Art Cinema and Second Wave Feminism: Addressing Representations of Gender and Sexuality in a New Way

Amidst the Cold War, tensions were building worldwide regarding not only politics, but social issues as well. Along with the development of birth control, the 1960s ushered in an age of second-wave feminism concerned with sexuality, reproductive rights, and women’s roles in the family and workplace. This movement was translated into the film industry. A new type of woman, one more comfortable with her sexuality, was becoming more prevalent on-screen. However, this proved to be a double-edged sword. While women were receiving more diverse representations, these representations were still oppressive due to their roots in a patriarchal society. Cinema objectified and sexualized women, reducing them to no more than a spectacle within the narrative.[1] Shifting away from this toxic, traditional structure, art cinema popped up around the globe, challenging the classical narrative and stylistic structure of Hollywood films that led to the unfair and negative representations of gender and sexuality. This new, modern style of cinema drew attention to its own construction, and many filmmakers took advantage of this unconventional format to address social issues by debunking the norms. Věra Chytilová’s Daisies (1966) and Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) utilize unconventional art cinema practices in order to address major changes regarding gender and sexuality, proving that this was a global response to shifting social ideology.

Following World War II, internationally there was a shift in film from formalism to realism. This was largely due to the disconnect from humanity that was attributed to mediums, such as film, which championed formalist structure. This unreality of the image is argued to have led to the mindset that allowed for the atrocity of World War II to unfold. As a reaction to this, and in an effort to strive toward reconnecting with humanity and reality, film shifted towards realism, making use of deep focus and the long take to preserve space and time. Narrative structures were altered as well; plots emphasized emotion rather than action, focused on poverty and the working class, utilized ellipsis, and did not resolve in happy endings. Italian Neorealism exemplified these traits, and its influence spread to other countries such as France which developed the French New Wave. New Wave cinema emerged around the globe, and each country had a different take. The stylistic and narrative shift to realism, cinema that was so different from Hollywood, allowed directors to question the role and construction of film itself. This led to the rise of art cinema. Art Cinema as a “distinct mode” appeared after World War II when Hollywood’s influence was “beginning to wane.”[2] Due to young directors’ “awareness of their medium” and a “retreat from objective realism” film form and style became self-referential.[3] Art cinema did not attempt to reproduce a reality outside of its filmic world. According to Bordwell and Thompson, “Like modern painting and literature, film became reflexive, pointing to its own materials, structure, and history.”[4] Filmmakers were interested in exposing the medium’s veneer and exploring the effect and dialogue this could create with its audience.

Due to the rise of the unconventional format of art film, certain problematic elements of mainstream Hollywood film were exposed, critiqued, and challenged: in this case specifically, representations of gender and sexuality relating to feminist ideals. Women, such as film theorist Laura Mulvey, began pointing out the concerning representation of women in Hollywood films and exploring the social and ideological structures that allowed it to be constructed in such a way. This feminist film theory arose with second-wave feminism. In her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Mulvey argues that the structure of Hollywood films reinforce gender norms through “formal mise-en-scène reflecting the dominant ideological concept of the cinema.”[5] According to Mulvey, the way to deconstruct this problematic representation is through art film by subverting the norms and pointing out the harmful images formed by the patriarchal society:

The alternative cinema provides a space for a cinema to be born which is radical in both a political and aesthetic sense and challenges the basic assumptions of the mainstream film. This is not to reject the latter moralistically, but to highlight the ways in which its formal preoccupations reflect the psychical obsessions of the society which produced it, and, further, to stress that the alternative cinema must start specifically by reacting against these obsessions and assumptions.[6]

The films explored in this paper align with Mulvey’s ideas and argument by using an unconventional film format to combat conventional patriarchy in a unique, novel way that was influenced by second-wave feminism.

In Czechoslovakia, the communist country saw a shift toward “market socialism and a mood of reform” from 1962 to 1966.[7] Czech New Wave cinema was eager to surpass Socialist Realist formulas. This promoted a shift toward “art-cinema realism” that “pushed toward an even purer fantasy.”[8] The art cinema format was utilized for authorial commentary, and specifically, for Daisies, a feminist commentary against patriarchal society. It is this format that Chytilová’s film uses as a tool to present a social commentary via stylistic techniques. The formal experimentation allows for a construction of a fantasy world. The two characters, Marie I and Marie II, exist in an environment that is unstable both spatially and temporally. The girls travel from one setting into another through cutting on action and eyeline matches; in the beginning of the film the girls travel from a boardwalk, to a field, an apartment bedroom, and the ocean. Chytilová also utilizes “disjunctive montage, jump cuts, . . . abrupt changes in color tone to fracture long takes, and a knowing use of sound bridges.”[9] These effects create a narrative structure that is unreliable and disjointed. Due to this unconventional art cinema structure, narrative and stylistic norms used to construct mainstream films are subverted and therefore open up a platform for Chytilová to discuss her feminist social commentary without the toxic constructions put in place by Hollywood, such as the male gaze and tutor code. The absence of these norms allows for Chytilová to prove their invalidity and non-necessity, and this further strengthens her commentary. According to Frank, “By radically opening up the meaning of the film to the spectator’s subjectivity through its innovative techniques, Daisies makes room formally for alternate, feminist interpretations.”[10] The unconventional art film narrative and structural elements allow the audience to have diverse interpretations and view the social commentary in different manners.

Due to the ambiguous narrative created by the experimental structure, Daisies is able to have two female characters who do not conform to traditional gender roles. Chytilová plays with the expectations of women as constructed by a patriarchal society. At the beginning of the film, the sisters sunbathe in bikinis, sitting like dolls. Their doll-like appearance caters to the standard of femininity to which women are expected to adhere, and also comments on how, in film, women are fetishized and objectified. According to Lim, the doll allegory represents the “concrete instantiation of an overtly patriarchal ideal of femininity.”[11] However, Chytilova subverts and destroys these norms through the girl’s inability to conform to the stereotype. While the girls are sitting in bikinis, the image is juxtaposed with random, unsettling actions and non-diegetic sounds to offset the idealized image. The sisters make machine-like noises when moving their limbs and “spoil their beauty with ugly gestures or sounds, as one puts her finger up her nose and the other blows an off-key note on a trumpet.”[12] These unconventional actions are continued in the film when the girls indulge obsessively at dinner with men who take them out. It is clear that the men are interested in Marie I and Marie II for purely sexual matters. The sisters take advantage of this and act out in glutinous and eccentric manners to get what they want and leave the men with nothing in the end. The girls stuff their faces and consume immense amounts of food in a barbaric fashion, completely out of line with conventional, ladylike behavior. This dichotomy of the female characters is pointed out by Lim who states, “the achievement of Daisies as feminist allegory lies in its seeming ability to confirm misogynist views while inciting deep acrimony toward the patriarchal order.”[13] This gender inequality was seen as a direct response to the film. Daisies was banned by Czech authorities, stating Chytilová “‘lacked a positive attitude to socialism’ and had failed to ‘underst[and] the contemporary cultural policy of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia.’”[14] Chytilová attributed the problem to misogyny: “The real problem . . . lay elsewhere. I was a female film director.”[15]

In Sweden, Ingmar Bergman utilized art-cinema to aid feminist themes but with different, more queer-oriented ends to the avant-garde means. Sweden’s roots of art cinema date back to the 1940s when the first contributions were made during World War II.[16] Bergman was championed for his art cinema: “Even people who did not take cinema seriously as an art form saw him as an exemplar of the film director as artist.”[17] His avant-garde practices both stylistically and narratively subverted the Hollywood norms of problematic representations of gender and sexuality in film and allowed for a queer relationship to develop on-screen covertly. Similar to Daisies, the film’s inability to distinguish between reality and artifice is vital in creating a platform that allows for this social commentary. Bergman explicitly calls attention to the structure of his film. The film begins and ends with shots of a film projector, reminding the audience they are watching something that is completely manufactured and does not exist independently of its projection: “Persona’s world exists only for the duration of the film’s projection; it is a phantom zone, a place in which images count more than words, in which gestures are the sole meaning of existence.”[18] Many times throughout the film we see the image warp or burn before our eyes. Bergman utilizes the freeze frame when he combines the faces of Alma and Elisabet into one image. This disrupts the viewer’s fantasy world, proving that the audience is “witnessing a filmic construct that Bergman can manipulate at will in both form and content.”[19] The social stigmas that the film subverts are just as constructed as the film itself, and uncovering the artificiality of cinema lends itself to a strong commentary on the constructed norms relating to gender and sexuality. According to Dixon, Persona is “a plastic, kinetic, wholly cinematic film, responsive to then-current trends in international cinema, effortlessly absorbing mise-en-scène of Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, Agnes Varda, and other post-New Wave filmmakers.”[20] Persona also lends itself to the genre of art cinema due to the focus on its psychologically complex characters.

The avant-garde construction of the film allowed for the creation of a complex, multi-layered relationship between the two main characters that went against conventional representations of sexuality. Elisabet is a famous actress who has decided not to speak, and Alma is the nurse assigned to care for her away from society, secluded at a beach house. The relationship that forms between the two characters shifts between friends, lovers, and enemies. The film challenges heterosexuality through the relationship between Alma and Elisabet. According to Foster, “Persona is strewn with such elements that mark it as a queer feminist moment in the 1960s. It is certainly not a film of straightforward representation of ‘positive’ images of lesbian identity; however, it is remarkably an exemplification of then new narrative codes and forms of performative enunciation.”[21] The relationship that develops between the characters is represented largely in the way that Elisabet and Alma’s identities become intermingled. In a pivotal moment in the film, Alma and Elisabet break the fourth wall while Elisabet brushes Alma’s hair off of her face. Bergman directly addresses the viewer and forces him or her to consider the relationship between the two women. Although it is not explicitly stated through dialogue, the homosexual relationship is noted through the characters’ actions as well as the stylistic conventions Bergman uses. There is a lack of male presence on-screen in the domestic retreat of the beach house; therefore, the male gaze is also absent. Because of this, Bergman deconstructs the norms by having the female characters give and receive the male gaze in order to develop their curious, queer relationship. The film focuses on the women’s consciousness “inhabiting a ‘man’s world.’”[22]

Although Daisies and Persona are very different films with different ends each is trying to achieve, the films address major social changes of the time regarding gender and sexuality. Both were influenced by the social movement of second-wave feminism and made use of art cinema techniques, stylistically and narratively, as a weapon against conventional patriarchy and to push their feminist agendas. The manner in which these films combined art cinema practices and feminist ideology to subvert Hollywood norms was groundbreaking and influential for films to come. David Lynch’s 2001 Mulholland Dr. is an example of a postmodern film whose roots can be traced back to the art films such as Daisies and Persona of the 1960s. Mulholland Dr. also revolves around two female characters, addresses queer sexuality, and utilizes an unconventional, non-chronological and even non-meaningful plot, all of which can relate back to the experimental films of the 1960s that incorporated feminist themes. This proves that the influence of art cinema and feminist ideology was not only a movement without geographic borders, it was also one without temporal boundaries.


[1]Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in Film Theory & Criticism, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 716.

[2]David Bordwell, Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice, 716.

[3]Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell, Film History: An Introduction, 3rd ed. (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2010), 406.


[5]Mulvey, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, 712.

[6]Ibid., 712, 713.

[7]Bordwell and Thompson, Film History: An Introduction, 425.

[8]Ibid., 426.

[9]Lim, Bliss Cua. “Dolls in fragments: daisies as feminist allegory.” Camera Obscura (2001): 37+. General OneFile (accessed November 27, 2016).

[10]Frank, Alison. “Formal innovation and feminist freedom: Vera Chytilova’s Daisies.” CineAction, no. 81 (2010): 46+. General OneFile (accessed November 27, 2016).

[11]Lim, Dolls in fragments: daisies as feminist allegory.

[12]Frank, Formal innovation and feminist freedom: Vera Chytilova’s Daisies.

[13]Lim, Dolls in fragments: daisies as feminist allegory.



[16]Bordwell and Thompson, Film History: An Introduction, 351.

[17]Ibid., 386.

[18]Wheeler Winston Dixon, “Persona and the 1960s Art Cinema,” in Ingmar Bergmans Persona, ed. Lloyd Michaels (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 45.

[19]Ibid., 47.

[20]Ibid., 44.

[21]Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, “Feminist Theory and the Performance of Lesbian Desire In Persona,” in Ingmar Bergmans Persona, ed. Lloyd Michaels (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 45.

[22]Creswell, Mark, and Zulfia Karimova. “Bergman’s Women: The Representation of Patriarchy and Class in Persona (1967) and Cries and Whispers (1972).” Bright Lights, October 31, 2011. Accessed November 27, 2016.