Women Cinematographers Hold the Cards in the Must-Attend Film Series “The Female Gaze”

From Maryse Alberti to Ellen Kuras, the program sees women DPs burrowing into the complexities of disorienting cinematic realms


To say women are underrepresented in the field of cinematography is a gross understatement. There are, of course, still gender disparities present within many of the film industry’s behind-the-camera roles, and cinematography is no exception. Going back as far as 1916, an issue of Picture Play magazine asked, “Ever heard of a woman cameraman?” Flash-forward to this year, when director of photography Rachel Morrison earned her first Oscar nomination, for her breathtaking work on Dee Rees’s Mudbound. She became the first woman nominated in that category — ever. According to a report in the Washington Post from March, there are eighteen women in the American Society of Cinematographers; that’s about 5 percent of the society’s approximately 375 members.

With the far-ranging and much-needed new series “The Female Gaze,” the Film Society of Lincoln Center shines a light on a tremendous body of work by female cinematographers from around the world. Inspired, in part, by Laura Mulvey’s landmark 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema,” which elucidated the hetero male–centric gaze that predominated among classical Hollywood’s canonical films, “The Female Gaze” offers an antidote to male myopia, illuminating the handiwork of women who train their cameras on far more than what Mulvey terms “a woman’s to-be-looked-at-ness.” Featuring 36 movies shot by 23 different women, this summer series runs the gamut from mainstream blockbusters to international art-house films.

The entire venture warrants a watch, but there’s an intriguing subset that deserves a closer look: films directed by men and shot by women, that showcase curious and empathic perspectives on disorienting, atmospheric realms in which men call the shots. Some snapshots from these works: the bloody, testosterone-fueled action of the boxing ring; a harem of women who risk their safety and health for the sexual pleasure of male clients; a secluded cruising locale boasting sandy beaches and deadly waters. These movies — though varied in story, tone, and scope — are all the stronger because of the presence of their women behind the lens, who interpret these male-dominated (and -directed) narratives and spaces with discerning eyes.

From an imperious photographer to a lascivious motel owner, the holders of the male gaze in Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon (2016) suggest the violent desire to possess and control a woman’s body. However, it’s the women of the movie whose intentions prove crueler and more exacting. When barely-sixteen Jesse (Elle Fanning), a seemingly sweet naif, arrives in Los Angeles to model, she admits that she has no real skills: “But I’m pretty, and I can make money off pretty.” She charms the powers-that-be with wide-eyed wonder and a willingness to be molded into anything. As Jesse amasses a set of influential admirers, she quickly learns that her peers are acid-tongued frenemies, as likely to complement each other’s lipstick as they are to unfeelingly bring up Jesse’s dead parents. Motivated by the ephemeral nature of their youth and the corrupting powers of their profession, these threatening peers want to simultaneously become the new queen bee — and eat her alive.

Cinematographer Natasha Braier takes Refn’s unforgiving look at a seedy Los Angeles and transforms the city into a dangerous-gorgeous place; she juxtaposes indigo- and scarlet-drenched parties with snow-white casting rooms filled by women that look more like a tangle of disembodied mannequin limbs than breathing human beings. Refn’s story is barbarous, but Braier makes the material a Dionysian visual feast, a sacrifice to the giallo gods. She crafts a world in which these imperfect, sometimes-one-note characters can prowl unencumbered by traditional framing. Even Jesse’s bedroom, ostensibly her refuge, is presented as an ominous place, dimly lit and jungle-like with leafy fronds fingering the wallpaper and curtains. Indeed, the room plays host to several unwanted guests — a stray mountain lion, a knife-toting Keanu Reeves, a pair of disembodied hands striving to reach through the wall as if in a psychedelic nightmare.

While Refn plays up the ways in which a group of women can tear each other apart, Bertrand Bonello explores the opposite in House of Tolerance (2011), which chronicles the languid final days of an upscale Parisian brothel at the end of the nineteenth century. These women, like the models of cutthroat Los Angeles, approach their sell-by date thanks to age and disease. However, they are endlessly supportive of one another, sustained by gentle, platonic kisses or helping hands with which to scrub the sticky remnants of a champagne bath. Voyeurism is inherent in House of Tolerance, even overtly referenced through the discreet bedroom windows the madame peers through to check in on her girls. Cinematographer Josée Deshaies uses this voyeurism to her advantage, bringing viewers just close enough to almost smell the women’s perfume, but stopping short of laying completely bare their inside jokes or innermost thoughts.

One night, one of the women, Madeleine (Alice Barnole), suffers a brutal mutilation at the hands of a violent john. She survives, but her facial scarring transforms her into the so-called “woman who laughs,” a demoted domestic servant who gets trotted out as grotesque eye candy for leering, paying customers. Madeleine replays the horrific incident in her head, and Deshaies captures this mania with a mysterious balance of humanity and horror, resisting the urge to spell the event out like a sick fantasy. When the women later seek revenge on the monstrous assailant, Deshaies frames them like a powerful coven. Gratifying as it could have been to watch the man’s suffering in detail, Deshaies makes it infinitely more satisfying to observe these women’s reactions to his agony as they defiantly regain a sense of agency.

For one brief, rejuvenating scene in House of Tolerance, these women — slaves in a gilded cage, relegated largely to lounging and working indoors — are allowed to frolic in the countryside. However, the great outdoors are not always a pastoral fantasy, as shown in Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake (2013), a Hitchcockian thriller that edges toward the pornographic. Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), a gay man who finds platonic and romantic companionship at a cruising spot near a secluded French lake, becomes entangled in a murder investigation while trying to catch the eye of Michel (Christophe Paou), who looks like France’s answer to circa-1970 Tom Selleck. Cinematographer Claire Mathon infiltrates this inherently male-dominated space (in fact, there’s nary a woman in the film) with ease. Unlike the players of House of Tolerance, in which sex is portrayed from an aesthetic distance, the men of Stranger by the Lake are happy to show off their bodies, their pleasure, even their pain.

As Franck continues to frequent the beach day in and day out, Mathon revisits the same shots: an aerial of the makeshift parking lot; the smattering of naked male bodies splayed out on the beach; the verdant, tree-filled hookup area. As the story progresses, familiar places that at first seemed ordinary take on a sinister, horrifying tension, as viewers begin to sense the presence of darker forces at work. At one point, Mathon executes a walloping four-minute shot that covers a dazzling expanse of territory, from barely-there threatening shenanigans in the middle of the lake all the way to hints of happenings in the dark depths of the woods. Throughout, Mathon treats violence with the same unflinching, steely-eyed gaze that she treats the men’s hookups and orgasms. Through her lens, the inextricable tangle of desire and danger isn’t the obscene cliché it could have been; it’s simply a way of life for Franck and the men who continue to visit this beach, even as word of its dangers spreads.

In Ryan Coogler’s Creed (2015), cinematographer Maryse Alberti disappears into a different male-dominated world: boxing. In this Rocky spin-off, Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), son of the departed champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), sets out to hone his skills with none other than Rocky Balboa himself (Sylvester Stallone). After completing a cross-country pilgrimage to Philadelphia, Adonis embarks on a physical and emotional journey to cement his boxing legacy. Alberti draws inspiration from some iconic Rocky shots, but she reasserts her own mastery over ringside brutality (she also shot The Wrestler) in one astounding four-and-a-half-minute take capturing the fight between Adonis and a new rival. With Alberti behind the lens, the camera bobs and weaves in perfect harmony with the fighters, pulling back or tightening up as the stakes grow higher and the athletes negotiate their moves.

Alberti’s vivid framing makes it impossible to forget how cruel and violent a sport boxing can be to the loser — and the winner — of a match. But by getting so close to the bloody action in the ring, Alberti makes the payoff of the film’s tender moments all the more rewarding. In one intimate scene, Alberti shows Adonis helping his girlfriend, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), with her hair, while they talk about an upcoming fight. It’s a small moment, but it speaks to the harmony between Coogler’s and Alberti’s visions, giving Jordan’s macho, usually emotionally clenched lead breathing space to express his vulnerability and compassion with Bianca — and, later, with Rocky.

Nearly two decades before stepping onto the mat for Creed, Alberti captured the rise and fall of a Bowie-esque rockstar in Todd Haynes’s glitter-drenched Velvet Goldmine (1998). In the nascent days of glam rock, musician Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyer) experiments with his look, his sound, and his lovers. As a young journalist (Christian Bale) attempts to track down the idol years after a mysterious assassination attempt, Haynes flashes back to tell the meandering tale of Slade’s ascent to fame. Although Slade is an obvious Bowie stand-in, the story is less a biopic than an operatic exploration of artistic freedom, celebrity, and sexuality. Alberti sets the stage for this existential odyssey through a striking juxtaposition between a dull and borderline-dystopian London skyline and the city’s colorful glam-rock fans, eager for a dazzling savior. The young, unsure Slade, introduced inauspiciously by Alberti in a bath of sapphire lighting and fluttering feathers, quickly falls for the up-and-coming Iggy Pop–like Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor). Through Alberti’s lens, we see Curt through Slade’s eyes: irresistible, brilliant, complicated. Like Mathon, Alberti subverts the idea of the male gaze and helps craft an over-the-top sense of men’s “to-be-looked-at-ness.”

In Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), cinematographer Ellen Kuras uses a handheld technique to capture a sci-fi love story told in reverse. After the opposites-attract relationship of Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) crumbles, the impulsive Clementine springs for an experimental procedure to erase Joel from her memories. Joel seeks justice in doing the same to her. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s time-hopping story dives deep into the roots of memory and nostalgia, but Kuras’s camerawork grounds the doomed couple’s cerebral breakdown, presenting a bumpy, imperfect perspective that makes these characters’ decisions feel not like the whims of a dizzying screenwriter but a straight shot to the heart. Most of the story unravels within the recesses of Joel’s mind; therefore, much of the Clementine viewers see, and fall for, is the embodiment of Joel’s gaze. However, Kuras grants his version of the woman — a character we see in the “real world” for only a fraction of the movie — a sense of personhood and perspective that makes her feel like more than just a Manic (Panic) Pixie Dream Girl who meet-cute-quips that she “[applies] her personality in a paste.”

It’s a line that cuts a few ways. Women in the film industry, for far too long, have been exactly what Clementine’s phrase describes: Impressionable figures prettied up for the benefit of the male gazers in the audience and behind the camera. Mulvey notes in her essay that men have traditionally taken on the active role of “looking,” while women have been relegated to passively be looked upon: “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female.” The directors of photography featured in “The Female Gaze” shatter those antiquated and gendered roles, one captivating frame at a time.

‘The Female Gaze’
Film Society of Lincoln Center
July 26–August 9