Endings and Beginnings in Women Directed Films of 2019

**This essay will analyse the final shots of the 4 films under discussion, therefore there will be spoilers**

Four of the best films of last year involved women writing and directing stories about young women or teenage girls. We had two period love stories which examined young women artists existing in male-dominated fields: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir and Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire. We also had two films influenced by the mystic realist traditions of Africa and Latin America: Mati Diop’s Atlantics and Issa López’s Tigers are not Afraid. Three of these films (all except Portrait) have final shots which are powerful affirmations of the protagonists seizing ownership of their lives and having the strength to move on. Portrait ends in a more complicated way, which in one sense is more tragic than the others but in another, is more life-affirming.

Joanna Hogg’s fourth film is her most introspective – a raw and honest depiction of her time as a film student, when she was in a relationship with an older man who was a drug addict. She uses the character of Julie (Hogg’s real-life goddaughter Honor Swinton-Byrne) as her avatar. In a film full of exquisitely constructed shots, some of the most striking take place at the film school. Much as in a theatre, the school uses black or white backdrops and flats. This means the actors are often isolated in front of a neutral backdrop, much like in the portraits from the Wallace Collection which feature in the film (and are where the title of the film comes from). A black backdrop is used powerfully in the final shots of the film, as the camera pans across Julie’s actors in the film she is directing. Her lead actor is reciting the Rossetti poem “When I am dead, my dearest…” – it appears as if Julie is now making a personal work, as a reaction to the fact that her partner has died. This is a contrast from the start of the film, when she was making a film about something totally outside of her own experience, because she wanted to leave her “privileged bubble.”

Julie has been used to directing her gaze outward throughout the film – to the subjects of her films and in her constant worry about Anthony (Tom Burke). It is only in this shot, right at the end that she becomes the subject. Julie turns her attention back to the camera – this is Hogg being directly confronted by her younger self – and she becomes the focus of her own gaze. This is Julie accepting that she needs to become the protagonist of her own life and perhaps the subject of her own films, whilst accepting that she is forever changed by the relationship. This ‘portrait of the artist’ is reminiscent of two Van Dyck portraits in the Wallace Collection, from a time when women were used to being the objects of the male gaze. The Souvenir is a self-portrait by Hogg, she is telling her own story, exposing her vulnerabilities, flaws, insecurities and imperfections. She especially lays herself bare in this shot in which Julie looks directly at the audience and we can see how ravaged she has been by the relationship. “I think she looks determined. And very much in love” Anthony says, when looking at the painting called The Souvenir – a perfect description of Julie in this shot.

The shot that comes directly after this confirms that Julie will always carry Anthony with her. The enormous black hangar doors slide open to reveal a field dotted with trees. This tableau has punctuated the narrative throughout, with Julie reading Anthony’s letters in voice-over. His words are forever inscribed on her heart, in the same way the subject of the painting The Souvenir carves her lover’s initials onto a tree. Julie steps out from the dark film set, to a pastoral scene of nature, light and air. This suggests a freedom, but it is cloudy and looks like it may be dusk, so it is not necessarily implying clear skies and plain sailing from now on. The hangar doors do not open fully, there is a large amount of black surrounding the frame, with just an opening out to the scene of the field and trees. Julie is not completely leaving one stage of her life behind, this will not be a clean break, but there is the hint of hope in this ending.

Issa López’s Tigers are not Afraid has a similar ending, in terms of the protagonist Estrella opening a doorway onto a wide expanse of nature, which is a huge sigh of relief after the ordeal she has been through. Estrella has had to confront her fears, take on those much more powerful than herself and she has lost people she loves along the way. The fairytales, myths and legends that are interweaved in the film have been a way for Estrella to cope with her trauma. Tigers have been particularly symbolic to her – she views them as fierce protectors and wants to emulate their bravery. After Estrella has taken on the cartels, she ‘sees’ a tiger, but it can hold no threat to her after the real-world horrors she has endured. Julie and Estrella can return to their own natures at the end of their ordeals and achieve a freedom, embodied in these wide-open fields. Estrella says that; “Tigers are not afraid. They went through all the bad stuff and came out on the other side. They are kings of this kingdom of broken things.”

In Atlantics, Ada (like Julie in The Souvenir) has spent much of the film pining over her lover Souleiman. In this case, Souleiman has gone missing at sea, while attempting the dangerous crossing to Spain to find work. The souls of the men lost at sea inhabit those left behind and Souleiman takes over Issa, a policeman. The heartbreaking finale involves Ada making love to Issa, but Souleiman can be seen in the mirrors of the club where the scene takes place. Claire Mathon (who is also the cinematographer of Portrait of a Lady on Fire) makes this scene truly beautiful, with the use of green and blue lighting, panning the camera between Issa/Ada in the room and Souleiman/Ada in the mirrors and then finally out to the windows, through which the roaring sea (which claimed Souleiman) can be seen. Fatima Al Qadiri’s score chimes over the scene, almost like a music box, showing that Ada can finally relax. It is a soothing refrain, encouraging Ada and reassuring her that things are going to be OK. The final shots take place the morning after, when Ada is alone. She looks at herself in the mirror and then out to the camera, finally accepting that she is alone but that she has the strength to move on, independently. Her final words in voice-over are: “Some memories are omens. Last night will stay with me. To remind me who I am. And who I will become.”

Portrait of a Lady on Fire has a contrasting ending to the three I have discussed thus far, but that is because the ordeal that the protagonist Marianne (Noemie Merlant) goes through is quite different from those in the other films. Julie is trying to become a film director in the 1980s, with men constantly questioning and challenging her motivations, often in a patronising manner. Estrella and Ada both live in corrupt, patriarchal societies and are being constantly let down by the institutions (the government, the police, parental figures) who should be there to protect them. Marianne is a painter in the eighteenth century and is obviously working within a male-dominated world (she must submit her paintings to an exhibition under her father’s name, for example). However, the film is about her falling in love with a woman. Like Julie, Marianne is used to turning her gaze outward, observing others and using it in her art. When the subject of her painting Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) falls in love with her, she begins to turn her gaze right back at Marianne, which unravels her cool exterior. Due to the society they are living in, Héloïse is sent to Milan to marry a man she does not know.

At the end of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, after many years, Marianne sees Héloïse at a distance, across an Opera House. The final shot is very long and is from Marianne’s point-of-view, as she watches Héloïse listening to Vivaldi’s violin concertos. Héloïse is completely caught up in the music, she is engrossed and involved, swept up in the emotion. Marianne and we, the audience are willing Héloïse to turn towards Marianne/the camera/us. But she doesn’t. In one way, this seems like a more tragic ending than the others. Marianne and Héloïse went through a good and beautiful experience and the tragedy comes from it ending and them being parted against their will. However, Marianne sees a portrait of the married Héloïse with her child. Héloïse’s expression in the painting is one of acceptance and she is, perhaps, content. But Marianne knows that Héloïse has not forgotten her because Héloïse sends her a hidden message in the portrait (28). So, Héloïse does not turn and see Marianne, but Marianne knows that (like with Tony and Julie in The Souvenir), she is etched onto Héloïse’s heart.

This epilogue echoes their parting, where Héloïse quotes the Eurydice myth to Marianne. She asks her to “turn around” for one final look. In the myth, Orpheus cannot resist one last look at his love, even though it means he must lose her to the underworld. Héloïse is in her wedding dress and is the same Gothic ghostly figure that has been haunting Marianne throughout the film. Marianne does turn and look, perhaps dooming her to a life in a shadow-world – a purgatory in which she will not be with the one she truly loves. The epilogue suggests that Marianne is content on a professional level, but that there will always be an ache in her heart. As much as Marianne and we, wish for it,  Héloïse does not do as Orpheus does right at the end. Héloïse has had to accept her lot in life and move on, but we know she has taken Marianne with her.

There are many levels to the theme of observation in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, even just within this final long shot. The whole film has featured Marianne observing Héloïse (firstly, without her knowing), Héloïse then turns her gaze back on Marianne. The difference between the various portraits of Héloïse throughout the film demonstrates how different perspectives can dramatically change how a person is seen. The final moments take place within a theatre, where Héloïse is watching a performance and Marianne is watching her watch the performance. And we are observing this through Mathon’s camera lens, which is being very deliberately manipulated by Sciamma to make us aware of our role as observers. In fact, Sciamma is conscious that the length of the shot takes the audience out of the film and that we are aware that we’re watching an incredible performance by Haenel, scored to emotive music. And as much as we try to change the outcome of what is happening on screen (we are willing Héloïse to look at Marianne), we cannot. We are aware of the distance we have from the subjects we are watching, unlike Marianne who could physically manipulate Héloïse’s hand and the tilt of her head when she was painting her. This doesn’t mean that Héloïse was always compliant, however and her rebellious spirit really continues into this final shot. Héloïse asserts some independence at the end (we cannot control her), a quality she values and feared losing with the marriage. The Rossetti poem recited at the end of The Souvenir could equally apply to Portrait “If thou wilt, remember and if thou wilt, forget.” It is Héloïse’s choice, ultimately, how much she lets Marianne dominate her thoughts.

These four films from 2019 (and a fifth – The Third Wife directed by Ash Mayfair) feature women directing women and these female protagonists asserting themselves in the final shots of their stories. All of these endings suggest women/girls taking ownership of their own narratives, a determination to move on and not be defined by the people (mainly men) who have had control over them in the past. All of the writer-directors have achieved this with subtlety and nuance, demonstrating that certain ‘hashtag’ themes (that have come to prominence in the last few years) do not have to be shoe-horned into stories about women. All of these films have powerful final moments that will linger with the viewer long after the credits have rolled.


by Fiona Underhill

Fiona Underhill (she/her) is from Warwickshire, UK but now lives just outside sunny Los Angeles. Her favourite film is Empire of the Sun and favourite actors are Paul Newman and Tilda Swinton. She is passionate about supporting women directors and also highlighting production/costume design in film. She is a Content Editor for JUMPCUT ONLINE, a member of OAFFC and WFCC and can usually be found on Twitter @FionaUnderhill 

1 reply »

  1. I love your thoughtful essay that meticulously recreate the final moments of these influential works yet leave behind the residue of experiencing the visual form by watching the final film even as images are created in the mind’s eye with the words. A beautifully written piece that is a tribute to the efforts of these makers.


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