Natalie Portman and “The Female Gaze”

As part of the Boston Calling Music Festival in 2018, Natalie Portman curated a special festival of films at the Brattle Theatre. Her program, “The Female Gaze,” ran from May 22-24, 2018 and featured films with similar themes told from the perspective of either a male or female director. The following are her notes on the program in general and the specific films that she chose.

General Thoughts on The Program

I don’t actually think there is such a thing as “the female gaze.” I think great directors are idiosyncratic in their work and each one is different from the other, making it nearly impossible to categorize filmmakers, or any artists for that matter, into any binary positions. However, I do think there are instances in which a female filmmaker has insight into the female experience that are illuminated when we show films back-to-back that have very similar stories, but are told in such different ways and with such different perspectives. I thought classic female tropes in film – Lolita, Prostitute, Witch – would be good places to start to see how we might see male and female directors deal with similar stories differently.


Still from “Lolita.”

Lolita / The Holy Girl / The Diary of a Teenage Girl

I love both the novel and the movie of Lolita, but of course, I always wondered about the girl’s side of the story, as neither book nor film is told from her point of view. Luckily, Lucrecia Martel made The Holy Girl in 2004, and Marielle Heller made The Diary of a Teenage Girl in 2015, both of which (and this is not their stated purpose, but what they seemed like to me) examine what the narrative might look like as told by Lolita. It’s her desire, her dreams, her imagination and her relationships – with friends, her mother, her art, her faith – that are the subject of the film. Martel’s film and Heller’s film are also very different from one another, with the girl’s motivations, relationships and sexual awakening depicted completely unique to each character. They are formally very different as well.


Still from “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels”

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels / Belle de Jour

Chantal Akerman’s 1975 film and Luis Bunuel’s 1967 film both tell the story of housewives who are prostitutes. Their depictions of what it means to be a housewife, and what it means to be a prostitute, are quite different because of their respective gazes. Also the meaning behind aligning these two roles is interpreted differently because of how each film is directed. Both are gorgeous films, full of desire and despair. But they are vastly different interpretations of what the day of a housewife is like and of what a woman desires. The colors, the tone, and the pace of the films are just as disparate as the way they flesh out their heroines and have emotional impacts that also create strongly different effects on the viewer.


Still from “I Am Not a Witch.”

I am not a Witch / The Exorcist

William Friedkin’s 1973 film, The Exorcist, is of course so well-known and well-feared, but shows nothing of the point of view of the young girl accused of being possessed. In fact, the devil within the girl, ends up having to do with the priest’s inner life and what haunts him and what he must exorcize. This year, audiences will be lucky enough to see (and we get to sneak- peek) Rungano Nyoni’s I am Not A Witch, in which we can imagine the accused young girl’s inner life, and the way she experiences the accusations of witchcraft against her, and how she experiences the attempts to exorcize her. The two films take place in wildly different cultures, but with similarly extreme methods for naming and taming witches.

The Brattle Theatre partnered with Boston Calling 2018 to present “The Female Gaze”.
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