Welcome to Auteuse Theory

Welcome to Auteuse Theory. The purpose of this blog is to allow us to think about and write about a range of films made by women, from silent re-discoveries to the latest releases, from activist documentaries to mainstream Hollywood features, taking in examples from across the globe, whether famous or obscure. We have no desire to force ham-fisted links between very different films and very different filmmakers, to insist that they fit some pre-designated template of women’s cinema. Quite the opposite; we want to explore the diversity of forms taken by women’s filmmaking across different nations and eras. So why focus on women as a separate category at all? Why isolate their films from those of their male peers and think about them as some kind of exceptional or special case? Well, there’s still the matter of persistent inequality of opportunity within certain key authorial roles in the film industries. We all know the stats: even now, post-Bigelow Oscar win, women only constitute 10% of directors globally, and 15% of screenwriters. This is an improvement on previous years but it’s still (obviously!) a very minor proportion of the whole. As the British director Lynne Ramsay has commented, it’s ‘a bit like a country not being filmed – and that country not having a voice. It really does matter.’ And although we are very reluctant to make simple equations between the fact of there being a woman being at the helm of a film and that film offering a more complex picture of femininity (there have always been battalions of male directors who are very good at telling female-focussed stories), there is nonetheless plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that this is often true.

Our main subject is film but we will inevitably make forays into television and other media from time to time. We will be focussing predominantly on films directed by women, but we’re also interested in including films which demonstrate female authorship in other ways (writing, producing or performance). And we won’t be thinking about those films solely as women’s films. We don’t want to ghettoise them, so we’ll be connecting them to the time and place of their production, or their place within a genre or a movement, as much as we connect them to each other. There will be no rhyme or reason to the films that we discuss or the order in which they appear, instead we’ll be hoping for serendipitous connections, unexpected correspondences, sharp contrasts, strange juxtapositions; in other words, a blog that aims to be perpetually different and surprising. Most of the writing will be undertaken by the two main authors but interspersed with guest reviews from others who will each bring a fresh perspective.

And, finally, why the title Auteuse Theory? We were scouting around for a name that indicated a response to the old-fashioned auteur theory, and its insistence on ‘virility’ as a marker of directorial quality (all that Hawks and Ford worship). Women hadn’t only been marginalised in the making of films but the select few who had managed to break through were often given short shrift in the founding critical histories of film (with the exception of the highly problematic case of Leni Riefenstahl), until feminist scholars put Arzner, Weber, Guy-Blache, Lupino and Varda back into the picture. And this work of excavation and rediscovery continues – see the Women Film Pioneers and Women and Silent British Cinema websites for ongoing examples. We are aware of the problems of using the French feminised form of a professional name, drawing a gendered distinction between male and female practitioners (just as some publications reject the word actress in favour of actor for both men and women), but in the spirit of subversion, we wanted to occupy and feminise a word - auteur - which still sits at the heart of so much film scholarship and film appreciation. And although the blog is called Auteuse Theory, it might be more appropriate to think in terms of 'theories', the more intellectually generous plural form. These are some theories and thoughts and ideas arising from watching these films made by women. We hope you enjoy reading them…

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Open Hearts (Susanne Bier, 2002)


Open Hearts is Susanne Bier's take on the Dogme 95 movement coming at a time in her career when she had already established her name as a noteworthy director within Danish cinema. The film deals with a young woman's effort to come to terms with her fiancé's quadriplegia and the relationship that develops between her and a doctor (Mads Mikkelsen) whose wife (Paprika Steen) is coincidentally the one responsible for the tragic accident. In this theme the film is slightly reminiscent of Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves (1996) in which the main character, Bess McNeill, finds herself in a similar situation, struggling to come to terms with her husband's paralysis. Yet unlike von Trier's film, Open Hearts presents the viewer with a rather more realistic situation not only due to the aesthetic aspect, which owes its realism to the Dogme rules, but also in terms of the story itself and the way the characters are presented and developed.
The film starts with a sequence of the streets in the city, presumably Copenhagen, shot with an infrared camera, an aesthetic choice that according to the director depicts people's body temperature – having a warm interior and a cold exterior. Bier seems to follow this aesthetic in developing her characters and thus not only depicts their superficial actions but delves deeper into their inner core in order to find this 'warmth' that motivates them. Immediately after this external sequence, the characters are introduced sitting at a restaurant having a nice romantic dinner at the end of which Joachim (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) proposes to Cecilie (Sonja Richter). Cecilie is a 25-year-old woman who works as a cook at a restaurant and Joachim is a university student of geography. The first few scenes are very idyllic, depicting the couple's cheerful and affectionate relationship as they are about to embark on their common life. This situation is quickly and violently disrupted when one morning as Joachim is stepping out of his car and leans in to kiss Cecilie is knocked over by another car passing by at a frenetic speed. The contrast between the earlier blissful scenes and this tragic accident is quite shocking and it immediately changes the tone of the film. From that point onwards it becomes rather dark and oppressive yet with several lighthearted sequences scattered within the narrative, a typical characteristic of Danish films in which tragedy and comedy are inextricably combined.
The focus of the film remains on Cecilie and her effort to support a rather aggressive Joachim who tries to push her away rather cruelly. Cecilie is deeply traumatised by the abrupt derailment of her life but remains devoted to Joachim who tries to drive her away by being cruel but also explains to her that she still has the potential of a normal life without him. Unlike von Trier's film in which Bess ends up being exploited and sacrificed on the altar of love and marital devotion, Bier constructs a rather more realistic and believable narrative in which the different stages of emotional turmoil the characters go through are sufficiently elaborated and by the end they all reach a life-affirming conclusion. Cecilie having interrupted her affair with Neils to run to Joachim's side finally manages to get closure when Joachim releases her from any obligation towards him explaining again to her the impossibility of their situation but this time in a peaceful and tender manner saying “We were unlucky. That's no reason for you to suffer. Sweet, widefingered Cecilie...”. Niels and Marie who have been through a painful break-up that tore their family apart manage to overcome their problems; Marie accepts her new state as a divorced mother of three and achieves emotional independence which is shown in her gesture to pack the last of Niels' stuff, while Niels although he has been left by Cecilie sticks by his decision and does not go back to Marie, a gesture of respect for his own and his ex-wife's feelings. At the very end of the film Cecilie goes to Niels to tell him about her final separation from Joachim, telling him that she has to figure things out and asking him whether she can call him sometime. Although there is not a stereotypical happy-ending, in the way the relationships between the different characters are resolved, there is an overall sense of tranquility and optimism in the film's conclusion as it finishes in a cyclical pattern repeating the infrared camera shots motif. In this way Susanne Bier manages to use the Dogme 95 rules to create an intensely emotional film that is grounded in realism and even though it tackles a very melodramatic subject-matter, involving ordinary people in extra-ordinary circumstances, it avoids sensationalism through the gradual development of all the four main characters.    

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