Special Guest Writer: Sarah Williams
Whether you have gotten into the “Blue is the Warmest Color” discourse waving a flag of strong opinion, or fallen head over heels for Céline Sciamma’s sweeping lesbian romance “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”, it’s clear that French cinema is back on the upswing after years out of the spotlight in cinephile circles. With “Mustang” as the nation’s sole Oscar success in nearly a decade, it’s clear that France’s future of filmmaking is not with the old tradition, but with the new wave of younger female filmmakers on the rise, often blowing critics away on debut films.
With nearly 25% of directors in France being women, it is one of the best cinematic cultures for female voices behind the camera in terms of numbers, even if the regressive social politics of the industry say otherwise. Le Collectif 50/50, formed to bring gender parity to film festivals worldwide, is responsible for funding and promoting many of these small projects, and uplifting other marginalized voices within the industry.
This list is meant to highlight ten films from the past decade, primarily from emerging voices, putting women in the center both in front of and behind the camera, that did not get the level of international recognition they deserve. Some are easily streamable, while some are of the past year, and still lack US/UK distribution.
A brief moment should be devoted to some films that did not quite make the list, but easily could have. Noémie Lvovsky’s “Camille Rewinds”, a lighthearted time travel story of a woman dreaming of a happier marriage, and Catherine Corsini’s “La Belle saison”, a romance between a young farm girl and her female lover she meets in a feminist group on a trip to the city, are both more than worthy, but it is not fair to include them as their directors established their careers over a decade beforehand.
Last but not least, it is always worth mentioning the film whose premiere sparked the widely circulated Cannes steps photo, in which 82 women in the film industry climbed the stairs to represent the 82 films from women filmmakers to play in competition at the festival, Eva Husson’s impressively choreographed Kurdish war film “Girls of the Sun”.
10. Le Vent tourne (With the Wind)
To reach complete harmony with nature is tough, but it is even harder to do so with others. Bettina Oberli‘s quiet, understated drama about the difficulties in becoming fully self-sufficient from society is bittersweet, questioning the desire to break from everyday life so much. Mélanie Thierry is a skilled performer here, a gentle intensity and determination that prevents a film about wanting a wind turbine from growing dull.
The domestic drama within the family debate becomes a power struggle, the man of the land taking his desire to install wind power farther than he should because he craves this idea of control over his world. He wants to live back in time, loving the independence of surviving on his own, while she wants to ensure that they never break from the real world, an argument that seems odd until we realize how close this scenario may be to all of our futures. Die-hard Sciamma fans may be pleased by the credits of this Swiss-French slice of life film, as the cult favorite filmmaker does have minor script credits, though the film is all its own anyway.
Available on YouTube
Sara Forestier and Adèle Haenel give towering, heartfelt performances in too-often underappreciated Katell Quillévéré‘s family drama, which is much simpler than the more popular “Heal the Living”, but packs a powerful emotional punch. The titular Suzanne runs away from her family, leaving her young son and her sister Maria, the family bond at the heart of the film, behind for a chance at romance.
It’s hard to understand why she would leave those she loves so much, but we see that distance grow as she struggles to look at a photo album Maria shows of her son, and we realize returning may be more painful after the rift built by leaving. The bonds between family love and romantic love pull Suzanne opposite directions, and she struggles to deal with a world where she can’t have both, and having just one hurts her while there is no one to help her choose. The two sisters know each other better than anyone, and their connection is so real, though ultimately heartbreaking, you can’t help but trust the film to show you what love is.
Available to rent on Amazon Prime
8. Mais vous êtes fous (Losing It)
The end of a love story is especially tough to write, especially one where the love carries on past its expression. Audrey Diwan‘s debut, starring Céline Sallette and Pio Marmaï as a couple coping with his hidden drug addiction and her desire to protect their children from being hurt by it. Scenes from their painfully halting marriage are given, and it’s hard to believe the two have never played a couple previously, their easy chemistry making up for some of the unrealistic stretches in the addiction parts.
Oddly memorable is a scene where the two lie shirtless in bed together after some brief intimacy, and he curls on her chest like a scared child and cries. It’s a vulnerable, gentle moment that’s so beautiful in its condemnation of toxic masculinity, and even as we watch a dying yet still passionate relationship, we never hate him, as he is never cruel, and it is easy how these two, good, balanced people could come together, and how they could lose that togetherness and keep their love.
Yet to receive US/UK distribution, 2019 release
7. My King
While Maïwenn was previously established as an actress in the 90s, her directing work is more recent, and deserves inclusion for the crushing performance she gets out of Emmanuelle Bercot, who brings life to what could easily be a flat, victimized character. She plays a ski accident victim named Tony, with Vincent Cassel as her lover, Georgio, who she thinks back on as the brightest part of her life, at least until he wasn’t.
We see the man who brought the best out of her bring out his worst, tossing their love aside like an abandoned plaything. She still believes in this good version of him she once lived, because how can that just disappear? The beauty of the world gives way to rage, but nothing concrete has changed, it’s still him, so she still still worships him for the light he has once brought to her. Love and joy gives way to jealousy and rage, but letting go of this ideal of a loving partner is difficult, especially after the fact when reaching out for a good memory to cling to in rougher times.
Available on Kanopy
Coming-of-age is tough to write without falling into typicalities, especially without drawing from personal experience or toying with the supernatural. With “Ava”, Léa Mysius takes the richness of her 35mm film to full effect, in the story of a tween girl who knows she will lose her vision soon, and runs away to use the final time of sight to its greatest advantage. A stolen dog in tow, she and her new, older boyfriend embark on what turns into a crime spree as she relishes the last of her freedom.
It’s those final days that are so bittersweet, what is already the end of childhood summer is the end of life as she knows it, life being able to take in this visually rich world. Playing pretend in camouflage, and stripping down to run into the sea are the last of life’s stranger pleasures, the kind that are not treated as necessities that the world will help you with once stricken by blindness. These final days of unhinged freedom are the final days of childhood, a gender-swapped lost boys tale about being made to grow up by harsh reality a little too soon.
Available to rent on Amazon Prime
5. In Bed With Victoria
Justine Triet crafts a romantic comedy guaranteed to soothe even the loudest of the criers at the death of the classic Hollywood romcom. Virginie Efira is delightful as a lawyer named Victoria Spick, who’s dealing with an increasingly wild case of spurned lovers, taken on as a favor to a friend, that features animal witnesses, and more personal grudges brought to court then once thought possible. She is also fighting a case of her own against her slandering blogger ex-husband, who wants nothing more than to debarr her, at risk of revealing personal information about her clients.
There’s weight to what could be a lighthearted romp involving a gorilla in a courtroom, and Victoria is a startlingly real and well written character, and even her hookups are artfully handled. It’s a smooth, confident romcom to revitalize the genre, and the endlessly rotating cast of witnesses in the court scenes (including a particularly humorous cameo from filmmaker Claire Burger, mentioned later down the list, as a serial testifier who struggles with the men in her life) keep it from feeling repetitive with each actor’s freshness.
Available to rent on Amazon Prime
4. An Easy Girl
Best known for its controversial casting of model Zahia Dehar, a former underage escort to the French national football team, Rebecca Zlotowski manages to prove at every term that this casting choice enriches her film all the more. She plays with audience expectations for this character, who uses her appeal to wealthy men in the film to wield her power, always the one in control of what starts and stops between them. She comes into the life of her 16 year old younger cousin, played by outstanding newcomer Mina Farid, and tantalizes her with this life, toying with excess from the outskirts of it, and teaches her how to get what she wants from men without having to fully give herself away.
The film is quite brilliant in its treatment of the camera as the voyeur, reclaiming the male gaze to implicate the audience’s view of the characters by eroticizing them, and then allowing these women to take their power back, and be so self aware (a character is shown reading Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, situationally appropriate literature assumed to be far beyond her level) in that they know exactly where their sexual power and the transactions of it begin and end.
Set to release on Netflix US unknown date 2020
3. C’est ça l’amour (Real Love)
The best way to describe Claire Burger‘s first film without usual co-director Marie Amachoukeli is through its unabashed honesty. The tale of a family coming apart, and then back together, with Bouli Lanners as the patriarch who struggles with traditional masculinity, is one that redefines traditional family roles to create something built on love instead of forced adherence to normalcy. The two teenage daughters lash out somewhat when their mother leaves, at least in their father’s eyes, but the film never goes the stereotypical route of a massive family fight, even when the man of the house inadvertently proves himself insufferable.
Justine LaCroix plays the younger of the two girls, aged fourteen, and her crush on an older girl spins into a relationship and a first heartbreak that gets her through all this change. It’s refreshing to see such a young lesbian character, especially one so open about who she is, screaming “I’m a dyke” at her father without, any shame about who she is, and the film feels like the director’s personal writing exercise on her own growing up, a tender unpacking of her father’s lack of masculinity, and her own youth struggling to be the only gay girl she knew in her small town of Forbach (where the film is set) that feels so real and personal it’s like opening a diary years later with a new appreciation for the past.
Yet to receive US/UK distribution, 2019 release
2. Fidelio, Alice’s Odyssey
With a knockout performance from the always talented Ariane Labed, Lucie Borleteau’s study of loneliness, misogyny, and lustful entanglements at sea is a clever melodrama that changes the perspective of claustrophobic sexuality. The story of an engineer who is the only woman on her ship allows her to find that she has more in common with her male predecessor than she thinks, reading his diary she finds detailing daily repairs, sexual conquests, and the deep loneliness that comes with the ocean.
Her own story often parallels this, and each swell and dip that the ship takes with the waves much matches her own feelings, brief love stories that come when living so close alone. The high-seas melodrama doesn’t go overboard in its work life balance, as it never feels unrealistic how much lust occurs aboard the ship, but sex and romance are compartmentalized to show the different kinds of longing that may manifest.
Available to rent on iTunes
Set in the banlieues of Paris, the subject of recent hits like “Girlhood” and “Les Miserables”, Houda Benyamina‘s gloriously shot feature debut, starring her younger sister Oulaya Amamra in a crushing performance as a teenage girl who believes she can rule her world, is a must-see knockout. The striking spirit of its characters, our protagonist’s bond with her best friend played by Déborah Lukumuena as the heart of the film, and the rhythm of the curious dance sequences, so graceful as they depict a hesitant first love, are unforgettable, and the film never relents in letting its characters be as messy as they want, as that’s how growing up is.
These young girls are allowed to dream bigger than the sun, a sequence where they ride in an imaginary Ferrari shows this perfectly, while they also get to be unashamed of their lives, as the film never betrayed them for their class or what they must do to survive or try to get above where they are. It’s about how those teenage mistakes can snowball, and how no matter how hard you try sometimes the worst comes for you even if you work for it, and the pain that comes with a world turned against you for where and who you were born, while never letting that cruel retaliation break your ambition. The heartbreaking ending shows this cycle of cruelty never letting up,and it may feel sadistic where the first 90 minutes had never gone, but it’s sad in that it never breaks tone to do so.
Available on Netflix