9 Films From a Feminine Perspective

Originally published by Raindance 

It would be degrading and reductive to outline what might consist of a ‘feminine aesthetic’. It would suggest that cinema about, or written/directed by women is operating solely in contrast or in counter to, the dominant masculine style, rather than merely – and necessarily – portraying the diversity and difference of our experiences.

These films selected below, though by no means an extensive list, go to demonstrate the generic and stylistic variety that female-centric cinema is capable of. It goes to show that women are by no means limited by their gender and that women do not constitute a certain or specific type of stylistic output. In my opinion, these films serve to highlight our complexities, difficulties and capabilities. That heroes can be female and that they can take many forms…

4375.originalMeek’s Cutoff (DIR. Kelly Reichardt, 2010)

Director Kelly Reichardt is well-known for her reworking of genre to encompass a female perspective. In Meek’s Cutoff she takes on the Western and subverts it’s inherent theme of rugged masculinity, by placing Michelle Williams’ Emily at the forefront of a group of pioneers advancing westwards into unchartered territory. The camera emphasises the female experience and in doing so carves a space into the American landscape for a gender otherwise marginalised.

05_Flatbed_1 - JANUARYWinter’s Bone (DIR. Debra Granik, 2010)

Shot on location in the Ozark mountains of Missouri, Debra Granik’s films follows Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence’s breakout role) in her perilous attempt to track down her absent, meth-addicted father, with the aim of protecting her home and family. Taking charge of her economically-deprived destiny, Ree’s search for answers resembles that of a lone cowboy, crossing boundaries both literal and metaphorical to find meaning in the world. Labelled as ‘rural noir’, Granik’s film disrupts genre conventions in its placement of a female protagonist in a hostile, violent and depraved world.

thelma-and-louiseThelma and Louise (DIR. Ridley Scott, 1991)

A seminal feminist film, Thelma and Louise are two best-friends who take to the road in a symbolic and literal two-fingers up to gender conventions and authority. Part road-movie, part crime-caper, these two women embark on a journey of liberation as they become both increasingly violent, and assertive. Driving along an open road in their T-Bird convertible and getting the last word over the cops on their tails, Thelma and Louise rebelled against genre, and societal expectations.

Jennifer-lawrence-stars-as-katniss-everdeen-in-the-hunger-gamesThe Hunger Games (DIR. Gary Ross, 2012)

A female Rambo of sorts, our leather-clad, bow and arrow-wielding heroine Katniss Everdeen has become a symbol of endurance, indestructibility and strength. Following in the footsteps of Ellen Ripley, Lara Croft or even Joan of Arc, Katniss subverts the notion that the action genre is an arena reserved solely for her male counterparts. Some film critics have even compared her to the archetype of the Western hero as embodied by John Wayne and Clint Eastwood – a marginalised loner, existing on the fringes of society. Most importantly, Katniss seems to transcend gender boundaries, acting as both surrogate mother to her younger sister Prim and assuming responsibility as bread-winner for her family. Ultimately, she upends the rules; both of the Hunger Games and the action genre.

GRAVITYGravity (DIR. Alfonso Cuaron, 2013)

The final frontier, and indeed, the moon, were advertised as places ‘where no man had gone before’, let alone women. In 2013, Gravity turned the tables – and pretty much everything else – upside down, not least in it’s depiction of a female astronaut. Dr. Ryan Stone (a name which begs the question whether she was initially written as male), must scrape together all her resources to survive against the odds when a space mission goes awry. As narrative progresses she transforms from a nervous, panicked and inexperienced astronaut, to a capable and determined one (with just a little bit of help from George Clooney). Her gender is irrelevant to her ability, something which makes for a refreshing watch.

the-girl-with-the-dragon-tattoo-an-interview-with-rooney-mara-daniel-craig-and-david-fincher.img.594.396.1324267469019The Girl With A Dragon Tattoo (DIR. David Fincher, 2011)

Emotionally fragile, but physically formidable, Lisbeth Salander is perhaps the fiercest female on this list. TGWADT navigates the world of corporate corruption through the eyes of inked, pierced and pissed-off computer whizz Lisbeth, as she sets about getting revenge on the men that abused, and institutionalised her. In the meantime, Lisbeth proves herself just as commanding, clever and quite frankly terrifying, as any male vigilante on the big screen.

hailee_steinfeld_in_true_grit-wideTrue Grit (DIR. Joel and Ethan Coen, 2010)

In the Coen Brothers’ remake of Charles Portis’ novel, True Grit follows the traditional Western trajectory of revenge, against the backdrop of a harsh and desolate landscape. Finding herself in this hostile environment of whiskey-swigging, gun-toting, foul-mouthed cowboys is 14 year-old Mattie Ross, who must prove she has enough grit to survive. And boy does she. Mattie has no interest in her male counterparts for protection or otherwise, and continually demonstrates that she has the confidence, competence and sass to outsmart them all.

million-dollar3Million Dollar Baby (DIR. Clint Eastwood, 2004)

The boxing ring is a place where blood, sweat and spectacle reigns. Where violence is a language and machismo is the currency. Hardly deemed a place for a woman. Million Dollar Baby trod relatively new territory then in depicting the trials and tribulations of Maggie (an Oscar-winning turn from Hilary Swank), a working-class woman who conquers the boxing world. Whilst she masculines herself to trainer Frank’s tastes, to see a woman in the ring at all is certainly a change of pace and a forceful blow to the notion that only men can put up a fight.

zero-2Zero Dark Thirty (DIR. Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)

Wars, and by extension, war movies, have typically been the domain of the male population. However, this Kathryn Bigelow helmed exploration of the CIA’s search for Osama Bin Laden represents and honours the real female CIA operative whose dedication was key to his capture. Jessica Chastain, as Maya, is on formidable, snarling form. She imbues the characters with stoicism, steely resolve and unshakeable determination. In some respects she is both the hero and the villain of the story, employing controversial interrogation techniques to achieve her aims. But the point that Bigelow successfully drives home is that she is the lone wolf; the sole female mole at table of ego-driven male officers and thus a symbol of exceptionalism.

This is by no means an extensive list. Please share your own suggestions for films which subvert a masculine genre!

Review: Zero Dark Thirty

Players: Kathryn Bigelow (DIR), Jessica Chastain, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Elhe, Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YxC_JNz5Vbg (link to the trailer, if this review doesn’t convince you to go and see it).

Before going to see this film I decided I had better brush up on my knowledge on the search for Bin Laden. It having gone on for a decade or so, I figured there were a few things I might need to know prior to watching one of the most controversial films of the year so far. So whilst sitting in Cafe Nero, trying to obscure the words ‘torture porn’ and ‘terrorism’ from the people sitting next to me, I quickly crammed in all that I could read about ‘The Saudi Group, ‘Tora Bora’ and ‘Black Sites’.

Whilst a little bit of background info certainly helps when political and CIA jargon is being fired at you faster than a round of bullets, it’s not imperative to understanding the film. Director Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, The Hurt Locker) creates a sort of docudrama that is edge of your seat gripping. One might think that the days, turning to months, turning to years of investigations, false leads and waiting for sources, opportunities or evidence would make for a drawn out and insufferable film. Bigelow however, does a fantastic job of selecting exactly what you need to know – covering both the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks in a tasteful, victim-oriented way, as well as the methods used in the manhunt.
She shows enough that you gather it’s a central part to the search for Bin Laden, without over-sentimentalising it, as well as focusing on the process as it changes. From the political decisions made, i.e. the ending of detainee project/extraordinary rendition policy to the changing of government from Republican to Democratic, Bigelow has a timeline constantly in the background – reminding us of its basis in facts, but providing us with a human connection to this debilitating, frustrating and alienating struggle for a world terrorist target through her protagonist Maya, played with fierce restraint and conviction by Jessica Chastain.
Maya is a heroine you root for. She’s a ballsy ‘motherfucker’ (as she tells White House aide James Gandolfini) who has sacrificed friends, a social life and any sense of normality to chase the bad guy for 12 long years. It’s jarring when Maya and a female colleague exchange IM’s expressing excitement about a source-turned-suicide bomber who might have provided information in the same way you and a friend might chat about your plans for a girl’s night in. They have devoted their existence to this search. But at the same time it’s not saccharine in its portrayal of this; we don’t see photos of missed relatives and the only tears shed are at the end of the long process when the sole aim motivating Maya’s career has finally been killed. Where does one go from there?
It is also ballsy filmmaking. Bigelow has become the industry’s go-to-girl for politically charged war movies that look at things from a different perspective. This isn’t fighting from the frontline, nor from behind the desk – it’s not afraid to limit the action when there isn’t any, nor detail the failures when they happen. The final sequence when the ‘kill-team’ breaks into Bin Laden’s suspected compound is excruciatingly tense; most of us know what happened, but not how and apart from a few unexpected explosions, the film is free from fancy pyrotechnics or crowd-pleasing thrills. This is cold, calculating objectivity, still seen through the lens of patriotism and seeking rightful vengeance for the homeland, but without the added doses of demagogy and liberalism that have peppered various other productions on similar topics. And before you get all hot under your collar about how it endorses the use of torture – fuck right off. It doesn’t. Not in the slightest. It shows torture to be part of the process, it doesn’t overplay the interrogation techniques or show them to be utterly vital in capturing OBL. Bigelow couldn’t have made this film without mentioning that the detainee policy was an integral part to CIA operations both pre and post 9/11. Perhaps it is a seedy and shameful underbelly to a country that considers itself to be morally righteous and advocates of democracy with a capital D, but Bigelow doesn’t glamorise this process. It emotionally destroys the character of Dan whom we first meet water-boarding a captured prisoner and eventually leaves to take a more removed job at CIA HQ Langley and ultimately it doesn’t provide Maya or the operatives with the information they want or need. The first victim Anmar reveals intelligence about a courier after being deprived, humiliated and abused; the scenes in which he is tied by ropes, crammed into a box or stripped naked are not easy to watch – if anything they serve as deterrents of torture techniques than support for it. It then takes years for Maya to prove that this courier even knew or worked for Bin Laden or that he was important to al-Quaeda. Torture was not indispensable to the search for Bin Laden, but it is an inherent part to the film’s honesty about it.
Those who actually work in the CIA may find it to be over-dramatised or over-simplified, with a whip-smart protagonist and ineffective leadership pandering to the cliché of ‘Maya against the world’. But polished, glitzy Hollywood filmmaking this is not. It is at once a compelling spy thriller and a realistic documentary. John Barrowmen’s cameo momentarily sucks you out of thinking it the latter, but on the whole the performances reaffirm this notion. Chastain’s is a powerhouse, career-changing performance. She is introduced to us as a rookie; softly spoken, wearing her best suit to an interrogation and nervously playing with her hands as she participates in her first act of torture. The manhunt hardens her; she shuts off from human interaction (the one time we see her ‘socialising’ ends in a bombing of the restaurant) and rejects the idea of sleeping with a colleague. At once an emotional fortress and achingly fragile, she proves herself just as smart, focused and forceful as any man on the team and the haunting intensity that Chastain gives Maya – during the ending especially, really evokes the film’s central question of whether it was all worth it. Does the end justify the means?

Reliable support is provided from Kyle Chandler as Maya’s boss; the official bureaucrat who struggles to devote himself or the government’s money in the same way Maya does, as well as Jennifer Elhe and Jason Clarke as the colleagues who suffer the burden of duty in different ways.

I left the cinema feeling a little emotionally drained and exhausted, but utterly impressed with the filmmaking. Don’t expect party poppers or fireworks as the climax occurs; this is not a film that necessarily celebrates the death of Osama Bin Laden. Instead it holds up a magnifying glass to how it happened. It depicts the complicity and controversy of morally ambiguous policies – weaving its way effectively through the nitty gritty of the 9/11 aftermath and America’s conscience, but without ever swaying you towards a side. It’s a risky tactic, as debates about the film’s stance on torture have proved – but one that I think pays off in dividends.
As technically proficient as it is compelling, the use of a grainy camera feel adds to the stripped back realism of the film, whilst the framing and costuming of Maya show her to become more and more embroiled in the manhunt. Equally, the editing builds suspense in the right places; you can sense when something isn’t quite right, but without resorting to sensationalism. The pacing could be said to be patchy in places, however the 157 minute running time never drags and if anything it adds to the feeling of tedium that embodied the wild-goose chase. Not as visceral or searing as The Hurt Locker, but once again Bigelow proves herself a master of the provocative, pared down and politically relevant.
Verdict: Taut, clinical and well-executed, it lays down the facts and lets you make a judgement.