Bird Watching – Considering the Greatest-Ever Films By Women
3. Beau Travail, Claire Denis (1999)
I think Claire Denis is the best film director working today, from any country, male or female. I know this is almost an unfair statement to make, no matter who one thinks deserves the title—the goals and styles of various filmmakers are so different (and, for that matter, I’m hardly familiar with every filmmaker on the planet). But no one makes films that make me feel the way Denis’s films do. Every time, I want to watch again immediately to try to grasp hold of her methods, to see how she does what she does. Her films have surreal elements of construction even while focusing tightly on the real physical world; they layer the intense individual emotions of characters on top of complex socio-political settings without exposition for the audience. You have to dive in and flow with what she gives you. The films are gorgeous to look at and maddening to feel, in the best possible way.
Beau Travail, a tale of life-crushing jealousy among a unit of the French Foreign Legion stationed in Djibouti in punishing conditions, encompasses everything that is entrancing and bewildering about Denis’s work. The film received significant critical praise upon its release, and is considered the highlight of her career so far.
4. After the Wedding, Susanne Bier (2006)
No one does raw human drama like Susanne Bier does. In that capacity, After the Wedding is one of the finest films I’ve ever seen. The plot—involving a crumbling family and hidden secrets, old and new, coming to light—would easily have tipped into melodrama in less capable hands. Bier produces a profound exploration of people facing their true inner selves as they are confronted by unexpected circumstances. It earned her a nomination for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards that year.
The films on the Sight & Sound list are, I believe without exception, the sort made up of highly composed shots, filled with tableaux, intensely interested in color, or light and shadow, or angles…they are the films we might describe as being especially “cinematic.” Bier’s visual style is much more contemporary, with handheld camerawork and significant reliance on close-ups. I hope that as time goes on, and the number of respected films made with that sort of intimate and dynamic cinematography only grows, it will be accepted as an element that can contribute to a truly “great” film.
5. Seven Beauties, Lina Wertmüller (1975)
Seven Beauties is the weirdest film I’ve ever seen. Sorry, David Lynch—whose Mulholland Dr. sits at #28 on the list, the newest film to make the cut—you’ve got nothing on this dark, twisted tale. Wertmüller was the first woman ever to be nominated for the Best Director Oscar, and it was for this film. Set in and around WWII, it follows Italian blowhard Pasqualino, an abhorrent main character if there ever was one, through such a series of macabre misadventures—including a stint in a garish through-the-looking-glass version of a concentration camp—that ultimately we’re forced to root for the guy, having no other choice but to resist the indignities and violence thrust upon him, no matter how horrid he is. Wertmüller’s narrative skips around in time; her set pieces vary from seeming like a page from a storybook to a routine from a musical to a nightmare circle of Dante’s hell. Add in a four-and-a-half minute spoken word prologue and the single most disturbing sex scene I’ve ever seen, and the resulting oddity has to be seen to be believed.
I’m not familiar with much of Wertmüller’s other work, but it is this type of grand artistic vision that I think of when I’m frustrated by yet another implication that women filmmakers are only fit to make romantic comedies and an occasional drawing room drama.
This year, there were many changes to Sight & Sound‘s list, as they opened up the ranks of contributors. I hope that when we inevitably argue in the film community about the list’s next iteration, among the changes, another woman or two will have been accepted for her greatness.