The Milk of Sorrow
Is there such a thing as a female gaze? It’s an almost perversely complicated question. On one hand, no doubt women’s desire has its own unique manifestations. On the other, the gaze implies the mind, and the idea of a “female brain” inevitably leads to some unpleasant associations (the infamous, still painfully recent statements by one ex-Harvard president about women scientists being inferior due to “biology” come to mind). Should we then let the question be?
Don’t expect the current retrospective on view at New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center and dedicated to the female gaze—highlighting the work of women cinematographers—to be able to answer it in any definitive way. Yet some of its most fascinating films suggest that women cinematographers—and filmmakers—are able to transmit the idea, and the disconcerting sensation of always questioning gender and the expectations it entails into thrilling cinematic experiences. Among these, the pairings where both filmmaker and cinematographer are female prove particularly striking.
Take Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats (2017), filmed by Hélène Louvart. Louvart’s cinematography is so intimate it keeps you flinching, guessing, waiting to exhale. The saturation of color breathes the spaciousness of Brooklyn’s Coney Island, the freshness of air, the Americana with the Ferris wheel and cotton candy. But Hittman’s main protagonist, Frankie (Harris Dickinson) is also very much a nocturnal, crepuscular creature: at first furtively searching the Internet for men in sex chat rooms, resisting any real physical contact, and only slowly coming around to what truly excites him.
It’s telling that in this project directed and filmed by women the secondary roles take on particular importance: Frankie’s real maturation lies not only in his acceptance of his sexuality, and in his steady differentiation from his male buddies, but also in how he relates to his wannabe girlfriend, Simone (Madeline Weinstein), and to his mother, Donna (Kate Hodge). Simone is an obstacle—a trophy meant to prove Frankie’s masculinity to his pals, and the cause of anxiousness for Frankie, who would much rather hook up with men, even if it means forsaking real sexual fulfillment. But Frankie grows to recognize the lameness of his put-upon game, as well as its futility, and his final treatment of Simone partly reflects it. Similarly in his relationship with Donna, Frankie comes around: He goes from self-centered and tight-lipped, as teenagers can be, to more mindful of his mother’s reeling from his father’s fatal illness. Fallible yet warm.
Beach Rats features many mirror scenes—quick reflections, gazes, critical reassessments, meant to re-establish one’s identity based on looks, on what we believe we must be in the eyes of others. In one shot, Frankie’s mirror reflection hovers in the air, as if he were literally doubling, his ego and his id, multiple yet dueling, side by side. This kind of doubling of course isn’t limited to or keener for women. Except perhaps for the heightened awareness that one’s gaze always requires additional validation—that is, speaks not from the position of power and dominance (no matter how difficult it might be to maintain it), but from that “other,” more easily invalidated place.
This gaze is again present in another two-women project, Tomboy (2011), directed by Céline Sciamma and photographed by Crystel Fournier. The film deals with a much younger protagonist and is free of the visual contrasts or the alluring saturation that rule over Beach Rats. Yet in this mellower color scheme we encounter again the furtive, multiple glances, insistent and filled with angst. In the film, ten-year-old Laure (Zoé Héran) has a secret she keeps from her family: Ever since moving into a new neighborhood, Laure has managed to introduce herself and make friends as Mickäel. A spur-of-the-moment decision soon leads to complications. How to sustain the image of masculinity at such a tender age? How to bathe with others, appear gangly enough, and ward off pesky questions? Laure still has the strength, and the boyish, pre-puberty looks, but can she fully pass when it comes to her love interest, Jeanne (Malonn Lévana)?
Perhaps most poignant is the oppressive aura of psychological violence when Laure’s mother asserts her sense of what’s right, or practical: Laure must return to dresses, she must be Laure, if she is to start school, keep the family in place and social ties in order, no matter what’s at stake. There’s real heartache in this decision, and for a moment it seems that everything culminates in that sometimes hated symbol that only girls can know with such immediate passion and vehemence: the dress. And the sense that the real reckoning, the price for all this, will result in much bigger things, later.
There is another brief scene like this in the otherwise muted The Milk of Sorrow (2009), directed by Claudia Llosa, with cinematography by Natasha Braier, in which a young rural girl, Fausta (Magaly Solier) ends up working as help in the home of a sophisticated female singer. The employer offers to trade Fausta’s tunes of folkloric songs for a single pearl per song. In one shot, we see the pearls on a silver scale. In another, filled with green light, the two women are on their knees in a bathroom, painstakingly collecting pearls from a snapped necklace. No doubt an image that a male filmmaker could sneak in, watching or helping his mother or grandmother, yet one that to women brings up an immediate connotation of a certain wealth and sophistication, here mixed to a great effect with dire social distress, accentuated by Fausta’s constant intent surveillance of the outside world, her peeking always apprehensive and fearful of any physical invasiveness.
The gaze can also become a prison, as in Chantal Akerman’s psychological noir, La Captive
(2000), with cinematography by Sabine Lancelin, and starring Sylvie Testud as Ariane, the mysterious love interest of obsessed, and repressed, Simon, played by Stanislas Merhar. Merhar has played his share of complex, fragile effeminate men, perhaps most memorably as the tragicomic husband in Andrzej Żuławski’s L’important c’est d’aimer
. In Akerman’s film, as Simon, he is a consummate manipulator, sending Ariane off to spend time with their beautiful female friend, Andrée (Olivia Bonamy), then maniacally demanding to know each single detail of their encounters.
Although the film is outwardly driven by Simon’s gaze, it is Ariane’s blank expression that ends up being most intriguing. What hides behind her deliberate subjugation to Simon’s will? His life is aristocratic yet dull, devoid of any real passion to stir his anemic soul, giving this whole plot a sense of a feckless puppet master pulling the strings. Appropriately, we often see Ariane in repose, appearing to be asleep, or lifeless. In the end, Akerman painfully transmits the condition of captivity—being held by another’s gaze and scrutiny to the point of madness, and being locked out of it too, sensing one’s invisibility and, ultimately, the agonizing precariousness of love. In La Captive, whose final scene faintly echoes the romantic fatalism of so many literary and film heroines—Kate Chopin’s The Awakening most evocatively—only death robs the gaze of its suffocating power.
Akerman plays once again on the themes of invisibility and captivity in her cult feminist masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), with cinematography by Babette Mangolte, which is a beautiful illustration of how another pair of women collaborators can achieve a similarly claustrophobic effect, via entirely different means. In Jeanne Dielman, there is no stand-in gaze to lead us. The camera serves as an objective eye, often framing the main character, the housewife, Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig), in mid or full shots, and thus refusing us a more privileged intimate access, as in the films of Hittman or Sciamma, even more so than in La Captive.
Placed in the “Female Gaze” series, Akerman’s film comes across as, in some sense, an obliteration of the gaze. For sure, our own eyes are steady on Jeanne, watching her constant mechanical motions to the point of seeming choreographed, as she goes through her routine of shopping, cleaning, dusting, folding, fussing. And so much grooming, the entire pastel palette—the pale green walls, the muted browns—subsumed into this rigor of cleanliness, of feminine, motherly preservation of order. All this is underscored by the shots’ long duration that stress repetition, purposefully bordering on tediousness.
This is brutal enough, highlighting how the sex isn’t the only deadening or robotic action but rather an extension of this particular body’s compartmentalization and seeming detachment from such humanistic terms as desire, fulfillment, or love. Even more remarkable in their blunt commonplace setting are the dinner scenes, in which Jeanne sets the table, serves, and eats mostly in silence with her young son—the single substitute for love in the entire film—while being virtually unnoticed by him. In another scene, when he mentions what he would have done, if he were a woman, presenting us with an idealized vision of romantic love, Jeanne hovers in semi darkness, at the back of the frame—again, obscured. These scenes underscore the absence of gaze. There are mirrors at 23, quai du commerce, but unlike the younger characters in this series, Jeanne is reflected in them just twice: As she gets dressed before sex, and then as she dresses after the act, at the end of which she tried to wiggle herself from under the man’s weight. In the latter scene, Jeanne looks down. She never gazes into the mirrors deliberately, asking herself who she is, or might be. The release comes instead, as it does in La Captive, in a desperate act—the cycle broken only by leashing out, and death.