After coming away from Céline Sciamma’s magnificent Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) it got me to thinking about women’s films in general. As a movement, or even a genre in their own right, films made specifically to appeal to women, to tell their stories, have moved in and out of fashion, sometimes maintaining prominence, at others drifting away completely. The Woman’s Film reached its most prolific height during WWII, when Hollywood — realising that most of the core audience was now heavily weighted in favour of a female demographic with many of the young men (potential ticket buyers) away at war — responded with a slew of Gothic melodramas and romances; Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and William Wyler’s Wuthering Heights (1939) were perhaps the first to set the trend and represent two of the most successful examples; both established a (lucrative) place for literary Gothic romance in the cinematic canon. In tangent there were also sweeping lavish costume dramas such as Gone with the Wind (1939) cleaning up at the box office to recoup their exorbitant budgets in the process. Yet, since then the popularity of the Woman’s Film has ebbed and flowed, unlike films targeted at men: westerns, action films, war dramas, buddy movies, crime thrillers, which have always maintained a constant stream at the box office.
What interests me is how much the Woman’s Film has been reinvented over the decades. In the 50s and 60s we saw the emergence, or re-emergence of the Woman’s Film, most notably those produced by Ross Hunter at Universal International, who made a conscious attempt to not only capture the imaginations of women and lure them into theatres — whom he felt were being neglected as an audience demographic but who held an appealing and potentially profitable weight by numbers alone — but also to bring back some classic Hollywood flair. This was the age of Hunter’s bold technicolor melodramas such as the work of Douglas Sirk, or Doris Day comedies and dramas made with the same sense of visual flair and high fashion goals as Golden Age Paramount fare. While in the comedy a new type of distinctly modern femininity was emerging via stars such as Shirley McClaine.
Popularity for the Woman’s Film waned in the 70s as cinema turned to telling much more nihilistic action focused, and increasingly violent stories, only to appear again in the 80s, in a much more intimate form with a focus on the trials and tribulations of the everyday woman — through films such as Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982); or 9 to 5 (1980); Terms of Endearment (1983), Steel Magnolias (1989); all of which put an emphasis on the theme of ‘things women have to put up with’, in work, motherhood, marriage, and relationships. Many came with a distinct focus on the message there is strength in numbers, heralding the power of intimacy in same sex friendships and strong familial ties. By the 90s, largely thanks to films like Thelma and Louise (1991) or Muriel’s Wedding (1994), we were getting the riff on the (traditionally male) buddy movie, only this time it was women teaming up, and they were sick of your shit.
Once again came the lull as quiet Woman’s Films drifted out of favour. And that’s not to say there haven’t been films directly marketed at women, however, many of these have vied for bums on seats by replacing masculine heroes with ball breaking Amazons — a trend which really took off in exploitation film in the 60s and 70s, for example Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill! (1965) or Coffy (1973) and literally every other film made in this genre; reaching the mainstream via blockbuster franchises like Alien (1979), Star Wars (1977), or Terminator (1984).
In recent years this has been a growing trend in the superhero/comic book field, replacing Superman with Wonder Woman, rearranging the Ghostbusters as female, and all manner of other ‘look we have women here’ cash-ins. While I recognise the importance of physically strong female characters on screen — I grew up in the era of Sigourney Weaver, Margot Kidder, and Carrie Fisher after all — and this is especially important for younger women, I find the modern incarnations of these fierce action-orientated characters to all too often represent little more than cardboard cut-outs with nature defying abdominals (but then the men aren’t really faring much better either). Mainstream cinema currently fixates on the spectacle, strong fetishised super human bodies, both male and female, smash about and blow things up as they wrangle violently on screen amongst computer generated effects. I find seeing women front and centre of the action incredibly cathartic at times, but it doesn’t reflect reality. All it does is place women in violent competitive men’s worlds, where their stories tend to get drowned out in the screaming thud of ear piercing sound effects — this was never the case for the 70s and 80s female action heroes who often had far richer back stories or motivation. What’s more these films seem entirely sexless, which can never be a good thing for reasons I will explain shortly.
So I ask, where are the women’s stories in all of this? Their own authentic stories, beyond the narratives about fighting to survive, the ones that let us in on the quiet intimate details surrounding actual women’s lives? Well, it appears they are thriving in the independents… and seriously, thank fuck for that.
One film that really pierced my I am so bored with modern cinema veil — when it comes to English speaking cinema at least — and really spoke to me was Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy (2014). Seriously, the film is flat out one of the most gorgeously sensual and erotic films I have ever seen, but most importantly it takes place in a world where men don’t appear to exist, and are certainly never spoken about. In doing so it allows us to focus completely on aspects of female desire. It goes further than that though, in an incredibly intuitive way because it also explores desire and ageing, as well as the politics and power in relationships. And in exorcising a male narrative completely we are able to see the acute details of women’s lives, especially their innermost erotic lives, in total clarity. So often we see women’s desire played out for men — and this isn’t a criticism; just a comment on the way things are — either as the submissive lover, or the dangerous femme fatale. In removing a man’s needs altogether we are able to see that women can be just as powerful when it comes to love and war, because all sex and desire is political after all.
The Duke of Burgundy reminds me in a way of Joseph Losey’s The Servant (1963), which positioned two male characters under the microscope, locking them into a perverse power play mostly in the singular setting of an unassuming middle class town house. Although this film doesn’t have overt sexual overtones as far as the central dynamic is concerned between man and man — Losey didn’t really do sex, unless it was to explore themes of power, this is more about struggle and class divisions — the couple — thanks to Harold Pinter’s incredibly rich scripting — eventually end up occupying a bizarre almost marriage like relationship, as the film examines the pushing and pulling, humilation, and fight for dominance that can often occur in dysfunctional romantic relationships. The Duke of Burgundy explores more than a little of that, explicitly, by having the main couple locked in a sadomasochistic relationship — and in fact I was delighted to hear that weirdly one of the main inspirations for the film was Terry and June, a popular classic British sitcom. Likewise, The Duke of Burgundy also has echoes of Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972), another manless landscape (although they are mentioned) where women become embroiled in a sadomasochistic powerplay stained with narcissism and frail insecure ego. And in addition, which is possibly my favourite thing about the film, it also follows on from the post Belle De Jour (1967) narratives which use S&M as a journey to self-awareness or sometimes personal evolution and freedom; films such as the aforementioned Petra, Check to the Queen (aka The Slave, 1969), The Libertine (1968), Femina Ridens (1969), The Story of O (1975), or The Maids (1975).
Combining the Sadeian with the feminine is always a potent and powerful blend though. To quote my eternal spirit guide author and screenwriter Angela Carter from her groundbreaking book The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography (1978), for not the first and most likely not the last time, ‘Women do not normally fuck in the active sense. They are fucked in the passive tense and hence automatically fucked up, done over, undone. Whatever else he says or does not say, Sade declares himself unequivocally for the right of women to fuck—as if the period in which women fuck aggressively, tyrannous and cruelly will be a necessary stage in the development of a general human consciousness of the nature of fucking; that if it is not egalitarian, it is unjust. Sade does not suggest this process as such; but he urges women to fuck actively as they are able, so that powered by their enormous and hitherto untapped sexual energy they will then be able to fuck their way into history, and, in doing so, change it.’
On this note another film that recently really spoke to me was Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favorite (2018). Although the film was highly acclaimed, and Olivia Colman rightfully won an Oscar for her role, I found a number of men in my immediate circle were uncomfortable with it because in their words, or variations of this same theme, “the women weren’t likeable”. To me this speaks volumes about the film’s power— seriously, why do women have to be likeable? We can admire plenty of unlikeable men in cinema, in fact entire genres thrive on it (take the noir or crime thriller for example). Plus, there is something incredibly potent about seeing a woman who can so freely speak the word cunt on screen. The fact this bothered a certain type of man delighted me even more — one day I will write an entire Cineslut column on why I think women reclaiming the word cunt is one of the most powerful actions we can ever take; but alas I will have to leave that story for another day because there’s an entire thesis in this one thought. Like The Duke of Burgundy, The Favourite examines power relationships between women — a threesome this time — in a sadomasochistic field. And even though men are present this time, the focus really is about the women themselves.
Placing sex front and centre in these narratives is a powerful act. If the postmodern Woman’s Film has an underlying theme then it is the release of libidinal force on a woman’s terms alone. Women owning their own sexuality for themselves completely is still something that many male audience members struggle with; it’s dangerous that’s why. Repressing and suppressing female sexuality through double standards, slut shaming, relationship rules of deportment, dress codes, and all manner of other coercive tactics is the one thing that has stood in the way of true equality for centuries. And this was something that really struck me about Guilermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water (2017). The fact so many men, and there was an entire screaming thread I saw on this on a popular genre magazine’s page, were upset that one of the first scenes featured a woman masturbating in the bath. For them it was a step too far, largely, I suspect because the act was done for the character’s pleasure and not theirs. Yet, by placing such an emphasis on sex we are than able to really dig into the nitty gritty, and often ugly details, surrounding women’s lives; take the family and work relationships, in addition to the themes of rape trauma seen recently in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle (2016) for example; or how lack of sex and intimacy can affect a woman’s self esteem and become a way of oppression, in Catherine Breillat’s Romance (1999)
Much like the peak Woman’s Films of the 40s and 50s, we have seen a return to Gothic and period settings in many of these more recent films, which is something The Favourite does really well. Unlike the aforementioned films the Bluebeard angle (women trapped in a dangerous marriage, not least if she becomes too curious) is either eliminated entirely or turned around on its head. If literature has a parallel movement it would probably that led by the work of Sarah Waters — whose rich novels, often steeped in lush authentic period details, quite often, although not exclusively, explore sex within queer narratives, such as Tipping the Velvet, or The Paying Guests. Water’s novel Fingersmith, set on a traditional Gothic Victorian stage, not only looked into the themes of female desire and lesbian relationships, but also cast a wider net to examine marriage and class, then gave birth to another powerful example of a perfect Woman’s Film, when it was re-interpreted by Park Chan-wook in a gorgeously sly and sensuous form, as The Handmaiden (2016) — a film, despite being internationally acclaimed, was heraled as completely overlooked if we are to believe a recent article published by Vice; Spoiler: it was so not fucking overlooked.
Another stand out period set piece, to me at least, because the film doesn’t seem to have had a particularly wide distribution and certainly didn’t have much in the way of a theatrical release, was William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth (2016) — a loose adaptation of the novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov. Or maybe it’s not had a massive amount of press because the film features another unlikable woman (joke) because sadly I don’t seem to hear much about it. The film flips Bluebeard on its head to turn victim into aggressor, and in the process looks into Draconian marriage laws, the theme of woman as property, with more than a little emphasis on awakening female sexual desire in a class based oppressive sphere. Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire pulls apart some of the same themes with very different results, taking the idea of arranged marriage into a painfully romantic, and wonderfully queer, direction when compared to Oldroyd’s film. Portrait also allows the themes of female intimacy and friendship to pulsate away in the background, while also finding time to comment on abortion practice and the question of choice surrounding women’s bodies. Abortion and lesbanism also featured heavily in Annabel Jankel’s Tell It to the Bees (2018) — based on a book of the same name by Fiona Shaw — which was another film I found accutely and painfully romantic (once I got beyond Anna Paquin’s ‘Scottish’ accent that is). In that case, in having two women develop an illicit lesbian relationship in a closed and judgemental Post-war community, Jankel’s film, following the book, was able to explore things such as double standards when it comes to female desire, as well as marital abuse, and the idea that women, because of societal standards, rarely get what they want.
On the lighter end of the scale — in resonance at least; certainly not in theme — other films which have captured my gaze recently include Claire McCarthy’s Ophelia (2018), which takes Shakespeare’s eternal doomed lover and reimagines her as a fighter and survivor. While Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006) proved to be a candy coloured costume-porn lurid fantasy fest of the highest order, but still found space to again comment on traditional marriage values as well as exploring burgeoning sexual desire in a young woman, recently married. On a side note I remain eternally impressed with the way Coppola approached the themes of sex and desire in respect to teenage girls in The Virgin Suicides (1999) — which I wrote about here — although I wasn’t half as impressed with her recent remake of The Beguiled (2017), which I found couldn’t hold a candle to Don Siegel’s 1971 original; but seriously, what can? Both Ophelia and Marie Antoinette possess an incredibly painterly approach to style and are exceptionally lavish and colourful; McCarthy took inspiration from Romantic art for some of her compositions, for example. And fuck, I am a sucker for bold lavish detail and colours.
I could go on and on with this subject. The fascinating Woman’s Films we have seen emerge in the last couple of decades are certainly not exclusive to those mentioned here. These are just a few of my favourites. Summing up though I wanted to say I was inspired to write this piece purely off the back of coming away from Portrait of a Woman On Fire, which is always a wonderful thing when a film speaks to you with that much resonance you immediately want to sit down and hammer out 2000 plus words. And I guess that’s why we need Woman’s Films, stories that move away from the smash bang glamour of re-interpreted female action heroes, films that speak to our innermost desires, our authentic lives, our trials, our suffering, our needs. Long may it continue.