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Feminism of a different kind

A festival of French films wherein the accent was on women, was organised in the city recently. VASANTI SANKARANARAYANAN writes...

THE EMBASSY of France in India, Alliance Francaise, Chennai and Chennai Film Society screened a package of seven French films at the Russian Cultural Centre recently. They called it a film festival dedicated to the portrayal of women in French Cinema. It is significant that this festival has been held in the year which has been dedicated to the empowerment of women. The same package was shown at the International Film Festival of Kerala. In Chennai, the hall was nearly packed on all days and that in itself is a remarkable achievement for the organisers. It was a pleasant surprise to see many women in the audience, because such screenings usually attract only men. The screenings started on time and the audience was attentive. There were very few who walked out before the film was over.

The films in the order in which they were screened, were ``La Dilettante'' (1998), ``Le Bleu Des Villes'' (1999), ``Haut Les Coeurs'' (1999), ``Rien a Faire'' (1999), ``Love Me'' (2000), ``La Vie Revee Des Anges'' (1998) and ``Venus Beaute'' (1999). As these films have been made during the last three years, we can safely say that they represent the latest trends in French film- making. Out of the seven films, five were made by women. So these films represent women's point of view on women and their predicament. Even the two male film-makers have succeeded in presenting the women's point of view effectively.

What do we man when we say women's films? Are they called that because they were made by women and present a woman's point of view? Basically, yes. But there is more to it. They are by women, about women and are distinctly different from other films in technique and theme. The focus of the films are women. At no point, is the audience allowed to think otherwise. Thematically, it is the women's world with incidents that happen in women's lives that are shown. But that is not all.

Visually the frame is filled with women. There are very few frames in each film that does not show a woman's face. The viewers are not allowed to forget ``the women''. There are more close-ups than long or mid- shots. The face with its expressions is a window to the inner thoughts, feelings and emotions. So, the women for whom ``the personal is public'', and the inner self is very important, the face becomes a vehicle for expression and the film-makers have unanimously given importance to this facet. Another technical factor is the locations chosen. Unlike in the usual films, there is a concentration on the interior locations - the inside of a house, a hotel, a cafe, a beauty salon, a school, a jail, a factory, a hospital, a shopping mall. These are the locations which usually constitute a woman's world. She may have her own share of the outside world these days. But, still the important events in her life are all connected with the inside world. That has not changed. The film-makers have effectively captured this nuance in women's lives.

The French Cinema of the 1990s has moved a long way from the New Wave which they introduced and nourished in the 1960s. Technique is no more a facet which is distinct from theme. Technique goes along with the theme and becomes a complementary factor. Narrative is not shunned. In fact, there is a narrative, however thin it may be in all the films. Emotion is given a great deal of importance. There is an unashamed expression of emotions. Perhaps this is on account of the women coming into the fore of film- making. For women, emotion is a very important facet of their lives and of creative activities. Emotion is handled very well in all these films. It does not go to the tragic proportions of melodrama, yet, in a contained way it becomes intense and moving. Even the strongest and most equanimous women are allowed their moments of emotional breakdown, like the protagonists of ``The Dilettante'' and ``Haut Les Coeurs''. Pierrette, who can handle almost any situation in her life, breaks down when her daughter tells her to keep away from the man she was going to marry. Emma who has breast cancer and is prepared to face the consequences breaks down once in a while when faced with the inevitability of her situation.

In fact, there is a new kind of feminism that is shown through these films. The women are not shown as victims; even when they are in a victimised mode they get out of it through their own determination and self-realisation. They are very courageous, strong and confident. At all stages they are willing to face life squarely and accept the responsibility of their actions. They seek freedom even when that freedom brings hostility, insecurity, rejection and pain. They do not wait for others to come to their rescue. They are in short, very much in control of their destinies. There is aggression too, through protests against injustices. Seemingly mild women erupt when they are pushed to the extreme.

Solange, the meter maid attacks the woman who heaps abuses on her. Marie, the young girl, attacks physically Chris' sophisticated girl friend who insults her. Angele, the protagonist of ``Venus Beaute'' lashes out at the man who takes the three-day liaison which he had with her casually and walks out. But, in general, these overt acts of aggression are few and they do not make the women desperate or hard-hearted. They are optimistic, hopeful, willing to change tracks and bear in mind that life is more important than the obstructions and hassles they face.

But, the most striking aspect of these films is that, not only the strength of women, but their vulnerability is also captured. The complexity of a woman's persona is thus shown. Women are not ashamed of their weaknesses - physical or mental. They are not trying to be superwomen. They do not suppress natural human emotions. They do not accept the deification or the victimisation that men dole out in making representations of women. In fact, the film-makers seem to be saying that their protagonists' vulnerability is as important as their strength. In fact they seem to be equally aware of their feminine as well as feministic traits. All films end on a note of hope. Probably these films are harbingers of a Feminism without losing Femininity.

Last, but not least is the way in which men are portrayed. While the men's selfishness and self-centredness are brought out effectively, most of the film-makers have shown examples of extraordinary men, who are conscious of their women's needs and give them the support and love they need. Foremost among them are the men protagonists of ``Haut Les Coeur'', (the husband of Emma) and ``Venus Beaute'' (Lover of Angele). Their whole concept of love is different. Love is not domination or possession. It is understanding, support and tenderness. Though these films have good examples of women's solidarity and support for other women, they have taken a step forward in showing men who are supportive of women. This can also be considered a move forward in feminism, the desire to have a meaningful partnership with men, rather than confrontation and conflict.

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