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20 Great Films about The Complexity of Women

10 August 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Joao Miguel

The Double Life of Véronique

In the last few years we have seen the number of complains about the lack of good female roles increase. Audiences are not satisfied with the archetypes, that once were considered the norm, for portraying women in cinema and are looking for movies in which the woman isn’t exclusively an accessory.

Recently there has been a big change in that sense. Female lead movies are creating more buzz and topping the box office. Take a look at The Hunger Games, one of the most successful franchises of all times, Gone Girl, an unexpected hit that would cause a very different reaction if it was released ten years ago, and this year’s Mad Max that focused more on the fierce female lead than on the titular character.

Nevertheless, complex female characters have always existed, you just needed to look closer. This list features some examples of the best portrayals of women in film.


1. A Woman Under The Influence (John Cassavetes, 1974)

A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

John Cassavete’s films often portray very complex characters, both male and female, but none of his many masterpieces come close to the shear brilliance of the character construction in A Woman Under The Influence. In this powerful feature, Marble, played by Gena Rowlands, and Nick, played by Peter Falk, are a married couple with three children. The love they share for each other is challenged by the wife’s unusual behaviour and the husband’s lack of awareness to deal with her madness. What could be read as a recipe for disaster is handled gracefully in the director’s poetic hands.

Although the movie works in endless ways, it’s the female lead character that drives the film through. Much of Marble’s character complexity comes from the fearless performance by Gena Rowlands, combining a overwhelming sense of desperation and rage with a quiet search for inner peace. Marble could be a very unrealistic woman on paper, but in Rowland’s hands she becomes a real person that goes into the most dangerous traits to be fulfilled with love.

The film gives no easy answers on why this complicated individual ended up this way, but, by the end of this roller coaster of emotions, the viewer is left with the impression that her peculiar behaviour might be a consequence of the hostile world that surrounds her and starts questioning if Marble is the crazy one or if she’s just surrounded by mad people.


2. Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1967)


Persona is one of Ingmar Bergman’s most celebrated films. Despite his numerous successes exploring the human condition and the inside of each one of us, Persona comes off as his strongest attempt to understand the mysteries of the mind.

Liv Ullmann portrays Elisabet, a renown actress that inexplicably becomes mute and after a stay at a hospital she is recommended to spend the summer at an isolated seaside cottage with a nurse named Alma, portrayed by Bibi Andersson. As the nurse shares stories of her life with the actress, including the infamous beach monologue, both women start forming a very weird relationship as their personalities merge. Alma, seemingly the stronger women, is revealed as the weak one in the process of Elisabet consuming her strength.

The movie ignores every archetypes usual in female driven films, yet it’s a story that wouldn’t have the same impact if it was told with characters of the opposite sex, because it would lack the sensibility required. The ambiguity of the tale increases the complexity of its leading characters and leaves the viewer think if the experience they just had was the life of two women, one woman or themselves.


3. 3 Women (Robert Altman, 1977)


One woman became two, two women became three and three women became one. Referred by some as the American Persona, 3 Woman is Robert Altman’s most inspired feature. On a dusty California mirage-like city, an innocent young woman named Pinky (Sissy Spacek) is drawn by Millie (Shelley Duvall), a fellow nurse at a spa, but their relationship goes from a naive case of admiration to something unanticipated, when Pinky , after an accident, takes Millie’s personality. Both women are drawn by the pregnant wife of a bar owner, who becomes the third member of the equation.

The mystery of women and the reason why they reveals certain behaviours is explored extensively by Altman in 3 Women. The film has a very peculiar tone, being quite hard to distinguish fantasy from reality, and is incredibly symbolic, for instance with the presence of water. Sissy Spacek, like in Carrie and Badlands, is great at portraying the loss of innocence, but it’s Shelley Duvall, the director’s muse, who is the standout performer, even receiving the Cannes award for Best Actress in 1977.


4. The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke, 2001)


This list could very well be called “Isabelle Huppert’s top 20 performances”, because she is known for constantly choosing very complex and complicated roles to interpret. Sometimes, one can even identify very “Huppertian” female characters, as they fit the kind of work Isabelle tends to choose – unsympathetic damaged women in bad situations.

The genius Austrian director Michael Heneke does his take on character study with The Piano Teacher. Huppert plays a sexually repressed piano professor that reveals her sadomasochistic tendencies to a young student she falls in love with. In the process, the viewer is invited to take a look at the professor’s singular episodes, like a self mutilation session or a voyeuristic incident with an incredibly humiliating outcome. By the end, the student obeys to the teacher request, which ends with an unexpected fallout.

From the many movies exploring the female sexual obsessions, The Piano Teacher comes out as the most complex portrayal. In the process of the lead character´s complete loss of dignity, we are welcomed to a very uncomfortable experience, like in many of the director’s films.


5. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972)

Die bitteren Tranen der Petra von Kant

The New German Cinema was a movement filled with great cases of very well written female characters, Rainer Werner Fassbinder being the best example of it. In his extensive but short-lived career, Fassbinder builds a very strong repertory on the expense of his various female lead films.

In an all female cast, the feature’s action is set solely on the room of Petra von Kant, a very successful self-centred fashion designer, that struggles with a sadomasochistic relationship with her maid. Petra falls in love with a young woman named Karin and invites her to live with her, in exchange of a promising future in fashion. As the relationship with her muse deteriorates, and subsequently ends, Petra is left alone facing an unrequited love and the misfortunes of her life.

The screenplay was written by the director, on a twelve hours flight, primarily imagined as a play, which resulted in a more intimate portray of the lead character. In the course of five scenes, Petra is seen in opulent dresses and different wigs, perhaps trying to pretend she is someone else and escaping from her sad reality. The Bitter Tears Of Petra von Kant is a must-watch for the sublime direction, astonishing performances and the lasting impact.


6. All About My Mother (Pedro Almodóvar, 1999)

All About My Mother

Almodóvar, Spain’s most internationally recognised director, is notorious for his continual representation of fierce women on the big screen. There are plenty of examples showcasing his affection like Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Talk To Her or Volver. However there’s one story that shines brighter than the others: All About My Mother.

Manuela, a single mother, loses her son on a car accident, while he was chasing an actress, he greatly admired for an autograph. Following the traumatic episode, the mother decides to travel from Madrid to Barcelona in the search for the father’s son, a transexual woman named Lola. On the quest for self discovery, Manuela encounters several women who shape her trait, such as HIV positive pregnant nun, an old transexual friend and the actress her son died for. By the end of the journey, Manuela isn’t the same person she once was and isn’t alone anymore.

In 1999 the trans community wasn’t recognised in mainstream cinema, let alone featuring in complex roles like the ones seen here, and just like that Almodovar pioneered the social awareness for the serious representation of transexual women, that has been growing more and more this last few years. The viewer empathises with every single entity because they are all extremely interesting, well written and have a special message to share with the world.



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  • Ozz Wald

    Women are not complex, just complicated. Which is not a good thing at all

    • Bellick

      Yep. Half the population has no complexity because Ozz here just struggles with the, “Women! I dunno get ’em, derrrrr!” mindset. I’m sure that lands him all the dates.

      • Chankya

        Bellick, Not supporting Ozz, but you mock the author of this list about films you think should have been included without even bothering to read the list. You don’t even bother to accept your fault. Seems like you have an agenda. Can’t call that complexity. By the way, you have not included movies from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Russia, Italy, Morocco, Cuba, Argentina, Mexico, Peru and Nigeria.

    • João Miguel

      I had Repulsion on my final list but I decided to switch to another movie because I felt it was too similar to other films on the list (plus it features Deneuve which I had written about in Belle Du Jour). Rosemary’s Baby is far from a character driven film and she’s not that complex, more like scared and suspicious about the whole situation, and Cul-de-Sac is a great film but do you really consider any of the characters of that film complex? About the last 2 sentences on your comment I’ll just ignore it.

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    Where is “Wanda”?

  • Pedro Bento

    “Frances Ha” should be here.

  • Bellick

    All of which are directed by men? lol I mean, these are good films (really good films!), but we couldn’t slip in any female directors? In an article about the depiction of women in cinema? No The Piano by Jane Campion? Pariah by Dee Rees? Daisies by Vera Chytilova? Middle of Nowhere by Ava Duvernay? Wadja by Hafaa al-Mansour? Winter’s Bone by Debra Granik? Wendy and Lucy or Meek’s Cutoff by Kelly Reichardt? Belle by Amma Asante? Year of the Carnivore by Sook-Yin Lee? Fat Girl by Catherine Breillat? Outrage by Ida Lupino? Any room for a Miranda July film in there? The Watermelon Woman by Cheryl Dunye? Or Gina Prince-Bythewood? Boy’s Don’t Cry by Kimberly Pierce? Eve’s Bayou by Kasi Lemmons? Civil Brand by Neema Barnette? Daughters of Dust by Julie Dash? How about Zero Dark Thirty by Kathryn Bigelow? The Dead Girl by Karen Moncrieff? Their Eyes Were Watching God by Darnell Martin? Long Life Happiness and Prosperity by Mina Shum? Meshes in the Afternoon by Maya Deren? Any room for Euzhan Palcy? Marjane Satrapi? I adore Marjane Satrapi! What I’m saying is, it’d be great to see how women portray themselves in cinema. And, there are a lot of cool flicks to choose from. Plus, these are all about white women. Even if you’re doing male directors, you could do The Color Purple, Beasts of the Southern Wild, In the Mood for Love, Ab-Normal Beauty, Secret Sunshine… I mean, I thought this was a site for people who LOVE movies. Branch out a little, maybe?

    • Rudi

      This list is about strong female leads. If I’m correct there was a list of female directors not too long ago.

      Which is an interesting topic as well, but something completely different. The average viewer watches a movie for its leads or topic and don’t care or even know about the director. ‘Women sell tickets as well’ is the underlying thought here.

    • João Miguel

      I don’t know if you read the full list but there are 3 movies on the list directed by women (The Piano, Meshes and Clèo de 5 a 7), I had 5 other movies directed by women on my short list (including some you mentioned) but the characters weren’t as strong as the ones featured here, in my opinion. Thank you for your input anyway, there are some films you mentioned that I haven’t seen.

    • HLLH

      Do your own list and stfu.

    • Melih Sancak


  • Gloria? Gena Rowlands gripped my very young self when I first saw that film. A woman kicking a$$ for the sake of a little boy, oh and she was also a hit-woman. Changed my mind about so much.

  • Tuhin Bhattacharjee

    What about the stunning films by Indian director Rituparno Ghosh? Very few directors have been able to portray the depth and complexity of the female psyche as this master has.

  • Neel Dutta

    How could you overlook Blue Jasmine, Notes on a Scandal, Nicole’s Birth, Dogville, Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, Hours, Kate’s The Reader, Iris, Erin Brokovich, Julianne Moore’s Savage Grace, Still Alice, Far from Heaven, Theron’s Monster and so many others!!!

    • João Miguel

      Because there are only 20 spots!!!

  • Joe Trudnak

    Mulholland Drive AGAIN? It only seemed as if the relationships were complex because the film itself is a mess. What about Monster????

    • Sverre Hurum

      Don’t blame others for not understanding this movie yourself. It’ not a mess at all, it’s a fckn masterpiece.

    • Iván Solorio (SanS)

      Monster wasn’t complex at all, you actually understand Wuornos psychosis comes from. On the other hand Mulholland Drive is complex because it’s a character study, it might be “mess” to you because it delves deep into the psyche of the character but that’s what makes Mulholland Drive part of this list.

  • Cygnifier

    Interesting list. I’d also recommend the Korean movie Poetry (2010).

  • dm

    The headless woman by Lucrecia Martel – You, me and everyone we know by Miranda July – Monster by Patty Jenkins – 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days by Christian Mungiu – Elena by Andrey Zvyagintsev…

  • Marar Patrunjelovici

    I’m surprised Le fabuleux destin d’Amelie Poulain is not in the list

  • elle_crells

    I also think that many of Rohmer’s films have interesting women that aren’t tied to a single female identity.

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  • Nishant

    Jules et Jim, anyone?