It is no secret that movies directed by women are few and far between. Part of the fanfare surrounding Patty Jenkins directing Wonder Woman earlier this year was the simply pathetic fact that it had been so long since a woman was handed the realms of a blockbuster. Additionally even though we’ve had close to a hundred superhero movies, none of them had ever been handed to a woman to direct up to that point (and a quick glance at future superhero movies reveals only two more movies with a woman at the helm including a Wonder Woman sequel).
The situation is generally as shameful as it is pathetic and most of the blame rests in the hands of the ones who greenlight these movies in the first place. There is a horrible vicious cycle that is all too familiar when it comes to female directors. First it is incredibly difficult for women to get films to direct in the first place, meaning that directors like Lynn Shelton or Sofia Coppola have to work exclusively in the independent scene where they are given creative freedom but for the cost of a smaller audience. Meanwhile those who do get to work within the studio system tend to get relegated to the “women’s” genres of romance or, if the studios are feeling especially bold, romantic comedies. And then even if a woman is surprisingly given the opportunity to work with a big studio project after years of successes in the “minor leagues” all it takes is one bomb (as with Elaine May’s Ishtar) to send her packing and never be given the opportunity to direct again. Meanwhile peruse a list of blockbusters today and you will find many first and second-time male directors given a chance to prove their worth, and more importantly who will find opportunity to direct again if they fail.
(Even though I focus on female directors here, the reality is that a similar story can be told about female producers, screenwriters, cinematographers, sound designers, and composers. It is just somewhat easier to track female directors. But make no mistake, the problem is prevalent and systemic)
But as much as I can blame the studios, I also realize that some of the blame solely rests on my shoulders as a frequent viewer of film. When I first became aware of the problem two years ago I realized that I had seen over 2000 movies at that point and shockingly, less than 3% of that had been directed by women. And so I decided to take a pledge from the people at Women in Film that I would commit to 52 films by women that year, making it a film a week (a pledge I re-upped this year). While I did not meet my commitment in my first year (and probably won’t this year either) the pledge has opened my eyes to many wonderful and under-the-radar movies that have been directed by women. It has also illustrated that as dire as the state of cinema for female directors is, the fact is that the situation is improving. More films are being made in general and with that it means that the number of films directed by women is increasing (even if the percentage of women directing is not). And with the ubiquity of VOD through iTunes, Amazon, or Netflix, the ability to watch these movies has also improved dramatically.
So consider this my first post reporting on some of the underrated, under-reported, and under-seen films directed by women. For this month, I’m taking the opportunity to also catch up on some of the films for 2017 that I’d missed (all in order to fill out that end-of-year best list). Here we go:
THE BEGUILED (2017) dir. Sofia Coppola
The teachers and students of a nearly-abandoned Southern all-women’s seminary finds an injured Union soldier (Colin Farrell) at the end of the U.S. civil war. Though their natural fear leads them to initially want to turn him over to Confederate soldiers, a combination of Southern hospitality, Christian charity, and the lure of a man in their presence convinces them to let him stay and treat his wounds. And so most of this film gently passes by, as these women led by teachers Martha Farmsworth (Nicole Kidman) and Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst) nurse the man back to health until he has embedded himself in the life of their little community, charming his way into the lives of each woman and girl in the place. However the tranquility breaks with a tragedy, which suddenly turns the earlier gentility rancid to explosive results. And thus, Coppola explores the inner psyche of the South where often the outward appearances of niceness can hide a viciousness underneath. It is easily Coppola’s most visceral and violent movie, with an atmosphere that is as suffocating as the humidity on display. But as with most of Coppola’s work, one can’t help but wonder if the beautiful form of the movie hides the fact that substance may be lacking. But gosh is it a wonder to look at.
THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE (2017) dir. Niki Caro
Niki Caro’s success story has been heartening to see. Starting with the marvellous indie movie Whale Rider she has carved out a career that has now seen her directing prestige projects such as this movie and potential blockbusters (like Disney upcoming live-action Mulan). With The Zookeeper’s Wife she tells a predictable if harrowing World War II tale of the true-life efforts of Jan and Antonina Zabinski (portrayed by Johan Heldenbergh and Jessica Chastain) who use their zoo to harbour and protect Jews from their Nazi occupiers in war-torn Warsaw. The movie is competently made and compellingly told, if not for the unfortunate and nagging conviction that we’ve seen this all before. One could cynically surmise that the movie is basically trying to one-up Schindler’s List by placing animals in peril alongside the Jews. But a more generous view is that this is a remarkable story of tragedy and bravery that needed to be told, and it is told well.
MAUDIE (2016) dir. Aisling Walsh
Arguably the greatest sin of biopics is that they tend to beatify their subjects and sadly that is the case with Maudie which tells the true story of folk artist Maud Lewis (Sally Hawkins) and her marriage to fish peddler Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke). Of course you may be forgiven for not noticing the beatification happening due to the outstanding performance by the two leads. Hawkins especially deserves special (and possibly Academy) mention for the criminally underrated actress for the way she thoroughly imbibes the unique character of Maud, who was stricken with rheumatoid arthritis at a young age and battled through that adversity to become a world-renowned artist. The true-story is amazing, the acting is amazing, and the movie is lovingly and artistically shot. I just wish the movie had the confidence to not constantly try to get us to agree with how amazing she was and let the story speak for itself. Ultimately, it is the compelling performances by Hawkins and Hawke that help to lift the movie above the pedestrian.
RAW (2016) dir. Julia Ducournau
Raw, as the title might suggest, is an extremely primal, visceral, and harrowing viewing experience. It tells the story of Justine, a first year veterinarian student and ardent vegetarian who finds herself pressurized by the traditional rituals involved in ragging first year students. In a crucial moment she is handed raw rabbit kidneys to eat, and despite her ardent protestation due to her vegetarianism, she relents and it awakens something primal in her. Much has been made of the film’s themes of cannibalism, including the sensational stories of people fainting during screenings which has given it the reputation as a pure shock vehicle. But that depiction is a disservice to this smartly written and compellingly directed allegory of the compromises and pressures women face daily in the name of fitting in and being accepted in a male world, and the damage that inevitably does to their psyche. In that way it is a movie that it is entirely prophetic for our time, even if the squeamish might want to look away.
UNFORGETTABLE (2017) dir. Denise Di Novi
I really, really wish that I didn’t have to make a cheap joke about the movie title’s accuracy, but I can’t help it: This movie is anything but unforgettable. It is a thriller film that looks and feels like so many classics that have gone before it like Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct but with nothing to distinguish it. It tells the story of Julia (Rosario Dawson) who moves in with her fiancee and eventually finds herself being manipulated by her fiancee’s ex-wife Tessa (Katherine Heigl) to more and more twisted and violent results. While that premise holds a lot of promise, first time director Denise Di Novi can’t quite figure out whether to play the premise straight with some perhaps insightful commentary of female rivalries in a male dominated world or to just play the premise for camp. As a result it does neither and comes across as a generic film that reminds you of much better thrillers you could be watching instead.
KEDI (2016) dir. Ceyda Torun
Early on someone mentions in this documentary, “If you don’t know how to love animals, you don’t know how to love people.” And indeed the same sentiment could be applied to this documentary which follows the lives of various stray cats in Istanbul where they are treated not as vagrants and nuisances but every bit a citizen of the cosmopolitan city as the humans. While the subject matter is not the most earth-shattering, it is easily crowd pleasing. Perhaps the greatest gift of this movie is that director Ceyda Torun makes a conscious effort to shoot the documentary from the eye-level of a cat which gives us not just a unique perspective on the city of Istanbul and the people who live in it. The movie offers up no great revelations and its pleasures are simple, but there is something comforting and uplifting about that. And sometimes comforting and uplifting is exactly what one need.