In case you’ve been wondering why it’s so difficult to get movies about women made you don’t have to look any further than 2014’s 67th Cannes Film Festival. Under the jury president, Jane Campion, the best films so far in main competition here have revolved around female characters – complex, imperfect, beautifully drawn these leading roles offer up a counter to the majority of films that get paid attention to here in the US, on the festival and awards circuit leading up to the Oscars. We have already done our research and have established that the following conditions apply where film criticism is concerned now.
The majority of film critics are male, by an astonishing margin. This includes old school critics, for the most part, as many of the female voices have been fired, like Lisa Schwarzbaum from Entertainment Weekly who used to be one of the strongest voices in film criticism.
That has produced a broad kind of groupthink that reflects, mostly, that singular demographic. Of course, it doesn’t follow that only men like films about men and only women like films about women but it does speak to the idea that films about men might be more relatable to men than films about women.
Being here in Cannes I’ve been paying close attention to how these films with such strong female leads have been faring with the male majority. You can mostly forget about films directed by women, at least for now. Unless those films are also about men they will get ignored here even worse than films directed by men about women.
That Cannes has leaned in this direction this year with main competition films is startling. It should not go ignored, no matter what the outcome. As it is, the one film that seems to have the most “Oscar potential” is Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, which is solidly about a man, directed by a man. It is the one people keep coming back to, even those who didn’t much care for it in the beginning. It seems easy enough, and traditional enough to go the distance. It absolutely deserves all of the praise it is getting but it is still interesting to explore why this is.
Tommy Lee Jones’ The Homesman is almost certainly about the internal lives of women and one woman in particular, played by Hilary Swank. That the film is about what happens to them, what has happened to them, is remarkable for an American film and of course, no one wants to distribute it. The critics mostly turned their backs on it as well, calling it a “minor film” and downplaying its Oscar potential. Here’s Tommy Lee Jones trying to fix what is so clearly wrong with Hollywood’s gender imbalance and here’s the status quo rejecting it. Do they reject it because it wasn’t that good or do they reject it because they can’t or won’t care about a movie that cares about women?
Maps to the Stars is also about women only this time it is probably sightly more comfortable for some of the critics, though clearly not all. Julianne Moore plays a greatly flawed aging star who is hanging on desperately to the last gasp of youth so that she won’t become irrelevant. But the film also revolves around Mia Wasikowska who has a wacky vision of the culture around her. Neither woman is “good,” particularly, none of the men are either. This is an equal opportunity condemnation of a culture that really gives women so few choices how to evolve within it. But it leads with women, is about these characters, mostly, and it seems to have some foothold in the critics community. It is probably too dark and too much an unflattering portrait of Hollywood to run the gauntlet of awards season.
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is written and directed by Ned Benson, who took it upon himself to tell two in depth films about each character in the story – both Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy. When it came to combining those stories, they opted to throw the film more in Chastain’s favor. Did they do that because they thought romantic comedies might fare better with female audiences? Or did they do it because her story was just as important, if not more important, than his. This is no manic pixie dream girl, this is no unattainable hottie story – it is a story about real people solving real problems. Only part of Chastain’s story has to do with her relationship to her husband. Her character arc does not revolve around him. That is the most surprising part of it. Yet even still, some of the rumblings on Twitter suggested that critics weren’t taking it seriously, calling it cornball, fully prepared to put it in the romcom cage. Why? Because it’s about a woman?
Finally, the Dardenne brothers’ magnificent Two Days, One Night builds an entire story around a female character, Marion Cotillard. What is this character’s motivation throughout? To make a man love her, to help her husband achieve his goals? To seduce the audience? No, to keep her job and save her family from financial ruin. It is about her inner strength, her battle with depression, and ultimately her moral character and sense of fairness. The film is really about the desperate straights people suffering during an economic crisis find themselves in. It is told through the eyes of a woman, in this case, an actual human being.
So I can’t criticize the Cannes film fest for not having more films BY women when there are so many films ABOUT women. That in itself makes this a groundbreaking year even as many film critics are helping to perpetuate the meme that this year’s Cannes is “lackluster” and “a bust.” You see, in our culture, our film going community unconsciously reinforces the notion that women don’t matter. Stories about them get written off as silly or cornball. They aren’t “real” movies. A culture that doesn’t value the stories of women will ultimately not value the lives of women.