Screen Studies - Introduction
Cinema and the Second Sex
Cinema and the Second Sex

Carrie Tarr

Carrie Tarr, Senior Research Fellow at Thames Valley University, UK with Brigitte Rollet, Lecturer in French Cinema and Literature at Portsmouth University, UK Carrie Tarr, Senior Research Fellow at Thames Valley University, UK Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

Search for publications
and Brigitte Rollet

Brigitte Rollet, Lecturer in French Cinema and Literature at Portsmouth University, UK --This text refers to the Paperback edition. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

Search for publications

Bloomsbury Academic, 2016


Content Type:

Book chapter



Related Content


DOI: 10.5040/9781501340260.0006
Page Range: 1–22

Women’s filmmaking in France

Women’s filmmaking in France is a source of both delight and despair. On the one hand the sheer numbers of women directors working in the French film industry in 1999, the year of the fiftieth anniversary of Simone de Beauvoir’s groundbreaking analysis of women’s condition in The Second Sex (Beauvoir, 1949), are an indication of how far women have progressed since the early postwar years. Whereas in 1949 Jacqueline Audry was the only woman director making feature films (a handful of others were making documentaries and shorts), in the three years up to 1999 over fifty women directors had a feature-length film released. In 1999 alone, nineteen films directed by women received a theatrical release, and even more have been released in 2000. Women’s films have been selected in unprecedented numbers for screening at international film festivals (Dacbert and Caradec, 1999), including various sections of Cannes in both 1999 and 2000. The 2000 French César ceremony consecrated women’s filmmaking by giving four awards, including best director, to Tonie Marshall’s Vénus Beauté (Institut), the first award to a film directed by a woman since Coline Serreau’s smash hit, Trois hommes et un couffin, in 1985. It also gave a lifetime award to actress-director Josiane Balasko, whose best known film to date is the internationally successful Gazon maudit (1995). The presence in strength of women directors seems to be a fait accompli, even if, as Françoise Audé has pointed out, their work over the decade of the 1990s as a whole actually constitutes only 14 percent of France’s annual production and is best described as ‘progress, not a tidal wave’ (Audé 2000: 73).[1] On the other hand, despite the heritage of Beauvoir’s work and the women’s movement of the 1970s, French women directors characteristically disclaim their gender as a significant factor in their filmmaking and their films lack a critical engagement with feminism and feminist film theory as it has developed in Britain, Germany and the United States over the last twenty years.

Both factors may come as something of a surprise to the majority of English and American readers whose access to French women’s filmmaking has, until recently, been limited to the small numbers of films which have been distributed outside France and to feminist criticism which has largely focused on a handful of individual women auteurs.[2] These works have consolidated a certain pantheon of French or French-language women filmmakers, in particular Germaine Dulac, Marguerite Duras, Agnès Varda, Nelly Kaplan and Chantal Akerman, whose films have made an important contribution to the history of European women’s filmmaking as well as to film style more generally.[3] At the same time, over the last twenty years several women directors have reached large, often international audiences, either through intimate psychological dramas (often inspired by their own experiences) or through the appropriation of popular film genres, particularly comedy.[4] Diane Kurys and Coline Serreau have been the subject of critical attention (Rollet, 1998, Tarr, 1999a) and at the end of the decade there have been major retrospectives of the work of Catherine Breillat and Claire Denis. However, the vast majority of French women film directors have not become widely known outside France.[5]

Not only have French films directed by women not been distributed abroad in any quantity, but the extent and range of women’s filmmaking in France has consistently been underrecognized and undervalued in general histories of French cinema.[6] Only Françoise Audé’s Ciné-modèles Cinéma d’elles (1981) and Paule Lejeune’s Le Cinéma des femmes (1987) offer comprehensive overviews of the history and range of women’s filmmaking, both of which need updating and are unavailable in English. Denise Brahimi’s Cinéastes françaises (1999) provides a more recent but rather selective overview of a century of women’s filmmaking in France. And although dictionaries and surveys of ‘le jeune cinéma français’ (‘young French cinema’) of the mid to late 1990s acknowledge the presence of individual women filmmakers among the latest generation of young directors (Trémois, 1997, Chauville, 1998, Marie, 1998), this information is not widely available to an English-speaking readership.

The first aim of this book, then, is to redress gaps and absences in the critical recognition of women’s filmmaking in France by providing information about the range of feature films and feature-length documentary and essay films directed by women in the 1980s and 1990s.[7] Figure 1 charts the evolution of women’s filmmaking since 1980, showing how many films per year were directed (or co-directed) by women, and what proportion of France’s total film production they were. Whereas there were 102 films by women in the 1980s and their annual output was very irregular, reaching its nadir in 1984, numbers increased by more than 60 percent in the 1990s, showing a stabilization from 1988 onwards and reaching a high point in 1995 of 24 films, 21 percent of France’s production for the year. The corpus of films on which this study is based (listed in the Filmography) thus consists of over 260 films, 9.5 percent of France’s total film production for the period in question, but 13.7 percent in relation to the 1990s. Of the more than 100 women directors involved, many have now achieved a significant body of work.[8] Just how significant these figures are becomes clear when compared with the lower proportion of women directors in the United States, who in 1999 ‘accounted for 10.2 percent of the total days worked, compared with 4 percent in 1985’ (Trodd, 2000).[9]

Table 1. Numbers of French films (including majority French co-productions) directed (or co-directed) by women compared with total annual production 1980–1999













































Total 1980s

102:1594 (6.4%)

Total 1990s

166:1213 (13.7%)

Total overall: 267/2807 = 9.5%

(Information supplied by the CNC. Figures are for films over 59 minutes.)

The second aim is to trace through and explore the evolution of the kinds of films women have been making during a period dominated by ‘postfeminist’ assumptions.[10] The election of a Socialist government in France in 1981 may have promised the consolidation of many of the demands made by the women’s movement of the 1970s, but there was a strong backlash against feminism in politics, culture and the media (Bard, 1999, Mossuz-Lavau, 1999), and feminism in the 1980s quickly came to be perceived as ‘a relic from the past… a dinosaur’ (Vincendeau, 1987: 4). Women directors did not always find it easy to get funding (even Agnès Varda’s Sans toit ni loi was refused the avance sur recettes, the advance on box office receipts[11]). And as the women’s movement and the ideological framework provided by feminism gradually disappeared from the public sphere, women directors either gave up making films, turned to television as a more hospitable but less prestigious alternative, or began making films with a less overtly political feminist agenda than those of the 1970s.[12]

Table 2. Top box office films by women in France in the 1980s

Film (Director, Year of Release)


1. Trois hommes et un couffin (Coline Serreau, 1985)


2. Coup de foudre (Diane Kurys, 1983)


3. Rue cases-nègres (Euzhan Palcy, 1983)


4. Sans toit ni loi (Agnès Varda, 1985)


5. Les Keufs (Josiane Balasko, 1987)


6. L’Amour nu (Yannick Bellon, 1981)


7. Romuald et Juliette (Coline Serreau, 1989)


8. Chocolat (Claire Denis, 1988)


9. Un homme amoureux (Diane Kurys, 1987)


10. Rouge baiser (Vera Belmont, 1985)


Certainly, individual filmmakers of the 1980s continued to foreground women’s issues and female points of view, particularly in intimate, often semi-autobiographical psychological dramas, such as Diane Kurys’s Coup de foudre (1983), Catherine Breillat’s 36 Fillette (1988) and Claire Denis’s Chocolat (1988). In these films, as in many women’s films of the 1970s, ‘the male gaze has been displaced which allows for desire to be represented differently’ (Hayward, 1993: 258). However, a number of other, often younger filmmakers, like Caroline Roboh with Clémentine Tango (1983), Juliet Berto with Havre (1986) and Virginie Thévenet with Jeux d’artifices (1987), were seduced by the ‘cinéma du look’, the stylish, youth-oriented, non-naturalistic cinema of the 1980s associated with the films of Jean-Jacques Beineix, Luc Besson and Léos Carax, with its fetishizing approach to sexuality and eroticism (Vincendeau 1987: 16). Others, like Yannick Bellon with La Triche (1984), Coline Serreau with Trois hommes et un couffin (1985) and Josiane Balasko with Sac de noeuds (1985), made films which attracted mainstream audiences through their appropriation of genre filmmaking, especially comedies and crime dramas which had hitherto been traditionally orientated towards men. Figure 2 sets out the most commercially successful films by women in the 1980s, which include three comedies, four psychological dramas set in the past (based on childhood/adolescence), and three more contemporary ‘women’s films’, focusing on the dilemmas of modern women.

The shift from (relatively) small-scale feminist filmmaking on the margins in the 1970s to more mainstream filmmaking in the 1980s, and especially the appropriation of popular genres, raises a number of questions about the impact women can make on cinema as women. In fact, although the emergence of women directors in the 1970s was important both symbolically and numerically, their influence on the film industry was fairly limited, particularly due to the difficulties they faced getting their films funded and distributed.[13] Moving into the mainstream for some meant getting larger budgets, working with major stars, and reaching larger audiences. Arguably, however, it also meant a loss of freedom to work with issues explicitly pertinent to women, especially in a male-dominated industry where French women have felt obliged to disclaim their gender, and in a society where issues relating to gender inequalities and sexual difference have been persistently obscured by discourses on Republican universalism inherited from the French revolution. The question, then, is to what extent films directed by women in a ‘postfeminist’ climate in France continue to address women’s issues and, at the very least, remain informed by what Annette Kuhn, drawing on Andrea Stuart (1990), refers to as ‘popular feminism’, namely ‘a type of feminism that does not name itself as such but which nonetheless takes for granted issues and ideas put on the agenda by feminists’ (Kuhn, 1990: 230).

One of the consequences of the choice made by women directors in France to work within the constraints of mainstream French cinema is their decision not to have their films premiered at the Créteil International Women’s Film Festival for fear of their being ghettoized as ‘women’s films’. Yet, paradoxically, the Créteil festival itself represents another major achievement of feminism in France, and is now the largest women’s film festival in the world (recognized for its cultural contribution in 2000 by the award of an Olympe).[14] The mismatch between the ambitions of women directors and the forum provided by the festival, which has itself been obliged to broaden its outlook to attract a wider audience than in its early feminist days, are further indications of the problems in foregrounding gendered approaches to cultural production in France.[15] The lack of public debate about questions of representation is compounded by the ongoing lack of legitimacy of feminism within the French academy, either through the development of women’s studies[16] or as a critical practice within film studies departments, and by the absence of feminist critical approaches within French film criticism (with the honorable exception of Françoise Audé at Positif).[17]

In the mid to late 1990s, however, there has been a further quantitative and qualitative shift in women’s filmmaking, as well as a shift in the political climate in France. On the one hand, the decade is marked by the growing recognition of the work of a generation of women directors who started making films in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Alongside Catherine Breillat and Claire Denis, women like Catherine Corsini, Nicole Garcia, Jeanne Labrune, Tonie Marshall and Brigitte Roüan, many of whom were originally actresses, have been making films which often center, unusually, on the representation of older women’s desires and identities. Women of this generation like Josiane Balasko, Claire Devers, Philomène Esposito and Coline Serreau are also now able to command big budgets for their star-studded genre films.[18] On the other hand, a new generation of women filmmakers has emerged, born in the 1960s, many of whom trained at the FEMIS (Institut de Formation et d’Enseignement pour les Métiers de l’Image et du Son) and draw on a wide knowledge of film culture.[19] This ‘nouvelle “Nouvelle Vague” (Gillain, 1995), heralded in 1993 by Laurence Ferreira Barbosa’s Les Gens normaux n’ont rien d’exceptionnel and Agnès Merlet’s Le Fils du requin and followed in 1994 by Martine Dugowson’s Mina Tannenbaum and Pascale Ferran’s Petits arrangements avec les mortes, includes young filmmakers like Christine Carrière, Noémie Lvovsky and Laetitia Masson. These women, working alongside male filmmakers such as Xavier Beauvois, Arnaud Desplechin and Cédric Klapisch, have found it easier to get funding than in the past even if, like the majority of films by women, their films are generally characterized by smaller than average budgets.[20] (According to CNC figures, 18 films directed by women received the avance sur recettes in 1993 out of 55 successful applications, compared with 7 out of 52 in 1986.) Furthermore, their films tend to center on complex, restless young female protagonists who reject conventional femininity, creating star roles for a new generation of actresses such as Sandrine Kiberlain, Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi and Karin Viard.[21] At the same time, as Anne Gillain has noted (1995: 24), a number of films of this period are characterized by their identification with other marginalized figures, particularly children and gay and/or ethnic minority men.

This development has taken place against the backdrop of an alleged ‘retour du politique’ (return of politics) at the end of the Mitterrand era, symbolized by the transport strikes of December 1995 and by protests at the treatment of the sans papiers (literally ‘people without papers’), brought to the attention of the public by the February 1997 demonstration spearheaded by FEMIS graduates Arnaud Desplechin and Pascale Ferran.[22] The political climate of the mid to late 1990s was also marked both by the revival of specifically feminist (or feminist-inspired) discourses, thanks to the campaign for political parity[23] and debates about the feminization of work titles,[24] and by the growing recognition of gays and lesbians,[25] in particular through the campaign for the PACS (Pacte Civil de Solidarité) which resulted in the formal recognition of gay and lesbian couples (Holtz, 2000).[26] The influence of politics on the ‘jeune cinéma français’ may not be as evident as in the filmmaking practices of their 1970s forebears, but their films contrast with the designer films of the ‘cinéma du look’ of the 1980s, both in their topics, which take account of contemporary social issues such as unemployment, drug abuse and AIDS, and in their style, which tends to combine aesthetic and technical innovation with documentary forms of realism.[27] In addition, there has been a marked renewal of interest in documentaries foregrounding social and political issues (Millet, 1998), evident in the work of filmmakers like Dominique Cabrera, Claire Simon and Yamina Benguigui, and supported by television companies like the Franco-German channel ARTE (Association Relative à la Télévision Européenne)[28] and Canal Plus. Our exploration of the evolution of women’s filmmaking thus aims to assess the extent to which films of the mid to late 1990s, particularly films made by the new generation of women directors, are informed by the ‘retour du politique’, especially in their articulation of female subjectivities and desires. Of the ten most commercially successful films by women in the 1990s listed in Figure 3, however, only Y aura-t-il de la neige à Noël?, a harsh yet poetic rural drama by newcomer Sandrine Veysset is typical of ‘le jeune cinéma français’. The others are indicative of the growing strength of women’s genre filmmaking, including six comedies and one crime drama, alongside a male melodrama and Vénus Beauté (Institut), a ‘woman’s film’ which combines melodrama with elements of comedy.

Table 3. Top box office films by women in France in the 1990s

Film (Director, Year of Release)


1. Gazon Maudit (Josiane Balasko, 1995)


2. La Crise (Coline Serreau, 1992)


3. Vénus Beauté (Institut) (Tonie Marshall, 1999)


4. Ma vie est un enfer (Josiane Balasko, 1991)


5. La Bûche (Danièle Thompson, 1999)


6. Place Vendôme (Nicole Garcia, 1998)


7. Le Derrière (Valérie Lemercier, 1999)


8. Y’aura-t-il de la neige à Noël? (Sandrine Veysset, 1996)


9. La Belle verte (Coline Serreau, 1996)


10. Le Fils préféré (Nicole Garcia, 1994)


Films by women/‘women’s films’

Before assessing the impact of ‘postfeminism’, mainstreaming and ‘le retour du politique’ on the types of films directed by women of different generations in France, we need to examine more closely the implications (and limitations) of a study focusing only on films directed by women, an approach which, arguably, relies both on an auteurist approach to film and an essentialist approach to gender. As far as the question of gender is concerned, our study is based not on the assumption of essentialist differences between men and women, but rather on the supposition that women (itself a heterogenous category), experience different sets of socal relations and discourses which potentially inflect their cinematic production. Even though there have been significant social changes over the last fifty years, women within French society (as elsewhere) are still in many respects positioned as the ‘second sex’, a fact we draw attention to through our use of Simone de Beauvoir’s terminology.[29] Our selection of films enables us to assess the impact of women’s increased access to the film industry through a set of texts which, as a group, provide an insight into the significance of gender at a particular moment in French film history. We do not focus on individual women auteurs, though an auteurist approach may be relevant to discussions of specific films or sets of films. We do, wherever possible, refer to the creative contributions of women other than directors, whether as screenwriters, producers, cinematographers or actresses, as well as drawing attention to women’s productive collaboration with men.[30] However, we are aware that our study is far from exhaustive and trust that other researchers will take up where it ends and produce other analyses of how films made in France are inflected by questions of gender.

Brigitte Roüan, Tonie Marshall and Magali Clément receive their bouquets at the 1993 Créteil International Women’s Film Festival. (C) Brigitte Pougeoise.

At the same time, there is a particular rationale for taking authorship as a critical starting point in relation to ‘cinema and the second sex’. Contemporary French cinema is still dominated by the ‘politique des auteurs’ (‘politics of authorship’) famously developed by François Truffaut in the Cahiers du cinéma in the 1950s (Truffaut, 1976). Auteur cinema can be defined by its preoccupation with locating a film’s source of meaning in the originality and personal self-expression of its director, an approach which was subsequently put into practice in the filmmaking of the French New Wave. Arguably, it was an important strategy in developing a national cinema which could be distinguished from indigenous and Hollywood commercial studio productions. It has also become a key factor in the way funding is organized and new directors are encouraged. Consequently French national cinema is characterized by low-budget auteur films, including large numbers of first films, and, as Figure 4 indicates, the system enables women as well as men to make their first film. According to René Prédal (1993: 54), the French auteur film with its diverse ‘psychological’ preoccupations constitutes the ‘typical French film’ for overseas audiences and still accounts for over half of France’s annual production, despite the growth of exportable French genre films like the 1980s heritage cycle, typified by Claude Berri’s Jean de Florette, 1986.

Table 4. Number of first films per year compared with total number of films directed by women 1980–1999 (including non-French directors).













































Total 1980s

47:102 (46%)

Total 1990s

60:166 (36%)

(Source: CNC bulletins. Figures are for films over 59 minutes, including documentaries.)

The privileging of auteur cinema in France did not initially open the doors to women directors, despite the example of Agnès Varda’s first feature film, La Pointe courte (1954). There were no women among the 135 directors who made their first films in the period 1956–1962, the time of the New Wave (Sellier, 1999), and the directors, producers and technicians (and to a certain extent the stars) of French cinema have been over-whelmingly male, as have its critics and historians. The figure of the auteur/artist, as it has been constructed and valued in French universalist discourses, is understood to transcend the particularities of gender, sexual orientation and ethnicity, thus obviating debates on the lack of access to representation on the part of women, gays and lesbians, and ethnic minorities. In this context, it is not surprising that French women directors routinely reject the label of ‘woman director’ (see Gauteur, 1978, Hayward, 1993: 258), since claiming a supposedly gender-neutral auteur status is often the best way to gain legitimacy and recognition within the film industry. (Similarly, second generation North African filmmakers tend to disclaim the significance of their ethnicity.) An acceptance of auteurism has enabled women to impose themselves as directors to an extent which is unique to France. Whereas in the 1980s films directed by women were often ignored or dismissed by film critics (Vincendeau, 1987), by the end of the 1990s films directed by women (including documentaries) get reviewed in all the French film journals, from Cahiers du Cinéma to Première, and women’s presence within the industry is thus taken for granted. However, whereas in the 1980s their films were often actively praised for not being feminist films or films about women’s condition (even when they were), in the 1990s they are simply assumed to be gender neutral, an approach which allows René Prédal to concede that they also constitute some of the best French films of the last five years (Prédal, 1998: 13).

If directors and critics are to be believed, then, women directors have achieved their successful incorporation into the French film industry because they have been able to set aside the question of their gender. For feminist critics and spectators, however, the question of women’s authorship cannot so easily be erased as a critical perspective. As Judith Mayne points out, the assumption of literary criticism that, ‘no matter how tenuous, fractured or complicated, there is a connection between the writer’s gender, personhood and her texts’, can still usefully be applied to the study of authorship in films (Mayne, 1990: 90). Furthermore, as Charlotte Brunsdon has argued, the generic characteristics of European art cinema, ‘subjective voice, interior realism, unresolved narrative and marked formal self-consciousness, etc.’ lend themselves to the expression of women’s personal anxieties and desires (Brunsdon, 1986: 55). Although there is no necessary link between films directed by women and films which address women’s concerns (let alone films which address women’s concerns from a feminist perspective), nevertheless it is evident that some, if not most, of the films directed by women explore issues relating to women, often from a woman’s point of view. There are even a handful of directors in France who are prepared to argue that women’s films are different from men’s, particularly in their attention to telling detail. For Maria Koleva, it’s the presence of ‘the hole in the shoe’ as she puts it in her short film, Le Trou dans le soulier: A la sortie du film ‘Jacques Rivette, le veilleur’ de Claire Denis avec Serge Daney (1993); for Emmanuelle Bercot, in an interview in Studio Magazine, it’s ‘women’s hairy legs’ (Bercot, 2000: 118).

However, the notion of ‘women’s films’ is as problematic in French critical discourses as the notion of the ‘woman director’. The term ‘film de femme’ is normally used simply to indicate that a film has been directed by a woman rather than to refer to particular types of films directed by women (though it is often used disparagingly to refer to what are perceived as overly sentimental or narcissistic female-oriented films by women). Within feminist film criticism the ‘woman’s film’ is used to refer either to a subset of Hollywood melodramas of the 1940s centering on women’s issues and addressing female audiences (Doane, 1987: 3), or to feminist-influenced American films of the 1970s about the new independent woman (Kuhn, 1984). It is to be distinguished from the term ‘women’s cinema’ (1990), defined by Teresa de Lauretis as ‘a cinema by and for women’, the most marked characteristic of which is its work ‘with and against narrative, shifting the place of the look, playing with genre/gender crossing and reversal, image-voice disjunctures, and other codes of narrative destruction’ (de Lauretis, 1990: 9). Most of the films discussed here are not locatable within the category of ‘women’s cinema’, which refers primarily to the tradition of experimental avant-garde feminist cinema which developed in the 1970s. As already noted, most French women directors in the 1980s and 1990s either work within the French auteur tradition or have ventured further into the mainstream through their appropriation of genre filmmaking (or a combination of the two). Both forms of mainstreaming require compromises if they are to target a mixed audience but, as American filmmaker Michelle Citron has argued (1988), they still offer possibilities for subversion as well as recuperation. Many, if not most, of the psychological auteur films discussed here center their narratives on female protagonists, displacing the hegemonic male gaze and foregrounding female desires and subjectivities in ways which justify the term ‘women’s films’. At the same time, they rarely address their spectators as the autonomous or women-centered women of feminist films (and their second films are often less female-oriented than their first films). As Ginette Vincendeau (1994a) argues in relation to the work of Coline Serreau, films by French women are generally informed by the importance of the family and so address their spectators as members of a (heterosexual) couple or as parents. On the other hand, the auteur film also allows women to venture into other terrains. Although we reserve the term ‘women’s films’ for films which foreground female subjectivities (including films which focus on relationships between women), the investigation of masculinity is another key component of women’s filmmaking in the 1980s and 1990s.

A number of the genre films made by women can also be deemed ‘women’s films’. Genre cinema is often critically disparaged, both because of its popularity and because it is associated with formulaic narrative patterns and visual styles. Nevertheless, as Jean-Louis Bourget notes in relation to Hollywood genres, ‘whenever an art form is highly conventional, the opportunity for subtle irony or distanciation presents itself all the more readily’ (Bourget, 1977: 62). Studies of the evolution of particular genres suggest that, ‘shifts in the film genre correlate to changes in the culture outside’ (Feuer, 1987: 143). In France, where the ‘politique des auteurs’ explicitly claimed Hollywood genre directors like John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock as auteurs, there is a strong tradition of film genres being reworked and subverted to maintain the auteurist emphasis which constitutes French cinema’s trademark (as in François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard’s reworkings of the thriller). Not surprisingly, then, contemporary women directors have both appropriated mainstream male-oriented genre filmmaking and re-worked genre elements within more independent, low-budget ‘auteur-genre’ films which are not aimed at large audiences. A significant number of them have done so by inserting a point of view informed by a feminist (or at least a woman’s) awareness.

For Prédal, after auteur cinema (which can itself be treated as a genre, distinguished by its heterogeneity and the individuality of the auteur’s concerns), French cinema only has two really recognizable national genres, the comedy and the policier (crime thriller), other films offering ‘a more or less hybrid scattering of subgenres’ (Prédal, 1993: 50). Noting the relative absence of social realist, musical, western, science fiction and fantasy films in French cinema, Prédal also calls into question the validity of the historical film as a genre, given its heterogeneity. His view is shared by Pierre Maillot (1993), who deplores French cinema’s reluctance to interrogate its troubled recent past and its present social reality. Films directed by women over the last twenty years broadly conform to the national pattern, over half being intimate, psychological dramas, a significant number being comedies and crime thrillers, and an important but diverse set of films being set in the past, and so categorized here as historical films. Of some interest, however, given its perceived absence as a French genre, is the emergence of a cluster of road movies directed by women. However, women have to date made little contribution to action, horror or fantasy filmmaking in France, although the controversial Baise-moi, co-directed by Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi, and promptly given an X certificate on its release in July 2000 after protests from various rightwing family associations, suggests that this may be changing. There might be some justification for including sex films by women as a separate category, since the explicit sexual imagery of recent films by Jeanne Labrune and Catherine Breillat (and now Despentes and Trinh Thi) has catapulted them into the headlines and can be linked with the libertarian preoccupations of many other post-68 women filmmakers. Instead, discussion of women’s treatment of sex and sexuality is integrated here within other categories, bringing together films which address similar issues in less sexually explicit ways. In any case, the categories used to locate these films are not mutually exclusive because of the postmodern propensity of films to straddle genres and cross boundaries. In many instances, women have appropriated elements of genre films primarily as catalysts or vehicles for psychological dramas about individuals and interpersonal relationships.

Our analysis of the ways in which films by women demonstrate the at times conflicting influences of auteurism and mainstreaming, ‘postfeminism’ and the ‘retour du politique’, is organized, not through a narrow, chronological approach nor by focusing on particular directors, but rather, taking our material from the film texts themselves, by classifying the major themes and genres which women directors have chosen to work with, and discussing how they have been inflected over the twenty years in question. The ‘personal films’ discussed in Part One have been categorized according to the way they foreground (and interrogate) particular themes relating to interpersonal relations, and comprise a mix of low-budget psychological or realist dramas, often marked by auteurist touches, and the occasional bigger budget drama which has achieved mainstream success. The first four chapters address childhood and adolescence (‘Growing Up’), the period between leaving home and settling down (‘The Age of Possibilities’), sexuality and the couple (‘Couples’) and other family relationships (‘Families’). The fifth chapter (‘Work, Art and Citizenship’) brings together films which address more overtly social and political concerns, and includes a consideration not just of narrative films but also of feature-length documentary and essay films. The ‘genre films’ discussed in Part Two focus on the genres we have identified as the ones most frequently appropriated by women (‘Comedies’, ‘Crime Dramas’, ‘Road Movies’ and ‘Historical Films’) and foreground the ways in which generic conventions are used and/or subverted. Although many of them are also low-budget auteur films, their juxtaposition with more obviously mainstream films enables us to evaluate the extent to which feminist-influenced questions of gender and sexuality can be articulated from a potentially more popular perspective.

The organization of each chapter is largely determined by the particular groupings of films which have emerged as productive in relation to the theme or genre concerned. These groupings are structured within a historical and generational perspective which enables comparisons to be made between films and filmmakers of the 1980s and the 1990s, though less attention is paid to films which uncritically reproduce male-centered narratives and points of view. Discussions of films which are still in circulation are combined with information about films which are not generally available for viewing but are nevertheless important in mapping French women directors’ aesthetic and thematic preoccupations. Our decision to provide a broad overview of women’s film production evidently prevents us from addressing the complexities of individual film texts and their potentially multiple address to different audiences in as much detail as we would have liked. On the other hand, the framework we have developed enables us to identify elements which are specific to women’s filmmaking practices as they have developed over the last twenty years, revealing both their range and their limitations. It also enables us to begin to assess the extent to which women as the ‘second sex’ (and not just individual women) have been able to overcome continuing (if waning) structural disadvantages within the film industry and at the same time interrogate dominant understandings of gender and sexuality (and their intersections with generation, class and ethnicity).[31] In so doing, we hope to have established the parameters against which women’s future achievements can be measured.[32]

[1] Audé calculates that women directed 174 films out of a total of 1242 (either French or majority French co-productions) during the period 1989–99 (but see Figure 1). Based on the numbers of filmmakers holding professional identity cards, she also notes an increase in the proportion of women filmmakers from 8.65 percent in 1981 to 12.7 percent in 2000 (a total of 121 out of 951 overall). Figures for earlier years indicate that 18 women directors began making films in the period 1946–1969 and 67 in the period 1970–1980 (Annie Blondel 1981).

[3] Flitterman-Lewis also draws attention to the work of Marie Epstein in the 1930s.

[4] Examples would include: Diane Kurys (Diabolo menthe, 1977; Coup de foudre, 1983), Coline Serreau (Trois hommes et un couffin, 1985), Catherine Breillat (36 Fillette, 1988; Romance, 1999), Claire Devers (Noir et blanc, 1986), Claire Denis (Chocolat, 1988), Josiane Balasko (Gazon maudit, 1994) and, possibly, Christine Pascal (Le Petit prince a dit, 1992), Martine Dugowson (Mina Tannenbaum, 1994), and Nicole Garcia (Place Vendôme, 1998).

[5] In the autumn of 1999, Tonie Marshall’s Vénus Beauté (Institut), Catherine Breillat’s Romance and Catherine Corsini’s La Nouvelle Eve were shown in London, and a retrospective of Catherine Breillat’s work was held at the NFT (October 1999). Three other French women’s films were shown in the London Film Festival (November 1999). A retrospective of Claire Denis’s work was held at the NFT in July 2000.

[6] Though see Siclier, 1993, for two chapters on women’s filmmaking in the 1970s and 1980s and Prédal (1991) for a few pages on each period. See also Forbes (1992), Hayward (1993), Austin (1996) and Powrie (1999) for discussions of individual women filmmakers.

[7] We have viewed approximately 75 percent of the films forming our basic corpus, but it has been particularly difficult to view certain films from the 1980s which predate the current trend of transfer to video. Though in many cases a film’s lack of availability may be a sign of its poor quality or its lack of importance within French film culture, this is not necessarily the case, and the fact that certain films and filmmakers are not treated in depth may be due to the difficulty of viewing their work. As a general rule we have not included consideration of French language films directed by women from other countries, such as Chantal Akerman and Marion Hänsel from Belgium, Anne-Marie Miéville and Jacqueline Veuve from Switzerland, or Agnieska Holland from Poland, though we have included references to their work where appropriate. We also do not address women’s short and medium length films or television films, though reference may be made to them in passing.

[8] Josiane Balasko, Yannick Bellon, Catherine Breillat, Claire Denis, Danièle Dubroux, Charlotte Dubreuil, Aline Isserman, Diane Kurys, Christine Pascal, Coline Serreau and Nadine Trintignant had all made at least five feature films prior to December 1999.

[9] The relative paucity of women directors in Britain is clear from Sue Harper’s study of women in British cinema (2000).

[10] See Cook (1994) for a discussion of similar developments in women’s filmmaking more generally.

[11] The avance sur recettes is a state subsidy administered by the CNC (Centre National du Cinéma) on submission of a script, which is particularly helpful in allowing directors to make their first films. There has been no equivalent in France to Britain’s Channel 4, with its original brief to support minority and women’s filmmaking. However, funding since the 1980s also depends on the support of television companies, who have become more open to films about ‘women’s issues’.

[12] The key women’s films of the 1970s challenge dominant representations of women as well as dominant forms of filmmaking. Women’s documentaries created visual testimonies and archives relating to women’s lives (see Martineau, 1979) and campaigned for women’s causes, as in the pro-abortion film, Histoires d’A (Issartel and Belmont, 1973). Fiction films gave female characters a voice and a gaze normally absent in dominant male-authored cinema (see Audé, 1981, Lejeune, 1987, Sicher, 1993: 45–58). For example, Yannick Bellon’s La Femme de Jean/John’s Wife (1974) centers on a female protagonist who breaks free from her restricted existence as an anonymous wife and mother and takes charge of her life; L’Amour violé/The Rape of love (Bellon, 1976) represents a woman’s distressing experience of rape; Agnès Varda’s L’Une chante l’autre pas/One Sings, The Other Doesn’t (1976) foregrounds female friendship against the background of the women’s movement (and features feminist lawyer Gisèle Halimi in a reconstruction of the 1972 Bobigny abortion trial); Marguerite Duras’s meditative, woman-centred films, Nathalie Granger (1973) and India Song (1975), evoke an alternative ‘feminine’ film language at a time when French feminists like Hélène Cixous were developing the notion of ‘écriture féminine’ or ‘feminine writing’ (Cixous, 1975); Belgian director Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman 23 Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles (1975) combines a challenge to classic narrative with the representation of an ordinary woman’s sexual and economic oppression.

[13] In fact, the 1970s was the golden age of the crime thriller, in which women were largely peripheral, and the pornographic film, in which they were exploited as sex objects (51 of the 118 French films released between August 1977 and February 1978 were X-rated for ‘showing explicit sex’).

[14] A new award named after Olympe de Gouges, the eighteenth century feminist revolutionary.

[15] The first Women’s Film Festival in France was a ‘women only’ event which took place in Paris in 1974, organised by the Musidora association, which aimed to promote films and videos made by women (a function filled since 1982 by the Centre Audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir) and to stimulate research into the representation of women in film (see Musidora, 1976). Subsequently, an International Women’s Film Festival was set up in Sceaux in 1979, organized by Elisabeth Tréhard and Jackie Buet, which transferred to Créteil (on the outskirts of Paris) in 1985. Largely ignored by the French press except when it foregrounds films of interest to cinéphiles (as in its 1990s focus on stars or its excavation of treasures from the archives), it nevertheless provides an important forum for screening French women’s documentaries and short films, perhaps to compensate for the absence of French women’s feature films in competition (and, since 1986, it also provides a selective panorama of French women’s films released during the preceding year). As Créteil, too, has attempted to address a more mainstream audience, a separate lesbian film festival was set up in 1988, initially called Quand les lesbiennes se font du cinéma, then Cineffable, which is now also a very successful international annual event.

[16] In 1999, there were only three women studies’ posts in the whole French university system.

[17] With the exception of Agnès Varda, who spent some time in the United Stated in the 1960s, women directors in France were not directly influenced by feminist film theory. Despite articles on film in Femmes en mouvement (between December 1977 and January 1982), the translation into French of Marjorie Rosen’s Popcorn Venus and Molly Haskell’s From Reverence to Rape (in 1976 and 1977 respectively) and a special issue of CinémAction devoted to cinema and feminism (Martineau, 1979), none of the major texts which were at the core of early Anglo-American feminist film theory were widely known or debated in France. Indeed, it was only in 1993, with the publication by Ciném Action of a collection of texts by British and American feminists (Vincendeau and Reynaud, 1993) that Laura Mulvey’s seminal 1975 text on film narrative and visual pleasure was translated into French. As Ginette Vincendeau has demonstrated (1986, 1987 and 1988), Anglo-American feminist film theory has often been heavily influenced by French schools of thought but has not been imported back into France in this guise.

[18] Coline Serreau’s budget for La Belle verte (1996) was 80 million French francs. The budgets for films made by Balasko, Devers and Esposito in 1991–1992 were estimated at more than 50 million French francs per film.

[19] In 1986, the FEMIS replaced the IDHEC (Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinématographiques) as France’s national film school, and female recruitment into the film directing option was strongly encouraged.

[20] According to Dacbert and Caradec (1999), films directed by women still cost less than average, even after a first, successful film. For example, in 1995 the average budget for a French film was 28 million French francs (more than double that of 1986), while the budget for Catherine Breillat’s Parfait amour! and Nadine Trintignant’s Les Fugueuses was 24 million, Danièle Dubroux’s Le Journal du séducteur cost 21 million, and Tonie Marshall’s Enfants de Salaud 20 million, even though they were all directed by experienced women directors.

Agnès Varda, Charlotte Silvera, Irène Jouannet and Jeanne Labrune in discussion at the 1986 Créteil International Women’s Film Festival. (C) Brigitte Pougeoise.

Nevertheless, the funding of women’s second films is much less problematic than a decade earlier. Among directors who made their first full-length feature film in the early and mid-1990s, the following have already made their second (dates in brackets indicate the years in which their first and second or other films were released): Judith Cahen (1995, 1999), Christine Carrière (1995, 1999), Martine Dugowson (1994, 1997), Pascale Ferran (1994, 1996), Laurence Ferreira Barbosa (1993, 1997, 2000), Sophie Fillières (1994, 2000), Anne Fontaine (1993, 1995, 1997, 1999), Nicole Garcia (1990, 1994, 1998), Valérie Lemercier (1997, 1999), Noémie Lvovsky (1995, 1999), Laetitia Masson (1995, 1998, 2000), Agnès Merlet (1993, 1997), Brigitte Roüan (1990, 1997), Marion Vernoux (1994, 1996, 1999), Sylvie Verheyde (1997, 2000), Sandrine Veysset (1996, 1998), Yolande Zauberman (1993, 1997).

[21] The working practices of some of them have given rise to the term ‘films de copines’ (‘films by girlfriends’), suggesting a new solidarity between women (Bedarida, 1996: 25). For example, Noémie Lvovsky co-scripted Yolande Zauberman’s Clubbed to death, Dominique Cabrera has a cameo role in Judith Cahen’s La Révolution sexuelle n’a pas eu lieu (1999), as does Claire Denis in Laetitia Masson’s En avoir (ou pas) (1996) and Brigitte Roüan and Claire Denis in Tonie Marshall’s Venus Beauté (Institut) (1999), while Catherine Corsini credits Laurence Ferreira-Barbosa for her assistance on La Nouvelle Eve (1999). Also notable is the collaboration between women directors and women directors of photography, like Claire Denis, Agnès Varda, Catherine Corsini and Noémie Lvovsky with Agnès Godard, Hélène Angel with Hélène Louvart, to name but a few. The March 2000 issue of Studio Magazine further emphasized solidarity and shared interests between women in its focus on French actresses and women directors (Lavoignat and Parent, 2000).

[22] The filmmakers’ manifesto (Manifeste des cinéastes) called for civil disobedience against France’s regressive immigration laws and especially against the requirement that French citizens providing hospitality to foreigners should report their guests’ arrival and departure dates to the authorities. It recalls other calls for civil disobedience, such as the Manifeste des 121 during the Algerian war and the pro-abortion Manifeste des 343 organised by the women’s movement. Women directors involved included Judith Cahen, Claire Denis, Pascale Ferran, Jeanne Labrune, Tonie Marshall, Claire Simon and Marion Vernoux (see Powrie, 1999: 10–18).

[23] Shortly after the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of women’s right to vote (in 1994), the question of parity (equal opportunities and equal political representation) emerged as an important feminist issue. With only 5 percent of women elected representatives in Parliament, France is at the bottom of the European league table, apart from Greece (Gaspard, 1998: 345). For an account of recent debates about parity, see Vogel-Polsky (1998).

[24] Other signs of the renewal of feminism in France include the massive proabortion demonstration of November 1995 in protest at the rising number of attacks by far-right fundamentalists on hospitals practising abortion (see Lesselier and Venner, 1997); the successful international conference commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, organized at the Sorbonne in January 1999 by Christine Delphy and Sylvie Chaperon (and recorded by the Centre Audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir); and the setting up on March 8, 1999 of a feminist watchgroup, ‘Les Chiennes de garde’ (‘Guard Bitches’), composed of high-profile women in the media, politics, academia and publishing, following a series of violently sexist attacks on Dominique Voynet, the Minister of the Environment. The group has been active on various fronts, including taking the trade union Force Ouvrière to task for its sexist treatment of the newly appointed director of France Culture, Laure Adler (herself a feminist and a specialist in women’s history) and criticizing the French department store Galeries Lafayette for putting half-naked women on display in its windows. The 679 signatories to its manifesto (as of September 1999) include Yvette Roudy, Françoise Gaspard, Roselyne Bachelot and Geneviève Fraisse, as well as 161 men.

[25] The popular success in the early 1990s of writers such as Hervé Guibert and film director Cyril Collard (whose Nuits fauves became a cult film in 1992) made gays more visible in the French media (though their deaths from AIDS-related illnesses, in December 1990 and March 1993 respectively, also reinforced the link between homosexuality and AIDS). The Gay Pride march of 1995, under the patronage of actress-filmmaker Josiane Balasko, made the news headlines for the first time, while the Coordination Lesbienne Nationale emerged in 1996–1997 following disagreements with the organizers of European Pride in Paris in 1996. In June 1996, the ZOO, an independent Paris-based research group co-led by sociologist Marie-Hélène Bourcier, introduced seminars on gay, lesbian and queer studies, published in 1998 (Bourcier 1998), while in 1998, sociologist Françoise Gaspard, a former MP, began a series of research seminars on homosexuality with gay philosopher and writer Didier Eribon at the prestigious Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. In a totally different area, the coming out of tennis player Amélie Mauresmo during the Australian Open in early 1999 finally gave French lesbians a public figure to identify with.

[26] Women on both sides of the political spectrum have been at the forefront of debates about the PACS. Whereas rightwing pro-life ultra-Catholic MP Christine Boutin fiercely opposed ‘gay marriages’ (and also rejects parity), her colleague Roselyne Bachelot voted for it (the only rightwing MP to do so), along with Michèle Cotta and Minister Elisabeth Guigou. Bachelot has recently co-written a book with feminist philosopher Geneviève Fraisse about women in French politics (Bachelot and Fraisse, 1998).

[27] See Konstantarakos (1998) for a discussion of the different strands of filmmaking amalgamated under the homogenizing label of ‘le jeune cinéma français’.

[28] Before Arte, which was created in 1993, films were commissioned by La SEPT (Société d’Edition de Programmes de Télévision) which broadcast them on Channel 3 (1987–91).

[29] Fifty years after Beauvoir’s denunciation of the patriarchal sex/gender system in The Second Sex, women’s situation in France has undergone significant changes, including increased sexual and economic freedom, thanks in particular to the invention of the pill and the liberal legislation of the 1970s (see Duchen, 1986, Chaperon, 2000, Gregory and Tidd, 2000). If the heterosexual married couple with children (and concomitant extended family) is still largely taken for granted as the basis of French society (and the threat of AIDS has made casual sexual relationships more problematic), the number of single women of all ages is increasing, especially in Paris, and there is a growing acceptance of other lifestyles, now legitimated by the PACS, which recognizes unmarried heterosexual couples as well as gay and lesbian couples. Nevertheless, women still face discrimination in many aspects of life. The distribution of gender roles within the home shows little signs of change and women still take most responsibility for domestic labor and childcare, even if they marry and/or have children at a later age. Though young women have access to higher education and the workplace, they still face discrimination in terms of equal pay and top jobs, particularly when they try to combine work with motherhood. At the same time, challenges to traditional sex and gender roles have produced what is often referred to as ‘a crisis in masculinity’, with men unsure of their identities and an increase in the level of violence against women (which is one of the highest in Europe). Furthermore, women’s (relative) liberation from conventional gender roles does not necessarily mean liberation from other related forms of oppression. Women in France accept a level of sexism and misogyny in the media and in academic and political life which would be unacceptable in Britain and America. And, paradoxically, if the ideology of Republican universalism makes it difficult to address the specificity of being a woman, there is still a high premium on traditional ‘feminine’ elegance and seductiveness (Holmes, 1996), demonstrating the extent to which women are dependent on male approval and how far French culture is from endorsing recent Anglo-American theories about the fluid, constructed nature of both gender and sexual identities (Butler, 1990, Sedgwick, 1990).

[30] The 2000 Créteil Women’s Film Festival celebrated the work of women cinematographers in France, particularly Nurith Aviv, Caroline Champetier, Agnès Godard and Dominique Le Rigoleur.

[31] We have inserted brief biographical details of individual filmmakers where available, as a context for discussion of their first films. Our sources include Lejeune (1987), Prédal (1988), Chauville (1998), Marie (1998) and various newspaper articles. We apologize if we have inadvertently reproduced any inaccuracies.

[32] A translation of French film titles is given when a film is discussed, the original title alone is used elsewhere. If the film has not been distributed with an English title, the translation is by the authors. The translation of original quotations in French is also our own.