With the Fifties seeing a gradual rise in the number of female movie directors, the Sixties saw that slow expansion get bigger and bigger as more and more women took up the challenge of making movies that were at least as interesting or entertaining as their male counterparts (if they could be financially successful as well would be a great help too). Following in the footsteps of women such as Maya Deren, female experimental movie directors continued to flourish, but this independence didn’t seem to spread to more mainstream movie making. Only one female director of note emerged in the Sixties, and she forged a career for herself that is still going strong today.
Agnès Varda (1928-)
Although she’s regarded as a French movie director, Varda was actually born in Belgium. She moved to France in 1940 to live with her mother’s family, and studied art history and photography. Growing up she saw very few movies, but always viewed this as an advantage, so that when she came to make her first movie in 1957, La Pointe Courte, she did so with a naïvete that allowed her to do things she might otherwise have felt she couldn’t do.
Varda made a number of short movies before her next movie, Cléo from 5 to 7 (1961), made audiences and critics alike sit up and take notice. A sensitively handled drama about a woman (Corinne Marchand) who is waiting for the results of a biopsy, the movie deconstructs the way in which its heroine is seen by everyone around her, and how she deals with the possibility of her imminent mortality. If you’re new to the French New Wave of the early Sixties, then this is as good a movie to start out with, and shows Varda already has a distinct narrative style.
Her abilities as a director were further recognised with the release of her third feature, Le Bonheur (1965). A beautifully crafted rural drama, it’s about a young, happily married man who looks for even more “happiness” with another woman. Though the focus is on the young man, Varda doesn’t downplay the female characters, or make their roles of lesser importance. Instead she emphasises their strength and resilience, and reinforces the idea that neither of them is dependent on the young man’s attention. (1965 was also the year that Varda hired a young actor named Gérard Depardieu for a project called Christmas Carole; it was his first screen role, but alas the movie was never finished due to lack of funding.)
Les créatures (1966) followed, a puzzle box of a movie where the basic storyline of a mute woman’s husband who writes a novel that reflects the lives of the villagers, but in doing so, allows the distinction between fiction and reality to become irrevocably blurred, allowed Varda to play tricks on the viewer throughout. But she’s just being mischievous, and none more so than by casting Catherine Deneuve as the mute wife, using the actress’s physical presence to reinforce the character’s self-reliance and determination.
She contributed a section to the documentary Far from Vietnam (1967), along with the likes of Alain Resnais and Jean-Luc Godard, before making a fascinating though not entirely focused semi-documentary road trip through Los Angeles called Lions Love (1969). Varda had originally wanted Jim Morrison to appear in the movie but he declined (though he can still be seen as a member of the theatre audience in the opening scene). Interestingly enough, Varda attracted several well-known celebrities to appear as themselves, including fellow directors Peter Bogdanovich and Shirley Clarke. There’s no story as such, and what narrative there is is firmly non-linear, making this particular road trip/odyssey one that relies on its visual style to get its message across.
Varda was referred to as “the ancestor of the New Wave” when she was just thirty, but her literary influences and use of location shooting and non-professional actors marks her out as a member of the Left Bank cinema movement instead. She herself describes her style of movie making as cinécriture (writing on film), and she builds her finished product in the editing suite where she finds a movie’s motifs and its rhythm. She is a fiercely intelligent director whose international acclaim in the Sixties helped give other women directors a boost toward realising their own careers.
With the Sixties, female directors who had begun their careers in the Fifties continued to make challenging, independent movies outside the foundering Hollywood studio system. Shirley Clarke made her most well-known movies in the Sixties, The Connection (1962), about a group of junkies waiting in a room for their next fix to arrive, and Portrait of Jason (1967), a documentary about Aaron Payne (alias Jason Holliday) and his experiences of being black and gay in Sixties America. Both movies were well-received in critical circles but lacked for a wider audience. They were movies that held up a mirror to American society at the time, and are all the more powerful for the way they dissect the way said society actively marginalised some of its more vulnerable citizens.
The Canadian artist Joyce Wieland turned her hand to making movies in the Sixties. She made experimental, avant garde shorts on a variety of eclectic themes, and with titles such as Barbara’s Blindness (1965), Handtinting (1967), and Rat Life and Diet in North America (1968). She made her first feature movie in 1969, Reason Over Passion, a prosaic yet highly abstract voyage of discovery through the Canadian psyche as presided over by then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Wieland’s movies were distinctive by the way in which she manipulated the film stock to provide a connection to the artistic style she had developed elsewhere in her work, and to make it feel more organic.
Outside of experimental movie making, female directors tackling more conventional narratives were very thin on the ground. Swedish actress Mai Zetterling made her first feature, Loving Couples, in 1964, and packed it full of controversial elements, from a lesbian kiss to two gay men getting “married” in a church, and a close up of a real birth. She made three more features in the latter half of the decade and each showed a confident hand at the tiller.
In the world of low-budget exploitation features, Stephanie Rothman went from being an executive producer for Roger Corman to co-directing Blood Bath (1966) with Jack Hill, and then flying solo with It’s a Bikini World (1967). She added a strong feminist perspective to her movies, and did her best to mitigate the crassness of the movies she worked on. She was aware of the necessity for female nudity in these low-budget movies but focused on the visual presentation to make these scenes less repulsive and more transgressive.
After making several shorts, Czech director Věra Chytilová won international acclaim for her movie Daisies (1966), a funny, liberating attack on the formal traditions of Czech movie making, and a fascinating glimpse into the minds of two wilful young girls whose attitude to Life is to tear it down and damn the consequences – along as they’re having a good time doing it. It’s an invigorating experience, and eschews the rigid formalism of other Czech movies of the time. Chytilová’s career would pick up again in the Seventies, but Daisies was a statement of intent if ever there was one.
And there was another statement of intent waiting just around the corner in 1970…