With the critically acclaimed Portrait of a Lady on Fire gracing screens this spring, audiences witnessed an impeccably shot and endearing story of forbidden love. Directed by Céline Sciamma, the French writer and filmmaker, is known for films that challenge the “male gaze,” or in other words, the pervasive sense of male perspective in cinema. This ranges from predatory stares at naked female bodies to the general sense that many films do not feature strong female leads. With men hardly even appearing in Portrait, the film reverses the male gaze norm completely.
For instance, much of the screen time is dedicated to the painterly stare of its protagonist, Marianne (played by Noémie Merlant) at her subject and soon to be lover, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). The film celebrates and, more importantly, makes possible a lesbian romance that is not from the male, fetishizing viewpoint. However, Portrait is not the only feminist french masterpiece to gain traction in the film world this past year.
Running the Festival Circuit in 2019 was a slew of films directed by female french filmmakers. According to an article in Variety Magazine, alongside Sciamma and Portrait, Rebbecca Zlotowski’s Savages, as well as late Agnès Varda’s Varda by Agnès were works featured by directors that lead the 2018 Women’s March in Cannes. In addition, french ladies such as Justine Triet with Sibyl, Mati Diop with Atlantics, and Alice Winocour with Proxima hit the stage. While Portrait seems to be the most recognizable of these films to an American audience -likely due to its release on Hulu- it is by far not the only femme perspective film that is grabbing spectators’ attention.
A common thread among some of these filmmakers is their shared attendance at France’s most prestigious film school, La Fémis. The benefit of such an affiliation allows students to pursue film projects based on their screenplay alone. Unlike much of the procedure in the American industry, no reels, no prior shorts or features, or even partial financing is required for studios to make these films come to fruition. By demolishing this economic boundary, the ability for film students to produce work based on merit alone has opened up more equitable opportunities for women in the industry. Can we say that Hollywood is holding up?