Liberated: On Women’s Pictures and Feminist Films

Complex women-centered films stood out at this year's Il Cinema Ritrovato, a festival of revivals, retrospectives, and restorations.
Imogen Sara Smith

Stella Dallas (Henry King, 1925).

In the final scene of Stella Dallas (1925), the title character stands in a dark city street in the rain, peering through a window at her daughter’s wedding. This famous image inescapably suggests a viewer gazing at a movie screen: the lighted square of the window, framed by lace-trimmed drapes, even closely matches the aspect ratio of films from the time. This resemblance adds a subtle element of self-commentary to the scene, in which Stella is both punished and exalted. Having exiled herself from her child’s life so as not to hold her back, she gets to witness the fruit of her sacrifice while paying the bitter price, as a policeman curtly orders the bedraggled woman to move along.

When I saw Stella Dallas, newly restored by the Museum of Modern Art, at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2023 in Bologna, I responded to this scene exactly as I was supposed to: by reaching for a third tissue to dab my welling eyes. Every tear was earned by the film’s sensitivity, unaffected naturalism, and clear-eyed honesty.

Directed by Henry King, with a screenplay by Frances Marion based on a 1923 novel by Olive Higgins Prouty, Stella Dallas is the story of a failed cross-class marriage. Stella (the magnificent Belle Bennett) is vivacious and warm-hearted, but incorrigibly vulgar and blowsy. We can believe that the blue-blooded Steven Dallas (Ronald Colman) would be snared by her youthful sensuality and his own loneliness, but soon recoil from her. Their daughter Laurel (played by a 16-year-old Lois Moran, who convincingly ages from a child to a young woman) is innately refined and genteel, but she deeply loves her embarrassing mother. We feel for both of them, doubling the agony of scenes like the birthday party where no one shows up, and mother and daughter choke down cake and ice cream, each trying to be cheerful for the other’s sake; or Laurel’s mortification when her society friends make fun of her tackily overdressed Mom. Stella is not very bright, but her tragedy is to be just bright enough to finally understand that Laurel would be better off without her, and also that her daughter is too loyal to leave unless pushed away. The film is rich with moments of understanding and sympathy passing between women, based on a rueful unspoken knowledge of how the world works.

Stella Dallas is both a textbook example of the “woman’s weepie,” and a rebuke to this condescending and reductive label. Over the past few decades, great progress has been made in reclaiming the melodrama and the woman’s picture from the critical contempt in which they were once held. Yet the question Molly Haskell asked in her groundbreaking 1974 book From Reverence to Rape remains valid: “What more damning comment on the relations between men and women in America than the very notion of something called the ‘woman’s film’?” (Only in America, she points out, were films about relationships, romance, and family herded into a gendered ghetto.) During the studio era, it was Hollywood gospel that women represented the primary audience for movies, and so it was imperative to appeal to them. The result was more and better roles for female stars than at any time since in Hollywood, and a wealth of stories centering women, many penned by female writers; but these stories typically enshrined marriage and motherhood as women’s sole concerns and leaned on tropes of sacrifice and suffering for children or men. Watching Stella watch her daughter’s picture-perfect wedding to a rich, handsome man, weeping in the dark as she weeps in the dark, the female viewer is complicit in an emotional ritual that can feel both manipulative and validating.

Women reigned on many screens in Bologna this year. It helped that the incomparable Anna Magnani loomed over the festival as the star honored in the 2023 edition; no actress has ever been less afraid to take up space and demand attention. During a summer dominated by debates about whether Barbie is a victory for feminism or a corporate sell-out slickly disguised as one, I found myself pondering the range of women-centered films I’d seen—mother-love melodramas, romantic comedies, women’s-prison dramas, domestic tragicomedies, political allegories, and portraits of feminist heroines.

In this last group was Viva Varda! (2023), a documentary by Pierre-Henri Gibert that respectfully peers behind the persona Agnès Varda crafted for herself so carefully in her later career—the quirky, spunky, loveable old lady—to reveal the stubborn, controlling bulldozer she had to be to get her films made. In the documentary, Varda says that if women are ever to achieve equality, narratives have to change, starting with fairy tales and children’s books. “Tradition is charming,” she says, “But it bamboozles them from the start.”

How do we get un-bamboozled? What kind of stories do we need? The films I loved in Bologna—including Stella Dallas—shared a common trait, whether or not they deserved to be called feminist. It was the complexity of female characters who changed and grew, contradicted themselves, were flawed and expansive—who, in short, asserted their full humanity, liberated from constricting types. This is something we should be able to take for granted, but it remains, as it always has been, cause for celebration.

Aloïse (Liliane de Kermadec, 1975).

Varda was one of the filmmakers who encouraged Liliane de Kermadec, who had been the set photographer on Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7 (1964), to try her hand at directing. De Kermadec’s Aloïse, another newly restored film, offers a cryptic, unsettling portrait of the Swiss artist Aloïse Corbaz (1886-1964), who spent the last 46 years of her life institutionalized with schizophrenia, and whose work became part of Jean Dubuffet’s influential collection of art brut. The film came out in 1975, the same year that its star, Delphine Seyrig, an outspoken feminist, played another title character in Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1085 Bruxelles. Aloïse could be read as an allegory of a woman’s stifled desires and frustrated ambitions warping her psyche before finally finding a creative channel. But the film does not encourage any facile interpretation, nor does it overtly blame her plight on the patriarchy.

Shunning the hackneyed tropes of the artist biopic, the script by de Kermadec and André Téchiné is elliptical and enigmatic. The most provocative choice is the casting of two actresses to play Aloïse, whose age range could easily have been spanned by one. A very young, plump-cheeked Isabelle Huppert plays Aloïse as a girl just finishing secondary school, living at home in a Swiss town, and single-mindedly fixated on becoming an opera singer.  Then abruptly the scene jumps to Germany, where Seyrig is a startlingly different Aloïse, working as a governess in the court of Kaiser Wilhelm, affectionately caring for a chaplain’s children. The transition is disorienting and inexplicable. Perhaps it sets up the instability and conflict in her character, foreshadowing the mental breakdown that comes soon after, seemingly sparked by the outbreak of World War I. After episodes of hurling furniture out of windows and making impassioned anti-war speeches, she is committed to an asylum.

The first section of the film is studded with lines that, by themselves, sound like ringing proclamations of independence and aspiration. “I want to sing alone, not with others. I want my voice to be heard,” Aloïse declares, and then, “I’ll walk forward, alone. I’ll lift my head so the light falls on my face.” A note of desperation creeps in as she repeats, “My voice is all I have,” and “I’m lost without my voice.” But Huppert’s Aloïse is mostly silent, obeying social rules for young ladyhood with a sullen, stubborn opacity. The passion and physicality of singing seem increasingly at odds with her retreat into a cramped, hermetic isolation. With its fragmentary narrative and opaque motivations, the film forces the audience to experience Aloïse’s dissociation from her surroundings, as well as the unknowability of her inner world.

In the asylum, the inmates mostly seem paralyzed by sadness. Aloïse begins to scrounge up scraps of paper and writes long, incoherent screeds while locked in the women’s toilet. Then she salvages large pieces of brown wrapping paper and cardboard, stitching them together to make drawings. This section of the film is slow and subdued, often leaving Aloïse to observe the other patients and the doctors. The film withholds any glimpse of her artwork until the end, when the story jumps ahead several decades to reveal an art history professor lecturing to a class on her oeuvre, and then the artist herself, now an old woman, walking through a gallery exhibition of her pictures.

The art comes as a shock. After the drab monotony of the asylum with its gray walls and uniforms, the pictures are aflame with color, especially red and pink. Filling every inch of the cobbled-together canvases with swirling, curvaceous lines, they are dominated by huge figures of women with flowing curls, voluptuous bodies, and dreamy turquoise eyes. Often these goddesses are being embraced or kissed by male lovers in fancy military uniforms, images that evoke romance novels; but the men—as the professor in the film points out to his students—are merely appendages to the women, smaller and half-hidden behind them. Nothing in the film has really prepared us for this hyper-feminine, erotically charged vision of romantic excess. Or perhaps it has, precisely through the absence or repression of sensual joy, the gulf between Aloïse’s intense feelings and her ability to express them.

The Ballad of Tara (Bahram Beyzaie, 1979).

The Iranian director Bahram Beyzaie's The Ballad of Tara (Cherike-ye Tara), which I saw one day after Aloïse, made a ravishing contrast: a film alive with lush color, movement, sensuality, and theatricality, led by a bold and active heroine. Feminism is no subtext here, but a vivid banner flown by a story that is also multilayered and mysterious. The Ballad of Tara was made in 1979, the year of the Iranian Revolution, and was banned before it ever screened in the director’s homeland, though it showed at Cannes in 1980. Unfolding in an enchanted, out-of-time, but naturalistically detailed world that draws on Persian legends and folk rituals, this tale of a young widow’s encounter with a ghostly warrior pits a man’s feudal pride in clan and military glory against a woman’s life-affirming skepticism and materiality, in a contest that is also a love story.

Tara (Susan Taslimi) enters the film driving a cart along a dirt road through a dense green forest. A sustained shot gives us time to absorb her vibrant beauty and proud posture; when the road ends at the beach, she kicks off her shoes and runs into the ocean. Tara is returning to her village from a summer house with her two children. Her father has died, and among a bundle of his belongings she finds a sword. Pragmatically, she tries to use it as a scythe, then to cut wood, chop vegetables, and hold a door shut during a storm, but it suits none of these tasks. After failing to sell it, she hurls it into a river. The sword disappears and reappears throughout the film, changing hands and meanings. In a surreal moment, Tara wields it to kill a dog as it leaps to attack, splashing blood across the screen.

The sword is what the ghost (Manouchehr Farid) comes looking for, at first. A mournful gray figure with bloody arrows sticking out of his back, he laments the erasure of his forgotten tribe, wiped out in an ancient battle. Tara returns the sword to him so that his spirit can rest, but he won’t go away, because he has fallen in love with her. She hears him crying outside her house at night. Meanwhile, two different men from the village seek her hand, and she tells the phantom that she wants an ordinary man and the simple things of life. “I work for every bite of food. Why shouldn’t I laugh and be joyful?”

Yet the mythic past exerts its pull. When the village mounts a Shia passion play for the harvest festival, the staged carnage forms a backdrop for eerie spectral intrusions; a tree that bleeds when it is chopped with an axe, a blood-stained white horse that carries Tara to a ruined fortress amid blowing mist; a host of warriors rising magnificently out of the ocean’s surf carrying a forest of tall pikes, some topped with severed heads. On the beach, Tara’s final confrontation with the ghost veers turbulently between mockery and love, sacrifice and resistance, building to a climax in which she fights the sea itself, slashing at waves as they hurl themselves against her. It is an unforgettable image, which Ehsan Khoshbakht, a co-director of Il Cinema Ritrovato, linked in his introduction to the bravery of Iranian women who have taken to the streets in the protest movement that began in 2022, embracing the slogan “women, life, freedom.” But even before Tara takes up the sword, a turning point seems to come when the warrior gazes at the woman, armed only with her beauty and fearlessness, and admits, “You are stronger.”

Nella città l’inferno (Renato Castellani, 1958).

Today, movies often peddle a cheapened version of the “strong woman”: the one-dimensional, ass-kicking superwoman is just as limiting a model as the self-sacrificing mother. A richly nuanced, ambivalent portrait of the relationship between a weak woman and a stronger one comes in Nella città l’inferno (Hell in the City, 1958), set in a Roman prison. Amid a boisterous portrait of an all-female community, it follows a timid, naïve, helpless victim who is transformed through her contact with a tough cookie—whose own vulnerability is gradually revealed. Written by Suso Cecchi d’Amico along with the director Renato Castellani, the film has little in common with the often-exploitative women’s-prison genre in Hollywood. In this jail, discipline and supervision are minimal; there are no uniforms, strict routines, or sadistic guards. There is a continual ruckus and pandemonium, women yelling between cells, arguing, singing, building open fires to brew coffee. When Lina (Giulietta Masina) arrives, an innocent maid framed for a burglary at her employers’ home, she is traumatized and scared of everything, especially of Egle (Anna Magnani), a sex worker who has been in and out of jail countless times. Egle can be a bully, even cruel at times, but she can also be generous and protective. She shatters Lina’s illusions by proving that it was her boyfriend who set her up, but also teaches her to act self-assured, stick up for herself, and be loyal to her cellmates.

Magnani uses her character’s complexity to show off her virtuosic range, punctuating her worn-out, sardonic deadpan with volcanic eruptions of rage or hilarious exuberance. When Lina bounces back into prison not long after her release, now a streetwalker flaunting a sassy self-confidence and greeting the inmates as old friends, Egle is appalled, even more so after Lina confides that in her new life she has often asked herself, “What would Egle do?” The older woman doesn’t own up to any guilt about leading the younger astray, but her hard shell is cracked by horrors she witnesses, especially her encounter, while doing laundry on a freezing winter day, with a haunted, suicidal woman who drowned her infant daughter.

There is no social message in Nella città l’inferno, nothing about the need for prison reform or the deprivation that drives people to crime—though the woman who killed her child does tell a harrowing story of her destitution. The film never leaves the confines of the prison, and never looks away from the women. Stripped down to their basic humanity, exposed in their petty habits and fears and longings, they blaze with life.

Suso Cecchi d’Amico was also one of the writers on Let’s Hope it’s a Girl (Speriamo che sia femmina, 1986), about a household of women struggling to hold together a ramshackle Tuscan estate. The film has director Mario Monicelli’s trademark tone: it is a comedy of failure, shot through with pitch-black humor, both warm and wry in its acceptance of human foibles and delusions. At the center of this family drama is Liv Ullmann as Elena, the capable, independent head of the household, raising her own daughter and her niece while her sister Claudia (Catherine Deneuve) pursues an acting career in Rome. Elena’s estranged husband is an aristocratic loser (Philippe Noiret) who returns to the estate with an impractical plan to build a spa using his mistress’s money. After he dies in a tragically ridiculous accident, the children blame Elena for being too hard on the poor man and humiliating him with her competence; they unleash their resentment at her for always being strong and in charge.

The film traces a gradual unraveling as death, marriage, immigration, old age, and poverty pull the household apart. There is a Chekhovian mood of melancholy dissolution combined with exalted silliness. The big whitewashed farmhouse molders in the sun amid the buzzing drone of insects in dry grass. In the end, all the women get together for what they think will be a final reunion before the estate is sold. They have shed their sleazy lovers, unfaithful husbands, and annoying fiancés; Elena has even rejected a proposal from the handsome and reliable estate agent, who offers to buy the property and marry her so she can stay.  All the men are gone, except for the senile but irrepressible Uncle Gugo (a scene-stealing Bernard Blier), who keeps trained pigeons, builds tin-can telephones, and earnestly takes up knitting as a hobby. The women cook up a big meal—the consolation feast that Monicelli’s characters so often enjoy as they face the wreck of their dreams. But this time they don’t go their separate ways, like the inept gang in Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958) after their failed heist. They decide to stay and muddle through together, and when Elena’s daughter announces that she is pregnant and will have the child alone, her mother quips, “Let’s hope it’s a girl.” It's a bracing finish for a movie that is both feminist and humanist—and that erases any distinction between the two.

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Festival CoverageIl Cinema RitrovatoIl Cinema Ritrovato 2023Henry KingPierre-Henri GibertLiliane de KermadecBahram BeyzaieRenato CastellaniAnna MagnaniMario Monicelli
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