As his long documentary about cinema’s past begins, Mark Cousins flatly asserts that ‘women have directed some of the best films ever made’; after that, he wastes no time lamenting blighted careers or episodes of patriarchal abuse. All the clips that Cousins has collaged or montaged into a sequence derive from films directed by women, and the six actors who serve as narrators or tour guides in what he calls ‘a new road movie’ are also female, with Tilda Swinton leading off from the driver’s seat and Debra Winger concluding the itinerary forty chapters later in the back seat of a limo, haughtily disguised by her outsize dark glasses. The road – seen in linking passages from inside a driverless car – extends from the arid American west to misty Scotland to forested Bavaria to a street in Moscow, with excursions that take in China, Japan, Sri Lanka, Senegal, Angola, Brazil, Iran, Tunisia, New Zealand and most other places. Over fourteen hours, Cousins pieces together a matrilineal history of cinema.
All the same, he insists that the medium of film is ‘androgynous, anarchic’, a playground open to everyone, where gender can be disregarded or at least inventively blurred. Several of the clips he chooses are from Lucile Hadžihalilović’s Innocence, a sci-fi fable in which a boy becomes pregnant; he also draws on Céline Sciamma’s Tomboy, about a girl called Laure who renames herself Mikäel and sculpts a clay penis to fill out her swimming trunks. The Matrix, directed by the Wachowski brothers, initially seems out of place, but by the time Larry and Andy made Jupiter Ascending they had transitioned to Lana and Lilly, which allows them to be honorary members of Cousins’s club.
The unisexual roster saves us from diatribes about the iniquity of the male gaze, and in any case the female gaze is capable of retaliating by aestheticising and eroticising the bodies of men, as Leni Riefenstahl does when she brings Greek statues to life as German athletes in Olympia, or as Nicole Kidman finds she is doing when she timidly swabs the unconscious Colin Farrell’s muscled midriff in Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled. We may be watching a film appreciation course designed by what Cousins calls ‘the Academy of Venus’, but the love goddess is liable, as he notes (borrowing a phrase from Shakespeare’s Henry V), to assume ‘the port of Mars’. We see the metamorphosis happening when the superheroine in Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman sashays into battle, and the final clip in Cousins’s vast compendium shows Beyoncé trashing parked cars with a phallic baseball bat in Lemonade.
Androgyny is more a conceit than a concept for Cousins; what gives Women Make Film its impetus is anarchy, the other term in his definition of film. Cinema starts from the chaos of visual phenomena. It is unrestrained by formal rules – the rectangular frame, Cousins shrugs, is merely ‘an empty thing into in which you put stuff’ – and it wickedly exploits the imperfections of our vision. Objects on the screen go in and out of focus, odd camera angles disorient us, substance is eclipsed by shadow. Projected at a rate of twenty-four frames per second, those flickery images are punctuated by blinking intervals of blackness that remain invisible to us because they shuttle by so fast. Editing chops up continuous time and unsettles our sense of stability, which leads Cousins to question the mental state of a character in Cecile Tang Shu Shuen’s The Arch. ‘How jagged are her thoughts,’ he asks, ‘how scissored?’ And in his analysis of a brawl in Kathryn Bigelow and Monty Montgomery’s biker film The Loveless, he suggests that the purpose of editing is to leave us dazed, confused, even concussed.
* * *
In his chapter on framing, Cousins regrets that cinema rationalised this random blitz of glimpses and glances by telling stories. A film, he suggests, ‘doesn’t need to be action, story or psychology – it can be its own shape’, because it consists of ‘a series of spaces’ that emerge and mutate as a camera travels through the world, pivoting on an X-axis or a Z-axis. The art deals just as briskly with time, which it can dynamise or decelerate or send into reverse. Films mobilise the world: among the rarities placed on display here is Marie Menken’s Go Go Go, a maniacally speedy trip through Manhattan that provokes Cousins to praise ‘the twitter of the machine’ as it sends reels of celluloid whizzing round, turning cars into projectiles and pedestrians into scuttling beetles. The terrifying shock of cinema lies in its disruption of the formerly regular laws of physics.
Cousins deftly analyses such visual feats; mostly, however, he relies on exclamations that simply ask us to look. ‘Such a cinematic thing!’ he has Swinton say about some tender close-ups of Chechen orphans in Pirjo Honkasalo’s The 3 Rooms of Melancholia. ‘Beat that!’ grins Kerry Fox after a sex act is completed in record time by the hero of Alison de Vere’s animated film Mr Pascal. Thandie Newton, who narrates the section on horror, gasps, ‘My God!’ while watching Katrin Gebbe’s Nothing Bad Can Happen, and we are warned to briefly avert our eyes.
In his brilliant sections on filmmaking technique, Cousins sums up cinema’s world-view epigrammatically. A girl in Mai Zetterling’s Loving Couples ducks under a table for an illicit glimpse of her elders from the waist down, which prompts Cousins to explain that ‘point of view is more id than superego’. ‘Discovery’, he remarks elsewhere, ‘is a focus pull, a shift in how we see.’ Later, Women Make Film sags, offering a random-seeming thematic review of home, sex and religion in cinema and a second-hand survey of popular genres. Jane Fonda’s clumsy spell as narrator doesn’t help: her delivery is diva-ish, yet she nervously slows down to articulate foreign names that are booby-trapped with clusters of consonants. Towards the end, we stray into an existential fog, and a segment on ‘The Meaning of Life’ succumbs to ‘cosmic despair’ as it asks, ‘Are we on the road to nowhere?’ By now we have been travelling on a global network of rural trails and urban highways for thirteen hours: this is no time for Cousins – who is director, writer and back-seat driver, unseen but omnipresent – to be querulously consulting the map.
Whenever the commentary invokes Eisenstein, Hitchcock or Welles, Cousins implicitly concedes that the decisive creators of cinematic form happened, unfairly, to be men. All the same, an alternative female canon emerges here. The clips from early work by the surrealist Germaine Dulac are revelatory, the Soviet auteurs Kira Muratova and Larisa Shepitko deserve a place in any pantheon, and Wendy Toye’s Christmas musical On the Twelfth Day… and her contribution to the portmanteau film Three Cases of Murder look enticing. In an act of ancestor worship, Women Make Film rescues these directors and so many of their colleagues from oblivion. Cinema has always been forgetful, neglecting its backlist and allowing its archives to moulder or burn, but Cousins is its retentive, encyclopedic Mr Memory.
Women Make Film is released on BFI Player and BFI Blu-Ray on 18 May.