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Celebrating 17 Years of Film.Biz.Fans.
by Emily Craig, Matthew Hammett Knott and Sophie Smith
October 31, 2013 10:27 AM
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Heroines of Cinema: 10 Great Films About Female Sexuality By Female Filmmakers

"It Felt Like Love."

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"

"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.

"Somersault" (2004)
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.


  • mazz | April 15, 2014 3:40 AMReply

    I enjoyed 'Good Dick' by Marianna Palka. It's about intimacy issues with some cute comedy.

  • Flora | November 11, 2013 12:50 AMReply

    The film Circumstance (2011) is by far one of the best films I have seen of late dealing with complex entanglements of women's sexuality, conservative societal mores, fundamentalism, class, sexual and national identity development, and the erotics of intimacies.

    Also, Gun Hill Road (2011) powerfully speaks to the experience of the sexual awakening of a young trans woman of color, and how she negotiates her family life, and the violences enacted in heteronormative cultural contexts against the trans woman's body.

  • SS | November 11, 2013 1:14 PM

    Thank you so much for these; haven't seen either, can't wait to see both.

  • Peter Nellhaus | November 6, 2013 9:03 PMReply

    The Korean film, "Ardor" by Byeon Yeong-joo.

  • FOREIGN FILM FAN | November 6, 2013 10:50 AMReply

    I guess TURN ME ON, DAMMIT! (2012) didn't make it to London...? Otherwise, it's hard to explain its absence here.

    Agree about Breillat's absence also speaking volumes. Kind of inconceivable.

  • SS | November 6, 2013 12:24 PM

    On the absence of "Turn me on, Dammit!" (2011) - I've seen it - and had we not had a limit of 10 films I'd have certainly included it (how often do we see young women masturbate, let alone watch such a controlled exploration of the associated taboos/gender disparities in films?). Nonetheless, in the final 20 minutes or so I thought the film lost sight of its idiosyncratic beginning and became a little conventional/saccharine. Also, as we keep repeating, this is *not* a list of the 10 best films, just 10 great films -- and including it would have meant leaving out one of the others. We preferred the ones we chose, which explains its absence here. This of course is precisely why we asked readers to add comments, so we could bring together as rich a set of responses as possible. Thanks for adding this one to the discussion.

  • MHK | November 6, 2013 11:09 AM

    I agree I should have mentioned her in the introduction, but I can't help detect a sense of superiority in this apparent bafflement at Breillat's absence. She's obviously an important director in this field, and yet... none of us particularly like the films she's made since 2000. Not that inconceivable. Would you rather we wrote disingenuously about one of her films to give the impression of authority? Because personally I'd rather read sincere responses to personal choices - the less obvious, the better, frankly. And we did very clearly state that as our intention.

  • MAM | November 1, 2013 1:46 PMReply

    One of the best films of the year-- AFTERNOON DELIGHT.

  • Barry eagan | October 31, 2013 7:23 PMReply

    WANDA by Barbara Loden!

  • Marian | October 31, 2013 6:04 PMReply

    What about CampbellX's romcom, Stud Life (2012)?

  • estienne64 | October 31, 2013 4:05 PMReply

    Four films spring to mind.

    1) A ma soeur!/Fat Girl (2001). Catherine Breillat, of course. As an earlier comment pointed out, a list covering female directors on female sexuality that leaves out the premier chronicler of the twists and turns of women's desire is likely to look wilful, at best. This film is undoubtedly provocative (especially the shock ending) and perhaps pushes too hard to break taboos. But Breillat has the eye and ear of a true film-maker, and nerves of steel.

    2) In the Cut (2003). This is a controversial choice, and I imagine Meg Ryan would happily wish every copy of the film destroyed. It does, however, showcase one of her very best performances, and the film abounds in characteristically interesting touches from director Jane Campion. I'm inclined to think much of the problem with this film is that Campion doesn't really see eye-to-eye with the source material. (I've not read the book it's based on, but its combination of serial killer plot, feminist critique and high-falutin Eng Lit references makes it sound insufferably pretentious).

    3) La Niña Santa/The Holy Girl (2004). A very detailed, subtle and atmospheric film by Lucrecia Martel which explores the sexuality of the 'holy girl' of the title as well as that of her lonely mother. My only real objection to it is the protagonist's passivity (though that's part of the point). In any case, I can't see why this isn't on the list.

    4) Un amour de jeunesse/Goodbye, First Love (2011). Arguably more about a young woman growing up than her sexuality, it still has interesting things to say about coming to terms with the end of a passionate first love. (In addition, both its director Mia Hansen-Løve and its lead actress Lola Créton are stars in the making.)

  • phenmetz | October 31, 2013 6:20 PM

    2) In the Cut (2003). I think you're right about Campion not seeing eye-to-eye with the source material (which you haven't read!). I also think your time would have been better spent reading the book that watching the movie...although the films' final haunted scene, with it's "owl creek bridge" element, was really well done. If only the earlier scenes could have matched the finale...

  • Lipstick Lesbian | October 31, 2013 11:14 AMReply

    Love this selection, but a personal addition would be High Art...

  • SS | November 6, 2013 2:00 PM

    High Art is great - unfortunately made in 1998!

  • THISISABSURD | October 31, 2013 11:13 AMReply

    The absence of Catherine Breillat's films from this list is simply beyond the reaches of my mind.

  • KV | April 10, 2014 10:27 PM

    Exactly. Where's the love for Madame Breillat?

  • MHK | November 3, 2013 12:21 AM

    But this isn't a list of the best or greatest anything! Read the introduction.

  • THISISSTILLABSURD | November 1, 2013 3:03 AM

    Its not about the mind(s) being adaptable. Its just the fact that someone who has excelled in a particular genre or theme of storytelling is not even mentioned once! There hasn't been a SINGLE film by Breillat which do not explore a particular facet of female sexuality. Just imagine a list of Best Spaghetti-Westerns Directors without Sergio Leone or the Greatest Masters of Suspense without Alfred Hitchcock.

    Anyway, Catherine Breillat is one of the greatest contemporary feminist filmmakers, whose themes range from sexual awakening (A Real Young Girl, 1976), gender conflict (36 Fillette, 1988), intimacy and sexual limitations (Romance, 1999), sibling rivalry and sexual consciousness (Fat Girl, 2001), male fear (Anatomy of Hell, 2004), etc. etc.

  • Ahsoka23 | October 31, 2013 4:09 PM

    I agree with you. How could they overlooked her films. And @SS I think it is quite absurd that you think Catherine Breillat's films are not worthy of mention. Just MY opinion.

  • SS | October 31, 2013 11:23 AM

    And yet, the absence is a fact! (The mind is an adaptable thing.) Like we said, these aren't the ten *best* films, they are simply ten we think worthy of mention. So tell us, which one/s would you include in this list and why?

  • MHK | October 31, 2013 11:21 AM

    Feel free to use this space to praise any film you like. Personally Breillat's films this century I've either not seen or not liked. We didn't claim to be definitive.

  • Reid Rosefelt | October 31, 2013 11:03 AMReply

    One really great recent film is Jannicke Systad-Jacobsen's "Turn Me On, Dammit!"

  • DANAE | October 31, 2013 10:46 AMReply

    I prefer Sophie Smith's critique of Nancy Meyers to yours. And I think you missed the point about female directors...

  • latenightmoviewall | October 31, 2013 10:39 AMReply

    One big problem with this list: most of the movies are about young women, and a fair share of them are about young women's confusion over being a lesbian or not. That's a very, very narrow view of women's sexuality, and certainly does not represent a whole lot of us out there. Please, when you do a list like this, cast your net a little farther and come up with some movies--beyond the abysmal upper middle class kitsch of Diane Keaton--and add some truly great films? and don't just limit them to female directors? because by doing that, you miss some great films about women's sexuality (like "An Unmarried Woman," with Jill Clayburg, that broke boundaries when it came out for its frank depiction of a woman reclaiming her sexuality after divorce?)

  • Hello Mozart | October 31, 2013 11:05 AM

    LATENIGHTMOVIEWALL needs to learn how to read things clearly.

  • SS | October 31, 2013 10:59 AM

    Hi LNMW, check out the blurb at the top - we purposefully limited it to films made by women this century - I agree with you, an Unmarried Woman is truly a groundbreaking film, but it was outside the limitations we imposed. Maybe we'll do another that casts the net wider, but that wasn't the point this time.

    Also, a list of ten films is never going to represent "female sexuality" in all its rich plurality but it's not true that "a fair share" of these films is about a young women's confusion over being lesbian, and nor is it true that we limited ourselves to "abysmal middle class kitsch" (I think you're a little unfair there not to engage with the argument I made for including SGG/IC). Like Matt said at the top - please do add further ideas for films that fit this week's criteria!

  • danae | October 31, 2013 10:46 AM

    I prefer Sophie Smith's critique of Nancy Meyers to yours. And I think you missed the point about female directors...