Alternative silver screen vision through the Female Gaze
Get ready to take notes: over the next few months, the Cinémathèque will be screening 50 films directed by women for their Female Gaze retrospective. Their selection highlights both well-known and avant-garde filmmakers such as Chantal Akerman, Věra Chytilová, Liv Ullman, Samira Makhmalbaf, Mia Hansen-Løve, Claire Denis, Lynne Ramsey, Jane Campion and Elaine May.
The list goes on, though you’d be forgiven if those names are unfamiliar to you. They rarely appear in the ‘100 Movies to See Before You Die’ watchlists, or in the ‘classics’ section of streaming services.
The male gaze, coined over 40 years ago by feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey in her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, defines a lot of what we watch. Simply put, it’s the way that women are depicted in movies from a heterosexual, male perspective that objectifies women and empowers men.
And it’s a gaze so universal to Western media - a camera pans over a woman’s face, then her body, and lingers on her low-cut shirt for a little too long - that it can be easy to ignore.
'It does not fetishise'
The female gaze, created in response to the male gaze, is a little harder to define. They aren’t simply two sides of the same coin. It isn’t about reversing the male gaze, by objectifying men, but by leaving women to their own devices and allowing them to turn the camera on themselves. It offers an alternative vision where women are treated as subjects, as opposed to objects.
“A film of the female gaze type does not objectify bodies or its characters,” said Cinémathèque director, Claude Bertemes. “It does not fetishise. This is to say that the female gaze sits next to a female character, adopts her point of view and embraces her experiences. It offers another politics of desire, which is liberated from power dynamics.”
The main purpose of organising the Female Gaze was to showcase the different ways that women’s perspectives shape and add value to a film.
“The works, imagination, sensibility and the universes created by women seemed an exciting and imperative exploration,” Bertemes said.
A criticism commonly directed at the female gaze as a concept is that it centres on the stories of middle-class, white women. The Cinémathèque’s programme avoided this by including films such as Real Women Have Curves, Sugar Cane Alley, Shadow Magic, Mississippi Masala and Frida.
Daring, inventive, timeless
A lot has happened since the male gaze was first described in the 1970s. However, something that ties together the films from the Female Gaze retrospective is that they were considered subversive at the time of their release.
“Subversion is one of the obvious markers of the programme, whether it be through anti-conformist themes or through aesthetics,” Bertemes said. “Lina Wertmüller's film (‘The Seduction of Mimi’), for example, is a sardonic, outrageous and hilarious deconstruction of Italian machismo in the 1970s. On the other hand, ‘Daisies’, an emblematic film of the Czech New Wave of the 1960s directed by Věra Chytilová, is an explosive display of experimentation and delirious iconography. It’s extremely funny.”
Even without knowledge of the films or their historical context, Bertemes believes they are still relevant today and have the potential to reach different audiences.
“These are films that, because of their daring and inventive nature, are timeless and will still feel astonishingly fresh for today's audience. But apart from that, we can detect other themes in these films that are universally enjoyable: an immense tenderness for its characters, atmospheric scenes and a humanitarian or feminist outlook.”
The Female Gaze – 50 Films Directed by Women is showing at the Cinémathèque on Place du Théâtre in Luxembourg City from 5 July through to September.