'Little Women,' 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire' Put Spotlight on Female Artists and the "Club of Geniuses"

4Abiz_race_W - Illustration by Yelena Bryksenkova- H 2020
Yelena Bryksenkova

With 'Little Women,' one of two films capturing artistic gender bias onscreen, Greta Gerwig, "like Louisa May Alcott before her, seeks to expand our notions of which stories deserve to be told."

This year, like last year, and eight of the 10 years before that, no women were nominated for the best director Oscar. Despite recent (and controversial) attempts by the Academy to diversify its membership, the status quo remains: Only one female filmmaker, Kathryn Bigelow for 2009's The Hurt Locker, has ever been deemed any given year's most inspired visionary. What's different this awards season is that one of those snubbed women directors has made a high-profile film that illustrates the many hurdles female artists have to overcome: first to prove that they've got talent (and should be compensated fairly for it), then to have their own ideas about what constitutes great art recognized by male gatekeepers. Serendipitously, Greta Gerwig's Little Women, based on author Louisa May Alcott's original work, is joined in this important endeavor by Céline Sciamma's critical darling Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Together, the two period dramas remind us, rather movingly, that biases against women artists and artworks coded as feminine are deeply ingrained in our culture, and that it's not just individual writers, painters and filmmakers who suffer when we confine our conceptions of greatness to masculine subjects but audiences and art itself, too.

Sony's Little Women is an ambivalent romance at best: Alcott declines to pair her writer protagonist, Jo (played in the film by Saoirse Ronan), with her childhood sweetheart, Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), then muddies up the expected happy ending she's to have with Professor Bhaer (Louis Garrel). In Gerwig's film, Jo's lifelong love affair is with her literary ambitions, after all, and the film is so extraordinarily affecting because we see how everything in Jo's life prepares her to write the autobiographical novel that will become her biggest triumph. Dying Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is her original inspiration, family-focused Meg (Emma Watson) is her cautionary tale, and secretly wise Amy (Florence Pugh) assures a skeptical Jo that a book about the March sisters' "little life," with its "domestic struggles and joys," is as worthy of putting ink to paper as the "gory," "scandalous" tales that the budding writer had been selling to magazines but unwilling to attach her name to. Jo's boorish editor (Tracy Letts), who initially demands that her female characters end up "married by the end, or dead," doesn't get the appeal of her novel, but his daughters can't get enough. Little Women is exciting not just because it's about a group of creative women discovering who they want to become but because Gerwig, like Alcott before her, seeks to expand our notions of which stories deserve to be told.

Clearly, that project of expansion has far to go. This awards season brought reports of male Academy voters and audiences at large refusing to watch a supposedly girlie movie like Little Women — a common prejudice that may have contributed to Gerwig's absence from the director nominees. Unsurprisingly, it's such viewers who most need to hear the film's critiques of what kind of art gets to be made and championed — and what doesn't. "What women are allowed into the club of geniuses anyway?" protests Amy. "The Brontës," comes Laurie's dispiriting answer — dispiriting not because the Brontës weren't geniuses but because women's experiences shouldn't have to be grim, harrowing or even romantic to be worth telling.

In Neon's Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Sciamma supercharges many of these same ideas. The French drama — which wasn't its country's submission for the international film Oscar — tells of a female portraitist named Marianne (Noémie Merlant), commissioned to paint the visage of an unwilling subject, the unhappily betrothed Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). As the women get to know each other, they fall in love and enjoy a brief oasis when they have Héloïse's mother's seaside home to themselves.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire doesn't shy away from the discrimination that Marianne faces as a female painter in the 18th century: She sells her work under her father's name and is forbidden from painting men in the nude. But the film is so thrilling because it explores the niches that women artists have historically carved out for themselves and taken hidden comfort in. Marianne can do her work only because Héloïse doesn't suspect her new companion of being an artist. And although, like Jo, Marianne is beholden to the rules of the marketplace, her subversions of prevailing artistic ideals are meaningful, even innovative — though they might not be recognized as such for another two centuries. Watching Héloïse's maid, Sophie (Luana Bajrami), undergo a secret abortion at a midwife's cottage, Marianne sketches for herself an image of the scene — a situation that a male artist likely wouldn't have had access to, let alone considered worthy of memorialization.

The sparsely worded, visually ravishing Portrait of a Lady on Fire won the best screenplay award at Cannes — recognition for a film's script generally being a kind of consolation prize for films that don't quite match the narrow conceptions of great cinema. Gerwig and Sciamma have expertly diagnosed the problem. The question is when voters and viewers will accept the solution.

This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.