstances doesn’t allow this. This is a film about life’s greatest passions, and the greatest struggles of the artist.
The Scarlet Empress (Josef von Sternberg, 1934)
Of all of Josef von Sternberg’s collaborations with Marlene Dietrich, this is perhaps the most opulent and fetishism of all his work. The extravagant nature of royalty suits his baroque sensibilities, and Dietrich, as the soon to be Catherine the Great drifts through this world as a centerpiece of it’s excesses. The film begins as the young Princess Sophia of Germany is brought to Russia to wed the mad Grand Duke Peter, son of the Empress. She has no choice in the matter, and is soon brought into a marriage without love or affection. It’s here where the inklings of greatness are born, where she is forced to take charge of life, and disregard the rules are regulations that hold her back. She uses her beauty and charm to find men and power, and soon has the army on her side. When the Empress dies and her half witted husband becomes Emperor, she uses her influence and power to stage a coup d’etat to win her power over Russia.
The Secret Garden (Agnieszka Holland, 1993)
A brilliant adaptation of the classic children’s novel, The Secret Garden is the story of the newly orphaned Mary Lennox, who is sent to England to live with her uncle. She is a strange child, lonely and forgotten, her childhood was neglectful as her parents were more concerned with their parties and superficiality to pay her any attention. Mary Lennox even remarks she doesn’t know how to cry, as she is so cold and detached from the world that she was brought into. Things don’t change much when brought to live in her Uncle’s castle. She is still alone, her uncle doesn’t want her, and there are no children to play with. Even the servants that surrounded her while she was raised in India, are gone, replaced by the cold European servants who are not capable of serving her every whim. A distraction within the castle, she is sent outside where she meets Dickon, a boy with an affinity for animals who teaches her the nature of wildlife and the gardens. The film progresses as Mary finds the mystery of the castle and is reborn as a child, through the discovery of the secret garden that belonged to her mother and aunt.
The Secret of NIMH (Don Bluth, 1982)
Mrs. Brisby, a field mouse, has a very ill son, and since they will be forced to move soon because of the harvest. She seeks help from a local mouse who seems to run a sort of apothecary, but it is no use and she is sent on a much deeper journey that takes she could have never expected. It’s one of the most adult children’s films I’ve ever seen, disregarding the fantasy of the Utopian visions of Disney for a harsh reality that perhaps is closer to that of the children watching the film’s. It even goes so far as exploring the dangers and cruelty of animal testing, something completely unexpected in a film of this type. Mrs. Brisby is an extremely strong female figure, using her intelligence and endurance to save the lives of her children, while also expanding her understanding of the world she lives in.
The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)
Clarice Starling is a young FBI trainee who is assigned an interview with the famed Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter, who turns to help her find clues as to who may be the “Buffalo Bill” serial killer. Treading a fine line between thriller and horror, the film is very much about the torture Clarice endures by her own and Lecter’s mind. Her struggles to prove herself in a world of men are continual, as she feels the need not only to meet the status quo, but exceed all and any expectations that she is faced with. She is also pulled by her femininity, as the men that surround her still see her as a sexual object, and as usual, she fights with the idea that she could potentially use that to her advantage. Lecter plays on those insecurities, and teases her about grappling in the back seats of cars with boys, and a history of her sexual life. The film gets under your skin, revealing all of our insecurities, especially perhaps that of women trying to make it in male professions and atmospheres.
The Smiling Madame Beudet (Germaine Dulac, 1923)
The Smiling Madame Beudet, is known by many to be the prototype of feminist cinema. Directed by female director, Germaine Dulac, the film explores the role of the woman within society, especially the confined role of the domestic wife. Dulac is categorized by most scholars as an impressionist director, the style emphasizes the subjectivity of cinema, focusing on the emotional and psychological interpretation of events, rather than the rational and objective ones. Told from the point of view of Madame Beudet, the film uses extensive symbolism and fantasy to express the frustration of her circumstances. Married to a brutish and crude man, Madame Beudet’s only comforts are her piano, and imagination. However, even the freedom of her music is controlled by her husband. He not only has the key to her piano, but during a short sequence, mocks her impassionate playing to a friend, using it as grounds for “male-bonding”. The abuse she suffers, is almost entirely psychological, as every aspect of her life is controlled and monitored. She is confined to the interior, which is classically the world of women. An especially common metaphor in pre-1970s art, the world of women is manifested as the world of domestication and the home.
Stage Door (Gregory La Cava, 1937)
A cast compromised almost entirely of women, Stage Door is set in a boarding house filled with aspiring actresses just waiting for their breakthrough role. When Terry Randall comes to live with them, she realises that she doesn’t fit in, because of her socialite background and the wealth of her family. The film is part comedy and part drama, and you can expect all the 1930s stereotypes in full force. However, at it’s heart, this is a film about female friendship and the pains of success… it also sheds an unhappy light on the nature of poverty, especially through Kay Hamilton, perhaps the most talented of the actors, and also the poorest. The film is very much about the struggles of the entertainment business for women, the manipulation and how the cost of success usually lies in how far they’re willing to go with lecherous producers.
The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola, 2000)
I don’t think there is anyone to blame in the Virgin Suicides. Not the girls, not their parents, not Trip or any of the other boys. Coppola never tries to put blame, she never tries to sensationalize (although there is no doubt the media does). The reason is essentially unimportant, as it’s the idea of the Lisbon girls and the imaginary world of adolescence that sustains and drives the film. Like most of Coppola’s work, the film is driven my mood and atmosphere rather than plot or character, and in the end the film feels more like a dream than a true account of a tragedy that strikes a small town, which is exactly what it should be. The boys fascination with the Lisbon girls is immortalized by their suicide. Like many cult heroes of today (namely James Dean), they are preserved forever in a youthful, idealized state. They are the image of innocence and youth, and in this they lose their sense of humanity. Reflecting over the film, the only daughter who stands out is Lux. The others symbolically, are almost nameless and shadows… while Lux is beyond human. She is the image of beauty, youth and passion; she’s every boy’s dream girl. She’s not robbed of emotion, but she is robbed of personality and true distinction. * Revision, the youngest sister is also given a significant role, not only through her first suicide but through her journals.
The Wind (Victor Sjöström, 1928)
Letty moves from to West Texas from the East to live with relatives. Charming and modern, her attitude towards interpersonal interactions and relationships is upsetting to many, as the woman see her as something of a harlot and the men are drawn in by her “sex appeal” (it’s strange to describe Letty, or even Gish, as sexy… but essentially, that’s what it comes down to). The physical atmosphere weighs heavily on her, the wind is always blowing, and the sand beating at her. Her small frame seems positively miniscule in the large barren land, and she seems even more insignificant than she is perceived to be. She is unable to remain single and relationships and marriage are constantly pushed on her, and that combined with the elemental framing eventually drive her mad. The film in it’s current state has an alternative ending from the original that is not nearly as bleak as it was intended to be, but the film still packs a punch.
The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939)
This film has worked itself so completely into 20th century lore and culture, it almost seems redundant to repeat the plot. Nonetheless, I’ll indulge the few who have managed to avoid it for all these years, Dorothy Gale lives in Kansas with her aunt, uncle and dog, Toto. She is tired of the mundane and grey life of the farm, and yearns for something greater, a life “over the rainbow”. During a twister, she is knocked out and when she wakes up her house has been pulled into the storm, and is dropped into the magical land of Oz. Contrary to her initial desires, Dorothy spends her entire time in this magical place yearning for home and family. The film channels the innocent imagination of a child, with the exaggerated, but nonetheless palpable fears of villains. Dorothy has always struck me as the prototype of childhood femininity, she is a bit of a tomboy, an adventurer and a dreamer, but is nonetheless very attached to the idea of her familial responsibility and love.
Theodora Goes Wild (Richard Boleslawski, 1936)
There is a scandal in small time America! The best-selling novel in the country is the racy and scandalous pulp, “The Sinner”, and the small town prudes want it banned! Little do they know, the town’s goody two shoes, is the author working under a pen name. When Theodora goes to town to collect her pay check, she is met by jacket illustrator who infiltrates her charade and threatens to expose the whole thing, unfortunately for him, he has some skeletons he would have rather kept in the closet too… Theodora Goes Wild is very much about the wish fulfillment novels and entertainment that dominate an industry for the greater part of the twentieth century. Women were working from home, raising families but led their own double lives through the stories they read and saw on the screen. The film extrapolates this abstract idea, making it concrete, while also pointing a finger at the hypocrisy involved in the outrage.
To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan, 1962)
Based on the classic American novel written by Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird brings to life the memories of a woman reflecting on her childhood, especially her relationship with her father. Told from a child’s eye view, Scout is the narrator and the world is experienced through her eyes. The film takes on a nostalgic, but no less affecting look at depression era Alabama at a time of great tension. Her, her brother, Jem and their friend, Dill, spend their days around their neighbourhood on imaginary adventures inspired by the lore of the area, especially centered on the mysterious shut-in Boo Radley. Concurrently, their father is defending a black man accused of rape, an action that draws the ire of the townspeople against their family. Though not as good as the novel, the film channels very much the childlike reverence for the father figure, as well as the building of experiences in the pivotal years of development that leads to newfound maturity and conclusions on the part of Scout.
Trois Couleurs: Rouge (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1994)
Valentine Dussaut is a beautiful model living in Switzerland. One day she hits a dog, and searches all over for the owner. She discovers that it belongs to a bitter, retired judge to eavesdrops on the conversations for his neighbours to feed his disdain for humanity. Much like Kieslowski’s other films, the overlying idea of Red is our interconnectedness. How every human being is tied to another, how chance brings some together, and pulls us apart… or even how people we never have met, or may never meet still affect us on some level. The budding friendship and relationship between Valentine and the judge lead to many discussions about the nature of people, and the very meaning of our lives and interactions. Valentine makes a strong central figure to the film, beautiful and appealing, but still somehow aloof, though connected to the emotional needs of those around her.
Vivre Sa Vie (Jean-Luc Godard, 1962)
One of Godard’s most affecting and harshest criticism of the Hollywood attitude towards actors, he equates the female screen presence with prostitution through the sympathetic and tragic Nana. Told in twelve “chapter”, the film chronicles the quick decent into prostitution and depravity that Nana encounters as she attempts to become an actress, as well as her eventual demise. The episodic nature of the film highlights different ideas and emotions that seem pivotal to Godard’s greater statements, and the film is one of his most personable. Perhaps the film’s pivotal sequence is when Nana is in a theatre, and she is watching La Passion de Jeanne D’Arc, and begins to weep just as a tear runs down the face of the Saint. In that moment, Godard is equating a new saintly opportunity for women, one that is not chaste, that is not perfect, but is filled with the same doubt and condemnation.
Volver (Pedro Almodovar, 2006)
The pulpy, melodramatic and colourful story about women taking care of themselves in a small Spanish town. Raimunda lives with her daughter in a small apartment, but one day comes home to find her husband murdered, by her daughter no less! In a drunken stupor, he tried to rape her, so Raimunda helps her daughter dispose of the body. Meanwhile her sister, a hairdresser who works from home, finds herself with an unexpected guest from beyond the grave. Though the film paints men in quite a negative light for the most part, the nature of the melodrama almost justifies the one-sided look at gender, and there are still some bright lights. The film is filled with vivacious and larger than life whose flaws are as big as their hair. The generational bonds of womanhood are particularly potent, as the mistakes of previous generations live on, and are relived, but the bonds of female friendship and family hold everything together.
Walkabout (Nicholas Roeg, 1971)
Abandoned by her father in the Australian outback, a teenaged girl is forced to grapple with the elements and find civilization with her younger brother in toe. Not very quick to adapt to the new environment, she is forced to regress according to social standards, in order to survive. The film maps her loss of innocence, on the level of blissful ignorance and her growing sexual feelings. On their journey they meet an aboriginal on a “walkabout”, which is a ritualistic return to nature as a means of survival, an important tradition in going from childhood into adulthood in that culture. Very much about yearning, practicality and communication, the two worlds meet on the same journey, and eventually conclude under similar circumstances. There is a physical death, and the spiritual one… both destroyed under the circumstance of hopelessness in face of a changing world.
Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, 2008)
Wendy and Lucy seems right out of the neo-realist movement, even with little press or attention, the comparisons between it and De Sica’s Umberto D have been noted on several occasions. The plot and style is similar, but it’s really the empathy for society’s down-trodden that cements the link between time. Wendy is a young woman on her way to Alaska who has just several hundred dollars, and her dog. Stopping through a small town, her car breaks down, she’s arrested and she loses her dog, Lucy. The film is understated and heartbreaking, showcasing Michelle Williams in what may be the performance of 2008. Wendy and Lucy paints a bleak portrait of American life, one that has more closed doors than open ones. Without a home or a phone, there is no way for Wendy to get a job, and as a lone friend (a security guard muses), without a job it’s impossible to find a job. Amidst a current economic crisis, it’s not difficult to imagine how many lost souls like Wendy are wandering the country looking for work. Reaching to Alaska as an opportunity because they “need people”. The film is more than just about economic hardships, but the emotional and psychological effects of being a societal outcast.
Whisper of the Heart (Yoshifumi Kondo, 1995)
Whisper of the Heart is not simply the story of young love, it is that of the very first spark of emotion felt between two people. It’s confusing, frustrating and exciting. The characters are not searching for love but stumble across it, and without the benefit of time or experience they’re more willing to open up their hearts, without fear of rejection or betrayal. A young girl, probably in middle school, lives her life through the novels she reads. She discovers that a boy has taken out all of the same books and tries to find him, meanwhile she meets an infuriating young man, who eventually turns out to be the very same “Prince of the Books”! The film reaches an emotional climax as Youko Honna asks the boy to play some violin for her, and then joins in to sing. It’s a perfect moment of youthful curiosity, and while the equation of music or art with love is hardly a new one, perhaps there has never been a moment so ecstatically innocent or perfect, capturing the joy and infectious nature of discovery and passion.
Window Water Baby Moving (Stan Brakhage, 1962)
It only seems appropriate to cap off the list with the great “beginning” child birth. The only short film on the list, Window Water Moving Baby is the short experimental film about the birth of Stan Brackhage’s first child. Though graphic in nature, the film is warm and loving, painting childbirth with an almost ethereal appreciation that one could never have expected from a film of this nature. The framing of his adoration for his wife and her beauty, makes even the physical birth very sincere and inspiring, holding a great deal of magic and almost religious reverence for womanhood. This is perhaps the most personal film ever brought to the screen, it’s the film of birth and of life itself.
Most Represented Directors
Agnes Varda (3)
Hayao Miyazaki (3)
Powell & Pressburger (3)
Alfred Hitchcock (2)
David Lynch (2)
Douglas Sirk (2)
Elia Kazan (2)
Jean-Luc Godard (2)
Jonathan Demme (2)
Krzysztof Kieslowski (2)
Luis Bunuel (2)
Max Ophuls (2)
Roman Polanski (2)
Sofia Coppola (2)
Victor Fleming (2)
William Wyler (2)
Number Female Directed Films: 11
1970s (8 )
1980s (8 )
1990s (8 )
Most Represented Years
Most Represented Countries
United States (54)
United Kingdom (7)
* originally posted as a thread on rottentomatoes forums
My second article for Playtime Magazine is up, this time on Catherine in one of my favourite films, here is an excerpt. Read the rest HERE
Some critics of Francois Truffaut’s 1962 film, Jules et Jim have argued that the film’s central character, Catherine (brought to life by the incomparable Jeanne Moreau), is an impulsive and unpredictable force of nature. You cannot anticipate what she will do, and perhaps that’s why she is so enchanting to her male friends. Though there is something to this idea, I think there are too many patterns in her behaviour to it off as completely random. To the audience, she is not enchanting because she is impulsive, but rather because she is very human. Though we do not always know her motivations, her actions still make sense.
To even try and describe or explain what happens in a Zulawski film feels futile and disingenuous. It’s a pastiche of oddities, wrapped in absurdism… the world, especially human relationships as seen through the eyes of an outsider. One can only assume the creator is an alien, understanding human emotion at it’s most grotesque and exaggerated. There seems to be no middle ground, and the subtlety lies in the blatant exhibition of humanity. There is something to be said for the “strange” actions and movements of the characters, they don’t behave as we do in the so called real world. There is a self-awareness, a blatant style of movement and awareness.
Distorted close-ups match up with distorted words, one character is losing the fundamentals of language, the other holding onto it only in trance, both quickly falling from an already shaky concept of reality. They fall in love with each other, a love that is at times tender and vulnerable, or else disturbing and overbearing. Blanche, a beautiful innocent, comes to a strange realization while making love (what seems to be for the first time) that love is very painful. Descriptive of her current physical state, it reflects an also confused and frenzied understanding of relationships.
Her own husband is a not-so subtle homosexual who, at times fights and beats her, because she is too beautiful. Her childhood memories of her own parents are violent and painful, and even early on the first couple to make it’s way onscreen are engaged in a something of a fist fight that dissolves in kisses and sweet nothings. Clearly over the top, this seems in part to be an almost child-like view of relationships, no sense of reason, only watching two people move from one state of mind to the next with no real conception of why. Though most filmmakers search or explore the “why”, perhaps Zulawski is asking “what” instead. What is love? Physical? Emotional? Both? How does one balance the two, and how far can we push the other until the pain becomes too much.
I’m not sure entirely what I think of this film, it didn’t flood me with emotion in quite the same way as Possession, but it’s certainly overpowering. Some scenes were perfect, the ones in the hotel especially.. though I think they were meant to evoke that heightened emotional glee. The film is all around engrossing, and often times troubling. There is no way to prepare someone for this film, especially if they have not seen a Zulawski… you have to open your mind and soul.
The best film I’ve seen so far in my journey of French cinema, Ménilmontant brings together the best of the experimental and narrative worlds to present a moral tale of enormous weight. The film begins with a surprisingly violent sequence, edited alongside childhood innocence. Two young sisters play in the garden, laughing and hanging from trees as their parents are brutally murdered with an axe. No one could have prepared me for the strong sense of visuals and framing, and I was immediately drawn into what is perhaps the very strongest avant-garde film of the 1920s.
The scene is given absolutely no context, there is never an explanation or reason for the murder, and some film historians speculate it’s meant to serve to symbolise the transition young girls go through during adolescence, as now, without parents the young girls are forced to go to Paris and live as adults. The film is very much about female sexuality, and what seems to be a popular theme in 1920s cinema (from the beginning with The Smiling Madame Beudet to the end of the decade with Pabst’s Louise Brooks films), the intricate social inequality and exploitation of women. Though a short film, Ménilmontant explores several complex issues and emotions relating to sexual awakening.
Though heavily melodramatic, the extremely pervasive understanding of the visual medium raises the film far beyond it’s rivals. Emotion and state of mind are explored through fast editing and a strong sense of composition. The city itself is exploited to isolate the girls, revealing their strong loneliness, which leads them both to seeking comfort in men. The oldest sister first, meets a man who she thinks she loves, and has sex with him, only to get pregnant. Her insecurity is palpable, though her lust and passion are also illustrated with a quickly edited sequence exploring the jealousy of her sister. Trains, work and her naked body are edited and pasted together to create a strong montage of sexual bliss and passion, it’s hard to believe something so blatant, could also be so beautiful and artful. Obviously schooled in Russian Montage, Dimitri Kirsanoff, actually has more grace and restraint in his use of cuts than Eisenstein from around the same period. It could easily be a matter of using the style to suit the subject matter, but I think they are at the very least in the same category.
Pregnancy leads the older sister to being abandoned, not only by her lover, but by her sister and she even loses her job. She drifts the streets, hungry and lonely and is offered very little sympathy. There is one sequence where she is city on a bench, and an older man offers her some bread. It’s very simple, but beautifully cut and emotionally, extremely effective. One could not imagine that a scene that could not be longer than three sentences on a page could be drawn out so effectively.
After giving birth, there is a final extended sequence of subjective nightmares where the young mother internally contemplates her options, and they all seem rooted in the dark waters of la Seine. As with the rest of the film, especially through cutting and editing, a strong set of emotional and intellectual responses are evoked. The hopelessness of her situation is magnified by her identity as a young woman, and having been just a child herself just months ago. Her final decision reveals another shocking revelation, but puts trust and faith in womanhood. Revealing that in a world set against women, the only palpable recourse is to support not compete against each other.
The film Mauprat directed by Jean Epstein features Luis Bunuel as assistant director, it will be his first film credit. Though born in Spain, Bunuel would begin and end his career in France, creating some of his best work in French and financed by French supporters.
An experimental documentary about Paris is released called Rien que les heures. Continued innovation and experimention in France continues. The continued innovation of the medium is about to peak as sound is on the brink of becoming the mainstream. Avant-garde and experimental cinema is at it’s height, and one can only assume that such a heavy influx of films that push the boundaries and understanding of the medium will never be matched again.
Ménilmontant (Dimitri Kirsanoff)
Carmen (Jacques Feyder)
Feu Mathias Pascal (Marcel L’Herbier)
Whirlpool of fate is a silly film. I wouldn’t call it bad, nor would I call it good… just silly. The plot is not particularly interesting, and overall the visual style and quality of the filmmaking is not strong enough to raise above it’s meagre script. Easily Renoir’s weakest film that I’ve seen, I’m starting to believe the claims that Renoir doesn’t hit a stride until his work with sound are correct.
The film stars Catherine Hessling, Renoir’s wife at the time, as a young woman who loses her brother and is at the mercy of her brutish uncle. The film is presented in a serialized format, and in each sequence we witness her happiness dissolve through a series of unhappy twists of fate. It’s pure melodrama, and while I’m usually quite partial to the style, it leaves little to the imagination in this case, and never reaches beyond the very literal.
Even a rather stylistically beautiful dream/nightmare sequence, is taken to literal “extremes”. The haunting nightmares of Virginia’s waking life, wreck havoc in a translucent daze until she is quite literally saved by a knight on a white horse. It’s certainly the most evocative sequence of the film, though I wish it moved beyond the obvious. The real highlight however, is a rather short sequence where she travels a barren landscape in slow motion. It’s a moment of figurative bliss in an otherwise shallow film, and it’s easily the standout.
There isn’t much else to say about this film, as there really isn’t much to it. For a solo debut (Renoir had done a collaborative film beforehand), it’s quite strong, but still doesn’t compare to his French contemporaries who were also making their first plunge into the cinematic medium. It does, however, show a natural talent for depicting nature and the outdoors. The scenery and lighting is always quite beautiful, and there is a very strong sense of it’s involvement in the story. Several sequences reminded me of Partie de Campagne and the Lower Depths in particular.
French physicist and astronomer, Henri Chretien, invents the anamorphic objective lens, which contracts images vertically perimitting wide-screen movies. It is ignored until the 1950s, when his invention is patented as Cinemascope.
Georges-Michel Coissac publishes L’histoire du cinematographe/History of Cinema, the first history of filmmaking.
Whirlpool of Fate (Jean Renoir)
Le Voyage Imaginaire (Rene Clair)
Poil de carotte (Julien Duvivier)
An absurdist, experimental short. Rene Clair proves himself very early in his career as having a unique talent for both music and cityscapes. Though a silent film (accompanied by a score), the sense of movement created through action as ell as editing parallels that of well orchestrated music.
Entr’acte, means “between acts” or “intermission” in French. The focus supposedly on the ballet from Russia, Clair prefers to focus to focus on the ballet of the city. In one sequence, using slow motion (or asking from his actors to move at a slow pace, I’m frankly unsure), he captures the mood and movement of Paris through it’s people and actions. He would later reprise this idea in Paris qui dort, but robbing the city of it’s “wakefulness”, creating effectively a ghost town. The beauty of Paris lies therefore as much in it’s people as it does in it’s monuments, a synthesis of mind and body.
The ballet in principle, is the drama and artistry of movement. The action and drama of this film is inspired and driven by the running and chasing. It’s not acrobatic per say, but Clair manages to unnerve a grace in the everyday. A trust that the ballet of life is as interesting as the ballet of the stage. Is this an early reflection on cinema? The ability to exaggerate and project the movements of life to create a marriage of action and emotion without the gross need for grandiose movements or performance. The camera itself working as the choreography, the editing the dancers, and the players…. are the players?
The film is absurd in the most delightful way, obviously rooted in Dadaism, the basic “plot” involves an out of control coffin that has the town in pursuit. Brief cuts of the ballet are interjected, and then subverted them. Unlike something like Un Chien Andalou (which is more surreal than dada, and yes there is a difference), this film is pure whimsy. It’s not rooted in horrific or even subversive fantasy, but a whimsical comedy. This film is, for lack of a better word, delightful. It’s fun, it’s light and it’ll put a smile on your face.