Jane Campion said in an interview that film school was equal in the gender divide, but that it was when entering the marketplace that female directors were suddenly harder to find, and those who were making films struggled to do so. Women whose films are hits at film festivals are often treated as one-off anomalies: a case like Claudia Weill is usually cited as an example. Her 1978 independent film Girlfriends earned critical acclaim (including from so harsh a critic as Stanley Kauffmann) and won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, and yet distribution and subsequent projects were hard to come by (after her 1980 film It’s My Turn, she turned to television and never looked back, a common trajectory for women directors like Susan Seidelman and, for the most part, Agnieszka Holland).
There’s an imbalance that could stand to be evened out, particularly in Hollywood cinema. Most of the female directors you know and admire are in or from other countries, where there is less money for making films and the usual patriarchal effect of capitalism is possibly not as strong. Criterion has dedicated a section to women filmmakers with a rich array of artists and their works, and here’s a list of what we at That Shelf have managed to see, listed in my order of preference.
Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud, 2007)
Satrapi’s masterpiece, co-directed with Vincent Paronnaud and adapted from her two graphic novels, focuses on her experience growing up during the Islamic revolution. The personal is political and, in this case, is a masterpiece of humour and tenderness in a gorgeous and powerful film (and makes me miss my grandmother).
White Material (Claire Denis, 2009)
Denis’ best film post-Beau Travail stars Isabelle Huppert as a coffee farmer on a plantation in Africa who is trying to keep things together after an uprising of natives against the colonial overseers. Spare dialogue and searing visuals lead to a devastating conclusion in a truly great film.
The Ascent (Larisa Shepitko, 1977)
Two Russian World War II soldiers separate from their comrades and go looking for supplies when they spot a farm in the snow-covered wilderness, but are then unable to return when they are spotted by Germans and one of the two is wounded by gunfire. Larisa Shepitko’s stunning masterpiece is a brutal, unflinching look at the harsh realities of war and the tragic consequences of self-preservation in a time of fear, but it isn’t all misery and heartbreak. There is lyricism in the sadness here, and pure poetry in the relationship between the two men at the heart of the story before cruelty drives a wedge between a human being and their soul. Sadly, this was the great filmmaker’s final film before her tragic death in a car accident two years after it was released.
Red Road (Andrea Arnold, 2006)
Bil Antoniou – Kate Dickie stars in Arnold’s masterpiece as a CCTV operator who sees the face of the man responsible for having destroyed her family years earlier in her monitor. He has been released from prison early for good behaviour, sending Jackie into an emotional downward spiral that has her facing demons she’d left dormant for many years. The film is exceptional from its opening frame, and the plunge into the underworld it portrays is unforgettable.
Pat Mullen – Tough and gritty, Arnold’s debut feature plays like a punch to the face. Red Road is an unsentimental portrait of Glasgow’s working class and features a phenomenal performance by Kate Dickie. She stars as Jackie, a CCTV operator who witnesses a familiar face one night on her surveillance cameras. The triggering visual sends Jackie on a dark confrontation with her past. Arnold fearlessly puts her character in uncomfortable situations and the bravery of Dickie’s performance alone merits a viewing. Both a provocative essay on gender-based violence and a fable about the power of Big Brother, debut features rarely introduce a talent so boldly.
Women of the Resistance (Liliana Cavani, 1965)
Cavani made this hour long documentary for Italian television in the mid-sixties and it’s incredibly powerful. Avoiding more than a few lines of narration, it consists mainly of interviews with women who survived awe-inspiring levels of torture during the Second World War, doing so because of how strongly they felt about beating fascism out of their country. A range of fascinating personalities pay tribute to those they lost, and some of the testimonies are deeply moving. This is a must-see.
La Cienaga (Lucrecia Martel, 2001)
Martel’s international breakthrough is still one of her most vibrant and exciting films, focusing on an extended family over a sweaty, sticky summer in the country. The two women at its centre, a snobby, miserable mother who blames her problems on her indigenous maid, and her chatty cousin who is too polite to tell her anything to her face, make for fascinating subjects. Many Argentinean films spent the 2000s on the subject of the country’s facing its colonial past, in fact most of them were about rich families being mean to their Indigenous maids while at their summer homes, but Martel’s talent for creating intoxicating images and her potent use of sound make for what is probably the best of the bunch.
Gas Food Lodging (Allison Anders, 1992)
Excellent small-town drama about two young women (Ione Skye, Fairuza Balk) being raised by their single mother (Brooke Adams) in the midwest. Features superb acting and Anders’ exceptionally good ability to capture the heartbreaking vulnerability of the young women’s ages without falling into clichés.
Orlando (Sally Potter, 1992)
BA – Potter had her international breakthrough with this deliciously good film adapted from the novel by Virginia Woolf. Tilda Swinton set her own career motion as the 16th century nobleman who lives four centuries and switches genders halfway through, giving us a range of experiences that discuss matters of gender and social order accompanied with some stunning, Oscar-nominated production and costume designs.
PM – Did all our Tilda Swinton love affairs begin with Orlando? Sally Potter’s ingenious adaptation of the Virginia Woolf novel features Swinton at her beguiling best. The androgyny of her performance is simply delicious as Swinton’s nobleman is doomed to eternal youth, which allows him to sow his wild oats with reckless, chauvinistic abandon. Fate changes when Orlando awakens one morning to discover that his manly bits have become somewhat vaginal. Now a woman (still played by Swinton), Orlando sees how drastically their fortune changes simply by virtue of their sex. While it remains one of Swinton’s best and most playful performances, the film itself is a fun and idiosyncratic odyssey with hilariously oversized costumes commenting on the subjection of women throughout history.
The Wonders (Alice Rohrwacher, 2014)
A young woman whose family are rural honey producers has her head turned by the arrival of a television celebrity (Monica Bellucci) who is hosting an exploitative contest of “Traditional Families”. Rohrwacher’s Cannes winner blends harsh reality and fringes of fantasy much like Fellini’s La Strada (from which she takes her main character’s name of Gelsomina). Bewitching and beautiful without ever being crass or judgmental.
Daughters of the Dust (Julie Dash, 1991)
BA – Julie Dash’s gorgeous period piece is set in the early 1900s in the sea islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina, where freed slaves and their descendants have held on to West African traditions in a unique environment that almost feels like its own world. At the time the film takes place, residents are preparing to move to the mainland and, in theory, join the modern world, but not all the personalities involved think of it as progress, for some it means a loss of identity and history. Recently restored so that its images look even more vibrant and dazzling than they did in 1991, this film’s non-linear narrative structure won’t work for all but it’s a potent and expressive work that should be seen.
Courtney Small – Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust is the definition of visual poetry. A dream-like exploration of how the ghost of our past are always there to provide us with strength needed to push forward. While the trauma of slavery still reverberates within the fabric of the film, Dash’s film finds strength and hope in the bonds of family.
Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009)
BA – Katie Jarvis plays a teenager coming of age under pretty harsh conditions, her mom having had her before she was ready. Her only ray of hope of getting out of her dreary Essex apartment complex is her love of dancing, while her mother’s young hot boyfriend (Michael Fassbender) brings nothing but trouble. Arnold’s immense talent for capturing her characters’ grimy existence without ever pulling for sympathy serves her extremely well. Her ability to maintain an intense gaze without ever losing the viewer’s attention a constant wonder to behold.
CS – A coming-of-age tale that packs one heck of an emotional punch, Fish Tank is an exceptional film. One cannot help but cheer for Mia as she pursues her dream of being a hip-hop dancer, and cringe as she routinely makes bad decisions. Anchored by sensational performances by Katie Jarvis in the lead role of Mia and Michael Fassbender as the lecherous Conor, the film is equally riveting and unnerving.
PM – Fish Tank is a bracing jolt of life. The film stars newcomer Katie Jarvis as Mia, a 15-year-old girl living in an Essex high-rise with her promiscuous mother (Kierston Wareing) and her pervy boyfriend Conor (Michael Fassbender). Conor nurtures Mia’s rebellious spirit by encouraging her passion for dance. Their relationship develops like a car with faulty brakes speeding towards a wall. Fassbender’s brooding, smoldering performance is one of his better turns while Arnold’s bracing and energetic portrait of youthful abandon is refreshingly hard-boiled. It’s no wonder Fish Tank and Arnold’s aesthetic have a visible influence on a new generation of filmmakers.
Water Lilies (Celine Sciamma, 2007)
Coming of age tales are a dime a dozen, but as with all familiar styles of storytelling it’s all about the execution, and Celine Sciamma’s debut film has it down pat. It’s an affecting tale of a young teenager whose coming of age into her sexuality involves her fascination with a slightly older synchronized swimmer (Adèle Haenel) who is herself fascinated with her own power over others. Sexy without being exploitative, Sciamma shows her strength for both telling stories and wielding images that would continue throughout her career.
Losing Ground (Kathleen Collins, 1982)
Collins’ masterful second (and, sadly, last) film is a sharp and affectionate look at a philosophy professor whose devotion to the academic exploration of “aesthetic experience” is at odds with the sensual manner in which her philandering painter husband explores that very subject. Its low budget sound recording is offset by excellent camera work and a superb script.
Corpo Celeste (Alice Rohrwacher, 2011)
Another coming of age tale done well, Alice Rohrwacher’s wonderful film is about a young girl who has moved back to her mother’s native Italy after growing up in Switzerland. Immediately enrolled in confirmation classes as a way to balance out the church’s assistance to her single mother, Marta is as fascinated with the religious fervour she is surrounded by as she is sensitive to the hollowness of people who are obsessed with ritual and presentation but give little thought to the meaning behind what they believe. The sensitivity with which Rohrwacher explores Marta’s worldview never veers into sentimentality and feels immensely satisfying.
Tomboy (Celine Sciamma, 2011)
A young family moves to a new apartment building and little Laure takes advantage of her anonymity, telling her new playmates her name is Mikael and that she’s a boy. Joining in backyard soccer games and romancing a girl named Lisa, Laure/Mikael has to face consequences when her mother finds out that she’s been deceiving others, but her own comfort with this boldly inhabited identity suggests that she’s just beginning to gain awareness of herself. Contrasting the very sympathetic child’s inner turmoil with her warm family setting, Sciamma makes a film whose intimacy is profoundly moving, capturing growing pains without passing judgment on any of the figures involved.
The Forest For The Trees (Maren Ade, 2003)
Don’t be turned off by the awful-looking photography of this movie, shot in early digital cam that looks like old home movies. An early work by Toni Erdmann’s Maren Ade, it establishes her immense skill as a master of unease, about a cheerful, chipper teacher named Melanie who arrives at her first job ready to conquer the world. What she encounters are students she can’t control, fellow teachers she can’t connect with, and a friendship with a neighbour that she can never get right. Ade’s incisive tale gives the character as much sympathy for her inability to read a room as she does criticism for her own inability to be honest with herself. The ending feels like a bit of a copout, but it also avoids easy answers.
The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer, 2015)
Anna Rose Holmer’s short but very sharp feature stars an excellent Royalty Hightower as Toni, a young woman who works out with her brother at his gym where he trains as a boxer. When she spots a local dance team practising, she becomes fascinated by their combining athleticism with a sheen of glamour, then joins the troupe and makes friends just as her fellow dancers are being afflicted by a mysterious, possibly contagious illness. Rich in mystery and brimming with an affection for its protagonist.
Girlhood (Celine Sciamma, 2014)
CS – Girlhood may not be a masterpiece like Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, but it still a mesmerizing work. A simple tale of a teen’s attempt to find identity and family by hanging with the wrong crowd turns into something richer in Sciamma’s hands. Bleak in tone and rich in visual texture, Girlhood highlights the harsh realities of being a young woman in an environment dominated by the male gaze.
Europa Europa (Agnieszka Holland, 1991)
BA – Holland achieved her biggest international success with this film, receiving an Oscar nomination for adapting Solomon Perel’s memoir of passing himself off as a Gentile during the war and surviving to tell the tale. A strong and sober drama, it led to her Hollywood career (The Secret Garden, The Third Miracle) before she would turn to television (House of Cards, The Wire, and many more).
Rachel West – Based on the true story of Solomon Perel, a young German Jew who survived the Holocaust by falling in with the Nazis and Russians, Agnieszka Holland’s Europa Europa is both a survival story and a coming-of-age tale. Holland tells a unique WWII story whose sometimes comic adventures and sheer luck would be a thing of fantasy were it not based on the truth. There’s plenty of irony in Perel’s story, like falling for the anti-Semitic Leni (Julie Delpy, but dubbed over in German) who wants to have his child in order to further the master Aryan race. Holland has said she wanted to show Perel as “a toy in the hands of history” and while some of the more playful moments in the film mean it lacks some emotional gravity in places, its strong points are definitely its ensemble cast and unique POV. It can also be interesting to dig into the film’s reception in Germany and abroad where it led to heated arguments on those who viewed Perel as moral, opportunistic and cynical. Germany didn’t submit it to the Academy Awards, but it did land a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay (losing to Silence of The Lambs) and win at the Golden Globes for Best Foreign Language Film.
The Skin (Liliana Cavani, 1981)
Cavani’s fascinating exploration of Naples near the end of the Second World War is a disturbing experience, one that doesn’t shy from the worst of the degradations suffered by Italians under American occupation. Burt Lancaster plays the smiling general who only cares about showing American might as he prepares his battalion’s triumphant march into Rome. Marcello Mastroianni plays the liaison who tries to make a connection between the brash Americans and his own volatile people. Not a flawless film but an unforgettable one.
The Night Porter (Liliana Cavani, 1974)
Many think of this exploitative romance as tacky and in bad taste, but I enjoy the dangerous combination of themes of sadomasochism with as serious a subject as the Holocaust. A camp survivor (Charlotte Rampling) reunites with the Nazi officer (Dirk Bogarde) who tortured her more than a decade later, and they resurrect their former relationship as a way for her to express her survivor guilt. Sounds horrendously offensive in description, but the actual playing out of it is curiously romantic and affectionate. Rampling is defiantly sexy, and director Liliana Caviani enjoys finding the human experience within the perversity of the story she is telling.
The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy (Kathleen Collins, 1980)
Collins’ first film is a 50-minute featurette dripping with charm and made vibrant by its gorgeous, colourful imagery. The unusual plot has three brothers leave the city for a small town after their father is arrested for a robbery (and haunts them in voice over). An older woman (Sylvia Field) hires them to renovate her house so that she can throw one more big party in it, and the film observes the three men’s various reactions to her poetic personality.
Songs My Brother Taught Me (Chloé Zhao, 2015)
BA – Chloé Zhao gets natural performances from a cast of mostly non-professional actors in her feature debut, set on a reservation in the American west whose fascinating, beautiful panorama backdrops the beautiful setting for the challenge being faced by main character. Johnny lives with his mother (actress Irene Bedard) and little sister Jashaun while his older brother is in jail; he plans to leave for Los Angeles with his girlfriend, convinced that the reservation’s lack of hopeful future is nothing worth staying for, held back only by his concern for Jashaun, who is devoted to him. Zhao creates dramatic situations that feel so natural that you believe you’re watching a documentary, depicting the vulnerabilities of reservation life without exploiting her characters for provocative symbolism.
PM – I’m on a bit of a Chloé Zhao kick in Quarantineland in anticipation of Nomadland, her adaptation of Jessica Bedard’s non-fiction study of America “workampers”. It’ll be interesting to see how Zhao works with a pro like Frances McDormand after two films with mostly non-professional actors. Songs My Brother Taught Me is mostly fascinating as Zhao’s first feature-length hybrid that juggles narrative and documentary as people interpret the drama of their lives. It’s an approach that admittedly works far better in her second feature The Rider, but is nevertheless worth a look.
The Juniper Tree (Nietzchka Keene, 1990)
This is exactly the movie you expect to see when you find out that Björk is in adaptation of the Grimm Brothers. One woman tries to work out survival and love while the Icelandic pop singer wanders the landscape having visions that she won’t explain to anyone. Bjork and Bryndis Petra Bragadóttir play sisters who must leave their village after their mother is executed for witchcraft. They meet a farmer that Bragadottir puts a spell on so that he’ll fall in love with her and keep them safe, but she can’t work her magic on his resentful son. It’s a dark and moody tale that gets plenty of visual pleasure out of the island nation’s haunting setting, at times a bit too obscure but worth the effort.
Wings (Larisa Shepitko, 1966)
A middle-aged headmistress of a Soviet school questions her methods after expelling a student who refuses to apologize to a classmate he shoved. As time passes, we delve deeper into her memories and find her haunted by her past as a heroic fighter pilot during the war. This early film by Larisa Shepitko has some creaky spots and awkward pacing, but its glimpse behind the iron curtain is thorough and unforgettable, with Mayya Bulgakova giving the film much of its power.
Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold, 2011)
BA – Arnold brings a radical slant to her adaptation of Emily Brontë’s dark novel, emphasizing grimy visuals and spare use of the book’s dialogue. What’s actually aggravating about this film is not its departures from previous adaptations but how dispassionate and unsympathetic it is. Brontë’s novel has rarely been made into a particularly good film because it’s always converted into a drippy romance (and the second half of the story is usually left out), but Arnold still leaves Heathcliff and Cathy’s relationship as its centre and casts actors with zero chemistry for a very long two hours.
PM – Andrea Arnold gave period film convention the middle finger with her windswept take on Wuthering Heights. This unconventional adaptation of Emily Brontë’s novel is immediately notable as the first film to cast a black actor (James Howson) as Heathcliff, the story’s romantic lead. The casting accentuates the class politics that underlie the novel, but Howson’s brooding performance also meshes with the grey and drizzly countryside that wallpapers Arnold’s film. While Wuthering Heights often serves as an actor’s showpiece with stars like Laurence Olivier, Ralph Fiennes, Timothy Dalton, and Juliette Binoche appearing in previous adaptations, the real star of Arnold’s film is cinematographer Robbie Ryan, whose intoxicatingly jittery cinematography envisions Brontë stripped and raw. The academy ratio of the frame defiantly rejects the billowing widescreen shots the landscapes demand and makes for a disorienting, claustrophobic experience.
Too Late to Die Young (Dominga Sotomayor Castillo, 2018)
Dominga Sotomayor Castillo’s coming of age tale is about Sofia, a young woman living on a commune with a group of artists who are looking to create a different world in the newly democratic, post-Pinochet Chile. She’s treading the familiar path of teenage rebellion, smoking against her father’s wishes, attracted to a man who is too old for her, and determined to go live with her mother in the city. Sotomayor’s direction is free of manipulation, it all feels natural and her characters seem real, but nothing in this movie is particularly interesting and its main character has no conflict worth savouring, making it a chore to sit through.
Border Radio (Allison Anders, Dean Lent, Kurt Voss, 1987)
Allison Anders made her film debut with this late 80s indie that she co-directed with her former UCLA classmates Dean Lent and Kurt Voss. Chris D of The Flesh Eaters steals some cash from a club that that owed him and his friends money after a gig, and high-tails it Mexico with some very angry club-owners following him. His ex-wife Luanna Anders (the director’s sister) gets her friend Chris Shearer to go after him while having her own flirtation with him, but actually accomplishing this feat is a muddled task. Filmed in beautiful, glinty black and white, the film offers a glimpse at the west coast punk scene of the day and the soundtrack is great, but if you weren’t there and don’t have a personal connection to its culture, it’s pretty boring.
Fat Girl (Catherine Breillat, 2001)
BA – At its core is a beautifully observed, witty and intelligent dissection of the relationship between two young sisters, one a teen beauty and the other a spunky but insecure chubby adolescent. When the elder sister makes the acquaintance of a sexy Italian lover during a family vacation, the younger sister watches as her sibling gives away her innocence to the attraction of empty promises made in the heat of passion. It would have been a lot better except that the dialogue is stiff and the conclusion is beyond ridiculous.
PM – Can we be pigs for a moment and hang a “no fat chicks” sticker on this week’s edition of The Criterion Shelf? I was subjected to Fat Girl in a university class on “Love Stories in Contemporary France” (lol) and dragged this film in the seminar and web forum so badly that the prof actually changed the syllabus for subsequent screenings. (Which is too bad because he dropped Olivier Assayas’s Demonlover from the class – a film I have on DVD and really like.) Fat Girl doesn’t offend the prude in me, but rather the cinephile. This abhorrently bad film is a depraved, sadistic, tasteless, vulgar, and pointlessly self-serving essay on sexual awakening. It’s also an irresponsible and exploitative work from an artist—but also just plain boring as Breillat’s voyeuristic camera watches chunky teens fuck and spew insufferably phony dialogue. I know it’s out of fashion to praise the now-defunct Ontario Film Review Board, but I applaud every agency that banned this film.