With just one female-directed film out of 21 in its competition, the Venice film festival drew criticism from women’s movements and the wider film industry. However, in front of the camera, Venice was a different story entirely. Three of the festival’s most anticipated and dissected films were men’s take on matriarchies; stories awash with instinctive, vivacious women who for better or worse operate within a female domain.
Alfonso Cuaron’s monochrome epic Roma, Yorgos Lanthimos’s ruthless period drama The Favourite and Luca Guadagnino’s controversial remake of Dario Argento’s Suspiria arrived at the Lido just days apart, conjuring glowing reviews, titillating headlines and walkouts from the front row. This hothouse industry may well be offering an artificial coincidence with such a convergence of films championing women in positions of power (the films will be released months apart in the UK). But equally, could this clutch of movies signal a much fought-for change in the cinematic landscape? Or is it merely evidence of a fleeting trend fuelled by political opportunism?
The Favourite, as far as its director is concerned at least, has been a passion project for nine years. This account of Queen Anne’s excessive and colourful reign has the smell of Lanthimos all over it, although the shifting dynamic between three women — Olivia Colman’s monarch, Rachel Weisz’s Lady Marlborough and Emma Stone’s social climber Abigail — is a first in his body of work. Lanthimos explains his interest in the story at the festival: “Women are often portrayed as housewives or girlfriends or objects of desire, so we tried in our contribution to show how complicated and complex and wonderful and horrific they are, like every other human being.”
Guadagnino’s Suspiria has also been long in the making. The director and his long-time collaborator Tilda Swinton, both dedicated Argento fans, discussed a remake long before 2009’s I Am Love, starring Swinton, came to fruition. Speaking at Venice after a mixture of cheers and heckling at Suspiria’s early-morning press screening, Guadagnino acknowledged that even though the project was once a pipe dream, there is an unavoidable significance to showing a film such as this in the current climate. “It’s interesting from our point of view, as males — European males — to look at the Me Too movement, which is deeply female and American,” he said. “It was a watershed moment, there’s no coming back from it, that has hit our collective consciousness. Suspiria was made before, but I still like to think that our work, this one, the one before and any future one, always comes from a pleasant will of never being in the position of crushing someone else with your power.”
A complex film that juxtaposes extreme body horror with broader themes of war and violence, Guadagnino’s Suspiria presents some bold, if occasionally self-destructive messages of female survival by any means necessary. “She kept this school running when women were supposed to keep their minds closed and their uteruses open” is a line used to describe Swinton’s elusive Madame Blanc in the film. “Nineteen seventy seven was a very important time for the feminist revolt, particularly in Europe,” said Guadagnino.”We were very interested in that, given the subject of the film.”
Both Suspiria and The Favourite offer more aggressive interpretations of what it means to be part of a matriarchy, where women choose to dominate others. More traditional views instead believe women should be at the helm of a more egalitarian society, following their maternal instincts to create order through respect. The latter prescription is seen in Roma, Cuaron’s arresting character study of a young housemaid, Cleo, and her mistress, set in his native Mexico City in the 1970s.
It’s a film drawn from his childhood memories and based on the real people who shaped them — primarily the nanny who brought him up and his mother, both of whom endured sacrifices to maintain order and happiness in their family home. In an era when race and class were the cause of great divides in Mexico, the two women existed as equals, shouldering each other’s struggles and triumphs in a time of hardship. “This film sees all these women as protagonists,” said Cuaron, praising both the film’s subjects and female actors in his appearance at the festival. “It has been made by all these women and the result is thanks to them.”
Films of this kind have been making themselves known throughout 2018; Toni Collette will be hard to forget as the head of a tormented household in Ari Aster’s chilling debut Hereditary, while smaller releases such as Xavier Beauvois’s The Guardians and Daniel Kokotajlo’s Apostasy draw on the dynamics of women living without men in the contexts of war and religion respectively. Even Incredibles 2 displayed a shift in focus, with mum-of-three Elastigirl stepping up to restore world order while Mr Incredible holds the fort at home. Matriarchal narratives will gain further momentum when Steve McQueen’s Widows, which follows four women bound by the deaths of their criminal husbands, who work together to finish a messy job, goes on release this autumn, with gala showings at the Toronto and London film festivals. Next year, we head to the 1800s for Greta Gerwig’s take on Little Women, with a female cast so stellar that Twitter all but ground to a halt with excitement when the film was officially announced.
For now at least, these voices appear to be getting louder. They’re represented across different times, from different countries, and their stories are being released in varied and accessible ways. And they are having some effect: Venice has signed the 5050 x 2020 pledge, joining festivals such as Cannes and Locarno in agreeing to work harder to improve transparency in their film selection processes, in choosing the members of their juries, and ensuring that half of their top management team are female. Hopefully, these women will collaborate to challenge and change the future of representation in film, in ways not previously thought possible.