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Review: ‘Cairo Time’ and the Women’s Picture

When Did the Women’s Picture Devolve into the Chick Flick?

Patricia Clarkson stars in

Credit: IFC

Above: Patricia Clarkson stars in "Cairo Time," something in between a chick flick and a women's picture.


This summer has seen quite a few films centered on female characters. This has prompted KPBS film critic Beth Accomando to consider how women’s films have changed over the years.


This summer has seen quite a few films centered on female characters, from 'Sex and the City 2" and "Eat Pray Love" to "I am Love" and "Cairo Time" (opening August 20 at Landmark's La Jolla Village Theaters). This prompted me to consider how women’s films have changed over the years. (You can listen to my radio feature.)

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Warner Brothers

Joan Crawford stars in "Mildred Pierce," a classic women's picture from the forties.

Back in the 30s and 40s we had what was known as women’s pictures. These movies centered on women who usually sacrificed all for love or family. Stars like Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, and Bette Davis were often trapped in marriage or out on their own as single parents. These were tough women who did whatever they had to do to survive.

Mildred Pierce: “I had no experience in the business world but I had to get a job. I walked my legs off. Getting a job wasn’t as easy as I thought. Days seemed like weeks and always I heard the same thing…

Man: "Sorry we need people with experience."

The term “women’s picture” might have been demeaning but directors like Douglas Sirk and Max Ophuls could turn these films into art and use the very conventions of the genre to undermine them. Thinking about these older femcentric films raise a question: When did the women’s picture devolve into the chick flick?

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Columbia Pictures

Javier Bardem plays Prince Charming to Julia Robert's Liz in "Eat Pray Love"

Chick flick is a relatively new term, originating in the late eighties, and initially used to describe the kind of busty exploitation films made by the likes of Russ Meyer or Roger Corman. But now the term has been hijacked by vapid female-driven vehicles like “Sex and the City 2” and “Eat Pray Love.”

Liz: “I need to change. Since I was 15 I have either been with a guy or been breaking up with a guy. I have not given myself two weeks of a breather to just be with myself.

These women feign feminist ideals but are really more of old school stereotypes chasing romantic clichés and in need of a man to complete them no matter how much they insist on their independence.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Warner Brothers

Diane Ladd and Ellen Burstyn are waitresses in "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore"

For a brief moment back in the 70s, we found something in between the melodrama of the women’s picture and the insipidness of today’s chick flick. Women were genuinely in transition. They were complex women living in the real world and struggling to move from old stereotypes to new yet unrealized potential. In “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” Ellen Burstyn plays a woman whose husband dies and she must redefine herself.

David: “Do you want to go home or do you want to sing?”

Alice: “I want to do both can’t I have everything?”

David: “You think they’re the same?”

Alice: “You mean they’re not?”

Photo caption:

Photo credit: 20th Century Fox

Jill Clayburgh turns down her Prince Charming (Alan Bates) in "An Unmarried Woman"

Then in “An Unmarried Woman,” Jill Clayburgh finds herself suddenly single after her husband has an affair and leaves her. She meets a sexy artist but rejects his offer of a life together to pursue her own goals.

Saul: “Independent.”

Erica: “Trying to be.”

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Criterion

Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands played a married couple in "A Woman Under the Influence"

Seventies’ women like this had to deal with kids, financial hardship, returning to the work force – real world problems that made their struggles compelling. They were discovering new freedoms but without forgetting responsibilities to others. But with films like “Sex and the City 2” and “Eat Pray Love” we get shallow women. They never have to worry about money and their kids are convenient props. They also have Prince Charmings waiting in the wings to complete.

One new film that finds a space between the old women’s picture and the new chick flick is “Cairo Time.” It's a throwback to the understated simplicity of the British romance "A Brief Encounter." "Cairo Time" is a delicate tale in which the two main characters are reluctant to admit any attraction and their romance is ever so subtlety played out.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: IFC

Patricia Clarkson and Alexander Siddig star in "Cairo Time"

It’s a women’s film in terms of its focus on Patricia Clarkson’s character, on her emotions, and on her vague sense of dissatisfaction. Initially her entrapment is the hotel room in which she waits for her husband but that’s just a symbol of how she’s trapped in the role of a wife. It's not so much a loveless marriage but perhaps one without passion. The film. like the recent "I am Love," recalls the work of Douglas Sirk in its compassion for a woman trying to break free of society’s expectations of who she should be. “Cairo Time,” however, is more about the things that don’t happen. It’s a bittersweet story about a connection that’s almost made.

So if you want a mature film about a woman, check out “Cairo Time” and don’t waste your time – or your money – on those silly chick flicks.


On the August Edition of the KPBS Film Club of the Air host Maureen Cavanaugh and film critics Beth Accomando, Anders Wright, and Scott Marks discuss the women's films "Eat Pray Love" and "Cairo Time."


You can also listen to our KPBS Film Club of the Air discussion of "Cairo Time" and "Eat Pray Love."

Recommended reading: Molly Haskell's "From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in Movies" and Mick LaSalle's "Complicated Women"

Recommended viewing: "Mildred Pierce," "Stella Dallas," "There's Always Tomorrow," "A Brief Encounter," "A Woman Under the Influence," "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," "An Unmarried Woman," "Thelma and Louise," "I am Love"

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