THE FEMALE GAZE IN CONTEMPORARY FILM:
A COMPARISON OF THE PRESENCE OF THE FEMALE GAZE IN THE WORK OF TWO FEMALE CONTEMPORARY DIRECTORS. IN A COMPARISON OF SOFIA COPPOLA’S LOST IN TRANSLATION, 2003 AND LYNNE RAMSAY’S MORVERN CALLAR, 2002, WHAT METHODS ARE EMPLOYED TO CREATE OR ENHANCE THE EFFECT OF THE FEMALE GAZE?
This thesis grew out of an interest in the films created by female directors, producers, and writers and the substantially lower opportunities for such filmmakers in Hollywood and independent film. The particular atmosphere which Sofia Coppola and Lynne Ramsay are able to express in their films is a point of interest to me. I am inspired by Laura Mulvey’s psychoanalytical approach to questioning - and indeed - coining the term for the ‘male gaze’, within Hollywood narrative film. While employing this method to critique and question the motives of film making for Hollywood production, she also used one of the techniques most associated with the patriarchy in terms of psychology, drawing on Freudian themes to support her argument. Another question I want to ask is: Can the female gaze exist in and of itself, or must it exist as a counter-conception to the male gaze?
I would like to discover what exactly are the filmic methods employed to produce this sometimes ephemeral sense of a female consciousness that binds both Coppola and Ramsay's filmic styles together, most particularly, in these two movies. Is it female at all? Or a break from the repetition of inherent ‘maleness’, in the traditional sense, so overwhelmingly present in contemporary and historical Hollywood cinema? As we are well aware in contemporary culture, Freud made many infamous claims about women’s inner psychological workings, and I believe Mulvey’s use of his psychoanalytical approach was a deliberate attempt to use the argument made by a man whose views were often supported and used for patriarchal efforts, and turn it on its head to create controversy, or simply to use a figure of 'patriarchal' views to demonstrate a different viewpoint.
I aim to analyse the very idea of the male gaze: its conception, its definition, and its relevance to mainstream cinema today, 32 years after it was first theorised. There have been further theories that have come to fruition over the years in relation to this theory. The main additional concept being the ‘oppositional gaze’ which I will also dissect in order to address that it is not simply a male/female ‘thing’. It is existent between many power balances as they are portrayed on screen, whether deliberately, through habit, or through lack of desire to upset the status quo. I will attempt to translate the narrative and visual cinematic language and techniques evident which I believe are in accordance with subverting the male gaze, or encouraging the presence, character depth and power of the female protagonist in Sofia Coppola’s ‘Lost In Translation’, and in Lynne Ramsay’s ‘Morvern Callar’. It is not by coincidence that I chose these two films. Often these two well known female directors can be seen to be referencing each other in their work. Both films have a strong female protagonist, a constant ‘first person’ sensation and a reassurance that we as the viewers, are on a journey with this character. They are both potently erotic, but neither are objectifying the woman through their intent, or in the delivery of the finished work. Both were shot on film, so the aesthetic of each movie becomes more intertwined. There are many other reasons that I chose these two films, but initially, and honestly, it was based on instinct. After studying these films in depth, I will discuss the similarities and disparities of these films insofar as how they purport the presence of the gaze.
THE FEMALE GAZE
“We're watching, and we're aroused by looking, whereas I don't think women respond that way to films, just because of how they're built.”
- Bret Easton Ellis, 2010(1)
In her essay entitled "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema"(1975), Laura Mulvey utilises psychoanalysis as a "political weapon" to demonstrate how the patriarchic subconscious of society shapes our cinematic experience. According to Mulvey, the cinematic text is organised along lines that are corresponding to the cultural, patriarchal subconscious. Mulvey argues that the popularity of Hollywood films is determined and reinforced by pre-existing social structures which in turn shape the woman’s view of herself. Her main argument is that Hollywood films use women in order to provide a pleasurable visual experience for men.
The male gaze consists of three perspectives:
- that of the person behind the camera
- that of the characters within the representation or film itself
- that of the spectator
The theory echoes the profound perception by John Berger that: 'A woman must continually watch herself ... From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. Thus she turns herself into an object -- and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.'(2)
The cinematic gaze in Hollywood is almost always produced as masculine both by means of the identification of the male hero and through the use of the camera. Mulvey identifies two methods in which Hollywood cinema produces pleasure. The first form of pleasure relates to what Freud termed as ‘scopophilia’(3) - the pleasure derived from subjecting someone to someone else’s gaze. The second form of pleasure which operates alongside the scopophilia is identification with the represented character which is brought about by needs stemming from the Ego – at least when following the rules of Freudian theory. Both mechanisms are gendered. Scopophilia in films is a structure which functions on an axis of passive/active with the man on the active or ‘looking’ side at the woman. This is done with both the male figure within the frame, and the camera, looking at the woman, while also directing the viewer's objectifying gaze(4). Think of the famous shot in The Graduate, 1967 when the male protagonist is framed by a single female leg, suggestively absent of clothing, or lingering shots on the curvature of a woman’s body for longer than is necessary. The distinction between the passive woman/active man is also manifested in the structure of the cinematic narrative. The films revolve around a dominant male figure with whom the 'viewer' can identify. According to Mulvey, in a deeply Freudian vein, the female cinematic figure is a paradoxical one. She combines attraction with a play on deep fears of castration. The male subconscious has two ways of escaping this fear: One is the demystification of the female figure in the dismantling of her mysteries by running the narrative of the female figure being punished or saved by the male figure. The other method is through the fetishisation of her character, for example as the glamorous, unobtainable star.
A fierce activist for gender equality within the world of film making in Hollywood, Jill Soloway said in a recent speech that ‘We are ashamed for having desire in our culture. Women are ashamed for having desire for anything - for food, for sex, for anything. We’re asked to only be the object for other people’s desire.’(5) This statement is a succinct summation of the current zeitgeist in the world of female film making. Women are exhausted from the repetition of relentless subjection to seeing ‘themselves’ being portrayed as vacuous or weak.
Some people argue that a lot of progress has been made over the course of the past thirty years: As in the case of some 80’s and 90’s female led ‘action movies’ that seemed to be subverting the idea of male authority in film. However these films, with all their intent to appease dissatisfaction with the industry, still miss the mark: we end up with movies such as Kill Bill, 1995 featuring model turned actress, Uma Therman. The film opens onto shots of a passive, panting body, followed throughout the movie by many tightly framed, fetishistic shots to keep the actress objectified, even as the character challenges male dominance. Another example of this falsified ‘reclamation of the female gaze’, or of female identity within film, could be seen in Charlie’s Angels, 1999. Both of these movie titles are named after men, and although they were marketed as feminist alternatives to the male-centric flicks of the genre, they contain elements of unnecessarily forced fetishisation to varying degrees, such as through costume choices and camera angles. Even the name ‘Charlie’s’ instills an idea of ownership by the male viewer over the female characters, through its manipulation of the viewer's subconscious identification with the male lead, stating ownership over the women in the lead roles. This is enforced through years of filmic narrative being set out to this template. The abolition of this fetishisation in any real sense can only truly occur with the absence of a male character who is in any way in control of, or ‘following’ the female lead(s), as if she were prey.
Similarly, mainstream pornography is dominated by the male gaze, where women can engage in sexual acts with each other, but they must do so while men watch, whether within the screen, or in front of it, as Assiter and Carol address in “Bad Girls and Dirty Pictures, 1993”(6). The male gaze creates the notion that without the male viewer, the female and her sexuality may or may not exist. Even when the male gaze is not as obvious as it is in pornography, the fetishisation of women’s bodies persists as a dominant visual technique. The cultural realities of this fact mean that reversing it is difficult to imagine.
CRITICISING THE MALE GAZE IN FILM
There is still an inequality between men and women in the film industry. How did this inequality come to be? Bret Easton Ellis argues that film is a male dominated medium because it is designed for the male in it’s visual stimulation:
“Film really is built for the male gaze and for a male sensibility .. we’re watching, and we’re aroused by looking, whereas I don’t think women respond that way to films, just because of how they’re built.”(7)
He claims female directors cannot live up to their male counterparts since they can never fully appreciate the visuality of the medium. He claims this despite the fact that the cult movie American Psycho, 2000, based on his hit novel, was brought into being by female director, Mary Harron. This kind of blinkered, and unfettered sexism is still an overwhelming issue in the industry in Hollywood; because of this unconscious acceptance of the male gaze, these techniques have become standard for all directors, regardless of their gender. The camera became gendered independently from the gender of the director.
There is one particularly insidious assumption about the male gaze: that women are not aroused by looking at men. This idea is purported by many – women included – who will claim that the female nude is more beautiful than the male. This idea is inherently stilted, since the notion of beauty is continually changing and reforming. If we consider art, in all its incarnations, from a classical painting to a comic strip, as something that beautifies the female form and rejects the idea of male beauty in a natural sense, people will learn not to appreciate the male as aesthetically ‘beautiful’ in the same way they do women. Beauty is learnt and ingrained into our culture, and therefore, it can be altered and is constantly evolving. A male gaze movie would be one that depicts the woman, by Mulvey’s direct standards, ‘as object the combined gaze of spectator and all the male protagonists in the film. She is isolated, glamorous, on display, sexualised.’(8) Similarly, turning men into sexual objects within film cannot overturn social norms, and men are rarely positioned—within narratives or as images—the way women are. Most often, the sexualised male body is also an active, powerful body, and he is usually the centre of the narrative. Mulvey’s male gaze is responsible for much of the effectiveness of the visual methods in many classic films. When these films were accepted as the epitome of visual storytelling, throughout the development of the medium of film, the methods used to make these movies were accepted also. The male gaze presented in these earlier movies became the status quo.
THE MALE GAZE VS. THE FEMALE GAZE
The female gaze is a film reliant on a woman’s point of view; in movies and other media the audience is required to observe from her perspective. A direct comparison between the two breaks down quickly, and the comparison of the male gaze to the female gaze is a false equivalence; a shared terminology does not mean they are the same, as the male gaze is the default and the female gaze is rare:
As Marcy Cook points out in her article “Male Gaze vs. Female Gaze, 2015”(9) ‘All of our media are disproportionately created in the male gaze so you have to search for a different viewpoint. It doesn’t help that trying to create anything outside of the male gaze is actively discouraged.’ Men are generally uncomfortable with the feeling of sexual objectification, so in a system dominated by men it is rejected or suppressed. Women use the female gaze in a different way than the male gaze is used, as men are not reduced to their body parts and stripped of other attributes. When a man is viewed through the female gaze, the focus is not normally on his body parts directly, it will show more of his qualities, or his role in the film as a complex character. Men remain multi-faceted and retain more than just their physical appearance. When thinking of a film that demonstrates classic traditional male gaze, James Bond would be a good example. As Cook says ‘It has evolved and taken some responsibility for the modern audience, as shown by Bond (Daniel Craig) rising from the sea wearing a small speedo in Casino Royale, 2006, a hint at and reversal of the scene from Doctor No 1962, where Ursula Andress famously emerges from the waves in a wet bikini’(10). However, the objectification of his body is by his own agency.
In 2001, world renowned performance artist and film maker Marina Abramovic created a piece entitled The Hero. She spoke to Vogue Italia in an interview claiming ‘In the history of art, women have been relegated – in most instances – to the role of inspiring muses: indisputably loved, admired and revered but almost always in a passive role.’(11) She placed emphasis on the difficulties that lie in attempting to subvert this role as a woman, stating that the ‘female act of claiming back the lens whilst redefining a woman’s female gaze toward another woman is very much a subversive act, one loaded with socio-political implications and it is one of the only true revolutions that occurred over the last ten years.’(12) The female gaze is a reassertion of the woman’s identity, of the idea of a different kind of beauty, a beauty less artificial and more complex: in other words, a real redefinition of the very concept of desire in film and other media.
I delved deeper into how precisely we are given the impression of an alternative gaze, and how to diagnose it through technical cinematic aspects. Often the male gaze involves fragmenting women’s bodies through close ups, to break up the idea of a woman as a whole, and to encourage the viewer to take pleasure in her physical attributes one piece at a time, like a visual buffet. Legs are a common shot, often in heels. The depth of field is often compressed to flatten the conceptual idea of the woman being real, thus iconising her, and denying her a role within the plot that has any real agency. She is usually glamourised, painted, pulled at and tucked in with special effects. Her skin smoothed, not a hair out of place, and she is shown in soft lighting and focus. Is this what a woman can be reduced to? In consideration to changing this ideal, a strategy must be put in place to challenge the Hollywood mainstream’s current perception and depicition of reality. The answer is not to produce more films about the plight of women in decades past, as this will not provide enough of a break in the current visual narrative. The actual cinematic language must be thoroughly questioned, so that a contrast between ideology and script can occur.
DEFINING THE OPPOSITIONAL GAZE
The regularity of highly sexualised female characters is a big problem in the US film industry. Equating women with opportunities for sexuality is far from ideal in the pursuit of gender equality. How many of those already few roles that are filled by women of colour are even more dismal, and a predictor of the 2015 anti-Oscar slogan #OscarsSoWhite. A direct definition of people who qualify for coming under the oppositional gaze shall not be posited by me, as I believe the label has flexible boundaries and meanings. However, generally speaking, it is applied to people of colour, people who do not identify as binary or cisgender, or any number of gaze directions considered to be uncommon and underrepresented within Hollywood. By comprehending the oppositional gaze, we are recognising the true essence of individuality and individual experience in film, as in life. A beautiful example of a successful depiction of the oppositional gaze was the film Tangerine, 2015. Shot entirely on iPhone 5S, and with a plot centralising around a transgender sex worker on the streets of LA, this film was critically acclaimed, and is marked to become a true classic for a usually under-represented group of people.
But what makes this movie representative of the oppositional gaze, where another similar movie may fail to deliver the message or gaze direction? Bell Hooks coined the term in her seminal 1992 essay “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators”(13), describing what she called ‘a moment of rupture’, this is to say that ‘when the spectator resists complete identification with the film’s discourse, a schism between the spectator and the film occurs.’(14) She described how this moment is crucial for black female spectators to be able to look at films with a critical eye and create an oppositional gaze. If a moment of rupture does not occur, then the black female spectator simply accepts the image placed on the screen and does not question its validity. In relation to Lacan’s mirror phase(15), during which a child develops self recognition, and ego, Hooks says the oppositional gaze is a form of looking for the black female body within the idealization of cinematic white womanhood. The absence of racial relations in feminist theory engages in denial of the reality that much feminist film discourse is centred around white women. The oppositional gaze holds resistance as well as an understanding and awareness of the politics of race via cinematic whiteness that comes under the category of the male gaze.
THE MARK OF SOFIA COPPOLA
Sofia Coppola’s visual style reflects a dark and hazy dream world, populated by young women who are poster-children for teen loneliness and angst. Deep neuroses and anxieties play out in long shots overlaid with a compelling soundtrack. Common themes in her work draw on the idea of the ferocity of adolescent female behaviour and/or the desire to be accepted at any cost. Her earlier works are evocative of the 90s playground with their candy-sweet aesthetic. Her films are also known for their slow pacing, which often heightens the already dreamy, apathetic, or otherwise muted mood. She has been referred to as a cine-poet; This term obviously referring to a filmmaker who has the ability to engage the viewers deeply with the narrative via aesthetic, carefully thought out shots, delicate hints and visual cues. In doing so, the information of the plot can be fed to the viewers on a more subconscious level. It disarms them. It forces them to question their preconceived understanding of how to engage with cinema. The viewer begins to read the film first with the mind (applying meaning), but uses their eye to read what the mise-en-scene provides about character and location, in relation to story.
In her first short Lick the Sta,r 1998, sunglasses and chewing gum rule as red nails glint in black and white sunshine. The easiness we foolishly associate with youth is contrasted perfectly with the heavy importance these matters hold at the time. She plays on the male gaze, with its treatment of women as something objective to be looked at, possessed, controlled or desired, and contrasts it with the complex thoughts and motives that are almost a secret that can play out between women. A detailed knowledge of fashion becomes evident in aesthetically pleasing shots, swept with a deftness that allows her to celebrate fashion and/or critique it, depending on the film. The script and visual cues in her movies come peppered with secrets and rites of passage that most women can recognise, but are often not portrayed accurately in Hollywood by male directors. In Lost in Translation, 2003, the main character voices us on her inner monologue, saying ‘I tried taking pictures, but they were so mediocre. I guess every girl goes through a photography phase. You know, horses… taking dumb pictures of your feet’. This way of scripting minor details feels intimate, and diaristic.
Her work also draws on the theme of women ‘banding’ together, in cult-like groups. Her characters are sometimes a group of sisters, or school friends, but they could just as easily have been plucked out of Salem. These themes are especially prevalent in Lick the Star and her first feature film The Virgin Suicides, 1999. The central characters in both have an almost psychic bond, something mystical, where Coppola skilfully puppets them to communicate with each other without any real dialogue for extensive periods, simply through her way of filming. Coppola’s approach to character construction is unique in that she relies on establishment of location through visual imagery, to reveal defining qualities in her characters. Her background in photography must have a strong relation to this: the idea of hinting to give message and meaning to a story must be bolder, more psychologically intrusive within photography, yet it also can not be considered to be too literal if it is to be seen as artful. Coppola’s woman has a place in her own right. She owns the cinematic space in a way not often encountered. We are allowed to acknowledge her thoughts, to recognise them, and invited to consider them. The way she films creates the illusion that you are in a quiet world where only you are invited. Some people argue that Sofia Coppola’s films contain elements of the male gaze. The simple answer to this is: of course. This is evident in the fact that she is one of the only three American women to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director, for her film Lost in Translation. She does more than use the male gaze : she subverts it.
Her movies have not always been kindly critiqued, having been described as ‘too pretty, too feminine’(16), or as ‘style over substance’. And what is wrong with that in terms of cinema? One critic called it ‘frippery’ ‘for girls and gays.’(17) This kind of ignorant, chauvinistic view point should not be the expectation or the norm from well known, experienced movie critics, or published in magazines for mass consumption. It is statements like this that remind us we must keep pushing for equality in the art and film industries so that these backward view points can begin to disappear. Of course, everyone is entitled to an opinion, but to dismiss strong work showing a clearer and more genuine understanding of the female psyche than has been explored up to this point in Hollywood film, is highly questionable. The work should at least be respected enough for a real analysis, simply for having made it to the big screen itself, through a barrage of male centric criticism and dismissal. It is not the view of the individual in this case that is alarming, but the reasons behind it, stemming so plainly from a general distaste in Hollywood, as a place for new, female voices. This film may be ‘pretty’, but perhaps aesthetically pleasing would be a better analogy. As Rosalind Galt expresses in her book “Pretty: Film and the Decorative Image”, ‘prettiness in film is not exclusively female or feminine’ and it is ‘unfair to use as a critique against women directors’ films’. (18) The film is ‘pretty’ for a reason. In his essay, “Off with Hollywood’s Head: Sofia Coppola as Feminine Auteur,” Todd Kennedy addresses the harsh critique on Coppola in the reviews of her films: ‘the implication that a unique visual style lacks meaning because it is, essentially, pretty speaks toward the manner in which the critics seem unprepared to evaluate Coppola’s films on her own terms. Choosing to develop her own, feminine film form, she causes critics (and often audiences) not to know what to do with her films’.(19) Colour palette and framing are two qualities which often contribute to the notion that Sofia Coppola films are simply ‘pretty’ or superficial, a notion that should be dispelled. Colour scheme plays a noticeable role in each of her films. Lost in Translation was often slightly washed out, in keeping with the characters' moods, and its use of cool tones contrasted with the brightness of the technicolour city setting. The critic has not done what he is employed to do, in failing to even assess why Coppola has used this technique in her filming. She is mocking exactly what she expects the male critics to deduce from it. And what precisely is meant by the description ‘too feminine’? How can the words ‘too feminine’ feasibly be used as an insult or a negative critique on any art work at all? It begs the question – have the words ‘too masculine’ ever been used to critique a Hollywood movie? I am sure many people have strongly felt that some Hollywood productions - with their proliferation for scenes, plots and imagery of war, aggression and gratuitous violence - have been found by many to be ‘too masculine’. But it is doubtful these opinions have appeared on the printed pages of internationally produced American magazines.
Coppola films often aim to transfer the protagonists’ perspective onto the viewer to create understanding and if possible, empathy. The ‘car shot’(20) is a prime example of letting the viewer get into a character’s head. In addition, the car shot invokes her film’s frequent emphasis on characters on the inside wanting out. It guards a buffer for the viewer and character to become familiar with each other in the cinematic space, while also informing the viewer that the character wants to escape from who, or where, they are ‘supposed to be’. The car is simultaneously intimate and acts as a wall from the outside. For example, in the opening shot of Lick the Star, a young girl gazes out of a car window watching the scenery pass by as she contemplates the dread of returning to school. Similar shots of young people gazing out of car windows and contemplating their circumstances can be found in many of Coppola’s other works. In Somewhere, the character of Cleo looks out the window while her father is in the background looking forward. It demonstrates their distance and need to reconnect. This is also quite probably hinting at Coppola’s common father/daughter theme, and on the idea of her growing up, and in so doing, distancing herself from her father, and his protection over her. In Lost in Translation, the protagonist, Charlotte, looks out at the electrifying neon lights of Tokyo reflected in the car window. Although she is fascinated by the overwhelming city, she appears detached as she fades into her surroundings.
Tableaux are another trademark commonly associated with Coppola’s work(21). A tableau is defined as ‘A group of people or objects positioned so as to form a vivid or picturesque’. This is most noteable in Marie Antoinette 2006, which is scattered with these tableaux as a nod to the focus of the art at the time, and through that, the relevance and pressure of power play, social status and political alliances. They are also another sign of Coppola's love of aesthetic, and her appreciation for classical art.
Coppola uses large landscapes - both cultural and historical - to emphasise how the lost woman is without a voice of her own, disconnected from the very society that layers her life with expectations both from her, and of her. She shows a sympathy and recognition that it is all of us who suffer as a result of the heavy presence of the male gaze in society. In The Virgin Suicides, she highlights adolescent boys’ struggle to wade through the thickly layered images of 70s idealised femininity; from the Brady Bunch sisters to Barbie dolls - and finally to the human beings underneath. This is equally important to highlight because, as Coppola makes clear, the girls’ own subjectivities are partially formed by these same images.
By Coppola choosing to place the camera on the outside of windows looking in at her characters, the director showcases how these characters are watching their present turn into the past. Yet, she contrasts the camera shots and cinematography with her characters’ actions, as they are also often attempting to immortalise some form of their present in order to preserve the emotion experienced. Use of reflected and refracted images is nothing new in filmmaking, but the use of window imagery moves beyond an aesthetic choice in Coppola’s films, where it functions on several metaphorical levels. Glass windows separate the internal from the external, while allowing those on both sides to see each other, speaking directly to Coppola’s themes of alienation and observation.
LOST IN TRANSLATION, 2003 : AN ANALYSIS OF THE PRESENCE OF FEMALE GAZE IN THE MOVIE, AND FILMIC DEVICES EMPLOYED TO ENFORCE IT
There are many shots in this movie that show Charlotte, played by Scarlett Johansson, in a way that emphasises her as a woman being an object of someone’s desire. However, the objectivity feels heavier than that used in the male gaze. By employing this effect by almost playing into the male gaze, and satirising it, the style becomes too existential for us to relate Charlotte to some kind of ‘femme fatale’. The filmic style is too sensitive to her inner emotions, and her isolated story as she meanders alone through the buzzing city of Tokyo. In this movie, Coppola emphasises mood through low lighting and slow moving narratives. Her dreamy colours and soft tones and undeniable presence of the female voice have become synonymous with her name. Our first introduction to Charlotte is a shot of her laying in her underwear, filmed in a way that presents her as an object of attraction. The camera hovers long enough for the viewer to question why. The film, it seems, is sympathetic in its objectification of her. The gaze behind the camera – which as we know, is a woman (but I do not believe is essential information in this case) seems to say ‘You cannot escape objectification, but I give you agency to present your sexuality to us as viewers.’ There is a moment where the viewer is given time to progress from his initial thought of ‘enjoyment’ or ‘arousal’ on an unconscious level, to a more considered reaction. Although it could be read as sexual or provocative, it is clearly a reclamation of her body. Mulvey describes a precarious balance like this one: ‘it faces us with the ultimate challenge: how to fight the unconscious structured like a language…while still caught within the language of the patriarchy. There is no way in which we can produce an alternative out of the blue.’(22) The viewer, used to the constant stream of male gaze media, is left confused, without having been directed to view and process the presence of the body in any certain way. He is allowed to rest on the image long enough to realise, through the subtle adjustment of her underwear, or the movement of her sleeping leg, that he is preying on a private moment. She is not there for his pleasure. The object becomes human.
Another device common to Coppola’s work is her use of literature to add subtle nuance to the story. In other films she has pulled on such images as a school girl reading Virginia Woolf at her desk(23). She delivers this device early on, when Charlotte is confronted by a man reading a violent pornographic magazine on the rush hour train unashamedly. While this can be read on the surface as an indication of cultural differences, it gives a male viewer insight into these mundane but continual experiences women have where they are presented with the image of ‘herself’ as an object of sexual desire. This is another experience not often expressed in male directed film.
References to other women and their status within society is addressed when Charlotte visits the Japanese garden in Kyoto(24). The camera swings in first person perspective from laughing school girls to a woman in traditional Japanese clothing, painted in make up and surrounded by men who are serving her. Again, despite all the references here to the objectification of women for their physical identity, a quick shot of the man bowing down, and offering his hand under hers, for her to lean on to climb the stairs, reminds us that all is not as it seems. The relevance of the scene is increased because she is being watched through the eyes of another woman, so we accept it and see a recognition and common bond between the characters. This technique is revisited in the karaoke bar scene later in the film, where Charlotte wears a sultry expression matched with a pink wig. In the scene in question we are brought to Charlotte who is considering a hair cut alone in the bathroom mirror. She is again considering herself as an object. But is she? Does it inhibit the female gaze, and therefore bring about the male gaze as she objectifies herself in the mirror? In fact, it has the opposite effect. It heightens the viewers acceptance of the character's agency over her own sexuality. She is allowed to appreciate her own beauty, to the end of nobody else’s approval, as she gazes into the mirror, adjusting her hair and pouting seductively(25).
Her relationships to the two male characters who feature in the film, one being her husband and the other being an ageing celebrity, are deeply contrasting. I believe this is a ploy by Coppola to again demonstrate the complexities of Charlotte’s inner turmoil. Although literally living in one room with her photographer husband, from the beginning of the movie – bar one tender moment – they psychologically inhabit different worlds. She lives in the twilight zone, where the movie is set, as jet lag keeps her awake. The physical connection, yet total emotional lack of it, draws the viewer further into Charlotte’s insomniacal dream world. Coppola connects us more strongly with her by pushing him and his experiences away from us. The intent is not to dislike him, more to sympathise with her loneliness. He is of little more relevance than a plot line. Another way the two characters fit well into a cinematic story is the fact that one is a famous actor, while the other is a celebrity photographer, signalling the dual nature in the preoccupation with looking: Bob has grown tired of being looked a, and John is too self-absorbed to see what is in front of him.
When Charlotte meets Bob Harris (the actor) at the hotel bar in the middle of the night, we can feel that we will never see their relationship blossom in the light of day. Coppola has definitely reached for Freudian connections in their dynamic. The dialogue and behaviour deliberately mirrors that of a father/daughter relationship:
‘You’re too tall’ she says when he asks her to cut out a tag from his shirt.
‘Where are your keys?’
‘They’re in my bag.’
‘I’ll race you to the elevator.’(26)
They sit with each other in one scene where the chemistry is most tangible, but we also believe by this point that the film will never cross the line from desire to action(27). The lust can be felt, but more as an element of curiosity. This again is a mark of female consciousness, I believe, in that it is very rare to see a Hollywood film approach matters of the heart with such sensitivity and ambiguity. There is no wondering if he will ‘get the girl’. There is no question of whether he is capable of ensnaring her. These sentiments rarely exist in a Coppola romance, thus making it more real.
Through the mysterious way it is shot, with lots of empty space, and with the camera following the protagonist like a moth to flame, we are forced to question her motives for each choice and turn Charlotte makes. This further humanises her, and without forcing us to release the clutches of the habit of viewing through the male gaze, begins to allow us naturally to shrug off this notion through its provocation of our empathy.
A scopophilic scene quite directly addressing the submission of women to men(28), takes place at an after party Charlotte attends with Bob and some friends. The scene opens with Charlotte and a nameless friend being photographed from above, while sitting on the floor and looking up to the camera. Referencing their hair colours, which may as well be their entire identities as far as the photographer is concerned, he repeats the phrase ‘blonde and black’ while laughing, and snapping away at them from above, blurring the lines of permission and submission, appreciation and objectification. The laughter from the women is tinged with a darkness all too common. Laughter and agreement do not always mean a woman is contented with the situation she is in. Camera in hand, the man gains a predatory quality as he hovers over the women sitting on the floor telling them ‘Gorgeous! Gorgeous!’. It is just ‘good fun’ and if so, why does it feel dirty, as if he possesses them? - again Coppola’s knack for subtlety is flawless.
To create the serene quality to this movie the camera was moved in a gentle, handheld style with a heavy emphasis on the importance of using available light.(29) Shots feel at once improvised, and well thought out. The use of natural light changes the entire mood of the film, enhancing its feeling of intimate authenticity. It is not the only female-helmed project that does this. Judging from the success of Lost in Translation, this technique persists as an effective method of storytelling. Sofia Coppola’s movies seem to mock the traditional male gaze – perhaps, the operative word is, to reclaim it.
‘Let’s never come here again because it would never be as much fun.’
This most profound aspect of Lost In Translation is the poetic and honest exploration of what happens when we love something that was never supposed to be ours.
LYNNE RAMSAY : A DEFINITION OF HER STYLE AND EVIDENCE OF THE PRESENCE OF THE FEMALE GAZE IN MORVERN CALLAR 2002, IN COMPARISON WITH SOFIA COPPOLA’S BODY OF WORK
Born in Glasgow, Lynne Ramsay is considered one of the most original voices working in independent cinema today. She has a long running relationship with Cannes winning the Prix de Jury in 1996, for her graduation film, Small Deaths and for her third short Gasman 1998. Her debut feature film Ratcatcher 2000 premiered in Un Certain Regard winning Special Mention. We Need To Talk About Kevin 2011 was the only British film nominated for the Palm d'Or in official competition that year(30). She is a cinematographer and director known for her gritty, yet impressionist style. Films like Ratcatcher, We Need to Talk About Kevin and most recently You Were Never Really Here 2017 have brought her gradually into the mainstream, and with it widespread recognition.
LYNNE RAMSAY AND HER CINEMATIC SIGNATURE
Immersive and overwhelming at times, Ramsay’s films blend the use of uncommon imagery and awkward cut-off framing. The imagery of her films is purely poetic, and the message comes often after the movie is over. Her arresting use of texture, composition and music ground her sensorially rich work. Her protagonists are always similar, and the focus is rarely pulled away from them. She has so far staged the plots of her movies in similar story arcs, always beginning with traumatic or violent experiences, and the recovery, or enlightenment that follows. The protagonist in this sense is usually an ‘anit-hero’(31) of sorts, but a loveable one, or at least someone enigmatic enough to fascinate. The lingering curiosity in her work serves for the viewer to never feel fully satiated in their analysis of the character. Like Coppola, Ramsay began as a photographer. Similar qualities can be seen in Ramsay's mesmerizing and trance-like vision. Ramsay also gives a feeling that you are inside the head of the protagonist, or hovering just behind them. Any other characters feel like outside forces – through camera angle and slimmed down dialogue – they usually feel an unwelcome interruption, as Ramsay hacks away at their facial expressions, preventing the viewer from being allowed to discern their motive, or their place in the story, reducing them to a distraction full of clues about the central character. There is usually one other character who the protagonist is closest too, although that isn’t saying much. That person feels like a passenger along for the ride, and is there mostly as a crutch to read further into the psyche of the character we are following.
The theme of death obviously cements her movies together, and the state of grief ever-present pulls us into a cinematic twilight zone, that grants us a hyper awareness and dissociation from the world around us (within the film). The mundane tasks of every day become poetically pointless and we fall into the logic that shapes their singular point of view.
When quizzed about her role as a female director, and told she was the first woman to win a prize by the Telegraph, she said that "In the beginning, I used to hate the whole categorisation thing. Those 'How does it feel to be a working-class female director with a wooden leg?' questions, which ask you to justify yourself for being in a minority. But recently, a documentary-maker told me that only two per cent of the world's professional directors are female." (32)
MORVERN CALLAR : A SUMMARY
With its lyrical, dreamlike aesthetic and cryptic anti-heroine, it feels hypnotic and rare. Morvern Callar, 2002 is a compelling story about a young woman’s personal transformation through tragedy to something resembling hope.The film deals primarily with Morvern, as a character and with the things that motivate her, relegating to the backburner the spaces and larger forces against which those motivations play out. As such, the film’s most successful achievement is in the way it offers a brief meditation on trauma and personal transformation in a style that revels in the vulnerability of human nature.
The film opens to a shot of Morvern lying on the foor, next to a corpse. This corpse, we discover, is a lover, by the way she interacts with his dead body in the hazy back ground light of a small, flashing Christmas tree. Her face does not read much by way of emotion. It is blank - she appears to be in shock. The camera focuses in on small intimate touches. Immediately we are made aware that this is a traumatic event, but in a strange way we are also reassured that this is very much about Morvern; not about her grief, but about her character. She sits quietly, contemplating what has happened, although the film never quite reveals what she’s thinking. She touches and caresses the body in a way which is sensual and almost erotic, yet deeply tragic. The scene feels private and tender. Yet, underneath it’s silent and passive exterior, there’s a subtle kind of violence, a violence in not doing anything through Morvern’s refusal to act in a ‘moral,’ ‘normal’ way. This violence insidiously perforates the scene. Morvern eventually goes to the computer where the screen bears the instructions “read me.”(33) This is her boyfriend’s last command but one to which Morvern obeys. She resolutely takes control over her own destiny by reinterpreting the very instructions which her boyfriend left on the computer. The instructions read, “I wrote this for you. I love you.” Morvern takes this quite literally. She deletes his name from the title page and inserts hers instead. This could also be seen as a way of her regaining control, or trying to, after he has taken away her security. He also leaves behind presents for Morvern – a cassette player and a mix tape.
Morvern is a supermarket assistant, living in a cold and bleak small town in Scotland. Though the film is seeping with grief, trauma and confusion, there is a consistent undertone that Morvern will gain back her strength. What begins as a quiet rage crescendoes toward the point at which she dismembers and buries his body, a point which could be seen as climax, when the strongest outward demonstration of her feelings of anger and betrayal are laid bare. Simply through the darkness of the scene, and the shots of her painted in splatters of his blood(34), it is far too visceral to be in-keeping with the previously dour and melancholic mood of the film. So graphic is the scene, as she takes some medication and places her sunglasses assuredly on her face, while studying herself in the bathroom mirror, as to be comic and totally absurd.
COPPOLA AND RAMSAY
To look at Ramsay’s techinuques of enhancing the female gaze, is to glimpse a more experimental and less direct approach than Coppola. Ramsay’s movies leave more room for guess work, and interpretation than Coppola’s strong female led sentiment. Morvern Callar could almost be described as 'accidentally' female. This is evidenced in Ramsay’s response to the question about the struggles of the female film maker. However, the female gaze then can become even more pure, since it is translated as such by the viewer more voluntarily than what is deliberately infused and centrally thematic to the work. Both directors create an isolationist viewpoint, a nihilistic space where the character is mapped, and the viewer can wonder within the walls of that character’s experiences. However, Ramsay does this in a far more brutal sense than Coppola: Coppola’s characters gaze out at the unknown from behind glass panes. Ramsay’s hide behind sunglasses as they cut up bodies. This is not to say that Coppola’s vision is not as strong as Ramsay’s, but Ramsay is simply grittier. Both directors rely on the body heavily to deliver the filmic message - from focus on bodily parts as abstract pieces of flesh and bone, to emphasising the relevance of subtle bodily reactions. Ramsay often uses shots of hands in repetitive variation throughout the film, in order to connect us via the body to the protagonist, through association. Coppola less commonly crops to close ups of bodies, but her characters often display their emotion entirely through their body language in any given scene. Think of Kirsten Dunst in Marie Antoinette 200,6(35), as she lays on her bed day dreaming about her lover. No words are said, just crushy 90s pop accompanies her hazy glances towards the ceiling and softly writhing limbs. This particular scene is steeped in the female consciousness as the female viewer identifies with times she has behaved in this manner, and in which male characters are never permitted to behave. Filled with longing, it feels empathetic to the soft, strong, quality of female desire. Further dissection of a character through a visual allusion to their emotions are in bathtub scenes (Fig. 3 & Fig. 4). The intimate setting of these shots only enhances our awareness of the vulnerability of the characters’ internal well-being. The point of view of the camera is also important as we are looking down on the subjects. We see the defeated Chloe’s attempt at suicide after taking pills and sliding down into the bathtub in Lick the Star, and experience Morvern’s inner disquiet as she floats just above the surface in Morvern Callar.
There isa considerable emphasis on style through carefully considered use of wardrobe and make up to show character quirks and give visual clues about the story and the character in question. In Lick The Star, 90s teen trends are honed and exaggerated to clue us in on the importance of physical appearance in terms of social acceptance. The use of a drawn on star, the ‘mark’ of the cult of Lick The Star, we are reminded of our own cultish school days, and nostalgic for the darkness of playground rules. Ramsay relies heavily upon vivid colour for effect, and nods at social ‘class’ in the character’s clothing to help complete the atmosphere and setting of the movie in question. Take the scene when Morvern cuts up the dead body, she is wearing nothing but a pair of pants, sunglasses, and the MP3 player attached to her body via tape running around her ribs(Fig. 5).
Another common theme, ever present and over-arching in these two directors work, is the sound. While Ramsay experimentally works on increasing and decreasing soundscapes throughout her work, to create a whole aural world to run along side the visual narrative, Coppola relies heavily on well chosen soundtracks, painstakingly considered in regards to how well they fit the narrative. The presence of music in their movies is arguably more important than the dialogue. Both of their musical additions to visual story can engage the viewer on a deep level, taking them from the mundane to the erotic in a heartbeat, or in reading the pain and loneliness behind the every day. Further to this, the directors both use ways of attaching us to the character via music. By this I mean, we are aware of the music at the same time as the character. For example, the running theme in Morvern Callar of her use of the cassette player left behind by her boyfriend, spends half the movie playing into her ears via headphones, connecting her to him, and so us to her, and him to us directly and all at once. One influential scene of the film features her walking through the super market(36), headphones blasting with a melancholic version of ‘Some Velvet Morning’. Surrounded by bargain signs as she drifts through the meat isle, our senses are overwhelmed by the melancholic beauty that can be found in the ‘ordinary’. Similarly, in a memorable scene from Lost In Translation, we are connected sizzlingly to Charlotte as she listens to Bob and his karaoke rendition of ‘More Than This’ by Roxy Music(37). We are at once feeling the sense of surface comedy at his bad singing, while also feeling an awareness of the ephemerality of the moment that we sense the protagonist lacks, as she looks on in amused admiration, and we relate it to personal memories that we did not grasp the significance of at the time. The lyrics speak for themselves in referencing the disappointment in common expectations, relating back to the film’s idea of not everything living up to your dreams, or going as you planned. We are invited into the protagonists' thoughts in both movies when music is incorporated between us, as the audience is forced to recognise over and over that this woman is a human, thinking, feeling entity, rather than an object to be looked at. Through these audio induced peaks and troughs, we are linked with the protagonist in a common emotional experience.
Both women take filmic technicalities very seriously to demonstrate qualities of empowerment, strength and humanity. They are noticeably sparing in terms of script, with a fluid and interpretive narrative running throughout. This places a quiet emphasis on the presence felt from the female protagonist within herself. Small casts develop the feeling of closeness and intimacy both on set, and consequently, in the finished work. We follow the woman as she leads us through the story, rather than being led by the man who wants to possess her. In their own way, each director draws people closer to the acceptance of a female character in Hollywood as a complex character, worth studying as a self-possessed entity. Although Morvern Callar is an independent film, much of the following work from Ramsay has been produced on big-budget scale and with world famous actors. Coppola uses the film theories of narcissism and voyeurism revolutionarily in order to make her statements about women’s issues, adding to the evidence set against a set type of style than can be described as unimistakeably feminine(38).
Considering it has been 56 years since a woman has won the title Best Director at Cannes(39), this year’s win for Sofia Coppola of The Beguiled, 2017, in ways can be seen as a success. Hopefully the efforts of these two directors will continue to influence and inspire a new generation of filmmakers, in pushing the boundaries in terms of poetic and sensory filmmaking: in showing the viewer a world through the eyes of a more expansive and diverse selection of characters, the filmmaker is giving the viewer what the viewer deserves, and remembering that cinema is overall, an art form, that can make prolific influences on society and its beliefs. That includes taking long held beliefs, and challenging them.
Sofia Coppola and Lynne Ramsay are contemporaries to be considered as strong influences on the emergence of the female and oppositional gaze in modern Hollywood. Without their work, there would not have been nearly as many questions asked, as many changes made to the system of filmic narrative in Hollywood. I believe they have forced people to take note, not just of the fact that women and oppositional characters, and what they represent, are more than an object or a plot device. They are more than something just to be chased, or won, or possessed. And this progress has not been made through forced action, and has not been without resistance from people stuck in a nostalgic haze for Rear Window, 1954 The Graduate, 1967 or Lara Croft:Tombraider, 2001. It has been made through buffering acceptance and persevering. Changes are made simply through the creation of the art in itself, building its own space to exist in the realm of mainstream consumerism of media. This kind of film gives the viewer the credit they deserve, instead of patronising and manipulating them.
Both movies run on atmosphere, style and cinematic beauty. Neither are overly complicated, or distract from the feeling of the movie itself, but they are both honest and heavily poetic. They float through emblematic single shots, haunting and beautiful. Most of them are focused on the character themselves, with stark interplay or distraction. The strong female protagonists and centralised viewpoint make it irresistible to become submerged in the secret world of a strong female character, through a diaristic and voyeuristic viewpoint. Watching characters trapped, in transition, and in moments of evanescence that lasts an entire movie is what is the most captivating characteristic of a movie featuring the female gaze.
2 “Ways of Seeing” by John Berger, 1972
3 “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality” by Sigmund Freud, 1905
4 “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”by Laura Mulvey, 1975
5 Jill Soloway on The Female Gaze | MASTER CLASS | TIFF 2016
8 ” Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”by Laura Mulvey, 1975
9“Male Gaze vs Female Gaze” by Marcy Cook for bookriot.com, 2015
10 “Male Gaze vs Female Gaze” by Marcy Cook for bookriot.com, 2015
11 Marina Abramovic Interview in Vogue Italia on her piece The Hero, 2001
12 Marina Abramovic Interview in Vogue Italia on her piece The Hero, 2001
13 “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators” by Bell Hooks, 1992
14 “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators” by Bell Hooks, 1992
15 “The mirror stage as formative as the function of the I, as revealed in psycholanalytic experience” by Jacques Lacan, 1949
18 “Pretty: Film and the Decorative Image” by Rosalind Galt, 2011
19 “Off with Hollywood’s Head: Sofia Coppola as Feminine Auteur,” by Todd Kennedy, 2010
20 “Three Visual Patterns in Sofia Coppola’s Films” by A Place For Film, 2017
21 “Three Visual Patterns in Sofia Coppola’s Films”by A Place For Film, 2017
22 “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”by Laura Mulvey, 1975
23 Somewhere 1h10m, Sofia Coppola, 2010
25 Lost In Translation 14m37s, Sofia Coppola, 2003
26 Lost In Translation 44m00s, Sofia Coppola, 2003
27 Lost In Translation 1h12m, Sofia Coppola, 2003
28 Lost In Translation 47m10s, Sofia Coppola, 2003
31 Harvard Film Archive, 2012
33 Morvern Callar 30m07s, Lynne Ramsay, 2002
34 Morvern Callar 35m02s, Lynne Ramsay, 2002
35 Marie Antoinette 1h38m, Sofia Coppola, 2006
36 Morvern Callar 26m08s, Lynne Ramsay, 2002
37 Lost In Translation 50m37s, Sofia Coppola, 2003
38 Benshoff & Griffin, 2004
Figure 1 Lick The Star, 1998, Sofia Coppola
Figure 2 Lost In Translation, Sofia Coppola, 2003
Figure 3 Lick The Star, Sofia Coppola, 1999
Figure 4 Morvern Callar, Lynne Ramsay, 2002
Figure 5 Morvern Callar, Lynne Ramsay, 2002
Smelik, Anneke. And The Mirror Cracked: Feminist Cinema and Film Theory. New York: Palgrave, 2001
Ramanathan, Geetha. Feminist Auteurs: Reading Women’s Films. London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2006
26Griselda Pollock, in her article, "Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity"