Okay. Perhaps I spoke too soon, or just too glibly. I certainly don't want to make it seem like I think Bergman and Antonioni do the same thing. Quite the opposite. Both of them had a unique approach to writing for women, to photographing women and to showing women and letting them show themselves. As you mentioned, Fassbinder, Renoir and Cassavetes did this too, and in various, unique ways. I don't mean to compare anyone's styles in their totalities. I'm just interested, for the moment, in their attitudes about women. Rohmer and his French brethren I mentioned in the last post seem utterly baffled by women. They look at them as if their mystery was related to their presumed opacity, to the fact that as man, one can never know what a woman is thinking. I'm not denouncing them or their styles, I'm saying that Bergman and Antonioni do not think this is why women are mysterious. Or if they do, they give their actors the opportunity to show us the real mystery beneath the surface. The difference is that the French women hold us at bay while Vitti and Bergman's women invite us in. Bergman especially. Tulin and Ulmann don't just invite, they force themselves on us; they drag us through their thoughts and feelings in a way that is comparable, perhaps only to Cassavetes and Rowlands.
I would encourage you to think of this as an investigation of acting rather than femininity. I am not trying to convince anyone that Antonioni and Bergman show us what a woman is. Rather, I liken it to your comment about Denis doing things only a woman would do as a director. I would say the same about Vitti, Tulin, Ulmann, et. al. As actors they repeatedly make decisions to show us things that only a woman would show. Should I say could show? You be the judge.
So let me revise. There are plenty of directors making movies about women. There are those we have both mentioned as well as Akerman and acting centered directors who put together ensemble casts like Mike Leigh and Denis Arcand. Bergman and Antonioni knew how to focus on women without appearing didactic. They knew how to let their actors become the film without letting the film get away from them. Again, I'm not disparaging anyone's style here, but when Akerman makes a movie about women, she might as well tell you in bold caps: THIS IS A FILM ABOUT WOMEN. Leigh and Arcand don't make movies about women; they make movies about people, and women just happen to be half the people. All three directors are great. All three have interesting and subtle and perceptive things to say about women and men. But the way Bergman and Antonioni (and it is important to note that he only does this in the Vitt films) do it - the imperceptible way that they let their female leads take over films that are at once clearly imprinted with their own styles - is not something any living filmmaker knows how to do, as far as I can tell.
*Who cares about the male gaze, and feminist this and that? We have to be able to talk about these things without fear of evoking stupidities. I wrote the essay, to which you referred, about Tarkovsky and women precisely to show that the concerns of feminism are very important, but that academic feminism is grossly ill-equipped to address them. If you want to really think about something in all its complexity, go to art and stay as as possible from theory. Art reveals; theory obfuscates.
I have decided the Denis clip reminds me of two things, one for the purposes of differentiating and the other for the purposes of elucidating.
First the negative one. It reminds me of Charlotte Rampling at the end of Stardust Memories. Woody introduces the scene as a memory, and he describes her quite aptly as looking especially pretty on that day. She is very pretty, and she is of course trying to be so. He glamor shot approach to the scene makes it clear that this kind of thing can't work with someone too hot. It is difficult to imagine an Uma Thurman or Scarlett Johansen pulling off such a scene, because I doubt they would be able to forget how attractive they are long enough to accomplish it. Which, tangentially, brings to mind how Bergman was able to get such revelation from Bibi Anderson. Even by today's rather narrow standard she was a stunning woman in Bergman's films, far more gorgeous in the traditional and shallow sense we expect from movie stars today than Tulin or Ulmann. Yet Bergman finds a way to make her a great actor. I don't have much to add to this, it just hatched in my little head, but imagine yourself as a director; would you want to work with actors who were ostentatiously beautiful or with more average looking people? Who would you trust more to give you genuine behavior rather than posturing and preening? Simply amazing what Bergman did with Anderson.
The second shot the Denis clip brings to my mind is from the end of Zerkalo. After the father asks the mother (Margarita Terekhova) if she wants a boy or a girl, she goes through a quite similar series of uncertain gestures and fleeting emotions and ideas. My memory of this leaves me more receptive to the interpretation of the Denis clip, 13 Kangs is pushing for.