A Few Good Women
French literature, film, feminism, women’s studies—connections. Ruth Hottell is constantly on the lookout for connections between French literature and other topics. But as a student of French culture, she has gravitated to film. “There is no better way of showing culture than by film. The images are there,” she remarks.
Because of her love for both French and classic movies, Hottell initially was interested in the “fantastic,” loosely defined as an occurrence that creates confusion about its reality—think Hitchcock’s Vertigo. As she delved deeper into these tales, she began to analyze the underlying structure and discovered that women were generally treated as objects and had largely stereotyped roles—the temptress, the perfect housewife, the poor visitor, the wicked or evil one, the saint.
Trained as a structuralist, Hottell took film courses to learn the intricacies of creating film so that she could then dissect it with the practitioner’s expertise, peeling the different layers apart from the varying perspectives of language, grammar, scenery, costume, storyline. Once she has taken the building blocks apart, she can ask, “Now what do I have?” This is what Hottell calls engaged criticism, which involves breaking the text apart and looking for something: How does the film look at people? Does it “foreground” minor characters?
Using her background, training and personal interests, Hottell began looking at film through the lens of feminism and French post-colonialism. How does film portray women and culture and how does that portrayal change over time?
Women filmmakers are outside the mainstream of the dominant male culture, Hottell explains. As the “other,” they push to change the status quo. She finds that these women tend to treat all characters more equally. “Minor characters are more complex than they often are in men’s work,” she says, “and without regard to whether the character is male or female.”
Women also articulate the subject differently, Hottell continues. She has examined the work of several female francophone filmmakers, paying particular attention to Agnes Varda, who herself said that she films like a woman because she is a woman. Hottell thus set out to explore more deeply what it means to “film like a woman.” Along the way, she is also looking to see the effects of French colonialism on the work of these women and whether or not colonialism has a continuing impact.
“Mainstream narrative works on all levels to present the white male perspective as the norm,” Hottell comments. Theorist, educator and scholar bell hooks (yes, her name is spelled in all lowercase) once said, “Any artist whose politics lead him or her to oppose imperialism, colonialism, neocolonialism, white supremacy, and the everyday racism that abounds in all our lives would endeavor to create images that do not perpetuate and sustain domination and exploitation.” Hottell notes, “To seek alternatives to repressive representation, one must first understand how mainstream cinema manipulates images.” She says that other feminist film theorists have noted the need to expose the “glossiness of the finished text, the attractive trappings of how things are presented, and the mask of what is being said along with its ideology.” Only then, Hottell says, can critics and filmmakers seek expression of the “other’s” discourse in film.
Several Francophone filmmakers have set out to answer their own critical voices, but in doing so have “reinvented narrative pleasure in such a way as to include what the mainstream would exclude.” Artists and scholars such as Laura Mulvey, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Marguerite Duras and Chantal Akerman have taken different approaches, but all have given voice to the gendered, racial and ethnic “other.”
Hottell says that Agnes Varda “provides concrete examples and models that are strong practical applications of the concept of inclusive spectatorship.” In Le Bonheur, Varda “visually and narratively reformulates romantic paradigms to insert the gendered presence.” In fact, Hottell adds, “Le Bonheur is a subtle satire that exposes the hypocrisy of the system.” Ironically, Hottell comments that many critics did not understand the subtlety of the film and even denounced what they considered its acceptance of the patriarchal model. Despite these criticisms, Hottell says they did generally realize that the film was not a simple fiction film but intended instead to elicit audience reaction and draw them into the cinematic world.
As her art developed, Varda produced L’Une chante, l’autre pas a few years later. Hottell describes that film as “a fictional world in which women—and their friends, communities, problems and joys—become the central focus of the narrative.” Women’s stories permeate the entire film; Varda herself even enters it as the voice-over in the prologue. The film highlights two women, who remain very close despite their differences. Hottell says that the differences—indicated in the title of the film: one sings while the other does not—are a contradiction that is not one. “Varda’s cinécriture embraces difference and evinces an understanding of contradictions between self and other,” she says.
One critic has noted that Varda was more interested in questions than answers. Hottell remarks, “Applying Varda’s questions to films that pinpoint issues of race, ethnicity and class could be a way to meet the need for discussion of various kinds of marginalization. Thus can film unite issues of race, class and gender in cooperative, engaged practices.”
Ruth Hottell, professor of French and chair of the Department of Foreign Languages, holds a Ph.D. in Expanded French Studies from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. The author of numerous articles on a variety of topics within French studies, she has taught and conducted research at the University of Toledo since 1988. Hottell has earned an international reputation, particularly within French film studies and Francophone women filmmakers; her scholarly standing has been enhanced further in the last few years by the publication of three highly-acclaimed books.