Associate Professor in French and Film
|Portrait of a Lady on Fire
|Daughters of the Dust
Exquisitely structured, this is a masterpiece of form and rhythm that focuses on a young, marginalised woman (Mona) whose life unfolds through the partial memories of those she encountered on the road. Making the camera itself drift - like Mona - through long tracking shots that contemplate rural France, this invigorating film makes feminist resistance tangible, as well as raising more questions than it answers about society's treatment of those deemed 'other', as well as of the nonhuman world.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
A moving and beautiful reflection on the female creative gaze, as well as a tender portrait of lesbian desire and romantic love, Sciamma's film manages to touch everyone who sees it. Beautifully filmed, it makes extraordinary use of sound in a sequence where women's voices come together into an uplifting collective. It also confronts abortion head on, in heartbreaking scenes that prioritise women's mutual nurturing and care for one another, as well as the struggle for bodily autonomy. Women of different classes also come together here and are shown as intellectual, creative and individualised subjects forming deep, nuanced bonds of friendship and love: this is rare on screen. This film changed period drama forever.
Daughters of the Dust
A beautiful, moving film that evolves through rich layers of voiceover and image, bringing together time periods & generations like the fabrics in the patchwork quilts made by the people of the Gullah community on whom the film focuses; and patchwork quilts are frequently seen rippling in the breeze, connecting generations of African Americans in their folds. This film was also a landmark as one of the first widely distributed films directed by an African American woman. It's ambitious in scope and daringly unconventional in its narrative form and it continues to be highly relevant in raising questions about the histories of enslaved peoples, and the relations between tradition and modernity, place and memory, particularly in relation to Black culture in the USA.
This might not be a critically adored film, but it's one of my personal favourites and I think it should be far more widely seen / known. It's a romcom about non-normative sexuality but also a semi-documentary glimpse of worlds known to the director Monika Treut in Hamburg and San Francisco. Committed to lesbian desire and sexual fluidity, the film takes a humorous and anti-conformist approach to protagonist Dorothée's quest for love and it does so with sexy punk styling and black-and- white photography. Why is it one of the greatest films of all time? For its utter uniqueness and its profound understanding of queerness (both in terms of queer identities and in terms of queer sexual exploration) and its really quite radical commitment to pleasure: in friendship, in sex, and in cinema.
Despite ultimately reinforcing through its narrative the message that women should remain in the domestic sphere, this brilliant noir stands out to me as one of the most interesting films ever made in Hollywood. Joan Crawford is spellbinding as the woman struggling to negotiate motherhood with her own desires and sense of identity. What's more, powerful scenes in the film make it consistently overspill its rigid narrative frame, emphasising the patriarchal constraints and pressures experienced by women (of particular note is the poignant scene of Mildred's daughter Kay's death, which narratively forms a 'punishment' for Mildred's neglect, but equally demonstrates the way the medical space is ultimately controlled by men, keeping mother and daughter apart).
A road movie with so much to say about contemporary America – and by extension our contemporary world, which reduces everything and everyone to a potential 'resource', either useful for the generation of capital, or 'waste'. The extraordinary Sasha Lane – who plays Star – is at the heart of the film, and through her struggle for a better life it touches on everything from domestic abuse to racist oppression to animal exploitation. Arnold's use of music and sound in the film is breathtaking, as is her sense of pace and scale, which captures subjective time as the rag-tag teenagers move across the land and through their daily grind, getting by on music, alcohol and drugs, and the hope of finding love – and money. The fact that Arnold herself travelled with the teenagers for months and formed bonds with them as real 'mag crews' (trying to make a living from a dubious magazine-selling operation) means fiction merges with documentary, and a real tenderness for these unloved kids pulses through the film.
Feuillade's serials are masterworks of early popular cinema and this is possibly the most spectacular of them all. The influence of the iconic actress Musidora playing Irma Vep in a black catsuit cannot be underestimated: from French surrealist poets to Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman. Irma Vep is the original fascinating bad girl, whose startling stunts include leaping from a Parisian rooftop as part of a daring escape.
Short and perfectly formed, this devastating film is an indictment of colonialism and racial oppression from the perspective of a young Senegalese woman, Diouana, brought to France ostensibly as a nanny but in fact as a 'bonne à tout faire', a servant 'for everything'. The imbalance of power underpinning her migration is movingly revealed as she finds her everyday life, her self-expression, her identity encroached upon by the demands and exploitation of her white 'masters'. Diouana arrives in the côte d'Azure a picture of elegance – but the coast and its pleasures remain out of reach and the bland white modernism of the apartment becomes a suffocating prison.
Akhavan is one of the very best contemporary comedy filmmakers, partly because there is such depth and seriousness to the stories she tells so hilariously. I could have put The Miseducation of Cameron Post as my Akhavan choice, but I think her debut feature stands out as a particularly brilliant example of self-staging, with Akhavan herself as the main protagonist, Shirin, contending awkwardly and endearingly with her bisexuality in the context of her Persian-American family identity, and heartbreak after the end of a relationship. I love that she puts bisexuality at the centre of the film, and I also admire Akhavan for the way she collaborates with other women.
This is a completely groundbreaking film, one which offers a template for change in the film industry as well as being a moving and beautifully shot narrative. Sarah Gavron used her established status in the film industry to gather support to bring Theresa Ikoko's story to the big screen. They then worked with teenage girls of colour from Hackney, London, to develop the story, nurturing new talent and ensuring a striking authenticity. Gavron fought hard for the credit sequence to acknowledge everyone's contribution equally, with the same size font for everyone – it is a true collaboration. I love films that are able to conjure a world, and this one brings to life the joy and strife of girlhood in a nuanced and moving way. Hélène Louvart's cinematography is dreamy and delightful.
I have deliberately avoided canonical films in my choices. Let's think again about what 'the greatest' means: it doesn't have to mean films that have already been given that label in the past! Ultimately this could have been called a list of 'films I love', but I love films not only for the pleasure they give, for the way the stimulate my thoughts and imagination and senses, but also for their wider import in the world, their transformative power. That has been a key criterion for all my selections. Such lists will always be partial: mine attests to the strong bias of my viewing towards Western and European filmmaking, with an emphasis on British and French cinema. Even the Senegalese film I picked is set in France in its tale of the devastation of colonialism. Ultimately, I'd hope that the final list resulting from the poll would be far more geographically diverse. But this is my contribution, from my perspective: and no one can say anything different about their choices, really, however objective they may kid themselves they are being! My own choices, though geographically limited, speak to my feminist and anti-racist convictions, as well as a desire to see the complexities of sexuality represented creatively on screen. I've tried to keep in mind the long duration of the history of cinema, but in the end make no apology for a heavy tilt towards more recent films: these are the ones playing on my mind right now. In a way I feel that all the films I've chosen resonate with our contemporary moment in some way. It's part of their enduring power.