Here is the good news.
Faced with public pressure and growing outrage at the lack of female representation among the filmmakers it chooses to celebrate, this year’s Cannes Film Festival is trying to branch out beyond the cavalcade of many by the same male authors. Instead, there will be a record number of female directors competing.
Now the bad news. This record is a paltry five filmmakers, out of 21 films in total, which represents less than a quarter of all the films in the running for Cannes’ top prize, the Palme d’Or. The shortage of women in programming puts pressure on the handful of female directors who have been asked to premiere their films in the south of France.
“Because there are so few women in competition, we feel a lot of pressure, as if we had to be symbols”, admits Léonor Serraille, the director of “Mère et Fils”. “We ask ourselves a lot of questions. But the problem is that I don’t want to be described only as a director.
Moreover, this type of reductive analysis tends to overshadow the diversity of projects proposed by the five women in competition – a group that also includes Kelly Reichardt (“Showing Up”), Claire Denis (“The Stars at Noon”), Valeria Bruni Tedeschi (“The Almond Tree”) and Charlotte Vandermeersch, co-director of “Le Otto Montagne”. And the universal themes they explore. Denis’ latest film, a thriller set during the Nicaraguan Revolution, seems radically removed from Bruni Tedeschi’s look at a group of young actors at the dawn of their careers. And Reichardt’s latest neorealist drama also functions as a meditation on the art of creation. It follows a sculptor in Portland, Oregon as she tries to balance financial and family pressures, while making time to prepare for an exhibition.
“The interest was in everyday life doing work and work that might not even be seen,” Reichardt said. Variety for a recent cover story on Williams. “Maybe you have this desire or this need or maybe this compulsion to do things, but how do you work all the things in your life around that? It’s never a level playing field. Some people have great advantages in organizing their lives to make art, others have less advantage in doing it, and there are many people who make art, who are often in their own way.
Reichardt was primarily talking about the personal and socio-economic lift some people enjoy in life, but there are structural challenges that are hard to overcome. Studies have shown that even women who are able to get their films into major festivals struggle to get the financial backing they need for their next films and therefore take longer for follow-up feature films from producers. And when they get the chance to pitch their films to financiers or studio heads, the faces looking at them are disproportionately male.
In the case of Cannes, female filmmakers are more widely represented beyond the privileged few eligible for the Palme. Non-competitive parallel selections from Cannes Critics’ Week and Directors’ Fortnight or Un Certain Regard include Agnieszka Smoczyńska (“Silent Twins”), Charlotte Le Bon (“Falcon Lake”), Mia Hansen-Løve (“One Fine Morning”) and Alice Winocour (“Memories of Paris”). However, Cannes has long struggled to come close to gender parity in the films it screens and its track record pales in comparison to other major festivals such as Toronto and Sundance.
But Cannes does not seem to want to hear the critics. During the press conference with journalists on Monday, festival director Thierry Frémaux said it was incorrect to describe the presence of female directors as insufficient. Instead, he argued that since directing has always been male-dominated, it has been difficult to increase representation behind the camera. He noted that according to UNESCO, ten years ago only 7% of administrators worldwide were women. Although things are improving, he argued that it varies significantly from region to region. He said journalists should instead point out that the female directors represent two of the three French films in competition: “Les Amandiers” by Franco-Italian director Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi and “Stars at Noon” by Claire Denis.
“It’s because France is a country where there are a lot of female directors,” he said.
The gender of the person behind the camera can impact what happens onscreen. Le Bon, an actress born in Quebec, made her debut as a director with “Falcon Lake”. And she says she felt compelled to step behind the camera after becoming frustrated with the way female characters are portrayed in movies. “I just got fed up with the female roles I was seeing that seemed so cliched,” Le Bon said.
When she adapted “Falcon Lake” from the graphic novel by Bastien Vivès, she notably modified the character of Chloé, the tormented teenager. “I didn’t want her to be too flirtatious and girly, I wanted her to talk and walk a bit like a tomboy, but also more menacing, secretive.”
Some female directors had difficult experiences when their films premiered in competition, for example Valérie Donzelli and Eva Husson whose films sparked reviews that many felt were unfairly harsh. This could be due to the scrutiny female directors are subjected to at Cannes. Even Julia Ducournau, who won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year with ‘Titane’, appears to have suffered a backlash afterwards when the film was not nominated for Best Picture at the Césars. It was the first time in the history of the Césars that a French film winner of the Palme d’Or did not win the nomination for best film at the awards.
Hansen-Løve, who was in Cannes last year in competition with “Bergman Island” and who returns this time to the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs, has mixed feelings about how far the festival has come.
“Clearly the competition isn’t dazzling for its track record with female directors,” she says. “We would like to see more in 2022. Sometimes it seems from the outside that the competition is for male directors only, and Un Certain Regard is for women.”