The Female Gaze

Two women-directed films—The Lost Daughter and The Power of the Dog—are poised to make history at the Oscars

Jai Arjun Singh Updated: Mar 28, 2022 17:16:47 IST
The Female Gaze Olivia Colman as Leda in The Lost Daughter

Among the cinematic highlights of the past few years have been a number of films helmed by women (like Chloé Zhao’s much-feted Nomadland) and two of the more recent ones are heavily favoured for Oscar nominations this month. If, as seems probable, both Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog) and Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Lost Daughter) are nominated for best director,it will be the first time in Oscar history that two women will compete in that category. While Campion is a respected veteran, Gyllenhaal—better known as an actress—is a first-time director. But this gap inexperience aside, some things are common to their films.

Both are immersive works that reward patient viewing—they demand (and deserve)viewers who have the willingness to grasp the dramatic beats and the revelation of character that occur during scenes where not much appears to be happening at a plot level. Also, both stories are—in different ways—about parents and children, responsibilities and burdens and about the societal expectations and gender straitjackets that encase women and men.

Early in The Lost Daughter (streaming on Netflix), during what's meant to be a working vacation in Greece, the middle-aged protagonist Leda (Olivia Colman) sees a family crisis unfold: a young woman is looking for her little daughter who has vanished. The child turns out to be safe, but for a few dreadful moments it seems possible that she may have wandered deep into the sea.We also get flashbacks—through Leda’s perspective—to her own youth,and to a daughter,Bianca, who was similarly lost on a beach.At this stage, it seems possible that Leda’s child might have been lost forever (a little while later we see her speaking on the phone to her other daughter; Bianca’s fate still up in the air).But The Lost Daughter doesn’t centre around a single dramatic incident—the mystery at its heart is more measured,and concerns a woman’s reflections on her struggles and choices. In further flashbacks, we see the younger Leda feeling frustrated and tethered as she tries to balance her work life—she wants to feel valued in her work as an academic—with looking after her children. In the present day, the older Leda says“I was selfish […] I was an unnatural mother.”But the film raises the question: is it so selfish or ‘unnatural’ to want to be one’s own person, to dream for oneself, even while being a parent?

Filial relationships also lie at the heart of The Power of the Dog(Netflix), in which the lives of a sensitive young man named Peter and his widowed mother,Rose, are affected when she remarries and her new husband's brother Phil(Benedict Cumberbatch)is sneering and resentful of their presence.

image-122-1_030322032145.jpgStill from Netflix's The Power Of The Dog

But an unusual dynamic develops between the seemingly predatory Phil and his main target,the ‘effeminate’ Peter.We get glimpses of the former’s past, and realize that he too is tormented by memories of a mentor who may have been both a father-figure and a lover. The hyper-masculine character soon turns out to have weak spots and demons, while the shy young man shows new dimensions too.

To reveal more of the plots in these two works would be a disservice,because, in a sense, they are both slow-burn suspense films—you might even call them psychological thrillers. However, more than an exciting, climactic revelation, the suspense here involves what we learn about people, their relationships and their capabilities. And it’s hard to escape the feeling that the quietly observant quality of these films comes from the women’s touch behind the camera.

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