The female gaze is not some academic construct. It’s a real thing that shifts our ability to empathize and look at the world with a different perspective, something the new movie “Rosalie” demonstrates ably at the Cannes Film Festival this week.
Screening in the Un Certain Regard section the film, starring French-Polish-Finnish actress Nadia Tereszkiewicz and directed by French filmmaker Stephanie Di Giusto, tells a story set in the late 19th century of a woman – Rosalie – with a strange condition: She grows a beard. A real beard.
And she’s hairy on her body, like a man. What to do when Rosalie comes of age to marry, and desire all the things that women often do – love, sexual connection, motherhood?
“Rosalie” has many of the same rebellious and fierce emotions that lay within last year‘s feminist Cannes hit “Corsage,” starring Vicky Krieps as the late 19th century Empress Sissi. Though Rosalie is a nobody in a small French village, her story resonates similarly – a woman claiming her agency, demanding her right to be seen and exist in a world made rigid by received ideas.
But the world pushes back. The tendency to project shame, to “other” Rosalie conflicts with her own desire to embrace her sexuality and make others see her very evident physical beauty, despite a full, bushy blonde beard. (Trust me.) Or else she could just give in to the very real impulse to run away and join the circus.
Di Giusto trains her camera intensively on Tereszkiewicz ‘s smooth cheeks, her face, her expressive blue eyes drawing your attention even as you can’t help but notice a very bushy beard lining her jaw. The beautiful cinematography in the wild countryside contrasts with the tightly-laced, literally buttoned-up wardrobe of Rosalie, which strains to contain her.
And though her husband can’t get over it, Rosalie is not ashamed of her facial hair. She embraces her “flaw” as a way to earn a living in a small town with precious few career options for men or women. As the hostess of the local café, she grows her beard out so everyone will come in and marvel at its oddity and buy a beer. But the undercurrents of human shame and guilt, the need to point fingers at the one who doesn’t look like the others, rears its head constantly.
Tereszkiewicz dominates the screen with the bravest imaginable performance – she and the cast got a standing ovation at the premiere screening on Thurday night. There is nothing of the freak show about her difference, which takes me back to what the female gaze brings to this tale.
A rebellious spirit amid a conformist society? It feels like something that can only end in tragedy. But amid all of that, a love story arises between Rosalie and her conservative husband Abel. The redemption of that love transcends the tragedy and leaves hope at the end of this story.