Women


Women
   Although women have been involved in French cinema from the beginning, they have, as in the case of other national film industries, had a great deal more difficulty than their male counterparts in establishing themselves, whether as directors, actors, screenwriters, or cinematographers or in any number of roles. The first director of a narrative film in France was Alice Guy. Her film La Fée aux choux (1896) was made for Gaumont, although for nearly a century, Georges Méliès was credited with having made the first narrative film. Guy went on to become head of production at Gaumont for a number of years, training all of the early directors at the studio and directing several hundred films. Yet she was virtually forgotten about. Her films were attributed to various other directors in many cases, and Léon Gaumont made no mention of Guy in his memoirs. In many ways, Guy is emblematic of the status of women in cinema. Their contributions have often been greater than the reputation afforded them.
   Apart from Guy, there were a number of other women who made a significant contribution to cinema during the silent era. The great stage actress Sarah Bernhardt appeared in several early films, lending her tremendous artistic weight to a fledgling medium. Likewise, the stage performer Mistinguett appeared in film, bringing audiences to the cinema because of her enormous popular appeal. Early film stars such as Stacia Napierkowska, Renée Carl, and Musidora built audiences for the cinema by creating large followings interested in their work. Carl and Musidora also worked behind the camera, both directing films. Musidora also contributed as a screenwriter. Germaine Dulac was one of the first avant-garde directors, helping to cultivate impressionist cinema, and focusing her own films squarely on the lives of women. Her film La Souriante Madame Beudet (1922) interrogated gender roles at a remarkably early moment in film history. This is a theme later women directors would revisit. Dulac was also the first director to make a film based on a work by Louis Delluc. Her film La Fête espagnole (1920) preceded Delluc's entry into the cinema, and yet he has an award named for him and she does not.
   In the early sound era, women's contribution in film was almost entirely in front of the camera. The so-called golden age of film was marked by the presence of numerous talented actresses, including Arletty, Edwige Feuillière, Michèle Morgan, Danielle Darrieux, and Françoise Rosay. Their presence onscreen was crucial to French cinema's success, both domestically and internationally, and yet not one of these actresses has come to hold the iconic status of someone like Jean Gabin, despite the fact that several of them had film careers longer than his.
   Women did not often find themselves behind the camera during this period. One notable exception is Marie Epstein, the sister of impressionist director Jean Epstein. She codirected a number of films with Jean-Benoît Lévy starting in the 1920s and continuing into the 1930s. Another female director from the period is Jacqueline Audry, who got her start as a screenwriter working with directors such as René Clément. She made her first film, Les Malheurs de Sophie, in 1946 and went on to make nearly twenty other films.
   The 1950s and 1960s were also periods during which women appeared with regularity on the screen. This period gave the world such starlets as Brigitte Bardot and Martine Carol, more known for their physical presence than their acting abilities. It also introduced audiences to actresses such Catherine Deneuve and Jeanne Moreau. Moreau is one of the iconic actresses of French stage and cinema, and Deneuve went on to become one of the most recognized and respected actresses in the world. Agnès Varda began her career behind the camera in the 1950s. She is regarded as one of the most talented woman directors in the world. Varda made her first film, La Pointe-courte, in 1956 and she has directed nearly forty films since. Not simply a woman director, Varda puts women at the center of her films, and it is perhaps due to her influence that the 1970s produced a number of other women directors. Varda was not the only influential woman to make films during the period. Marguerite Duras began her film career working with the male directors of the Nouvelle Vague or New Wave. An accomplished novelist, Duras came to cinema by writing the screenplay for Alain Resnais's Hiroshima mon amour (1959). She wrote numerous other screenplays as well, and in 1967, she began directing.
   As noted, the 1970s marked a veritable revolution in women's filmmaking. Directors such as Diane Kurys and Claire Denis began their careers in that decade. They inspired yet another generation of woman filmmakers in the 1980s and 1990s, including Anne Fontaine and Tonie Marshall. In front of the camera, the actresses of the period were increasingly valued for dramatic ability and less for their physical appearances, a fact that also suggests something of a revolution in film. Deneuve continued to be a force, and the actress Miou Miou came into her own. Other talented actresses appearing onscreen included Sandrine Bonnaire, Fanny Ardant, Juliette Binoche, Isabel Adjani, and Isabelle Huppert. The present day is one in which increasing numbers of women have prominence in front of and behind the camera. They sit on film juries, teach at film schools, and encourage future generations of women to follow in their footsteps.
   Beyond the direct contribution of women, French cinema is interesting for its representation of women onscreen. Very early on, it became evident that women constituted a significant share of the market for film. Filmmakers therefore tried to appeal to that audience, which perhaps explains the diversity of the representations of women that exist in French films. Even in the silent era, there are all sorts of women onscreen. Films such as Pathé's Dix Femmes pour un mari (1905), featured women as aggressive husband hunters. L'Honneur d'un père (1905) featured women as cold, unfeeling, and cruel. Louis Feuillade's Les Vampires (1915) presented women in the roles of victim and femme fatale. In contrast, films featuring Bernhardt depicted powerful women, and films featuring Stacia Napierkowska depicted exotic women.
   Many of these types of roles held into the 1930s and 1940s. Certainly there were femme fatales such as Mireille Balin's Gaby in Julien Duvivier's Pépé le Moko (1937) or Arletty's Clara in Marcel Carné's Le Jour se lève (1939). There were also femme fatales who turned out to be not so fatal, as in Ginette Leclerc's Denise in Henri-Georges Clouzot's classic film, Le Corbeau (1943). This period also offered melodramas and romantic comedies with women in roles ranging from matron to young lover. The most interesting variations to these types of roles began to appear in films by women. Jacqueline Audry's Gigi (1948) in particular was a sort of deconstruction of women's roles in society, and several of Audry's other films would also offer diversity in the presentation of woman onscreen.
   In the 1950s and 1960s, yet another incarnation of the screen woman appeared, the bombshell represented best by Bardot and Carol. In addition to foregrounding the woman's body, the cinema also began to explore women's sexuality (although it was still predominantly through male fantasy). Such films as Max Ophuls's Lola Montés (1955) or Roger Vadim's Et Dieu . . . créa la femme (1956) are obvious examples. In this period, Varda's filmmaking began to expand the possibilities for depicting women onscreen. Cléo de 5 à 7 (1961) offered a more psychologically complex portrait of women (or at least one woman), and Varda would continue pushing boundaries in her exploration of other women, including herself. Even the seemingly macho directors of the Nouvelle Vague or New Wave offered fairly complex meditations on woman's existence. Jean-Luc Godard, in particular, created some very vivid and dynamic female characters in such films as Vivre sa vie (1962).
   As more women have come into the film industry, particularly from the 1970s onward, the representation of women onscreen has been increasingly complex and interesting. Diane Kurys explored the ties that connect women in Coup de foudre (1983). Claire Denis and Coline Serreau have both examined various facets of woman-hood in the contemporary world, questioning the construction of manhood in the same gesture. Brigitte Rouan has also focused on women in films such as Outremer (1990) and Post coïtum (1997). Her particular emphasis is on the psychology of women's everyday lives. Even the women created by men have become more realistic and more diverse. Director Claude Chabrol, for example, has produced screen women as diverse as Emma Bovary in Madame Bovary (1991) and Catherine and Sophie of La Cérémonie (1995). While femme fatales and bombshells still do make their way to the silver screen, they find themselves increasingly in the company of much more complex female characters. This is true in films by both male and female directors. However, it is quite clear that if contemporary male directors do produce some complex portraits of women, it is without question the growing influence of women in the filmmaking industry that has encouraged these more serious explorations of woman onscreen.

Historical Dictionary of French Cinema. . 2007.

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