In his follow-up to The Story of Film: An Odyssey, Mark Cousins takes us on a “new road movie through cinema”, a 14-hour virtual film school made up entirely of the all-too-often forgotten links: masterful films directed by women.
Please note that this is a review of the complete 14-hour film.
“The film industry is sexist by omission”, Tilda Swinton’s voiceover tells us in an early sequence of Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema. There have of course been many great films made by women – they’re just not talked about often enough. “Film history has been sexist by omission”, Swinton continues. Cousins’ motivation is to offer a kind of film school “in which all the teachers are women”. Abandoning any kind of chronological approach, we’re invited to delight in the juxtaposition of Mia Hansen-Løve and Chantal Akerman to admire diverse ways of opening a film, or to move at full speed from Alice Guy-Blaché’s silent short Course à la Saucisse (Race for the Sausage, 1907) to Kinuyo Tanaka’s Love Letter (1953) and Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break (1991) to revel in the tricks of a chase sequence, evidently one of the oldest of cinematic pleasures.
The film’s 40 “chapters” celebrate techniques from tracking shots and framing to tension and the “meet cute”. Cousins’ script draws you into his very personal sense of awe at cinematic beauty, one-step removed by the guiding voices of a dream team of narrators – from long-time collaborator Swinton to Jane Fonda, Adjoa Andoh, Sharmila Tagore, Kerry Fox, Thandie Newton and Debra Winger. Sometimes, these voices become a tad too intrusive; at others, they are willing to introduce a clip and then sit back, allowing the audience to conjure their own attachment to the image.
Women Make Film isn’t, we’re told, a traditional list of “the best films ever made” – and so much the better, given the warning in the first lines of Elena Gorfinkel’s manifesto “Against Lists” that “Lists of films will not save you. Lists of films will not save films”. And Cousins acknowledges that there will of course be films and filmmakers some viewers will mourn the absence of: for me, Lisa Cholodenko’s Laurel Canyon (2002) or Dee Rees’s Pariah (2011). But audiences eager to learn will get what they came for: the narrative and visual effects of a focus pull, or of starting a film with a wide shot or close-up. Wang Ping is celebrated for her “sense of scale — of the awe of beginning”; Kinuyo Tanaka for the “rigour of the framings”; Maren Ade for Toni Erdmann’s (2016) “masterclass in believability and taking off clothes”.
Women Make Film is upfront that its mission is neither to document these filmmakers’ lives, nor lambaste the injustices that have caused and sustained the scandalous invisibility of female directors across the industry (as in, for instance, the Geena Davis-produced documentary This Changes Everything). Instead, it aims to make up for the male-dominated stories that are usually told about film history (which include, it must be acknowledged, Cousins’ own “story of film”, which barely included any female directors at all). For many, this will be a refreshing focus on aesthetics, a utopia, and for others a de-politicising dream in which images are made for themselves and not in social contexts of sexism, racism, transphobia, homophobia, classism and ableism. The claim that it isn’t really a film about women making film but a film about film, full stop, can only fly so far when the conditions – physical, emotional, economic, social, domestic, political – in which women make films must surely affect how they make them.
On its own term, Women Make Film is certainly dazzling. We’re introduced to the “painterly” aspects of film; invited to imagine the frame as a living entity, a space “where you might get killed”; to see camera movement like a tennis match; to witness a set as “a cashmere world”. The film is gleeful in its demonstration of the wonders of clip after clip – the movement at times might be a little too frenetic but there’s an exuberant pleasure to its excess. See this film for the filmmakers it showcases – and then go and find their work and allow yourself to linger on it.
Women Make Film is released on Blu-ray by the BFI and streaming on BFI Player and on Curzon Home Cinema from 18 May.
Clara Bradbury-Rance | @CBradburyRance