REALISATRICES – FEMALE DIRECTORS TAKE THE STAGE

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Film still from “Marie Antoinette” both directed by Sofia Coppola

A MERE 9% OF FILM DIRECTORS ARE WOMEN. Award winning director Jane Campion (The Piano, Bright Star) says that we’re all being shortchanged by not seeing more from the female point of view. When women do direct, they tend to present richer, more multi-faceted female heroines. In part, no doubt, this is because they project their own personae onto the characters in their films; in the case of the late Nora Ephron, this is a very good thing. Romcom royalty, Ephron single-handedly created a new female archetype: the woman who overcomes personal barriers as she surrenders to love. Ephron knew, from personal experience, that virtually everyone’s a sucker for a good love story. Revered director Sofia Coppola likes to depict moments of ennui (I’m rich/famous/went to Yale – why am I still so unhappy?), but does so to isolate the existential woes that inevitably affect us all. And industry heavyweight Lone Scherfig brought two powerful adaptations to the screen – One Day and An Education. In both cases, she portrayed “the woman in transformation.” So what unique viewpoint and aesthetic have these women given us?

If you were born pre-1970, you wanted to be Meg Ryan when she finally works it out with Harry (unlikely stud Billy Crystal) in When Harry Met Sally, or impulsively flies trans-continent to stalk Sam (Tom Hanks) in Sleepless in Seattle. If you were born a bit later on, it’s likely you watched Nora Ephron’s films with your mother, and wondered what that scene in Katz’s Deli was all about, or how you too, could contact this Dr. Marcia Fieldstone.

Born in 1941, Nora Ephron was an acclaimed American journalist, essayist, playwright, screenwriter, novelist, producer and director. She was the embodiment of the loquacious, intellectual, idealistic, Upper West Side women who populated her films. After college, Ephron worked briefly as an intern in the White House of JFK, and then moved to New York, where she wrote for The New York Post. She married three times – Carl Bernstein, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist known for exposing the Watergate scandal, was the most high-profile of her husbands. A recent article in The New Yorker referred to the celebrated couple as “the Brad and Jen of the 80s.” Their stormy, short-lived relationship influenced her work (screenplay for the film Heartburn), as did being immersed in the world of journalism. Ephron’s characters predominantly work in publishing of some form. Even the anti-heroines, like the ‘I’m soo busy’ Patricia, (Parker Posey), the obtuse book editor girlfriend of Joe Fox in You’ve Got Mail.

Ephron’s films were never candyfloss sweet, they had the virtues of crème brulee – classic, complex. She infused her films with old-world references, such as Austen’s Pride and Prejudice – Kathleen Kelly’s favourite book in You’ve Got Mail. Capturing the nuances of love was Ephron’s thing: the settling, the spark, the denial of the spark, the chasing and the running away. She was always encouraged by her mother, a screenwriter, to write everything down, and is known for saying, “My mother wanted us to understand that the tragedies of your life one day have the potential to be comic stories in the next.” She acknowledged, though, in an interview with The Believer that promising “Someday this will be a story!” may be cold comfort for a weeping child.

Ephron’s collaboration with Meg Ryan made the cardigan-wearing, 90s East-Coast brain box a mainstay. Observant and outspoken, this heroine is passionate about her career and her city. She’s charismatic and witty, sensitive and vulnerable. When this aesthetic took hold, women wanted to look smarter, express themselves more and wear their hearts on their sleeves to allow for that kind of romance. Ephron’s women were not conspicuously sexy, which was a departure from the aesthetic of the late 80s and early 90s: Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, or Cher, all wild hair and long legs. The clothes (sensible and feminine – think Laura Ashley and early Ralph Lauren) complemented their wearers, particularly on a fresh-faced Meg Ryan, who wore many twin sets, turtlenecks, floral rompers, chinos and loafers.

The Ephron woman has permeated pop culture beyond Ephron’s films. Another publishing gal, Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes (Julia Louis Dreyfus), had a similar style, which has recently reared its denim-and-lace head again. Chloe Sevigny’s new resort collection for Opening Ceremony has been said to be a modern take on Elaine. Fittingly, Anne Slowey of American Elle calls it “Upper West Side grunge.”

Sadly, Ephron passed away in June 2012 after a battle with leukaemia. In remembrance her friend Melinda Bellows summed up Ephron’s legacy: “Nora was a heroine for an entire generation of women who were looking for love, longing for the truth, and desperate for humour in the midst of life’s humiliating, inevitable devastations.”

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Film still from “Lost in Translation”

Sophia Coppola: Chanel intern, age 15. Marc Jacobs’ BFF, model and muse. French band frontman husband. Married said husband in an Azzedine Alaïa custom-made wedding dress. Academy Award winner (2003, Best Screenplay for Lost in Translation). Designed handbag line for Louis Vuitton (minimalist, natch), lensed ads for LV, the Dior Cherie fragrance and Marni for H&M. Teenager-thin at 40. An extra in The Godfather (which her legendary father, Francis Ford Coppola directed – in case you’ve been living on another planet) before the age of 1. Sofia Coppola’s it-girl credentials are longer than Atlas Shrugged. And despite all this it-ness, Coppola is not short on substance. “I like movies where the impetus for the main character’s change is not from a big outside dramatic event, but from some small moment that makes you look inward,” she has said, in reference to Marie Antoinette (2006) the last in a trilogy that began with the Virgin Suicides (1999) and was followed by Lost In Translation (2003). So what makes these disparate tales hang together, exactly?

Existential reflection and introspection with a European philosophical legacy lie at the heart of Coppola’s films, in which young women who feel out of place in their environments come of age. Unsurprisingly, critics often compare her work to that of Italian neorealist masters Pier Paolo Pasolini and Luchino Visconti.

Coppola’s heroine is strong-willed, intelligent and modest – aware of her limitations despite her privileges. Coppola has also said that she tries not to over-explain things, further evidence of her natural insouciance: if you get it, you get it, if you don’t, you don’t.

People who matter seem to get it. Aside from her Academy Award win – she became the third woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director – she won the Golden Lion (top prize at the Venice Film Festival), and numerous more awards for her work.

Lost in Translation’s costume designer, Nancy Steiner, styled Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) as a “girl lost,” the clothes were kept non-descript and minimalist. According to NYTimes.com’s Adam Kepler, Steiner used formless clothes on Charlotte “as a counterpoint to the manic energy of Tokyo streets.” Coppola opened the film with a shot of Charlotte’s transparent pink underwear stretching over her bottom as she’s lying in her hotel room. Her character sleeps in this improvised ensemble of convenience, underwear and a t-shirt, throughout the film.

This changes after she has a pivotal talk with Bob:
“I just don’t know how I’m supposed to be, you know.” “Keep writing.”
“But I’m so mean.”
“Mean’s okay.”

Despite Coppola’s penchant for looking inward, in this scene Bob gives Charlotte what we sometimes need most: reassurance and validation from another person. After this, we see a more definitive look for Charlotte – she moves on to boxer shorts, and accessorizes with a scarf.

Marie Antoinette was the most sartorially influential of Coppola’s films and inspired a range of accessories and couture lines, including Marc Jacobs’ Spring 2007 collection, with Dior and Chanel also referencing the film in their couture collections from that year. Coppola defends her work’s association with fashion. ”You’re considered superficial and silly if you are interested in fashion,” she has said, “but I think you can be substantial and still be interested in frivolity.” Coppola was criticized for only loosely adhering to historical fact in Marie Antoinette, but has said that she was interested in the human being and all of her complex feelings, as opposed to the two-dimensional icon everyone already knows–the heartless French queen. And indeed, other critics praised the film’s portrayal of teenage alienation.

Lone Scherfig is a purist. Born 1959, she is a veteran of Danish Dogme 95 (a filmmaking movement which eschews elaborate special effects or technology, and focuses on the traditional values of story). Her debut came with the comedy Kaj’s Fødselsdag (1990), which was critically successful, and her international breakthrough came with Italian for Beginners (2000), for which she received the Silver Berlin Bear. Subsequently, Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself (2002), became the most profitable Scandinavian film to date. Yet she is best known for her adaptations – An Education (2009; based on Lynn Barber’s memoir of when she was a 16-year-old en route to enter Oxford, but met a charming older conman who led her astray) and One Day (2011; based on David Nicholls’ much-loved book, where we get a will-they-won’t-they snapshot of characters Dex and Emma once a year on the same day). In both films, her unique eye and clean shots bring the focus on women in transformation and how external events change individuals over time.

Through her films, Scherfig reinforces a simple and cheeky idea – that as you change, so do your clothes. But she does this with such precision and artfulness that women in her audience tend to quite seriously re-evaluate whether their look reflects where they are in their lives. Scherfig worked on both films with costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux, who has said that Scherfig was one of the most involved directors she has worked with, the only one to bring mood boards to their first meeting. However, Scherfig has been wary of being overly-detailed with the clothing, to make sure the focus stays on the characters. “You shouldn’t feel that you get information when you see a film,” she says. “ You should just feel like you’re in good company, and be interested in the story and not feel like someone is trying to tell you something…not be like, “Oh, Doc Martens.

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Film still from “The Education” Directed by Lone Scherfig

In An Education, it’s 1961 London and Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is taken out of drab British suburbia, to concerts, clubs, and fine restaurants, by David (Peter Sarsgaard). Her school uniform wardrobe gets the appropriate upgrade: refined pillbox hats, shift dresses in watercolour prints and the very sophisticated jacquard. With its lush fabrics, dramatic silhouettes and killer tailoring, the film’s costumes were highly influential on the fashion industry, with many a magazine’s style page offering instructions in how to replicate the look. It’s also no wonder that Mulligan has become a sort of Prada ambassador, wearing the designer to the Oscars, Met Ball and her wedding to Marcus Mumford.

An Education premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actress for Carey Mulligan (who was largely unknown prior) and Best Adapted Screenplay, in addition to a bevy of nominations in the UK, the US and Australia.

In One Day, we see Emma transform from a geeky teen at graduation, to a lost waitress at 25, with frizzy hair and big glasses, to her career as a teacher, where we notice a more pulled-together look and an emerging elegance. Emma’s own references to her safe fashion choices allude to her cautious, prudish character. “It’s a swimsuit, The Edwardian,” she tells Dex (Jim Sturgess) when they vacation in France. Of her more inclined footwear she says “it’s the world’s first orthopaedic high heel,” to justify her growing sophistication. By the time Emma sees Dex at a wedding, she has secured her first book advance, and has a longer, sleeker hairdo and an Asian-inspired dress. The biggest transformation in Emma’s wardrobe occurs when she moves to Paris, is dating a jazz musician and has become an established writer. Naturally, she is wearing a little black A-line halter dress and a chic short hairstyle. When she returns to England to be with Dex, she reverts back to a floral dress and softer hair.

These directors, the 9%, hold a fragile but ever-important place in film. They are pioneers unto themselves amid a sea of creative and predominantly male trailblazers, forging a path and constructing a sphere of influence for future generations of female directors to inhabit. Trudie Styler, producer and co-founder of Maven, a film production company to support female talent in the industry, says that what is “crucially lost is the female perspective: 50% of the population are not having their stories told”. This perspective deserves its own voice and vision in film. Thanks to directors such as the late Nora Ephron, Sophia Coppola, Lone Scherfig, and many other emerging female talents, progress is indeed being made slowly but surely. The movies of these directors stretch above and beyond conventional chick-flick motifs, presenting the complexities of modern womanhood. We should hope to see that meager percentage increase substantially in the not-so-distant future.

Article by Anabel Maldonado for The Untitled Magazine

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