6 films about masculinity directed by women

Portraits of maleness through the lens of great female filmmakers.

19 July 2016

By Sophie Monks Kaufman

Chevalier (2015)

Athina Rachel Tsangari announced herself in 2010 with Attenberg, an instant alternative classic about female friendship. She has since helped to produce Yorgos Lanthimos’s Alps (2011) and Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight (2013) but is now back as director, lampooning egoistic male antics with deadpan comedy Chevalier.

On a boat, six men compete. They gather around a pal’s bed to scribble notes on his sleeping posture. Erections are compared. Personal insecurities mount as traits that define lives are scrutinised and found wanting. Nothing is too ridiculous to be competition fodder. Tsangari is clearly having a lot of fun.

Tsangari is not the only female director to have built drama out of the elusive concept of ‘masculinity’. Here we take a look at how six other female directors have presented men in movies.

The Hitch-hiker (1953)

Director: Ida Lupino

The Hitch-hiker (1953)

Ida Lupino is a rare breed: a female director of film noir. While The Hitch-hiker does not overtly take a position on masculinity, the three lead characters are locked in a tense macho standoff for the majority of this lean black-and-white film’s runtime.

Two fishermen stop their truck to pick up a man who turns out to be an escaped convict. He will kill them once the ride is over, he says, keeping his gun pointed, and sleeping with eyes eerily half-open. Their survival depends on acting subservient while seeking opportunities to escape. The journey becomes arduous, adding physical toil to the mental strain. Living as a man requires keeping desperation down beneath a cool exterior, but even this is no guarantee of survival.

Losing Ground (1982)

Director: Kathleen Collins

Losing Ground (1982)

Marriage is the stage, power play the dance in Kathleen Collins’ wonderful, breezy, nuanced slice-of-life. There are no villains here, just voluptuous characters. Victor (Bill Gun) is an artist. Sarah (Seret Scott) is a philosophy professor. Victor has a blissful smile that lights up the world, acting to persuade on all matters, from where they shall summer to acquiring and parading a mistress. His selfishness fronts as a pure urge for freedom. Barbed feminist observations reach a critical mass amid a gentle rhythm and absorbing performances.

Beau Travail (1999)

Director: Claire Denis

Beau travail (1999)

Is there a hotter film about men than Claire Denis’s Beau Travail? The heat is literal, as sun beats down on the Gulf of Djibouti, where Sergeant-Major Galoup (Denis Lavant) and his French legionaries train all day, every day. The heat is figurative as young topless torsos go through their paces, displaying extraordinary grace, as well as fitness, as they bring their bodies to a peak of physical readiness.

Claire Denis has always been a maestro of mood, capable of implying through atmosphere all manner of feelings and longings that transcend paltry description. With Beau Travail, she suggests something about the relationship between men who live in sensual proximity to one another, breathing the same tropical air, focusing on the same muscular movements, and yet whose communication is constrained by the traditional values inherent in a military environment.

American Psycho (2000)

Director: Mary Harron

American Psycho (2000)

“Try getting a reservation at Dorsia now, you stupid fucking bastard!” says a man in a Valentino suit swinging an axe at a business rival’s head. This moment, like all moments in American Psycho, is mockery most gleeful.

Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman is not so much a character as a sculpted satire of misogyny and misanthropy rooted in 80s Wall Street culture. While Bret Easton-Ellis’s book relished the gore of Bateman’s homicidal mania, Mary Harron relishes the absurdity.

This Wall Street yuppie with money to burn breaks into a sweat on discovering that his peers might have better business cards than him. This physically perfect 27-year-old lies about getting into hip restaurants because everyone in his world thrives on superficial success. However dangerous he is, he is doubly pathetic. Blood is never at his expense, but laughs always are. The sublime Christian Bale modelled his performance on a Tom Cruise appearance on The David Letterman Show, focusing on extreme friendliness coupled with nothing behind the eyes.

Tomboy (2011)

Director: Céline Sciamma

Tomboy (2011)

What does it mean to be male? Is it a question of how you look, how you walk, or how you talk? Does it depend on others’ perceptions and whether females are attracted to you?

By these measures, 10-year-old Laure in Céline Sciamma’s Tomboy is male. When her family moves to a new neighbourhood, she presents to peers as ‘Mikael’ and thrives as a boy.

In naturalistic, observational waves, Sciamma captures the way that young people construct themselves within relationships. Laure is shown living as Mikael without judgment or drama. After her biological gender is exposed, the narrow-minded responses of certain characters only heighten the accepting tone of the film with its empathy for transgenderism.

Marie Antoinette (2006)

Director: Sofia Coppola

Marie Antoinette (2006)

Sofia Coppola based her third feature on Antonia Fraser’s sympathetic book about the infamous French queen, who left her home in Vienna to marry Louis XVI at the age of 14. The production design and Oscar-winning costumes are a carnival of feminine luxury, coloured by ivories, pastels and every shade of pink. Filming took place at the Palace of Versailles and every scene looks like the inside of a massive wedding cake. Hovering around primly is Jason Schwartzman as her royal husband. He won’t conform to a basic ideal of masculinity by having sex with his wife. He pursues his little-boy interests of keys and locks, only inserting his own after heavy pressure.

Chevalier won the best film award at the 59th BFI London Film Festival.

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