Un Certain Regard : 4 Femmes Cinéastes

Wed. March 6 – March 27, 2024

The French insistence on regarding cinema as art has helped produced formidable women directors.

In fact, it all started in 1896. Who remembers Alice Guy? The world's first female film director and producer was French. She directed her first film in 1896, aged 23, and went on to direct Gaumont's first blockbuster, The Life of Christ, in 1906, with 300 extras. After moving to California with her British camera operator husband Herbert Blaché, she directed more than 600 films for Charlie Chaplin's film company and then for Warner Brothers.

In 2021, female directors from France made headlines, with two major European festivals awarding their top prizes to Frenchwomen: Julia Ducournau took home the Cannes Palme d’Or for her gender-bending love story Titane; and Audrey Diwan nabbed Venice’s Golden Lion for Happening, about a young woman in the 1960s seeking an abortion.

In 2022, The Grand Prix, which is the second-most prestigious prize of the festival after the Palme d'Or, was awarded to veteran filmmaker Claire Denis for Stars at Noon. In 2023, the Palme d’Or was awarded to filmmaker Justine Triet for Anatomy of a Fall.

The number of women directors in France has been growing steadily throughout the past decades. The Centre National du Cinéma et de l’Image Animée (CNC), the French Ministry of Culture department that produces and promotes French cinema, notes that 27 percent of French movies were directed or co-directed by women in 2017 compared to 20.8 percent in 2008.

More women than men are also making their directorial debuts. Between 2008 and 2017, 42 percent of women filmmakers helmed their first pic, versus 31.8 percent of male directors.

And while the number of French women filmmakers is increasing, the study also highlights the gender inequity in French cinema’s budgets, distribution, and salary.

Between 2008 and 2017, the woman-directed film with the highest budget was

In 2017 the average budget gap between women- and men-made films was $2.3 million.

As for distribution — which determines how many people get to see it — women’s films received 34.4 percent less funds than men’s.

Women’s movies opened in an average of 118 theaters in their first week, versus 170 theaters for men’s films.

The pay disparity is even more egregious: women directors’ salaries are about 42 percent lower than their male counterparts. Women in other production roles earn 38.9 percent less than men.

Obviously, it’s great to see more French women directors receiving opportunities and making movies, but the CNC’s study shows that a lot more work needs to be done before women and men can enjoy the same position in French film.


The legendary Belgian-born filmmaker Agnes Varda began making films in 1955, and continued right up until her death at the age of 90 in 2019. Throughout her career, which saw her as one of the key figures in the French New Wave, she’s been a generous and ingenious collaborator.

For this movie, which is part character drama (with real-life characters), part road documentary, and part essay-film, Varda co-signs with the French artist who calls himself JR. A bit over one-third Varda’s age at the time of the filming, he always sports a hat and dark glasses. His work is in photography and public art. He travels through Europe in a van that’s a photo booth, creating large-format portraits of people he meets. He goes even larger with some of his other works, creating giant pictures that he then affixes to the sides of buildings, or train cars, or ships.

It is perhaps unexpected that JR and Varda find a kindred spirit in one another. But they both recognize that the people and the constructed environment of a place are as much a part of its landscape as the actual landscape. And they see, too — in a way that feels endemic to the French way of looking at the world — that places are layered with memory, and that people ought to tread very lightly when considering making changes, lest the places’ memories wind up altered or lost.


Dubbed "the bad girl intellectual of French cinema" by Amy Taubin of the Village Voice, writer-director Catherine Breillat seemingly has courted controversy since her career began. While still in her teens, she published her first novel, the erotic L'Homme facile, which was not sold to anyone in France under 18 years of age.

As with many of her prior works, Breillat adapted the premise of Abus de Faiblesse from events in her own life, which in this instance began with her 2004 stroke and ended a few years later with the loss of 700,000 euros at the hands of a well-known con artist, Christophe Rocancourt.

The film opens with acclaimed filmmaker Maud Schoenberg (Isabelle Huppert) waking up in the middle of the night to discover that she has no feeling in her left side before collapsing on the floor while trying to summon help. After that comes a wrenching series of scenes in which the once-proud Maud is forced to undergo countless gross physical impositions in order to learn how to walk, talk and even laugh again.

It is at this point that she sees con man Vilko Piran (rapper Kool Shen, a portrait of magnetic insolence) being interviewed on television about his shady past. Against the advice of her friends, she decides to cast him in the lead role in her film, inexplicably falls under his spell, and soon embarks on a vertiginous downward spiral.


Céline Sciamma is one of a new generation of French screenwriters and directors who center their films on the idea of the female gaze and the exploration of female sexuality in women and girls. Her debut film, Water Lilies (2008), earned her 3 nominations for the César Awards.

She gained mainstream success in the U.S. with her 2019 movie Portrait de la Jeune Fille en Feu, (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) which earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Film in 2020.

Portrait is a heart-shattering love story. Set in coastal Brittany in the 18th century, the film tracks the slow-burning romance between a portraitist, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), and the woman she has been commissioned to paint, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). The film dispels the myth of the one-dimensional relationship between artist and muse, making Marianne and Héloïse reciprocal collaborators—their cumulative love and art entangled.

Where her previous trio of films felt very contemporary, Portrait, with its lush visuals and rippling period detail might seem a jolting departure. Yet beneath the period trappings there is something strikingly modern about the film’s outlook.

Modern, too, is the depiction of enlightenment-era art, a period that Sciamma’s research showed to be quite an important time for women painters. In fact, the female painters she unearthed were so talented she felt that to make a biopic of one would undervalue the rest. “So, I decided to invent one to talk about all of them.”


In 2022, A film directed by a woman broke the glass ceiling of the Sight and Sound poll of greatest films ever made, a once-every-10-year survey of critics who that year placed Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman's 1975 Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Brussels, at No. 1.

For the past 60 years, the poll, conducted by the British Film Institute, has been topped either by Orson Welles' Citizen Kane or, more recently, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. Those films slipped to No. 3 and No. 2, respectively. (The very first poll, in 1952, featured Vittorio De Sicca’s neo-realist drama Bicycle Thieves at No. 1.)  

This three and a half hour long, ground-breaking film charts the breakdown of a bourgeois Belgian housewife, mother, and part-time prostitute over the course of three days. It rigorously records her domestic routine in extended time and from a fixed camera position. In a film that, agonizingly, depicts women’s oppression, Akerman transforms cinema, itself so often an instrument of women’s oppression, into a liberating force.

Akerman has described the way she drew on the meticulous domestic culture of the Belgian middle-class housewives among whom she had grown up to create the character of Jeanne Dielman. She has said – and this is one reason why the film has been so important to feminists – that “I made this film to give all these actions typically undervalued a life on film.” Akerman creates a kind of lexicon of domestic gesture, which takes this invisible culture and puts it at the center of an avant-garde film, at the center of art. As she gives these actions a new value on the screen, she allows the real time they take to become screen time, throwing the spectator’s understanding of cinematic convention into disarray.

Come join us beginning Wednesday, March 6th at 4 pm., as we discuss our 4 films in the following order:

You will be expected to see the four films on your own before each discussion. All four films are available with English subtitles for a nominal rental fee on Amazon Prime (see links below).  1 week in advance of each showing, we will provide vocabulary lists, and suggest possible discussion topics prior to the session, all designed to inspire a lively debate.

We look forward to seeing you at our 4-week ZOOM session, beginning Wednesday, March 6th at 4 pm as we explore the unique perspectives of 4 French women filmmakers.

Links to Streaming on Amazon Prime

To sign-up, go to the French classes page and FRENCH FILM UN CERTAIN REGARD : 4 FEMMES CINEASTES WITH TESS