“Examining the 1,300 top films from 2007 through to 2019, the Annenberg researchers found that on average just 4.8 percent of directors were women”.
That’s just 62 female-directed films out of 1300. This makes you realise that the film industry fails to prioritise the female gaze of directors, seeing very few films which give an honest image of the female perspective. As such, we’ve decided to compile a selection of films unexpectedly directed by women. Some you may know but others may surprise you! Here are some of our writers’ favourites.
Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
For me, Lynne Ramsey is one of the ultimate female auteurs. Her directorial vision is so steeped in detail that it’s unsurprising Ramsey comes from a background in cinematography. The film that sticks out the most to me is the cinematic equivalent of birth control: We Need to Talk about Kevin. Told through a non-linear structure, the scenes are tied together through strong visual cues and colour. It is a film about a mother, played by Tilda Swinton, who must live in the aftermath of a school shooting enacted by her own son, Kevin (Ezra Miller).
An exploration of the nature versus nurture debate, the film examines Kevin’s childhood, raising the possibility of the mother’s own culpability for her son’s actions. The film – much like Lionel Shriver’s original novel of the same title – is thematically evocative. Ramsey addresses the difficulties faced by women who do not naturally adopt the maternal instincts traditionally expected of them.
Ramsey frequently employs the haptic view: a mode of capturing and obscuring familiar images through a close-up lens. This invites the viewer to ‘touch’ the image with their eyes which lends a disconcerting intimacy to each scene. Images that are not initially sinister become horrific when the subtext of the story is revealed: a tomato-throwing festival is not visually dissimilar to a massacre; traffic lights morph with ambulance sirens; and submerged in water, the face of a mother becomes that of her son.
We Need to Talk about Kevin is a masterclass in storytelling through mood and suggestion. Every time I rewatch it, I’m fascinated by her restraint in telling a tale that could very quickly become exploitative or melodramatic. Instead, the result is an unsettling, subtly Freudian psychological thriller that twists in on itself, frustrating and fascinating in equal measure.
Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2000)
Despite having toned down the violence and misogynistic content of the 1991 Bret Easton Ellis novel it is based off, Mary Harron’s adaptation of American Psycho continues to polarise critics and viewers alike.
The film follows Patrick Bateman, a wealthy and attractive 20-something stockbroker and serial killer. It’s best understood as a satire of the self-interested capitalistic yuppie – that is Young Urban Professional – culture that saturated 1980s/90s American cities.
Harron’s directorial debut was the equally controversial I Shot Andy Warhol. A biopic of radical feminist writer and filmmaker Valerie Solanas, that film was maligned by some critics as a glorification of Solanas’ hateful and misandrist views. So, it’s interesting that Harron should then turn her hand to directing American Psycho.
Its all-star cast includes Reese Witherspoon as the hysterical girlfriend of Bateman’s character, and 90s It-Girl, Chloe Sevigny, as Bateman’s office assistant.
Much of the controversy surrounding American Psycho stems from its graphic depictions of violence against women, particularly female sex workers. Harron’s approach is more akin to a 90s slasher flick, with highly stylised chase scenes and splattered blood smeared on white walls. That being said, there’s something pretty ridiculous, almost laughable, about watching a naked Patrick Bateman running through an apartment building wielding a chainsaw as a simultaneous murder weapon and shield of modesty.
Interestingly, men and women are equally sexualised. In the film’s opening sequence, the viewer is taken through Bateman’s morning routine. With close-up shots of Christian Bale’s sculpted abs and bare buttocks, we see an ‘idealised’ male body.
Bateman’s reveals a certain pettiness (as he enviously examines Paul Allen’s business card) and vanity that undermine his scariness. This is a man who checks himself out in the mirror during sex! Moments like this – which we might call Harron’s directorial witticisms – soften the blow of the film’s brutality, arguably making the film less disturbing to watch. Instead of glorifying Bateman, we, as an audience, can ridicule him – and in doing so the power dynamic is switched.
Kathryn Bygelow’s Point Break (1991)
Point Break is the ultimate feminist bromance and perhaps my favourite action film of all time. Keanu Reeves, surfing, bank heists, Patrick Swayze, skydiving, the FBI, drug busts and discussion of spirituality are all mixed into an experience that is ultimately very intimate, thoughtful, and endlessly enjoyable.
The vast majority of the film centres on the bond between heartthrobs and star-crossed enemies Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) and Bodhi (Patrick Swayze), which evolves beyond the simple and very male black and white narrative of right and wrong which so often plague action films. Director Kathryn Bigalow gives the film a grand theatrical space to operate within, but never allows the central narrative of the thrill of the chase to get confused or diluted.
Whilst having resisted attempts to label the film as explicitly feminist, Bigalow completely redefined what an action film could be – when freed from the constraints of machismo and ego. Even Johnny’s love interest, Tyler (Lori Petty) does not conform to the typical norms of a nineties female character, instead donning an unashamedly ‘tomboy’ look and taking the lead over Johnny in most scenes. The film is void of the stereotypical staples of an action film – the unwavering morality of a male protagonist, his unrealistically beautiful and servile love interest, and a plot consisting of big guns and car chases. Bigalow is free to question the motives of all actors involved, and there is a great deal of sympathy garnered for the villains of the film. She portrays a different type of manhood than was dominant in Hollywood at the time – not strong, but subtle, driven by purpose rather than power. Even after thirty years, this slightly silly and idealistic adventure can provide insightful commentary on the meaning of manhood in a changing world.
Mary Lambert’s Pet Semetary (1989)
Adapted from Stephen King’s 1983 novel and directed in 1989 by Mary Lambert, Pet Semetary follows the chronicles of a young nuclear family as they settle into their new home for Louis Creed’s new job. However, unbeknownst to them, it turns out that they have moved next to an ancient burial ground which is the source of a great (evil) power. The film itself is one of Lambert’s creepiest works: sordid familial relations, killing children and undead animals are littered throughout in ample quality.
The horror genre has historically never been kind to women. A number of theorists have argued that the genre simply does not make space for the female figure. Equally, as a result of their ‘grotesque’ reproductive functions, women of horror cinema have also been portrayed as the ‘Monstrous-Feminine’ a la Barbara Creed. In any case, when one seminal piece of horror work that emerged in the late 1980s, Pet Semetary was directed by a female. This can only be cause for celebration, when the genre itself has notoriously been plagued by phallocentric anxieties of female sexuality and the feminine form.
Whilst this film hasn’t won any Oscar, its female direction is enough to encourage anyone interested in the gendered dynamics of a historically male-orientated genre to give it a watch. Without spoiling too much, this film does not contain a Final Girl nor a Monstrous-Feminine but rather a melange of a Final, indeed Monstrous Family. It turns horror conventions on their head and thus emerges as a direct challenge to a patriarchal system in full-fledged, RSPCA-denying cinematic retribution. It is for this reason that Pet Semetary will forever live beyond its shallow, animal-filled grave.
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