On the literariness of women filmmakers

Above: a shot from Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001), a film that resembles a nineteenth-century novel in its intricate, tapestry-like portrait of an entire social world, as well as in its engagement with that most reliable of conceits, the marriage plot.  Granted, Nair has her share of fun scrambling that plot in various ways.  But Nair’s familiarity with the conventions of the marriage plot—as well as her decision to adapt Thackeray’s Vanity Fair in 2004 (though unsuccessfully, in my opinion)—proves that she’s a filmmaker who’s done her homework, which is to say that she knows her literary history.  This got me thinking about the relationship between women filmmakers and literature.  I know that when I embarked on this project I mentioned that I often bristle whenever people make generalizations about particular artistic demographics (ex. the notion that all films by women are necessarily about female community, etc.).  But I’m tempted to float out a theory about the general, if not essential, literariness of the female filmmaker.  It’s been my experience that films by women often show a deep knowledge of and interest in literature, and that this informs their attitudes toward filmmaking as a narrative medium.

To be sure, there are many male filmmakers who have successfully adapted literary work for the screen: Anthony Minghella, Ang Lee and Stanley Kubrick come to mind.  But it seems to me that directors such as Nair, Jane Campion, Gillian Armstrong, Catherine Breillat, Sally Potter, et al., are canny about literary texts in ways that their male colleagues aren’t always, and that these female filmmakers often overlap the two media (literature and cinema) in more complex ways.  It’s not just that they’re drawn to adaptations of classic literary works, though they have made their share of them (Armstrong’s Little Women, Campion’s Portrait of a Lady, Nair’s Vanity Fair, Potter’s Orlando, Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, Claire Denis’ Beau Travail [based on Billy Budd], Chantal Akerman’s Almayer’s Folly, etc.).  It’s also that their films are often informed, as Monsoon Wedding is, by the very conventions of novels, operas, fairy tales, poetry.  The dialogue of Potter’s Yes is entirely composed in heroic couplets.  Breillat’s Bluebeard is as much about the pleasures—and dangers—of reading as it is a retelling of the story itself.  Often, female characters in these films are themselves writers, poets, or English professors (see Little Women, My Brilliant Career, An Angel at My Table, In the Cut, and cf. Bright Star).  Breillat and Marguerite Duras are published novelists in their own right; both have directed adaptations of their own work.  (Campion has also published a novelization of her own film The Piano.) 

This group of filmmakers seems to have both inherited the tradition of nineteenth-century women’s writing and revised it by passing it through the filter of cinema.  It’s not that they have been ghettoized as “literary” (though novel-reading has always carried feminine associations).  It’s that they are collectively invested in the power of narrative itself, and have directly taken up the question of what it means to tell certain kinds of stories. Potter’s Thriller does this most explicitly, but it’s present in so many of these films that demonstrate an acute awareness of the stories that live on the page as well as the screen.

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