This past Sunday marked the closing of 70th Cannes Film Festival, where 19 films were screened in competition, competing for the Palme D’Or. And while only three films in the festival were directed by women, this year’s Cannes, as many before them, was a big weekend for women calling out a staggering lack of representation in the industry.
At a press conference for Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, Nicole Kidman reminded the audience that female directors are underrepresented, saying, “We as women have to support female directors, that’s a given now. Everyone is saying it’s so different now—but it isn’t.”
And after Coppola became the second director (ever!) to win Best Director in 56 years, actress and Cannes jury member Jessica Chastain described being “disturbed” by the way women and female characters were portrayed in the 19 films screened at the festival.
I do believe that if you have female storytelling you also have more authentic female characters. This is the first time I’ve watched 20 films in 10 days, and I love movies, and the one thing I really took away from this experience is how the world views women from the female characters that I saw represented. It was quite disturbing to me, to be honest. There are some exceptions, I will say. But, for the most part, I was surprised by the representation of female characters on screen in these films.
I do hope that when we include more female storytellers, we will have more of the women that I recognize in my day-to-day life: ones that are proactive, have their own agency, don’t just react to the men around them. They have their own point-of-view.
What might Chastain have seen that she found “disturbing”? Just a cursory look at the female characters she saw are certainly curious: The young wife and muse of an increasingly radicalized film icon Jean-Luc Godard (Redoubtable); the ill-fated assistant/mistress/contemporary of sculpture icon Rodin, Camille Claudel (Rodin); a scorned wife who violently attacks a random woman after mistaking her for her husband’s mistress (The Day After); another wife who is much younger than her husband (The Meyerowitz Stories); and a literal vagina (apparently psycho-erotic thriller L’amant Double opens with a very up-close, very explicit shot of a woman’s vulva and clitoris). Also, nearly all of these female characters were white.
To be fair, and without having seen the movies ourselves, it’s not like every female character in a male-directed movie will be one-dimensional or that every woman in a female-directed movie will be “perfect.”
All told, women are severely underrepresented in the film industry—last year, only 4% of the top 100 grossing films were directed by a woman. Hollywood is actually under investigation for hiring practices that discriminate against female directors.
And this bias extends to Cannes. Jane Campion is the only woman to win the Palme d’Or (the highest prize)—in 1993 for The Piano— and she technically shared the award with a man, Chen Kaige. Of the 19 films screened in competition this year, only the three movies (Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, and Naomi Kawase’s Radiance) were directed by a woman, a depressingly stark improvement from 2012 and 2010, when zero films (ZERO!) in the competition were directed by a woman.
It seems like every year Cannes becomes something of a feminist battleground, whether it’s a debate over women being forced to wear high heels, the mayor of Cannes instating a ban on burkinis, or just generally demanding proper representation of female characters and acknowledgement of female talent.
But who knows if the festival will actually step up its game and rise to the occasion, especially when there’s a clear denial of the bias against women that Cannes is complicit in. Just take what Cannes Artistic Director Thierry Fremaux said last year about the lack of female directors: “To have more women in Cannes, we have to have more women in cinema...Cannes is not the problem. Do not blame Cannes.”