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The Feminist New “New Wave” of French Cinema

© Christophe Bailly - States Magazine

Are we done with French cinema? It was the question on the minds of cinephiles across the globe when Jacques Rozier, considered the last surviving member of the French New Wave, died at age 96 earlier this year, following Jean-Luc Godard, Agnès Varda, Claude Chabrol, and Alain Resnais and marking a collective end to the era of iconic insurrectionary spirit that has become synonymous with le cinéma français.

Since the 1960s, like any wave, there have been periods of high and low tides, times when creativity reached a crest, and moments of turbulent troughs. While it would be reductive to call France’s current cinema climate a “new Nouvelle Vague,” there is certainly a tidal wave of talent coming out of the country that is continuing to move with maverick momentum, this time led by a new generation of more diverse voices and spearheaded by female filmmakers.

These auteurs—autrices !—are transforming the traditionally male-dominated French film industry by rewriting the way women are represented on screen. Their paths were paved by pioneering filmmaking femmes like the long-forgotten Alice Guy and “the godmother of the French New Wave” Agnès Varda, whose reimagining of traditional filmmaking conventions opened the door for the narrative and visual rule-breaking of New Wavers and influenced generations of directors thereafter with her eclectic filmography and unparalleled passion.

The pantheon of French auteur cinema has added so many femmes filmmakers in the years since, many of whom are still making films like Claire Denis, Anne Fontaine, Danièle Thompson, Agnès Jaoui, Emmanuelle Bercot, and the always provocative Catherine Breillat.

They have tackled stereotypes along the way, namely the French woman as a projection of male fantasy, an archetype of ideal femininity à la Brigitte Bardot or Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour.

While impossible to put in a box, the current class of camera-toting creators are, like their forefathers (and foremothers like the inimitable Varda), trying to reinvent new ways of filmmaking in form and function. They are writer-directors, also often acting and producing, who are controlling their narratives, leaving their signatures and a part of themselves in their films.

In a departure from the old New Wave, their films are more rooted in reality and explore themes that are not always easy viewing, like abortion, immigration, queer identity, and violent relationships. Their art is a reflection of society rather than an escape from it, but such stories are resonating with audiences. They are winning top prizes at the world’s most acclaimed film festivals and making a dent in the box office. The industry may still be catching up in terms of parity, but there is a groundswell of gifted filmmakers coming out of France today, washing up on shores all over the world that cannot be ignored.

For actress-autrice Zabou Breitman, who has carved out a parallel career on screen and in the director’s chair, “A camera is the eye with which we choose what to show audiences and a true cineaste has the freedom to project life through her own prism.” The cinéastes of this generation are projecting life through their personal prisms, but this time with no filter, forcing audiences to confront the realities faced by women today head-on.

Reflecting reality

This year’s Palme d’or at the Cannes Film Festival went to Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall, a riveting concoction of courtroom drama, whodunit mystery, and dissection of a family dynamic. Triet puts a powerful career woman and mother on trial and, in doing so, scrutinizes society’s often judgmental gaze towards women in all their complexities with a thought-provoking tour de force that lasts long after the final credits roll.

Her intentionally ambiguous filmmaking style lets viewers determine the protagonist’s guilt, much like Alice Diop’s Venice-winning Saint Omer, which proposes a completely different kind of courtroom drama where a trial is simply the backdrop for what is all at once a horror film, a pulsating thriller and a documentary revealing societal truths. In a rare choose-your-own-adventure experience, her nondidactic approach of long sequence shots, stretched moments of silence, and shifting camera angles also turns spectators into honorary jurors who must question their own beliefs.

Audrey Diwan’s Happening launched a global conversation around abortion and women’s rights. Scenes of abortion are so realistically agonizing to watch, but never gratuitous, which makes it all the more harrowing. The film is elegant in its approach, but loud in its impact.

These films all invite nuance and treat the spectator as intelligent. They are disturbing and uncomfortable, yet of a timely urgency and emotional resonance.

Actress Virginie Efira alone has had to deal with some of the most complex issues facing women today. She digs her way out of a toxic relationship in Valerie Donzelli’s Just the Two of Us, grapples with the emotional burdens that societal expectations impose on the lives of women at a certain age in Rebecca Zlotowski’s Other People’s Children, fights for custody of her son in Delphine Deloget’s All To Play For, and survives a traumatic event in Alice Winocour’s Paris Memories.

“Finally there is a feminine perspective on stories about women,” Anissa Bonnefont, known for her emotionally powerful documentaries Wonderboy and Nadia and erotic drama The House that brought viewers into the hidden, often taboo world of sex workers, told me. “There have been so many films particularly about female sexuality told by men so it’s great that this new generation of female filmmakers can bring their gaze to show what it means to be a woman today. It’s really important that these intimate stories about women are told by women, both in the way the script is written and the way they are filmed.”

Making the personal universal

“A film doesn’t make sense unless we make it for the people who will watch it,” explains Mona Achache who continues to challenge conventions, jumping across different cinematic genres from one film to the next or inventing her own. Her films have taken personal stories and made them universal, like Valiant Hearts based on the real-life Holocaust survival story of her own grandmother or intimate docudrama Little Girl Blue that reconstructs her mother’s life on screen, she says, “to allow my children to access their family history and also free myself from my own grief of my mother’s death.”

Mia Hansen-Løve is known for her personal, semi-autobiographical emotional films like her Cannes prize-winning One Fine Morning about a widowed single mother caught between new romance and caring for her ailing father.

Celine Sciamma has become the voice of a generation with her unique approach to coming-of-age narratives and queer identity that manage to be both trying, tumultuous and tender at the same time.

Maiwenn often takes on dual duties in front of and behind the camera and holds a mirror to her own life for a cathartic exercise that invites a shared experience with audiences.

Liberté, égalité….Diversité: New voices emerge

The personal stories being shared are increasingly coming from filmmakers of different origins, adding a more diverse dimension to both their subjects and styles. “There has been a massive arrival of filmmakers from different backgrounds who want to tell stories about the very different life experiences not typically shown on screen,” Achache said.

In 2019, French-Senegalese filmmaker Mati Diop became the first-ever black filmmaker to compete at the Cannes Film Festival with her uniquely haunting migration romantic fantasy feature Atlantics. This year, another French director with Senegalese roots Ramata Toulaye-Sy competed with Banel & Adama, a more lyrical, aesthetically aweing portrait of rural life in Africa.

Maimouna Doucouré brought her singular standpoint to Sundance-winning coming-of-age drama Cuties about adolescent girls growing up between cultures.  Kaouther Ben Hania’s hybrid documentary Four Daughters is also a lesson as much in experimental form as it is in the harrowing history and realities of women in Tunisia.

“There are voices emerging from different horizons who need to express their experiences,” explains Franco-Palestinian-Algerian filmmaker and actress Lina Soualem whose intimate mother-daughter portrait Bye Bye Tiberias is also a microcosm of the experience of several generations of Palestinian women.  She added: “There is a necessity for filmmakers from other origins and communities to tell stories through which they can find their place in French society outside of the labels placed on them.”

Arty and audience-friendly

Lola Quivoron, Lise Akoka and Romane Gueret, Claire Burger, Marie Amachoukeli and Katell Quillévéré are just a handful of the many autrices defining today’s French cinema landscape. Julia Ducournau has redefined the genre film from her cannibal horror Raw to shocking and aweing audiences with her polarizing Palme d’Or-winning Titane that combined head-spinning, gender-bending body horror with family drama, a serial killing spree and sex with a car.

Lea Mysius has stood out with her debut coming-of-age feature Ava and genre-defying supernatural second feature The Five Devils, Iris Kaltenback enraptured audiences with her slow burn thriller The Rapture, and Celine Devaux managed to seamlessly combine romantic comedy, salty satire and animation in Everybody Loves Jeanne.

Today’s filmmakers are proving that ‘creative’ and ‘commercial’ aren’t mutually exclusive terms, that they can be tour de forces on the festival and awards circuits and also sell tickets. Melanie Laurent’s Wingwomen may be a starry Netflix action thriller, but packs her own signature auteur punch and debunks stereotypes of what it means to be a strong woman on screen with a trio of protagonists that flawlessly balance fierceness and femininity.

Julie Delpy has made her mark with an eclectic blend of trans-Atlantic romantic comedies, historical psychodrama and comedies brushed with her Delpy-esque dark humor. Geraldine Nakache has also managed to seduce audiences with her signature concoction of humor and heart.

Fabienne Silvestre, who runs Le Lab Femmes de Cinema said: “It’s undeniable that this generation of women filmmakers are able to make excellent films, but also films that work.”  The proof is in the popcorn.

Anatomy of a Fall has managed to sell across the globe and sold upwards of 1m tickets during its first few weeks in French theatres. Lea Domenach’s Bernadette and Maiwenn’s Jeanne du Barry are among this year’s success stories, and Rebecca Zlotowski, Alice Winocour, Celine Sciamma and Valerie Donzelli’s films have all performed well at the box office in recent years.

“There is certainly a new generation of filmmakers emerging in France,” says Marie-Ange Luciani, co-producer of Anatomy of a Fall and upcoming projects from Lea Mysius and Claire Burger. “It’s not an overnight revolution, but something is happening. There is a real singularity in what each of these filmmakers offer.”

Luciani owes the upsurge in such a rich offering to France’s long-admired and complex film financing and distribution ecosystem. “This famous ‘cultural exception’ that we are constantly defending allows us to experiment differently than in other countries. Our system of aid allows us to continue to take risks and to tell unique stories.”

Sea change

As female voices continue to tell these unique stories, the numbers, however, tell another tale. Women directors made just 26% of European feature films released between 2018 and 2022, a mere 1% increase from the 2017-2121 period and a far cry from the goal of a 50-50 parity with their male counterparts. Only two women have won the Palme d’Or in 75 editions of the Cannes Film Festival.

In the 47-year history of the César awards, only one woman—Tonie Marshall for Venus Beauty Institute in 2000—has ever won the best director prize.  The average budget for female-directed films is 20% lower than that of male directors.

“We have to fight harder as women to make films today than men—it’s a fact,” says Bonnefont.

Silvestre adds: “The numbers are evolving too slowly.” At the rate that the ratio of female-male directors is evolving in Europe namely from 19% in 2012 to 23.6% in 2021, she says, “we won’t have parity until 2080.”

France’s national Cinema Centre the CNC has taken steps to change this. After launching a production parity bonus in 2019, offering rebates for projects whose director or key crew members are women, a historical 33% of films made in 2022 were directed or co-directed by women.

Budgets are also starting to slowly rise along with more ambitious, more commercial, audience-geared female-directed projects who also put strong female characters on the screen like Geraldine Danon’s Flo about French sailor Florence Arthaud navigating a career in a male-dominated world or Aude Léa Rapin’s sci-fi thriller Planet B that already looks poised to shake up the dystopian actioner with femme-fueled flair.

While the quantity hasn’t yet caught up to the quality, Bonnefont said: “It’s great to see that women continue to be among the filmmakers who matter in France today, that they are finally coming out of the shadows.”

As Agnes Varda once said: “The first feminist gesture is to say: “OK, they’re looking at me. But I’m looking at them.”

This article was first published in States #2, the yearly magazine by Villa Albertine published in January 2024.

Rebecca Lefler is an American journalist. She covers the French film and TV industry for Screen International. She also contributed to the launch of Le Dispatch, a newsletter on the French screen industries published by Ecran Total.

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