Last Year, Jessica Chastain Challenged Cannes on Female Representation. Did Things Get Better?

Haifaa al-Mansour, Kirsten Stewart, Léa Seydoux, Khadja Nin, Ava DuVernay, Cate Blanchett, Agnes Varda, and other women walk the red carpet in Cannes, May 12, 2018. Photo: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

Emily Yoshida: A year ago, during the jury press conference at the end of the 70th Cannes Film Festival, juror Jessica Chastain called out the filmmaking world in general for the portrayal of women among that year’s competition films. It was a pretty straightforward critique, and paired with another dismal year for female directors in the festival, it seemed like a wakeup call.

Cannes has had a long time to think about these issues, and presumably a fire was lit under the powers that be after the Harvey Weinstein allegations came out last fall and led to the rise of the #MeToo movement in Hollywood. It should seem abundantly obvious that the lack of complex female characters at Cannes, the lack of female directors, and the culture of sexism and harassment that has flourished in the entertainment industry for ages are all part of the same general problem, and while it’s impossible to control individual behaviors, its possible for an influential platform such as the Cannes Film Festival to steer the tide.

The same year that Chastain called out Cannes, a group photo with all the living Palme d’Or winners was taken, and Jane Campion had the very stark visual realization that she was the only woman among them. This year, however, many were disappointed to see that the percentage of female directors in the Competition had actually gone down, and elsewhere, Cannes was still making space for alleged abusers (no Woody this year, but Lars von Trier’s widely panned The House That Jack Built took up red carpet real estate). The numbers didn’t look good, but the 12 days of the festival were still filled with moments of awareness and activism — or, at least, lip service to activism. Crucially, the 5050x2020 group got festival director Thierry Frémaux to sign a charter committed to gender parity in the next two years, a simultaneously tall but overdue order. Plus, we had a majority female jury, and so, so many great pantsuits. So … is there reason to hope? Is there any way Cannes can reach that representation goal, which would put it ahead of Sundance and Toronto and scores of other festivals as well?

Kyle Buchanan: I think there is always reason to hope, just as there are always things that threaten to chip away at those hopes. I’m thinking of the wonderful Cannes moment where 82 women including Blanchett took to the red carpet in a display of arms-linked activism, meant to stand in for the 82 female directors who’ve competed for a Palme d’Or over the lifetime of the festival … and then the Cannes DJ played them off with “Pretty Woman.” I’m also thinking of the Women in Motion dinner, where Blanchett, Ava DuVernay, and Kristen Stewart got together to celebrate Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins, yet one of the well-connected men who snagged an invite spent his time at the dinner sighing loudly and regaling his table mates with stories of Viking rape. Progress can be made in this industry, but you have to keep working at it, because it’s a wiggly thing.

I want to address what Chastain complained about last year, which is the dearth of good female roles at Cannes, because Blanchett echoed that statement in her own jury press conference on the last day of the festival. “There perhaps weren’t as many female-driven narratives as I would have liked,” Blanchett admitted, and I think that’s a crucial bit of phrasing because while there were plenty of wonderful female performances in this year’s films — I’m thinking of Joanna Kulig in Cold War, or Jeon Jong-Seo in Burning, or the women of Shoplifters — they still were not the POV, plot-driving characters. Even in a film like Everybody Knows, where Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem are equally billed and paid, director Asghar Farhadi favors the perspective of the latter in ways that are both obvious (Cruz becomes a more deferential character as the film goes on) and subtle (Bardem enters and exits scenes in ways that indicate him as the protagonist, and gets moments to himself that she does not). How did you feel about the female characters you saw?

EY: I was struck by the fact that out of the three films by female directors that were in the competition, only one of them (Eva Husson’s widely panned Girls of the Sun) had a female protagonist. I don’t think that that is necessarily some barometer of how much female perspective is at play — Nadine Labaki’s Capharnaüm was very much a story of a young boy, but it had some intimate, observant scenes of motherhood that perhaps a male filmmaker would be less likely to take the time for. But it kind of made me think about the type of female-directed film that the festival is more likely to recognize.

It’s no substitute, but I would argue that in some of the ensemble-driven films, the perspective did lean more female, regardless of the director. You and I both loved Climax, and I think a lot of that film’s strength comes from how heavily it weighs its perspective toward the female dancers in its ensemble, how much of that film ends up being about women finding refuge from some of the more idiotic men in their midst (also, accidentally lighting each other on fire). Similarly, though Shoplifters is a film that could not be more different than Climax, I thought Sakura Ando as the mother figure was the anchor of the film by design, as well as its strongest performer.

But yeah, still not a lot of stories told through women’s eyes. I missed two of the Critic’s Week films I had been eager to see, Zsófia Szilágyi’s
ne Day
(which won the International Critics Prize for a first film,) and Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s
Fugue, both of which were told from the perspective of mothers. The sidebars were, as tends to be the case, better on representation than the competition, though it should be noted that they, too, are now beholden to that 50/50 charter. But the competition has so much more catching up to do, not only in its selection but in its awards. I really wonder how much this was discussed among the jury, which faced so much pressure to add another female director to the list of Palme winners, and ultimately didn’t. Awarding five-time contender Kore-Eda for Shoplifters is still about the best outcome in what was going to be a damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don’t situation, and I cringe to think about the bad-faith grumblings if Labaki, Alice Rohrwacher, or Husson’s films had won the top prize. Even Labaki’s third-place Jury Prize win was booed in the press-screening simulcast of the closing ceremony.

KB: I’m glad you brought that up, because before every screening of a female-directed film in competition, I would hear those same cynical predictions from men in the press: “Well, this is obviously going to be a top Palme contender, because they’ll want to award a woman.” In the end, the jury went another way, but it’s notable how often men expected Blanchett and her peers to default toward female representation, without ever taking note of how often the system in Cannes automatically defaults toward men.

Emily, you and I both have third-tier press badges, meaning there are two press badges a class above ours — rose pastille and white — who are assured of getting into any screening without waiting in a line. When you see how overwhelming white, male, and older that privileged class is … well, it’s not exactly a surprise, but it’s still eye-opening. This is the group of people that the festival is delineating as the most catered-to set, and their opinions thereby carry the most cultural weight and are granted the most access.

I thought about that a lot because the majority-male press at Cannes tends to canonize certain types of stories above others. They don’t often gravitate toward emotional films, which they dismiss as melodrama. They like austerity and heaviness, and are skeptical of a light touch. They will also overlook certain flaws to praise the male filmmakers they’re drawn to: For example, almost every film at Cannes is a bit too long, but you would never know that Burning is a terrific 90-minute tone poem trapped in a two-and-a-half-hour movie, because its partisans in the press obfuscate that fact with real-estate upsells: The film is “elegaic,” “dreamlike,” “roomy in its ambitions.” No, it’s too long, something they never mind pointing out if a woman or a gay man makes something over two hours at Cannes.

I appreciate that the Cannes powers that be have diversified the people who pick winners: Ava DuVernay was one of the members of this year’s fabulous competition jury, while Barry Jenkins served on the shorts jury last summer, just months after his film Moonlight won the Best Picture Oscar. Still, Cannes cannot wait for other festivals to mint people like DuVernay and Jenkins, then swoop in and reap their dividends. They need to be invested in finding and cultivating those filmmakers early on. Why can’t Cannes find a young American woman to give its imprimatur to, in the way the festival did with Jeremy Saulnier or David Robert Mitchell? I’m glad that Cannes invited Debra Granik to show her wonderful Sundance film Leave No Trace at this year’s fest, but why didn’t Cannes fight to have it premiere there to begin with? Our new vanguard of female filmmakers are coming up through the Sundance system because the Cannes crew is too disinterested, or even supercilious, to find those women first.

EY: This is the cultural issue that I discussed briefly in my write-up of the 5050 demonstration on the red carpet for Girls of the Sun. Cannes has an identity as a place where men premiere their great works and women are looked at, and I’d argue that is even more deeply engrained there than it is in the film industry at large. Sweeping, over-the-top, knock-you-out-of-your-chair glamour is a part of the Cannes experience, but there’s still a very limited idea of what glamour can mean, and it usually entails young pretty women in high heels posing for the cameras. How else to explain the procession of the Bella Hadids of the world for the premiere of Jia Zhangke’s Ash Is Purest White?

This is why it was still so powerful for Asia Argento to say what she said during the festival awards ceremony, even though #MeToo has been in the air for a while now. It was, after all, the first Cannes since our current cascade of abuse allegations has sent the industry spinning, and Cannes was indeed a hunting ground for Harvey Weinstein, and for many lesser Harveys that preceded and succeeded him. And yet, you could tell by the silence and blank faces in the room that Argento’s speech was not being universally “Amen”-ed by those in attendance. Argento has since said that nobody but Spike Lee verbally supported her after the speech — Ava DuVernay, who was presenting the Best Actress award with her, excepted. That’s pretty damning, I think. After all the initiatives and charters and luxury brand “women in film” talk series, Cannes is still made uncomfortable by a woman speaking out against an influential man. Even someone like Blanchett, nearly universally beloved this year as jury president, and the figurehead at the 82 women demonstration, insists on ignorance when it comes to the allegations against Woody Allen, and has made no apparent comment on Argento’s speech, despite standing for its cause in an abstract sense.

That kind of contradiction can’t last long. And until that discomfort in the Lumière Theater during Argento’s speech is reckoned with, any moves toward gender parity are going to feel empty in a place like Cannes, where so much of the culture is invested in protecting old, “glamorous” ways that devalue women artistically and intellectually.

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