Female Body as a Battleground

in Cannes 2024

by Hossein Eidizadeh

During the 77th Cannes Film Festival, I had the opportunity to watch a diverse array of thought-provoking films that explored the intricate relationship between the female body and socio-political dynamics. These cinematic works delved into the complexities of feminine embodiment, offering profound insights into the multifaceted discourse surrounding the female body and its representation within patriarchal societies, and echoing the works of prominent feminist theorists such as Susan Bordo, Elizabeth Grosz, and Iris Marion Young, among others. From body horror narratives to satirical comedies, these cinematic works challenged conventional notions of femininity, beauty standards, and the objectification of women’s bodies. They shed light on the sociopolitical forces that shape and discipline feminine embodiment, while simultaneously exploring avenues for resistance, empowerment, and self-acceptance. Through their thought-provoking narratives and audacious visual aesthetics, these films solidified themselves as significant contributions to the ongoing dialogue on gender politics and the reclamation of female corporeal agency.

Coralie Fargeat’s The Substance is a chilling and provocative 2024 body horror film that delves into society’s obsession with youth, beauty and perfection through a feminist lens. Starring Demi Moore as Elisabeth Sparkle, an aging aerobics celebrity fired due to her age, the film takes a dark turn when Elisabeth injects a mysterious “substance” promising to make her younger and more “perfect.”

As feminist scholar Susan Bordo argues, the cultural construction of femininity involves a paradoxical relationship to the female body – it must be strictly disciplined into the appropriate codes of beauty, while also appearing naturally effortless. The Substance lays bare this contradictory disciplining of women’s bodies to meet patriarchal standards of youthful attractiveness. When Elisabeth’s aging body is deemed unfeminine and unruly, she desperately seeks to regain control through dangerous bodily modifications.

In line with theorists such as Elizabeth Grosz, Fargeat’s film portrays the materiality of bodies as sociopolitical interfaces between inner subjectivities and external power structures. Elisabeth’s body becomes a site of struggle to navigate institutional norms that demand feminine docility and perfection. As she injects the untested “substance,” the line between feminist empowerment and literal body horror terrifyingly blurs.

With its unsettling visuals of corporeal transformation, The Substance provides an uncompromising critique of the misogynistic forces and beauty myths that compel women to violently discipline their own bodies, even to the point of inhuman deformation. Fargeat’s vision forces the audience to confront the unethical extremes of bodily self-objectification driven by patriarchal standards. Her Best Screenplay prize at Cannes signals The Substance as a leading feminist work in the renaissance of body horror cinema that politicizes female embodiment.

On the other hand, there was Noémie Merlant’s Les Balconettes (French: Les Femmes au balcon) in Cannes, a daring 2024 French comedy horror that subverts the male gaze through an incisive feminist satire on patriarchal society. Co-written by and starring Merlant, the film follows three young women cooped up during a Marseille heatwave, their voyeuristic fantasies about a neighbor escalating into a bloody upheaval.

Early on, Les Balconettes plays with classic cinematic tropes objectifying the female body for the pleasure of the implied male viewer. However, a pivotal gynecologist scene shatters this voyeurism – when Elise brazenly displays her body, more precisely her vagina, the shock dismantles the patriarchal framing device. Whether inspired by different feminist body theories or not, Merlant reclaims the female body as a sociopolitical interface, symbolically rejecting its construction as an object of male desire.

From this point, Merlant unleashes a brazen satire mocking misogynistic standards and disciplining of womanhood. Unruly, imperfect bodies of all shapes and ages reclaim the public spaces of Marseille from phallocentric control. The city becomes, as Iris Marion Young articulated, newly configured through women’s lived bodily experiences rather than abstract masculine norms.

Merlant’s audacious foregrounding of intrinsically “unfeminine” corporeality – whether nude or clothed – resists what Susan Bordo terms the “paradoxical disciplining” demanded of feminine embodiment. Les Balconettes rejects permanently maintaining feminine propriety while appearing naturally beautiful and effortless.

With anarchic glee, the film’s climax inverts bodily horror tropes, staging a literal rebirth of society reimagined through uninhibited female embodiment. Awarded the Queer Palm at Cannes, Les Balconettes cements Merlant as a bold voice exploding regressive gender myths imprisoning female bodies. Her radical corporeal vision posits an alternative feminist world anchored in bodily self-acceptance.

In Everybody Loves Touda, Moroccan filmmaker Nabil Ayouch continues his fearless exploration of societal taboos, this time casting a revelatory light on the marginalized lives of shikhas – traditional female singers once revered but now scorned. Through the journey of the magnetic Touda, Ayouch and co-writer Maryam Touzani peel back layers of patriarchal oppression to reveal the complex subjectivities and embodied power of these provocative artists.

The shikhas also represent what feminist theorists term the paradox of feminine embodiment. They transgress it through their public performances fusing spiritual artistry with overt sensuality. Their marginalization stems from refusing to maintain feminine propriety, expressing bodily desire through suggestive lyrics and movement.

Touda’s vitality posits the female body not as a passive territory but as an interface negotiating individual subjectivity amid cultural constraints. Touda’s body – her specific gestures, movements, and way of inhabiting space – rejects abstractly masculine definitions of proper femininity. Her unruly corporeality speaks an expressive language celebrating rather than suppressing carnal appetites.

Ayouch’s multilayered approach illustrates both the shikhas’ agency and vulnerability amidst oppressive patriarchal forces. Violence and objectification persistently threaten to subsume Touda’s selfhood into regressive narratives disciplining female bodies. Yet her tenacious quest to elevate her artistic expression ultimately posits an alternative feminist vision celebrating bodily self-acceptance over feminine self-abnegation.

Agathe Riedinger’s directorial debut, Wild Diamond, is a provocative coming-of-age drama that fearlessly probes the pressures on young women to commodify their bodies in the digital age. The film follows 19-year-old Liane, whose burning desire for fame and validation drives her to audition for the reality show “Miracle Island” by crafting an idealized online persona.

Through Liane’s journey, Riedinger incisively depicts how social media has become a disciplining force demanding feminine self-objectification. The once private realms of sexuality and embodied experiences are now packaged for public consumption and male-driven fantasies of the “perfect” woman. Liane’s strategically curated selfies and videos reflect feminist theorizations of the “paradox of feminine embodiment” – her projected image must seem naturally beautiful yet meticulously manufactured.

As the compulsively likable Liane bends herself into toxic molds of “empowered” hypersexuality, Wild Diamond lays bare the corporeal toll. The film anatomizes how trivial self-scrutinizing gestures ultimately imprint patriarchal authority onto young female bodies. Liane’s hunger for virtual adulation belies the alienation of unattainable beauty myths distorting her sense of selfhood.

Yet Riedinger avoids reductive judgments. Liane’s fierce agency shines through even as she externally acquiesces to objectifying male gazes. The film’s ambiguous finale – as Liane seems to gain self-awareness by embracing an “unfiltered” persona – posits a searing question: can the tools of oppression be refashioned for feminist liberation?

In laying bare the fraught sociopolitical battleground of young feminine embodiment, Wild Diamond establishes Riedinger as a bold new voice. Her fearless corporeal vision articulates the double-edged potential of digital media as both a disciplining panopticon and an emancipatory space to redefine beauty ideologies.

Paolo Sorrentino’s drama Parthenope is a fantastical exploration of feminine embodiment as both a transcendent ideal and a paradox of earthly constraint. The film follows the eponymous heroine, portrayed by the luminous Celeste Dalla Porta, as her ethereal beauty and melancholic yearning for a more poetic world captivate all who encounter her across decades in Naples.

From her first appearance emerging from the seaside, Parthenope radiates a mythic, goddess-like aura. Her unruly sensuality and mysterious depths position her as the living antithesis to restrictive patriarchal codes governing respectable femininity. Those entranced include her brother, his friend, the renowned author John Cheever, even a bishop – all undone by Parthenope’s liberating refusal to discipline her body and spirit into proper docility.

Yet for all her enchanting power, Parthenope remains a tragic figure. Dalla Porta imbues her with an ever-mournful gaze as if intuiting how society’s inexorable desire to objectify and possess beauty’s fleeting ideals will ultimately circumscribe her selfhood. Her transcendent embodiment proves impossible to sustain amid a world driven to analyze, categorize, and thereby contain her essence.

Sorrentino’s film posits Parthenope as an ambivalent feminist symbol of bodily freedom and subjugation. She seduces by harnessing the eroticism many theorists identify as simultaneously alluring and destabilizing to masculine control. Like the femme fatales, Parthenope exerts mastery through mystique, only to suffer inevitable male backlash seeking to delimit her subversive autonomy.

Yet within this melancholy arc, glimmers of Parthenope’s defiant authenticity shine through – fleeting moments where she fully inhabits herself outside patriarchal projections. Her body, choreographed in balletic splendor, manifests uniquely feminine modes of spatial embodiment articulated. Sorrentino suggests a utopian dream coded in Parthenope’s intrinsic poetry of movement and being.

Parthenope exemplifies how cinema can challenge corporeal ideologies even while acknowledging their inescapable disciplinary gravity. Sorrentino wields the medium’s capacity to texturally evoke the sensual mysteries and utopian visions inherent in female embodiment.

Hossein Eidizadeh
Edited by Ela Bittencourt