In my last column, I wrote about the problem with male directors monopolizing the conversation on female sexuality. While my focus was on the high profile festival hits of this year, it struck me that a very small part of the conversation is this column – and therefore as good a place as any to offer a corrective tonic. Therefore, this week we aim to highlight ten of the best female-directed films made this century concerning female sexuality, whether directly or more obliquely. This is not intended in any way to deny or invalidate the qualities of male-directed films such as “Blue is the Warmest Color” or “Gloria”. In this column’s opinion, a director’s gender is neither a barrier to nor a guarantee of authenticity. But this does not negate the importance of the female voice in cinema’s representation of womanhood.
In the spirit of preventing the conversation from being dominated by male voices, I have made my selections alongside guest contributors Sophie Smith and Emily Craig. We are not declaring these the ten best films about female sexuality of the 21st century. They are simply ten that we have seen, appreciated, and deemed more than worthy of their place in the discussion. There are of course many more films worthy of inclusion (among our other favorites, Catherine Hardwicke’s “Thirteen”, Sally Potter’s “Ginger and Rosa” and Claire Denis’ Friday Night). Feel free to mention your own choices below.
“Lovely & Amazing” (2001)
Nicole Holofcener has carved herself something of a niche chronicling the romantic and emotional entanglements of a certain class of American woman. In “Lovely & Amazing”, her second feature, its main characters’ divergent concerns are united by an insecurity over their status in the world as an object of desire or otherwise – from the palpable shame with which Brenda Blethyn’s character endures a liposuction procedure to the striking scene in which her daughter, a self-doubting actress played by Emily Mortimer, stands fully naked in front of a lover and orders him to list her physical faults. The fact that it takes any character so long to notice how their insecurities have rubbed off on Blethyn’s black adopted child highlights a razor sharp layer of satire in Holofcener’s otherwise sympathetic portrait.
“Something’s Gotta Give” (2003) / “It’s Complicated” (2009)
Hear me out on these two. Yes, in each, Nancy Meyers serves up a packed platter of pro-capitalist porn, but that’s hardly unusual for Hollywood rom-coms. What is different is that each film’s protagonist is an accomplished, middle-aged woman who refuses to be cowed by societal expectations that she slip silently into a sexless old age. In “Something’s Gotta Give” it’s Diane Keaton’s playwright, Erica Barry, in “It’s Complicated” Meryl Streep’s bakery-owning Jane Adler. In both films Meyers evokes (pitch perfectly) some standard situations in which mid-fifties women find themselves: their husbands leave them for women in their 30s, with whom they set up second families, and the single men around them are only out for women of that age themselves. As Erica’s sister puts it in “Something’s Gotta Give”: “the whole over-fifty dating scene is geared towards men leaving older women out. And as a result, the women become more and more productive and therefore more and more interesting, which in turn makes them even less desirable because as we all know men, especially older men, are threatened and deathly afraid of productive and interesting women … single older women as a demographic are about as fucked a group as can ever exist”. (I first watched this film in a theater full of that exact demographic and the whoop that went up suggested it really hit home.) By telling stories that defy this idea (both women are wonderfully and knowingly critical of their situation and don’t let it stop them getting what they want) Meyers provides a paean to the ineffable sexiness of older women. She also banishes that stubborn movie-myth that women of a certain age shouldn’t expect to be desired. As for the immaculately furnished, impossibly spacious houses, I’m not convinced this isn’t quite clever from Meyers: the setting might be a fantasy too far, but getting your rocks off (and loving it) at any age really needn’t be.
Cate Shortland’s debut is noted for sweeping every single feature film award – thirteen in total – from the Australian Film Institute. Yet in style and substance, it is far from your typical awards darling. Abbie Cornish plays Heidi, a sixteen year old who runs away from home to a remote resort town, and befriends Joe, a sexually confused local. Heidi views her sexual appeal as one of the few real tools at her disposal – and is not discouraged from this view by many of the men she meets – but her attempts to employ it lead to hard-won lessons more than any lasting satisfaction. Enraptured but not distracted by the battered vistas of an underexposed corner of Australia, Shortland’s camera is well aware of Cornish’s youth and beauty, but far more interested in how these qualities leave her situated in others’ eyes.
“Itty Bitty Titty Committee” (2007)
It would have been a tough call between this and Jamie Babbit’s earlier, fabulously insane “But I’m a Cheerleader” (1999) so thank goodness for our arbitrary cut-off date. “Itty Bitty Titty Committee” is a shamelessly feminist film which dances to the beat of mid-90s riot grrrl and was the first feature to come out of the brilliant POWER UP’s production stable. Anna is a recently heartbroken gay girl. Just out of school, she lives with her parents and works the reception for a plastic surgeon who specialises in breast augmentation. Her life, and political consciousness, shifts immeasurably when she collides with Clits in Action (CiA) and gets schooled in a particular brand of low-fi, high-octane DIY anarcho-feminism. Babbit (along with Angela Robinson) is a queen of using playfulness and satire to tell her stories effectively: this film is a fun dramatization of critiques of misogyny and paternalism but it also asks penetrating questions about the best ways of resisting oppression. Some of the most interesting scenes come when the CiA’s brand of activism rubs up not against the law but against other forms of organized dissent: the NGO leader girlfriend of CiA member Sadie wonders if her partner learned more about postmodernist feminist theory in college than she did about affecting real change. By never taking itself too seriously, nor suggesting it has all the answers, “Itty Bitty Titty Committee” evokes all the thrills and frustrations of a feminist sexual awakening.
The debut feature of Argentine director Lucia Puenzo is not strictly a film about female sexuality, given that its lead character is intersex. The brilliance of Puenzo’s film is in how its protagonist Alex, a young teen who has been raised as a girl, faces adolescent concerns that are both universal and unique to her situation. Accordingly, some of the scenes are revelatory in their honest depiction of moments such as Alex’s exposure of her physical anatomy to a male companion. But the narrative as a whole resonates with the familiar story of every young person’s struggle to embrace their circumstances as they comprehend their place in the world.
Celine Sciamma’s “Waterlilies” explores female sexuality through its teenage protagonists, Floraine and Marie. Sciamma was only 26 years old when she made the film and has a keen eye for the sexual rivalries that can develop between friends as they grow up. Queen bee Floraine is the star of the local synchronized swimming team, and enthralls boys and girls alike. Marie is captivated by Floraine, but doesn’t know how to react when Floraine flirts with her. In one excruciating scene, Floraine asks if Marie will break her hymen – her boyfriend, the captain of the water polo team, thinks she’s more sexually experienced than she actually is. Sciamma’s camera is there in the pool, tracking the choreographed movements of the young female swimmers, and also in the changing rooms, where their adolescent insecurities are on full display. In this exquisite film, Sciamma shows us how young women learn to deploy their sexuality as a weapon.
“Fish Tank” (2009)
Katie Jarvis, a first-time actor, was famously discovered by a casting director while arguing with her boyfriend at a train station. In the hands of British director Andrea Arnold, she gives a performance devoid of affectation, the camera rarely leaving her as she attempts to protect a fragile sense of self among the bruising personalities and emotions of her daily experience. The film is set on a council estate, a location well familiar to British cinema audiences – but through the eye of Arnold and her cinematographer Robbie Ryan it becomes something else entirely, both intoxicating and suffocating to its protagonist as she is gradually consumed by her emerging sexual desires.
Marina lives in a bleak industrial town in post-recession Greece. Her father undergoes regular chemotherapy in a spartan hospital. Her main companion is her best friend Bella. They play like pre-teens, practicing kissing, choreographing dance, and slipping into the roles of roaring, yowling jungle beasts. She is 23 and a virgin. This is on her mind but also of her choice: cocks scare her, they are, in her words, like pistons, and she’s not sure she wants to be repeatedly rammed. (I think of you as cockless, she tells her adored father, castrating him mentally to keep him in her child’s world.) She knows she’s not gay, she’s thought of that; she worries she’s asexual but this isn’t right either, as some men get her pulse racing. You can’t help but feel that Marina’s reaction is a post-mainstream porn lament: if that was all you knew of sex wouldn’t you too be suspicious? And this is the joy of Athina Rachel Tsangari’s film: we watch a young woman work out sex without compromising; she is curious about conventions but never cowed by them, she wants it to be something she enjoys and she gets there for herself. Also, and perhaps most interestingly, is the way that Marina’s insistence on playfulness reveals poverties in Western ideas of adulthood and adult sexuality. This is an odd, engaging film which at moments feels like it could have done with a couple more days in the editing suite, but as a story about one young woman’s interaction with her own sexuality it is remarkable.
Is sexuality something only experienced by white women? The mainstream film industry seems to think so, and Dee Rees sold her home to tell a story that defies this boring norm. “Pariah”, her first feature, opens with a quotation from Audre Lorde. This matters. Lorde’s insistence elsewhere that “there is no such thing as a single issue struggle because we do not live single issue lives” pulses through this pacey, exquisitely written film. As well as being about the coming of age, and coming out, of 17 year old Alike, “Pariah” is a richly drawn exploration of the intersecting tensions that make both of those things so tough for her: girls who like boys but like playing at liking girls; old friends who deserve loyalty but can’t compete with first lust; an evangelical mother who pretends her daughter’s lesbianism is a ‘tom-boy’ stage perhaps as a distraction from looking too closely at her own failing marriage. And money: “Pariah” does not have its young protagonists grow up in an economic vacuum. Rees builds to the film’s brutal climax with grace and care. She is a brave filmmaker, who does not balk at reminding us that we live in a world where sexuality can shatter families irreparably. But she reminds us too, in the absence of any saccharine clichés, that resistance is always an option.
“It Felt Like Love” (2013)
“It Felt Like Love” opens with 14 year old Lila on the beach, her face hidden behind a white mask of sunscreen. So it is that Lila will spend a long, hot summer pretending to be she’s someone she’s not. We follow Lila through a gritty Brooklyn as, desperate to emulate the sexual exploits of her best friend, she pursues Sammy, a tough guy several years her senior. Eliza Hittman’s debut asks what it means to come of age in a culture where young women are expected to behave like porn stars and sex is a perfunctory transaction. “It Felt Like Love” is one long silent scream, and Lila’s sexual humiliations are all too realistically depicted.
Matthew Hammett Knott is a London-based filmmaker and writer. Follow him on Twitter.
Sophie Smith is a historian of ideas at Oxford University. Follow her on Twitter.
Emily Craig is a London-based political journalist.