Rants, Feelings & Opinions

6 Women-Led Films to See from the Toronto International Film Festival

September 8, 2017

Here’s a shortlist of films screening at TIFF, that you should keep an eye out for, if you love art and women and being a human person with feelings. By Kristen Cochrane.

As noted in our April round-up of must-see women-led films at the Tribeca Film Festival, there is still a major lack of female representation in the film industry—both onscreen and behind the camera. It is also worth mentioning, especially after film theorists’ and scholars’ decades-long attempts to  dismantle auteurism, that we still cling to the fallacy that the director is the sole author of a film. For the uninitiated, auteurism rejects the notion that the film in question has been created by a number of different people—from cinematographers to screenwriters to actors—and that their contribution is just as important as the director’s to a film’s final incarnation.

With that in mind, below are six films you should see at the Toronto International Film Festival, if you’re interested in checking out films that have been directed by women, feature actors who explore different facets of female experience, or both.

1. Visages Villages / Faces Places

directors: Agnès Varda and JR. France

After my lament on auteurism, let’s start with a filmmaker who was part of the cinematic generation in which auteur theory thrived—the French New Wave! The Brussels-born Agnès Varda was a veritable badass among a boys club comprised of Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and others. Basically, if you’re with your new Manic Pixie Dream Boy/Girl/Person about to Criterion Collection and Chill and they only mention Godard and Truffaut without mentioning Varda, you should either 1) Re-think whether you want to date them, or (my preference) 2) Gently enlighten them about Agnès Varda’s oeuvre (I suggest the gentle approach because they might be so embarrassed that they didn’t know about the genius that is Varda). If you’ve picked option 1, bring your Manic Pixie Dream Person on a date to see Varda’s collaboration with renowned French photographer and artist JR (you probably know of him and would recognize his work—large scale flyposted black and white photos on buildings in public spaces around the world). In the documentary feature Visages Villages, Varda and JR travel around France, stopping in villages and meeting people—from coal miners to cheese farmers—who end up as subjects of JR’s larger than life photographic artworks on houses, barns, and storefronts. By virtue of being an acclaimed, trailblazing filmmaker from an internationally recognized cinematic movement, Varda is akin to a mentor to JR. We can’t ignore the political importance of this—it’s not very often that an older woman (or a woman, period, with exceptions) is the older, more experienced collaborator in a heterosocial pairing.

2. Happy End 

director: Michael Haneke – France/Austria/Germany

This is another collaboration between the legendary actor Isabelle Huppert and the often dark, subversive Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke. Happy End is being called a “semi sequel” to Haneke’s 2012 film Amour, which received the Palme d’Or at Cannes and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. TIFF’s Piers Handling described the film as “another masterpiece of familial dysfunction.” I’m still riding the trauma wave from Isabelle Huppert’s performance in Paul Verhoeven’s 2016 Elle, a film that highlights dysfunction and how it intersects with the relationships and the vast nuances of the human psyche. And with Huppert’s seminal performance in Haneke’s 2001 psychological thriller The Piano Teacher as a woman who has an obsessive affair with a man decades her junior, I can’t think of anyone else who would be better suited to convey callous, middle class dysfunction.

3. Lady Bird

director: Greta Gerwig – United States

When I first watched Frances Ha, I was captivated by how well an actor could capture the awkward and embarrassing moments of being a certain kind of Millennial woman (it’s not just about eating avocado toast and only being able to rent apartments). Greta Gerwig’s performance in Frances Ha was a mirror image of what many of my friends and I often do and feel—unemployed, precarious, socially awkward, and simultaneously confused about what we want to do with our lives but also thinking *Albert Camus voice* there’s no meaning to life, let’s just see where our lives take us. Lady Bird is Gerwig’s directorial debut, and it stars Saoirse Ronan (affectionately known as Lady Bird)  as a wise-beyond-her-years senior in a stifling Catholic high school in Sacramento, California. The narrative is a familiar one for the middle class Millennials and Generation Zs who aspire to get into an Ivy League, but don’t have impeccable grades or illuminati-esque alumni connections.

4. Una Especie de Familia / A Sort of Family

director: Diego Lerman – Argentina/Brazil/France/Poland

Diego Lerman is an Argentinian filmmaker who is responsible for one of my all time favourite films, Tan de repente. The film follows two queer female characters who are kidnap a woman who then submits to the relationship in a way that straddles the boundary between Stockholm Syndrome and autonomy. In Lerman’s new film, Una Especie de Familia, doctor Malena (Bárbara Lennie) faces a host of challenges while trying to adopt. The film moves away from the frequent cinematic setting of Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires, to the country’s disadvantaged North. Despite contemporary identity politics surrounding about subject-object positionality (e.g. a man directing a film with a woman as the protagonist), Lerman has shown a sensitivity in representing women’s stories, and Una Especie de Familia seems to promise similar care for its subject matter.

5. Mary Shelley

director: Haifaa al-Mansour – Ireland/United Kingdom/Luxembourg/United States

This isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned Mary Shelley—I’m a bit obsessed with her and Percy Shelley’s story. The biopic Mary Shelley is Saudi-born Haifaa al-Mansour’s first English-language film. You might remember al-Mansour—she was the first Saudi woman to make a film, the 2013 drama Wadjda, which was also the first film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia. Wadjda  follows a 10-year-old girl in her attempts to save up for a bicycle, when the act of bike riding itself is viewed as socially unacceptable for a girl or woman. And we can assume that Mary Shelley, if it stays true to Shelley’s history, will also delve into personal struggles amid the intersections of gender and society. Despite my romanticization of Mary and Percy’s relationship, it was a rocky one, with adultery and several tragic family deaths. According to Indiewire, however, the film will focus on Shelley’s early life and the genesis of her masterpiece novel, Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus.

6. Princesita

director: Marialy Rivas – Chile/Argentina/Spain

Via The critically acclaimed Chilean filmmaker Marialy Rivas’s sophomore feature Princesita.

In 2012, Chilean filmmaker Marialy Rivas made waves in her home country’s film scene for Joven y alocada / Young and Wild. In the film, 17-year-old Daniela is bisexual, sexually liberated, and runs her own blog (called Young and Wild) where she chronicles her erotic adventures. In addition to the buzz the film generated in Chile, Young and Wild earned Rivas the World Cinema Screening Award at Sundance. Before that, her 2010 short film Blokes screened in competition at Cannes. In her sophomore feature Princesita, Rivas takes a darker turn with another coming-of-age film.Set in southern Chile, Princesita follows 12-year-old Tamara, whose life is controlled by a teacher and cult leader. Tamara has been chosen to carry the cult leader’s son, who will purportedly be the saviour of all. At the same time, Princesita also delves into the young, female protagonist’s sexuality, a theme Rivas gracefully explored in her debut feature.

Kristen Cochrane is a writer and graduate researcher at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. Her current research is located in queer cinema, particularly in Latin America, but she also writes on topics related to culture, film, media and their intersections with gender and sexuality. Her work has appeared in Amuse/i-D, AnOther, Teen Vogue, Somesuch, and VICE. 

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