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These Fall Films Authentically Capture Female Sexuality

Four films that refreshingly avoid catering to the male gaze.
By  · Published on September 20th, 2017

Four films that refreshingly avoid catering to the male gaze.

“The camera and its misuses in the well-regarded French entry Blue Is the Warmest Color could fill pages,” Manohla Dargis of The New York Times famously (and in my opinion, rightfully) wrote about Abdellatif Kechiche’s 2013 Cannes Film Festival winner in her festival dispatch. In her piece (and a follow-up later that year), Dargis argued Kechiche’s film seemed to care more about the director’s desires than that of the main character Adéle in the extended sex scenes, through the way they were filmed and orchestrated.

On-screen depiction of female sexuality is undoubtedly no easy undertaking. And when it solely caters to ‘the male gaze’ (an overused phrase that perhaps lost a bit of its meaning in the discourse of feminist film), the resulting artificiality can indeed mount to cringe-inducing images to endure. In considering how the camera captures the female body, sexuality, and sexual awakening in contemporary film, Dargis’ insights became a guiding voice for me, as she precisely articulated the very issue that had also bothered me about Blue Is The Warmest Color (a film I otherwise find to be a wonderful character study of a young woman with a bottomless craving for life.) And surely, from Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz and Todd Haynes’ Carol to Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden, there are various recent and excellent efforts in cinema that engage with sex from a female-friendy angle. Still, it’s no surprise that I often find myself thinking about Dargis’ words whenever female sexuality appears on screen. This has very much been the case during the ongoing Fall Film Festival season, with one welcome exception: to my pleasant surprise, several of this year’s offerings, I found, are in direct contrast to the experience of watching Blue. The season is surprisingly full of movies that manage to represent female sexuality authentically with genuine care for the character. These works are by both male and female directors and portray both gay and straight sex scenes (note: one is, well, between a woman and a merman) that expressively and frankly zero in on womanly sexual awakenings without objectifying the female body, despite showing plenty of nudity.

Writer-director Greta Gerwig’s exquisitely constructed and richly written Lady Bird, which premiered in Telluride Film Festival a few short weeks ago, is not a ‘teenage sexual awakening film’ like Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Yet, the clumsy bedroom encounters of its main character Christine (Saoirse Ronan, delicately playing a senior year high school student) are very much a part of the story. In charting Christine’s sexual trials, Gerwig puts her female gaze to work and keeps the focus on Christine, making us feel the unease and the pain of her early sexual discoveries with boys who are either growing into their own identities or are plainly inexperienced and selfishly bad in bed. She captures the discomfort of Christine’s womanly firsts with both humor and a startling sense of honesty, making these tricky early experiments look like what they really are for women: often unsexy, awkward and emotionally taxing.

In Guillermo del Toro’s lovely, Venice Film Festival-winning grown-up fairy tale The Shape of Water (co-written by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor), we follow a 30-something mute woman (Sally Hawkins) who lives in a shabby apartment and works at a government research facility in 1960s Baltimore. The Shape of Water is really a film about oddness, loneliness and the struggle to carve out an escape route from isolation. So the sexuality of its lead character Eliza is also built around these concepts. Before she meets her eventual love at her workplace (a tortured fishman imprisoned in a dingy vault of the lab), Eliza’s routine consists of orderly chores, helping her equally lonely neighbor (Richard Jenkins) and…masturbation. We know instantly that she craves the erotic company of a body who will tend to her physical and emotional needs and but we don’t spend too much time with her during her private sessions in the bathtub. The camera spins around and gives us a glimpse of her freely pleasuring herself stark naked, but does not linger on her for too long or caress her body gratuitously. And when she finally has sex with her merman mate, the camera chooses to adore the union of the odd couple instead of the details of Sally Hawkins’ nude body.

Co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ Battle of the Sexes (also a Telluride premiere) might be a biopic about the legendary tennis champion Billie Jean King and the events that lead to the iconic match between her and Bobby Riggs, but at its heart lies a love story and a parallel storyline of sexual awakening. Happily married to a supportive man, Bille Jean (Emma Stone) discovers her true sexual identity when she meets a female hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough) who openly flirts with her while styling Billie Jean’s hair for the first time. It’s a sequence that involves no sex, yet it manages to be truly sensual and steamy thanks to the camera’s insistence of capturing the characters’ attraction to each other and Billie Jean’s growing helplessness in the presence of a woman she visibly finds irresistible. Directors Dayton and Faris (along with La La Land cinematographer Linus Sandgren) stay close to the characters; rotate around them and successfully see the way the women see and respond to each other. Their first-time sex receives the same respectful treatment, demonstrating how intimacy can feel realistic without making the female characters seem like they’re putting a show for male eyeballs.

In Joachim Trier’s Thelma (which recently made its debut at Toronto International Film Festival), the sexual awakening of a young woman unfolds in the midst of a spiritual and fantastical psychodrama that depicts and critiques religious oppression. Starting university in Oslo, Thelma (a good-natured, quiet home-schooled girl with a mysterious past) not only grows into her voice once she moves away from her suburban home but also discovers she has life-threatening powers she can’t control. Her key to finding herself proves to be a confident student named Anja. Not dissimilar to the sensibilities of the camera in Battle of the Sexes, Trier’s lens respects the sexual encounters between Thelma and Anja. It manages to highlight the eroticism between the two young women without dwelling on their body parts for audience’s sake. In an exquisite sequence filmed in an opera house, Anja makes a secret move on Thelma, provoking her desires and eventual awakening. Trier keeps his focus on Thelma’s psyche during this scene and others to come, making her internal struggles and budding desires both believable and relatable at once.

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Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.