The Female Gaze: Film Society of Lincoln Center retrospective spotlights women cinematographers across different genres and eras

ScreenerBlog

When Rachel Morrison became the first woman ever to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography with Dee Rees’ Mudbound (2017), her breaking of a nearly 90-year-old glass ceiling was both a historic triumph and a depressing statistic to take in. The director’s chair is where we typically turn our eyes when examining the deeply rooted issue of gender inequality in cinema. Yet, while the numbers that surround this much-idolized profession paint an unmistakable portrait of (white) male privilege (as evidenced by a USC Annenberg study that examined 1,100 films from 2007 to 2017), the picture seems even grimmer on the cinematography side. Consider, for instance, that only four percent of American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) members were women as of 2015 (according to a Deadline report.) Solely focusing on the réalisateur in gender-parity conversations not only ignores the collaborative nature of filmmaking (thus, the improvements needed beyond the director’s chair), but also the fact that it's not only the director who give motion pictures an auteurist stamp.

This is where “The Female Gaze” comes in—The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s thoughtfully programmed series spotlighting 23 women cinematographers (Agnès Godard, Babette Mangolte, Maryse Alberti, Nathasha Braiser, Ellen Kuras, Sabine Lancelin, Kirsten Johnson and Morrison among them), working with numerous canonical and contemporary directors across various genres, eras and visual aesthetics. Running July 26 to August 9 and curated by Florence Almozini (associate director of programming) with input and collaboration from Madeline Whittle (programming operations assistant) and Tyler Wilson (programming associate), “The Female Gaze” both acknowledges women’s diverse contributions to a field of filmmaking usually falsely perceived as masculine, and ponders what “female gaze” might mean, or if it even exists. “Cinema has always been a very visual [art form] for me,” head programmer Almozini says. “I had long noticed that DP (chef opérateur in French or directeur de la photo) were often female in the French Industry, but the names for their jobs were masculine."

"It’s worth noting that in the context of industry discourse [around the Oscars], we're likely to hear women's names thrown around in categories like Costume Design or Production Design. But Cinematography (and camera operation, more broadly) is a category we tend to associate exclusively with prominent men,” Whittle adds. “I would argue that this fact has a lot to do with the overt 'maleness' of the gaze in the history of American cinema. We have a cultural tendency to regard women more as objects (or as creators of objects, like costumes or interiors), and men more as subjects (or as the source of subjectivity, like the camera's perspective and agency). By directing our attention to women cinematographers, and engaging with them in a sustained way, we are trying to disrupt and challenge these tendencies," she remarks. The program page (which refreshingly organizes its 36 films not by their directors but their DPs), cites Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” to signify cinema’s overwhelming, and in many ways, ongoing preoccupation with heterosexual male pleasure. But what happens when a female pair of eyes gets behind the lens? While certain narrative and aesthetic uniformities can be observed in the lineup, Almozini admits that "the female gaze" in general is much harder to define and identify as compared to "the male gaze." “What are the signs that would indicate that a film has been shot by a woman or a man?” Almozini wonders. “Are bodies shot differently? Is the light softer?” Referring to both the scheduled Q&As and an hour-long, free panel on Saturday, July 28 (with the participation of cinematographers Natasha Braier, Ashley Connor, Agnès Godard, and Joan Churchill), “it will be interesting to discuss this point onstage with remarkable female cinematographers that represent different generations and styles," she adds.

Perhaps the most evident through-line that forms among a number of films in the retrospective is the sensual (but not always sexual) portrayal of the male body. Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (1999), lensed by Denis’ frequent collaborator Agnés Godard, kicks off both the series at large and its recurring theme of masculine sensuality. Under Denis’ direction, Godard follows a troop of Foreign Legionnaires stationed in Gulf Dijibouti and captures their mundane rituals—from aggressive drills and colorful nightlife to quieter (and perhaps more traditionally feminine) tasks and chores—in sun-baked environs with visual longing. The Intruder (2005), another Godard-Denis collaboration, similarly illustrates a sense of compassionate, sorrowful view of the male body through the story of a recluse pursuing a black-market heart transplant in an expansive journey. Shot by Hélène Louvart on 16mm with a comparably affectionate eye, Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats (2017) depicts the awakening of a young gay man’s desires in beachside Brooklyn with ominously textured daytime and nighttime shoots, while DP Claire Mathon captures arousal, sex and isolation within a French story of cruising in Alain Guiraudie’s eerie erotic thriller Stranger by the Lake (2013), set against the backdrop of a contrastingly serene waterfront. Also a possible fit into this category is Tom Kalin’s period film Swoon (1992), a visionary telling of the famous Leopold and Loeb murder case of the 1920s (also the subject of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope), the deliberate theatrics of which are classically filmed by Ellen Kuras in stark black-and-white.

Among the most expected and perennially essential entries in the program is Chantal Akerman’s seminal Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, shot by her frequent collaborator Babette Mangolte with hypnotic focus. True to Akerman’s vision, Mangolte brings out the mundane discipline of a housewife’s daily chores through painstaking long takes and an undercurrent of unease until the protagonist’s domestic order inevitably shatters. Also focusing on the rhythms of family life is another Godard-Denis venture, the gleaming 35 Shots of Rum; Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s bittersweet and melancholic Tokyo Sonata (2008), in which DP Akiko Ashizawa captures compartments of domesticity with the visual orderliness of Yasujirō Ozu; and Alice Rohrwacher’s sun-dappled and free-spirited Cannes Grand Prix winner The Wonders (2014), lensed by Hélène Louvart.

A highlight in the program, Bertrand Bonello’s lush, luxuriant and wickedly disturbing House of Tolerance (2011), brings the distinct eye of a female cinematographer into undeniable sharp focus. While the film is largely set amid the daily customs of a Parisian brothel at the turn of the century, DP Josée Deshaies’s camera navigates a gorgeous portrait of female camaraderie and underscores distinct discomfort (as opposed to eroticism catering to the straight male gaze) in scenes of female nudity and sex, while also capturing feminine beauty and sensuality like a painter. Manoel de Oliveira’s display of magical surrealism in The Strange Case of Angelica (2010) similarly puts forth visual opulence, more photographic than painterly, with Sabine Lancelin behind the camera.

Among the genre-defying tales that honor and question memory and jumble time and space is Michel Gondry’s whimsical Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), shot by Ellen Kuras, employing both an enchanting and a realistic look. Surrealist and stylized, Claudia Llosa’s The Milk of Sorrow (2009) and Leos Carax’ Holy Motors (2012) form their magical tableaus through the lenses of their DPs Natasha Braier and Caroline Champetier (also in the program with two Jacques Rivette films, 1982's Le Pont du Nord and 1989's The Gang of Four, respectively). On the extreme end of stylization sits Nicolas Winding Refn’s bloody urban horror film The Neon Demon (2016), in which Braier colorfully lights the harsh reality of the fashion world beneath the glitz of L.A., with its pitiless treatment of the female image and form. Elsewhere, a curious pairing occurs between Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson (2016), a visual memoir of the cinematographer’s own work she shot for various documentary filmmakers, and Babette Mangolte’s The Camera: Je or La Camera: I (1977), in which she invites the audience into her photographic mind and lets them examine the play between her documentarian eye and her various human and urban subjects.

Other highlights of the lineup include Wim Wenders' marvelous Pina Bausch documentary Pina (2011, shot by Hélène Louvart), two spectacular Maryse Alberti-lensed films—Todd Haynes' glam rock era-set Velvet Goldmine (1998) and Ryan Coogler’s Rocky franchise spinoff Creed (2015) with stunning set-pieces in and around the boxing ring—Oscar-nominated cinematographer Morrison’s Sundance winning Fruitvale Station (2013, directed by Coogler), Robin Campillo’s pre-BPM film Eastern Boys (2013, shot by DP Jeanne Lapoirie) and The Headless Woman (2008) by Zama’s Lucrecia Martel, filmed by DP Barbara Alvarez.

Giving the audiences a sneak peek into two high-profile upcoming films, “The Female Gaze” also programs Desiree Akhavan’s 2018 Sundance winner The Miseducation of Cameron Post, an emotional coming-of-age tale set inside a brutal '90s gay conversion-therapy camp, as seen through the lens of DP Ashley Connon. The Handmaid’s Tale’s DP-turned-director Reed Morano presents another recent Sundance-hailing film, but of a very different kind. A sparse sci-fi movie with purposely alienating framing and cold tones, her post-apocalyptic I Think We’re Alone Now not only demonstrates her unique female vision in a genre typically associated with male filmmakers, but also stands as an example of women’s capability of wearing both hats as DPs and directors at the same time, bringing their unmistakable filmmaking POV to the screen with as much visual conviction as their (sometimes unjustly) revered male counterparts.