Females in Film is a segment on Cold Coffee Press designed to shine a light on the most talented women directors by selecting three of their works to analyse. Throughout the history of cinema, due to many reasons, male filmmakers have overshadowed in terms of numbers and in adulation those of the opposite sex. However, with more women directing than ever before, there has never been better time to celebrate the accomplishments of many unsung creative talents. The first entry on our list is French filmmaker Anne Fontaine.
Anne Fontaine has had a strange career. Spanning almost twenty-five years, she has made dramas (Dry Cleaning), comedies (My Worst Nightmare), thrillers (How I Killed My Father), biopics (Coco Before Channel) and literary adaptations (Gemma Bovary). Looking at this diverse filmography, one may not immediately notice recurring elements within her varied oeuvre – something which would mark her as an auteur – a sign of respect within film circles. However, upon close inspection of her catalogue, a pattern of similar themes and stylistics – although not applying to every single feature – does indeed emerge. As well as her work always looking very aesthetically pleasing and featuring on the money casting, her best movies are flecked with a maturity. They analyse adult issues like sex, relationships under pressure and clashes between emotion and reason.
Fontaine’s first big international success – spawning an English-language remake in 2009 – Nathalie… stars Francois Truffaut regular Fanny Ardant as Catherine, a middle-aged woman whose marriage to Bernard (Gerard Depardieu) has grown sterile. Upon discovering that her husband has engaged in a string of one-night-stands, she hires high-class prostitute, Marlene (Emmanuelle Béart), to seduce Bernard and report back to her regarding their sexual liaisons.
The biggest praise I can heap on Nathalie… is that it’s atmosphere of deceit and clinical sexuality is so intoxicating that only half-way through does one realise the whole film is just people in rooms recounting their seedy escapades. Fontaine manages to make this not only dramatically compelling – leaving the viewer to interpret the characters’ actions, as opposed to spelling them out – but also cinematic. Whether it be the red lighting of the gentlemen’s club where Marlene spends her days – symbolising sexuality but also danger – to the beautiful Parisian streets, Nathalie… moves with a visual elegance.
It’s also an interesting film thematically. In lesser hands, this story could provide the basis for a seedy B-movie thriller. Yet, Fontaine (who also worked on the script) keeps things intellectual. The film is erotic but in a cold way. It examines sex but the negative emotions that can become entangled with it – jealousy, longing, unfulfillment. The audience never quite learn exactly why Catherine acts as she does. Is it a means of exerting control over her husband? Is it for voyeuristic thrills? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter because Fontaine shows that often when sex is involved, emotion overcomes reason and it can be difficult to interpret why people commit certain actions. This, along with the surprising ending, are what stay with viewers long after the credits roll.
Fontaine’s lush visual style and mature handling of intimacy displayed in Nathalie… is perhaps what got her the gig directing Adore, her English language debut, ten years later. Working from a script by acclaimed writer Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons), the film stars Naomi Watts and Robin Wright as two life-time friends and mothers – one widowed, one in a long-distance marriage – who begin sexual relationships with each other’s sons.
The movie looks gorgeous. Set on the Australian coast of New South Wales, anyone watching will want to visit the area. The beaches, the oceans, the cliffs – it all looks so idyllic. Yet what is even more impressive is that again, Fontaine wrestles with a tricky, potentially trashy plot-line and manages to derive from it thought provoking drama. What Adore stretches in terms of believability, it more than makes up for with its’ atmosphere of heightened emotions. It’s a film about how loneliness can lead to destructive patterns, how aging can affect peoples’ self -worth, how far humans will go to quench their need for love. Anchored by two career-best performances by Watts and Wright, Adore is a European art-movie that just happened to be made in English and set in Australia.
The Innocents (2016)
Although a WWII-set drama, The Innocents can be interpreted in a similar way to Fontaine’s previous work. Just like with the triangle of people at the heart of Nathalie… or the foursome of Adore, the movie is about the bonds that form between people in highly charged environments. Lou de Laâge plays Mathilde, a red-cross medical student deployed in post-WWII and Soviet invasion Poland who discovers a convent full of pregnant women, the offspring of a series of rapes by Russian soldiers. Mathilde begins to nurse the nuns through their pregnancies and PTSD, putting her in conflict with their Mother Superior, who regards the women as sinful and corrupted.
The Innocents feels more authentic than a typical Hollywood drama as Fontaine (again working on the script) doesn’t try to soften the material. The authentic setting, which at moments resembles a painting, looks genuinely war-torn. The violence isn’t gratuitous but it doesn’t shy away from portraying it in all its realistic awfulness. Even, when it appears Fontaine’s film is slipping into Hollywood cliché – a romantic sub-plot between Mathilde and her colleague Samuel (Vincent Macaigne) – it instead is another example of the writer-director’s skill at crafting interesting relationships between characters. The two’s romance is less a great love affair than a depiction of two people attempting to find refuge with each other from the horrors they face every day. This, coupled with the fascinating bond that develops between the pregnant nuns and Mathilde – the latter’s presence frees the group from the tyranny of their cruel superior – further establishes Fontaine as a director that gives equal importance to character as she does plot. With her best work, the audience come away not only reflecting on the story but of the personalities at the films’ core.