The "52FilmsByWomen" hashtag isn’t a new invention, but in the last few years, and especially 2017, it’s gained increasingly urgent relevance. Created and disseminated by Women in Film, a nonprofit outlet established to "achieve parity and transform culture," the tag translates into a simple pledge: Watch one movie directed by a woman each week for an entire year. Most years, completing that pledge would be the least one could do. Today, it’s a means of pushing back against rampant gender bias in the film industry.
To help those interested in putting their viewing habits to good use, Paste is highlighting some of May’s best new movies in theaters, as well as on home video, directed by women.
Release Date: May 17, 2019
Director: Joanna Hogg
Hogg’s work extends back to the mid-to-late 1980s, when she made her first short film, worked on BBC miniseries, and began directing TV shows. She started making feature movies in 2007 with Unrelated and somewhat steadily continued down that path with Archipelago (2010) and Exhibition (2013). Her latest film is perhaps her best to date, certainly her most personal, and without a doubt one of the year’s most remarkable releases so far. Rooted in her experiences as an artist and based, in part, on entries in her own diary, The Souvenir settles into the perspective of Julie (Honor Swinton-Byrne), a demure film student in 1980s London prepping for her graduation project, a drama of working-class proportions ringing of kitchen sink realism à la Mike Leigh or Tony Richardson. The question of her credentials, and of whether she has either the right or the perspective to make a film about the hard lives led by Sunderland’s laborers, is raised early on and repeated throughout, both by her professors and her beau, Anthony (Tom Burke). Like Julie, Anthony is possessed of privilege, which makes his comments especially condescending: Who the hell is he to talk to her about privilege in the first place? Admittedly, he has an occasional point, but while these points are made, the movie takes careful, quiet note that every voice critiquing Julie happens to be male. So it goes in a man’s field in a man’s world in the ’80s. Rather than seize on this imbalance to make an argument, Hogg instead lets it serve as fodder for reflection. Timid women on paths of self-discovery recur throughout her filmography, most of all Unrelated, a heartbreaking movie that, much like The Souvenir, takes unexpected turns without telegraphing or forcing them. A hushed, unassuming, intimate movie, Hogg’s latest reminds audiences of the power of cinema by interrogating the definition of cinema itself. Cinema lets people reckon with life (others’ or their own), and it lets them reckon with their privilege (be it their lack or surplus). Julie sees the world as cinema because the world is cinema. Taken together, it all makes this particular Souvenir as close to an instant masterpiece as movies can get. —Andy Crump / Full Review
Release Date: May 21, 2019 (Criterion Blu-ray)
Director: Claire Denis
Making love is better when you’re in love. For Isabelle (Juliette Binoche), a painter living in Paris, the former comes easily and the latter vexes her. She has no trouble meeting men, falling for them, sleeping with them. They practically stumble into her orbit, then into her embrace, and she into theirs. When your sex life is rich but your love life poor, life itself tends gradually to lose overarching meaning, and the search for meaning is the engine driving Claire Denis’ Let the Sunshine In, an ostensible romantic comedy that’s light on both but rich with soulful ennui. Not to say that Denis and Binoche don’t make us laugh, mind you, but what they’re really after is considerably more complicated than the simple pleasures the genre has to offer. Let the Sunshine In is a sexy film, a free, loose, yet rigorously made film, and yes, it’s occasionally a funny film, but primarily it’s a painful film, that pain deriving from primal amorous cravings that unfailingly slip through Isabelle’s fingers like so much sand. The film strikes us as straightforward when boiled down to its synopsis, but Denis layers conflicting human longing upon its rom-com framework. The blend of artistry and genre is breezy and dense at the same time, a film worth enjoying for its surface charms and studied for its deeply personal reflections on intimacy. You may delight in its lively, buoyant filmmaking, but you’ll be awed by the breadth of its insight. —Andy Crump / Full Review
Release Date: May 1, 2019 (Netflix)
Director: Rachel Lears
For viewers expecting comprehensive policy platforms and detailed breakdowns of the candidates’ positions on the issues of the day, Knock Down the House is about as valuable as the Joe Crowley flyer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez holds under harsh scrutiny partway through the film: All flash, no substance, nothing to inform the audience of the subjects’ politics beneath the surface. But Rachel Lears is more interested in character and profile than she is in ideology, so the unintended hypocrisy is forgivable. Knock Down the House is accidental history in the making, a movie about four progressive Democratic campaigns leading into the 2018 midterms—those of Ocasio-Cortez, Amy Vilela, Cori Bush and Paula Jean Swearengin—and the factors driving them to take American governance into their own hands.
Truthfully, this is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: The Movie. Lears couldn’t have known it at the time—AOC wasn’t AOC then—but Vilela, Bush and Swearengin aren’t household names. They are, bluntly put, losers, and culture tends to remember the winners. Ocasio-Cortez’s presence sets the movie aflame. Even if Lears avoids talking about policy, there’s value in learning about this unexpected Bronx superhero, her origins, her humanity, her success. (Watching footage of Ocasio-Cortez walking into a bar to find that she won her election is a rare, astounding gift.) But even the defeated candidates tell a greater story about increased political action in the late 2010s, as Republican rule increasingly chokes out huge swaths of the country, even swaths that their voters call home. Some people get into politics because of legacy or because they believe in service. Others get into politics because the political is personal. Knock Down the House might not strike the right balance between all of its participants, but it understands that philosophy well. —Andy Crump
Release Date: May 28, 2019 (Criterion Blu-ray)
Director: Agnès Varda
It’s 2019, and the question of whether women deserve autonomy over their own bodies somehow remains a matter of debate. Equally relevant to Criterion’s release of One Sings, the Other Doesn’t is its proximity to Agnès Varda’s death in March. Two months later, the film’s availability feels like a fitting tribute to her career and acknowledgement of her genius. There’s no better way to appreciate our present than by glancing at the past, and there’s no better tool for doing that than art. Varda knew this well. She knew her shit.
One Sings, the Other Doesn’t entwines over decades the lives of Pauline (Valérie Mairesse) and Suzanne (Thérèse Liotard), formerly neighbors years prior to the movie’s events. After bumping into each other by chance, they become would-be inseparable friends until circumstances set them on different life paths. Pauline abandons her middle-class Parisian upbringing and becomes a busker, seemingly on tour at all times with the folk group Orchidée, singing songs of feminine sovereignty. Suzanne, mother of two children and pregnant with a third, opts for an abortion (funded by Pauline, who scams necessary funds from her parents), then finds herself in dire straits when her lover, Jérôme (Robert Dadiès), takes his own life.
Jérôme’s suicide creates a domino effect for Suzanne, forcing her back to the farm where she grew up, and from there toward self-governance. Her awakening takes place concurrently with Pauline’s, though Suzanne’s journey toward selfhood is slower, more deliberate. Pauline’s a firebrand, Suzanne’s demure: Both find in feminism the means to reinvent themselves, or to fully grow into themselves. Pauline (who remakes herself as “Pomme”) and Suzanne endure micro- and macro-oppressions that effectively galvanize their search for identity. Paternal authority compels Pauline to leave home before graduating high school. Suzanne experiences that dynamic in reverse, coldly treated as a laborer by her own miserable parents before teaching herself to type.
There’s a distinct thrill in watching these women discover means of liberation from France’s patriarchal yolk. Yet, Varda’s intention isn’t to thrill her viewers, it’s to move them. One Sings, the Other Doesn’t is a film of sharp edges and soft aesthetics. For all its uglier moral qualities, Varda’s film benefits from her floral, verdant visual sensibility, suggesting that Pauline and Suzanne, having lived most of their lives in Spring, move ever closer to Summer with every scene. Apart from beauty, Varda’s palette adds compassion that offsets the movie’s crueler realities. She understands that the past isn’t a pretty thing, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth making it look pretty all the same. —Andy Crump