Taking the Broad View

18 07 2010

Claire Denis, Isabelle Huppert, White Material

'White Material'

 Why are there so few female film directors? That’s a question that’s long been chewed over by critics, academics and the viewing public alike. Does the film industry, consciously or otherwise, marginalise female talent? Is it hopelessly macho and sexist? Or is the very act of film-making – arranging people, lights and cameras, ordering and categorising the world – one that speaks to male needs and neuroses much more deeply than it does to those of most women?

Beats me. But in a way, a more interesting question is: what kind of films do female directors make when they get the chance to do so? And are the stories that they choose to tell qualitatively different from those of their male contemporaries?

Anyone attempting to make an argument for a distinctly female perspective in cinema would find much to discuss in the work of Claire Denis, whose new film White Material was released in UK cinemas earlier this month. For more than twenty years now, the 62-year-old Frenchwoman has ploughed her own distinctive cinematic furrow, with work that is as much about character and mood as it is about traditional plot-based narrative (Beau Travail, Chocolat, 35 Shots of Rum).

White Material, for example, ostensibly tells the story of the struggle of a white African farmer (Isabelle Huppert), and her family, to bring in their coffee harvest on time in the face of political and tribal upheavals in an unnamed, Rwanda-like country. Denis consistently resists the temptation to dramatise the situation in any obvious way though, or even to tell us very much about Huppert’s character. Instead she builds mood through the use of images and isolated moments – a couple of nomadic herds-boys exploring a modern house, or a low-flying helicopter sending red dust into huge clouds around the indomitable heroine.

It’s a kind of cinema that’s much more subtle than most and that treads a fine line between accepting the essential mystery of other people’s thoughts and motivations and keeping an audience interested and involved with its characters. That’s a difficult trick to pull off, but one that Denis seems to have honed to a fine art.

A similar approach was taken by Lucrecia Martel in her film The Headless Woman (La mujer sin cabeza) released in the UK in February, and now available on DVD. An almost overwhelmingly intimate experience, it throws the viewer headlong into the life of a traumatised Argentine housewife in the hours after she has hit and (possibly) killed a poor child while driving on a rural road. The overall mood is one of utter dislocation as the hapless viewer finds him or herself lost in a confusion of social and family gatherings that often seem as shuffled and random as a pack of cards. Characters appear with their heads out-of-frame, or in the shadows, or in the midst of noisy crowds, leaving the viewer feeling as concussed and as utterly helpless as Véro (María Onetto), the main character.

Lucrecia Martel, La mujer sin cabeza, María Onetto

'The Headless Woman'

Other female directors have taken equally subtle approaches to storytelling: one thinks perhaps of the quiet, steadily-accumulating intensity of Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank (2009) or the brooding emotional thunderstorms in Joanna Hogg’s character-led Unrelated (2008), two of the best British films of recent years.

And of course in the Hollywood system there are directors like Sofia Coppola, Jane Campion and Nicole Holofcener (Please Give) all producing work that, whether it’s any good or not, reflects this same preference for feeling over action, and emotion and the search for inner truth over immediate thrills.

OK, so these aren’t uniquely ‘female’ qualities: there are plenty of male directors exploring this territory too. And of course, there’s Kathrhyn Bigelow, a walking, talking riposte to any idea of ‘Mars and Venus in the Cinema’; a self-taught Über-action director, whose films (The Hurt Locker, Point Break) are as primed and full of testosterone as anything that her male counterparts might come up with.

But, to speak in generalities again, while subtlety and mastery of mood and inner-character are not uniquely female qualities in cinema, they are qualities in which a notable number of female auteurs do seem to excel. While fledgling male directors often seem set on becoming the next Kubrick or Scorsese, female film directors often turn instead to the road less-travelled, away from the cinema of big gestures and towards something more expressive and personal and, dare I say it, perhaps more genuinely cinematic.



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