From Fassbinder to Von Trier, male filmmakers can tackle female repression with provocative results
Belgian director Chantal Akerman’s brilliantly stark, groundbreaking 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles follows a single mother through her rigorously regimented household tasks – including prostituting herself to earn subsistence money - as her routine unravels toward an explosive finale.
This portrait of female repression and the tyranny of time, screening at 7pm on 12 December at London’s ICA, was all the more unique for having been made by a woman. Here's ten male takes on their staple topic of crazed dames, from the empathy of Cassavetes and Schatzberg to the perverse fascination and borderline sadism of Fassbinder and Von Trier.
Notorious German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s stylised, cruel classic of manipulative relationships has an all-female cast and is set almost entirely in the Baroque-muralled bedroom of its gin-soaked protagonist, fashion designer Petra von Kant. The sado-masochistic bond she shares with her assistant is complicated further when she moves in a model she's become infatuated with.
Provocateur Lars von Trier is another director whose perverse fascination with victimised and troubled women has raised eyebrows. Kirsten Dunst won praise as a depressive bride awaiting a rogue planet’s collision with Earth in this apocalyptic drama. The Dane, who was influenced by German Romanticism, says he based her character on his own struggles with the Black Dog.
A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
Gena Rowlands asked her husband John Cassavetes to write her a role about women's modern-day problems and the result was this gut-wrenching, loosely improvised landmark indie. She plays an LA housewife whose bizarre, impetuous behaviour leads her construction-worker husband to commit her to a mental institution. Left alone with the kids, he proves an ineffectual parent.
Betty Blue (1986)
Spawning one of the most iconic movie posters of the '80s and a one-hit wonder for its sultry star Beatrice Dalle, Jean-Jacques Beineix's offbeat, hysteria-infused romance between wannabe-writer and handyman Zorg and former waitress Betty ("a flower with translucent antennae and a mauve plastic heart") spirals from quirk to tragedy as her free-spirited abandon veers into psychosis.
You'd be hard-pressed to find stronger "What the fuck?!" audience responses than elicited by this off-the-charts bizarre, grotesque Freudian ballet from South Korea's Kim Ki-duk, which had a hard time with the censors securing release in the director's own country. With next-to-no dialogue, it's a sustained hysterical outpouring amid castration and incest, all stemming from a wife's OTT response to her husband's infidelity. It's also a laugh a minute (really).
Sexual hang-ups also blight Catherine Deneuve as a nail-biting Belgian manicurist in this psychological horror from Roman Polanski, which was shot in London. Left alone in the Kensington apartment she shares with her sister, intense dream sequences and hallucinations mark her descent in this black-and-white classic – the first of the controversial Polish director’s apartment trilogy.
Fatal Attraction (1987)
Nothing tackles the terror invoked by female sexual allure with such Hollywood blatancy as this 80s psychological thriller and morality tale, which made every roving-eyed husband in America cross his legs, and "bunny-boiler" common slang for an obsessive lunatic. Glenn Close plays a smouldering business-woman whose cold minimalist apartment and less-than-convenient intensity signal doom for a tempted family man (Michael Douglas).
Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970)
New York filmmaker and photographer Jerry Schatzberg's stunning-looking New Hollywood gem stars Faye Dunaway as a pill-popping, nerve-frayed former fashion model. Now living alone at a beach house, she reflects in flashbacks on her mental disintegration for a friend who's planning a film on her.
Cries and Whispers (1972)
Swedish maestro Ingmar Bergman was adept at alarmist portrayals of the female psyche. None are more chilling, or aesthetically sublime in blood-reds and whites, than this emotionally violent, supernatural-tinged portrait of three sisters - one in torment on her deathbed - in a lavish mansion in the 19th Century.
Spanish director Pedro Almodovar is on exuberant top form with this outrageous black comedy of ladies with man trouble – a pill-popping TV actress (Carmen Maura) is dying to know why her lover has left her, while her pal's afraid her boyfriend's criminal activities have set the police on her tail.