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.