She’s got male…
Lynne Ramsay’s fourth feature, You Were Never Really Here, spotlights the tortured existence of Joe: a self-described “hired hand” who rescues young girls abducted by sex traffickers. Played by an imposing Joaquin Phoenix, this brutal enforcer is bulky on the outside yet seemingly empty within. Will his dangerous latest mission bring solace or oblivion?
Although its synopsis knowingly invites comparison, the film doesn’t really hinge on the kidnap-saga mechanics that drive Liam Neeson’s popcorn-smashing revenge thrillers. Ramsay is less interested in plot twists than the psyche of a damaged individual whose entire life has been defined by violence.
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Amplified by Jonny Greenwood’s nerve-jangling yet never obvious score, set pieces ratchet tension while refusing conventional genre release. Bloodshed doesn’t equal resolution; terror yields further disquiet.
As with Ramsay’s two previous pictures, Morvern Callar (2002) and We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011), You Were Never Really Here deals with trauma and is based on a book (Jonathan Ames’ 2013 novella). However, the Scottish writer-director’s allusive, economical adaptations privilege texture over text. She’s been one of the world’s finest show-don’t-tell filmmakers since 1999’s self-penned debut Ratcatcher: a tender coming-of-age story that tonally has little in common with her nightmarish, action-fuelled new movie, but similarly uses abstract images and sound to suggest the thoughts, memories and feelings of a quiet male protagonist.
In celebration of such artistry, here are 10 other fine narrative features directed by women, which focus on men.
Le Bonheur (1965)
Director: Agnès Varda
Likened by its creator to an apple with a worm inside, Agnès Varda’s third feature opens on an impossibly picturesque, Mozart-soundtracked summer idyll of sunflowers and pastoral bliss. Picnicking young couple François and Thérèse (actual husband and wife Jean-Claude and Claire Drouot) make love in the countryside, their children (the actors’ real-life kids) helpfully falling asleep on cue. However, it’s not long before the man is having an affair, marvelling at his own capacity for so-called happiness.
Le Bonheur presents a hermetically sealed world of male privilege and rigid gender roles, highlighting without comment the imbalances of a then-contemporary sexual revolution. Symbolic everyman François benefits from unquestioned patriarchy; conditioned to measure her happiness by his, Thérèse absorbs the consequences. More than a 1960s period piece or mere exercise in cognitive dissonance, Varda’s deceptive fruit feels as relevant as ever, brightly acerbic in Instagram-ready colours.
Real Genius (1985)
Director: Martha Coolidge
Having launched Nicolas Cage’s career with 1983’s effervescent Valley Girl, documentarian turned Hollywood stalwart Martha Coolidge gave a youthful Val Kilmer his second starring role in cult science-fiction campus comedy Real Genius. Kilmer’s bulletproof confidence proves an ideal fit for gregarious university physics whizz Chris, who’s working on secret laser technology that, unbeknown to him, the CIA want to develop into a computer-guided weapon.
Coolidge commits to her premise with warmth, flair and eye-popping montages, concluding in Tears for Fears-soundtracked triumph. Though you do wonder if the real genius isn’t prank-playing Chris but rather Michelle Meyrink’s hyperactive sole-girl-on-the-project Jordan, who conducts experiments amid chaotic student parties. For a quintessentially 1980s arrested-development double-bill, pair this with Penny Marshall’s literal man-child classic Big (1988), in which a 13-year-old wakes up in the body of Oscar-nominated Tom Hanks.
Director: Penelope Spheeris
From her landmark Decline of Western Civilization documentaries to mainstream smash Wayne’s World (1992), subcultural men are a staple of Penelope Spheeris’s singular filmography. Revived for DVD release last year to coincide with its 30th anniversary, Dudes gives eclectic expression to the Los Angeles director’s idiosyncratic style, reworking a serious dramatic screenplay (by The Doors writer Randall Johnson) into a spirited and surreally comedic ‘punk rock western’.
A road movie about three miserable New York punks who decide to relocate to California but are tragically attacked en route, Dudes’ nominal revenge plot takes a backseat to trippy interludes and encounters with fondly sketched ghost town oddballs. Led by Jon Cryer of Pretty in Pink (1986) fame, these decidedly un-macho dreamers are guided through hostile territory by hallucinated Native American tribes and Catherine Mary Stewart’s friendly alpha female mechanic, their cross-country odyssey underscoring Spheeris’s unswerving loyalty to society’s rejected margin walkers.
Point Break (1991)
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
A bona fide hit sandwiched between two of her most underrated genre explorations (feminist cop horror Blue Steel and prescient sci-fi Strange Days), Kathryn Bigelow’s commercial breakthrough is arguably the apex of pre-CGI, high-octane Hollywood action cinema. Point Break delivers kinetic thrills, quotable one-liners and dizzying waves of subtext, inviting viewers to ponder the unspoken love – erotic attraction? surrogate father/son bond? – that exists between two beautiful, wetsuited heroes on opposite sides of the law.
Imperial-phase Patrick Swayze exudes a deadly charisma as surfing, beach philosophy-spouting bank robber Bodhi. Shaggy-haired heartthrob Keanu Reeves becomes neatly-cropped crime fighter Johnny Utah: indisputably an FBI agent, but sensitive as well as sculpted. Befitting a Whitney-educated student of semiotics who’s also unparalleled at staging sick and gnarly skydives, Bigelow’s endlessly rewatchable masterpiece plays equally well to sober theoreticians and the drunkest person in the room.
Beau Travail (1999)
Director: Claire Denis
Claire Denis’s hypnotic and sensual interpretation of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd imagines the fragmented state of mind of unreliable narrator Galoup (the inimitable Denis Lavant): a seasoned French Foreign Legion officer stationed in Djibouti who’s obsessively jealous of attractive and popular new recruit Sentain (perfectly poised Grégoire Colin). Beau Travail poeticises their elite fighting unit’s sun-dazed desert exercise drills, while also suggesting its colonial redundancy. This combat-trained regiment’s only interaction with outside forces is as eye candy for bemused local girls down the disco.
Denis orchestrates a breathtaking flow of indelible images by visionary cinematographer Agnès Godard: muscular soldiers ironing in concert; green shorts and singlets amid golden sand and the bluest sky; blood seeping from a body in the ocean; Sentain collapsed on crystalline salt flats. Having often likened filmmaking to choreography, she naturally leaves Galoup on the dancefloor, with a Europop flourish that deserves its own book.
Jesus’ Son (1999)
Director: Alison Maclean
Streamlining the late Denis Johnson’s titular short-story collection while capturing the author’s freewheeling spirit, Alison Maclean’s second feature remains an overlooked gem. A series of vignettes linked by a stream-of-consciousness voiceover, Jesus’ Son is an affectionate portrayal of non-toxic masculinity, albeit centred on someone with a major chemical dependency.
Billy Crudup imbues affable heroin addict FH (“Fuckhead”) with melancholic charm as he drifts through the USA’s forgotten backwaters during the 1970s. His nuanced lead turn is supported by a colourful ensemble including Samantha Morton, Dennis Hopper, Holly Hunter, Jack Black and a then-unknown Michael Shannon (credited as Mike). Maclean elicits strong performances from all, while establishing a vivid atmosphere that doesn’t overdose on the stylisation that often afflicts productions set in this decade. She’s continued to work in television, but frustratingly didn’t helm another movie until 2016’s The Rehearsal (based on Eleanor Catton’s bestseller).
American Psycho (2000)
Director: Mary Harron
In adapting Bret Easton Ellis’s iconic yuppie monster, Mary Harron endured pre-emptive protest, a meddlesome distributor (Lionsgate tried to replace her with Oliver Stone) and an inevitable degree of backlash from devotees of the source material. Yet if anything the Canadian writer-director’s American Psycho has gained in stature since release – especially when viewed in the avowedly feminist context of her undervalued filmography, where it’s bookended by compassionate biopics of two very different women trapped in patriarchal systems (I Shot Andy Warhol and The Notorious Bettie Page).
Emphasising the novel’s dark humour, Harron creates a rigorously aestheticised horror-comedy with a satirical bite that applies beyond the specific Wall Street setting. We only see Patrick Bateman’s murderous urges, but his misogynist worldview is shared by interchangeable sharp-suited colleagues. “Yes all men” taken to a mordant extreme; it doesn’t hurt that Christian Bale wears his role like a second skin.
Old Joy (2006)
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Adapted from a short story by her regular collaborator Jonathan Raymond, Kelly Reichardt’s quietly sublime Pacific Northwest travelogue is among the most acute studies of male friendship you’ll ever see. Old Joy patiently follows Mark (Daniel London) – settled down and about to be a dad – as he reunites with hippie buddy Kurt (bearded indie-folk music enigma Will Oldham) for a weekend camping in the wilderness east of Portland, Oregon.
Aided by the verdant Cascades mountain range and Yo La Tengo’s melancholy score, Reichardt traces the ebb and flow of a bond that’s been strained by time. As the open road gives way to dense forest, we glean how Mark and Kurt’s paths have diverged. Refusing easy laughs or trite potted wisdom, one of America’s truly great independent filmmakers conveys her protagonists’ irrevocable positions through minimalist grace and economy (76 minutes), peaking with wordless homosocial intimacy at Bagby Hot Springs.
Father of My Children (2009)
Director: Mia Hansen-Løve
Whether she’s charting the course of teenage romance (the semi-autobiographical Goodbye First Love) or recalling the French house music scene (Eden, drawing on older brother Sven’s experiences), Mia Hansen-Løve writes and directs unerringly assured distillations of character and circumstance. Inspired by her own early cinephile champion Humbert Balsan, the Cannes Special Jury Prize-winning Father of My Children paints a remarkably absorbing portrait of a Parisian arthouse film financier.
Affluent and outwardly fulfilled, Grégoire Canvel (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) is a dedicated family man and owner of a respected but struggling production company. Accumulating detail while avoiding melodrama, Hansen-Løve’s deceptively low-key narrative observes shocking events and raw truths that in lesser hands would be played as big twists. For another sensitively rendered, female-lensed view of fatherhood, try So Yong Kim’s blue-collar character study For Ellen (2012), starring Paul Dano as a troubled rocker dad.
Director: Athina Rachel Tsangari
Having produced compatriot Yorgos Lanthimos’s first few pictures, Greek writer-director Athina Rachel Tsangari made waves herself with 2010’s Attenberg. She followed up that brilliant depiction of female-focused insularity with this testosterone-mocking deadpan comedy aboard a luxury yacht. Chevalier trains its impassively hilarious gaze on six egotistical guys who decide to enliven their Aegean Sea fishing trip with a contest to determine who is “The Best in General”.
The men devise increasingly absurd games in which everyone has to participate, judging each others’ sleeping posture, dental integrity, coffee drinking, cleaning speed and erection size (to name but a handful of their trials). Winner of the most rounds gets to claim the eponymous competition ring. Cue crises, disagreements and tantrums. Enhanced by her uniformly skilled cast, Tsangari’s pitch-perfect dissection of masculine vanity, insecurity and idiocy was itself crowned best film at the 2015 BFI London Film Festival.