Emily Yoshida: Where were you when Jessica Chastain dropped the hammer on the Cannes Film Festival? I was so jet-lagged that I don’t really remember, but I do remember feeling like some small part of my nagging, never full-blown Cannes Blues had been voiced. You’ve likely seen the video by now: Chastain, during the jury press conference after the awards ceremony, discussing the experience as a whole. “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,” she said. “It was quite disturbing to me, to be honest.” She goes on to discuss the limited roles for women, and she’s not lying: Outside Best Director winner Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, it was a tough year for actresses in the Cannes competition. But perhaps the more surprising thing this year is that someone — and a famous actress on the jury, no less — said something about it, surrounded by a throng of press.
But how did the 70th festival stack up against previous years? Was it worse than usual? This is only my second Cannes, but just by scanning through previous lineups I see scores of female-dominated (if not directed) films, including Clouds of Sils Maria, Elle, Carol, and The Handmaiden, but also plenty of dry stretches. There were also a whopping three female-helmed films in the competition this year (The Beguiled, Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, and Naomi Kawase’s Hikari), which is sadly above average*. But these are all kind of pathetic precedents and maybe not the most useful to measure against.
Maybe we should just start on a gossipy note: What films do you think irked Jessica (and/or you) the most?
Kyle Buchanan: Of the competition films Jessica watched, I think she may be referring to three French movies where the women are little more than glorified sex objects. Two of them are Redoubtable, about Jean-Luc Godard’s marriage to the much younger Anne Wiazemsky, and L’Amant Double, a nonstop kinky sexfest that practically opens on a woman’s spread vagina. I had a lot of fun with the latter, which is directed with trashy exuberance by Francois Ozon, but its gender politics are hardly forward-thinking. As for Michel Hazanavicius’s Redoubtable, while I loved Louis Garrel’s amusing take on Godard, I was frustrated by how little Hazanavicius cared about Wiazemsky, even though the movie is ostensibly based on her story. In nearly every scene, she hangs off Godard’s arm, gazes at him adoringly, or undresses for his pleasure. Stacy Martin, who plays Wiazemsky, imbues the role with a certain je ne sais quoi, but she’s not treated as much more than a beautiful bracelet.
The third French film in question, Rodin, is so stultifyingly dull that it doesn’t deserve much ink, but it treats Auguste Rodin as a sculpting stud and Camille Claudel as his flibbertigibbet groupie. Pass.
But all three of those films are French, and Jessica implied that she saw films from all over the world that gave her pause in the way they treated women. Part of me wonders whether she was subtweeting Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless, which her jury actually awarded the third-place prize to. Though acclaimed by most critics, I found that this kidnap drama looked at women with unusual scorn: While the men in the film suffer stoically and do their best to locate a missing child, the two primary female characters scroll through Instagram, nag their love interests, take too many selfies, and lie in bed so that the camera can consider their artfully posed bare legs. When I brought this up to other viewers, they usually replied, “Well, the film treats everybody badly.” That may be true, but the female characters are subject to considerably more condescension than the men.
Jada Yuan: I was in the press conference room, along with Kyle, when Chastain threw down, and while I applaud everything she said, I also remember wishing she’d been more specific and had really taken individual films or even individual tropes to task. Maybe that’s too much to ask from an actress who’s already making a surprisingly undiplomatic statement about her experience on the festival jury at a press conference for said festival, but it’s hard for me to get behind this impulse we seem to have to put Chastain up on a pedestal and cheerlead for her when the three other female members of the jury — French director Agnès Jaoui, Toni Erdmann director Maren Ade, and Chinese superstar Fan Bingbing — all made similar points that aren’t getting any attention. Yes, Chastain is pretty, famous, American, and smart, and makes a good mouthpiece for the issues (though Fan Bingbing, arguably, has more global reach than anyone on the jury other than Will Smith). It just feels like a real-life continuation of Chastain’s criticism about how selective this business is in which women’s stories it will tell.
I loved how Fan came out, banners raised, for Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, and said they’d given her Best Director both for her female viewpoint and the beauty of its craft and storytelling, but not just because she was a woman. Jaoui emphasized that directors should constantly ask themselves if their films are meeting the Bechdel test. But it was Ade who, to me, painted the most vivid picture of the industry, talking about how “after a while of always being surrounded by men doing this job, that the impression comes up that this is not a very good job for a woman,” and that unless that changes, we’ll be “missing a lot of stories” — not only about women, but about male characters that could possibly be more interesting and different than what we’ve already seen, if written with a female hand.
But back to the gossipy analysis. A lot of the point of Redoubtable is to ape Godard’s early work, which included plenty of languid shots of naked women. Though I agree with Kyle that it’s supposed to be a behind-the-scenes story told from the point of view of the director’s very, very young wife, Anne Wiazemsky, it spends a lot more time leering at Stacy Martin’s body than presenting Wiazemsky as anything much than an object of desire. L’Amant Double is great fun, but its female character’s existence is oriented entirely around her sexual obsession with twins played by Jérémie Renier. I’m less down on Loveless’s treatment of women; I think by the end, you get the sense that Maryana Spivak’s Zhenya is as harsh and detached as she is because Russian society has given her little choice but to attach herself to a man to escape her circumstances. In the end, I walked away with an appreciation for her strength amid overwhelming hopelessness.
I would, though, add to the list Good Time, the American crime drama from indie-darlings Josh and Ben Safdie, in which the only significant female characters are Jennifer Jason Leigh as a hysterical shut-in and Taliah Webster as a rebellious 16-year-old, both of whom blindly adore Robert Pattinson’s bank robber character and become his collateral damage. Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or winner, The Square, too, has only one female character with a substantial part, Elisabeth Moss’s art-world journalist. And while she does get to do some funky acting with a monkey, all of her scenes are oriented around her relationship with a man, we never see her speak to another woman, and — this is a major, ongoing gripe for me — she joins the long, irksome tradition of female journalist characters who sleep with their subjects.
Even the movies by the two female directors in competition have women issues. In Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, the young girl whom Joaquin Phoenix’s hammer-wielding vigilante spends the entire movie trying to rescue literally has nothing to do but be blonde and innocent. Then what are we to make of Coppola’s The Beguiled, which is all about how the dynamics in a group of women change as soon as Colin Farrell’s hot Union soldier enters their midst? I know Coppola’s intent was to remake the 1971 Clint Eastwood film from a female perspective, but how does the Bechdel test even work in this scenario, when seven women are getting copious screen time and all they do is talk about a man?
Kyle Buchanan: I did appreciate, though, that The Beguiled eventually critiques the power structures that pit women against each other for men’s benefit: Once the women really start comparing notes and putting their heads together, fuckboys of Virginia had better watch out.
Do we think Chastain might also have been levying some criticism at Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories? I heard some grumbling that the film spends so little time on the women of its titular family, treating them as side stories to the men played by Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, and Dustin Hoffman. Baumbach half-heartedly offers an in-film explanation for it — the women are simply better-adjusted than the men, and thusly less available as conduits for conflict — but I found myself remembering Baumbach’s terrific female characters in Margot at the Wedding with longing.
Emily Yoshida: I think you guys are right on with most of your guesses for the worst offenders, and I will just chime in to say that anyone who thought the men got it as bad as the women in Loveless are out of their minds. I also can see the case for Meyerowitz, but Elizabeth Marvel packs such a memorably brittle punch as the lone Meyerowitz sister that it’s hard for me to watch that movie and think Baumbach left his female characters out to dry.
I always bristle a little at the idea of scoring every item on a filmmaker’s résumé against some kind of quota — Baumbach, Ramsay, and the Safdies, to name a few, have given more screen time and depth to female characters in the past. This time, they just swung the other way. On an individual level, this isn’t what I’d call unfortunate, it just happens. If Coppola had come to Cannes this year with Somewhere, we’d have even fewer notable female performances to choose from. The changes that I think Chastain and we are calling for are on the macro level, because of the basic odds that Chastain pointed out: If you have more female directors — or black directors, or Hispanic directors — you are more likely to get more complexity across the board. Cannes’ tendency to grandfather in a lot of competition vets shot them in the foot this year, because so many of those vets weren’t telling stories about women. And when you look at a lot of those vets — mostly white and male — that doesn’t seem like such a coincidence.
So I’m interested in what kind of action some of these jury members actually end up taking, and how open Thierry Fremaux is to change. I’m thrilled by the idea of a Will Smith–Park Chan-wook coalition for diverse filmmaking, but will there be room for exciting new voices in film if the competition is pre-populated with whatever Michel Hazanavicius and Michael Haneke come up with that year?
Jada Yuan: I actually spoke with Park Chan-wook at the closing night party after the awards — major life highlight — and got to tell him how much I loved The Handmaiden, which played in competition at Cannes last year. And he responded with the saddest thing I’ve ever heard: “But it didn’t win anything.” The idea that Park Chan-wook thinks that his monumental achievement (by far my favorite film of 2016) is somehow diminished because the Cannes jury didn’t see fit to give it a prize breaks my heart. He also told me that he and Smith had been talking about diversity all festival. The coalition is theoretical, but, man, would it be amazing.
When I think back on the Cannes movies that have stuck with me over the years, almost all were ones like Park’s that hadn’t been on my most-anticipated list before the festival: Robin Campillo’s 120 Beats Per Minute this year; The Handmaiden and Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing (which for some arbitrary, genre-prejudicial reason wasn’t in competition) last year; Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart and Jonas Carpignano’s Mediterranea (buried in the Critics’ Week sidebar) in 2015; Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu and Force Majeure (also not in the main competition) from a Swedish director named Ruben Östlund I’d never heard of in 2014; Blue Is the Warmest Color the year before that. You get the drift.
This festival does have the potential to elevate exciting new voices on a global stage, but often it does not offer those voices its main competition stage. Imagine the shake-up if Chloé Zhao’s The Rider, Jonas Carpignano’s A Ciambra, or Léonor Serraille’s Jeune Femme, which all won big prizes in the Director’s Fortnight and Un Certain Regard sidebars — or even films from old-guard but diverse voices like Takashi Miike’s Blade of the Immortal or Agnès Varda’s Visages, Villages, which played out of competition — had taken the slots that went to Ozon or Baumbach (who I didn’t really think needed to be in competition). Don’t expect it to happen any time soon, though. Part of what makes the Cannes competition go ’round are big stars to walk that famed red carpet and French films that will get covered by French media. The publicity machine can handle two or three movies filled with unknowns, but not more.
So changing the makeup of the lineup is going to require a joint effort: More big stars ought to make a pledge like Nicole Kidman’s to work with a female director every 18 months; men who direct ought to take Chastain’s criticisms to heart and examine their depictions of women; and Thierry Frémaux and his programmers need to make a serious effort to overhaul how they choose movies. As much as Cannes loves scandal, having a jury as disappointed in the main selection as this one was is not a good look.
*This post has been updated to include Naomi Kawase’s Hikari, the third female-directed film that played in competition at Cannes.