At Cannes Stories About Women Dominate, even if Female Filmmakers are Rare

http://www.awardsdaily.com/blog/at-cannes-stories-about-women-dominate-even-if-female-filmmakers-are-rare/

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.

10 Comment

  1. yawn.

  2. In the last 15 years the winners have been Rosetta, Dancer in the Dark, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Amour and Blue is the Warmest Colour (the two female stars also took the top prize). Plus considering the other Palme d’Or winners include The Pianist, The Son, Tree of Life, Uncle Boonmee and The Wind That Shakes the Barley, I’d say Cannes continuously has one of the smartest voting bodies out there, even though the jury changes.

  3. “I can’t criticize the Cannes film fest for not having more films BY women when there are so many films ABOUT women.”

    Don’t be naive. Six or seven films about women out of eighteen in the main competition don’t cancel out the fact that there are only two films directed by women. Un Certain Regard is barely better, with eight films out of twenty being about women to the six directed by women.
    Like, Cannes is obviously trying to do better and of course they’re working off of a film culture that is even more male-dominated than the Official Selection, but there being films about women isn’t the same as there being films by women. If you’re going to be critical, don’t half-ass it, and if you’re going to half-ass it, don’t give limp justifications for half-assing it.

    And of course this doesn’t even touch on how overwhelmingly white the Official Selection is.

  4. ubourgeois, I don’t always agree with Sasha’s views but I will comfortably say she never criticizes anything half-assed.

  5. Only 7% of the 1,800 films submitted to Cannes this year were directed by women.

  6. Charlie brings up a good point.

    If only 7% of the 1800 films submitted by women, wouldn’t it make sense that based around a statistical average, 7% of the represented films should be directed by women? 1-3 more would probably just represent a particularly strong crop of female-directed films. Any more than that would show that the festival was specifically trying to cater towards this ideal.

    What’s wrong with that? Well, it is anti-feminist. The goal should not be to have a number of films in the festival directed by women greater than the percentage submitted, but to ensure that the percentage submitted is directly correlated to the number chosen (statistically speaking, over time).

    The real problem here is not necessarily that no films by women were chosen, but that women–who make up half the population–are only responsible for 7/100 submitted films. That shows that either women are not as confident in their films and not submitting (HIGHLY unlikely) or that opportunities for women to MAKE films are slimmer.

    Thesis: Awarding bodies should not be paying any mind to whether or not a film is directed by a woman. This is anti-feminist. Instead, studios should be making sure that they give women as many opportunities to direct films as men.

  7. ‘The goal should not be to have a number of films in the festival directed by women greater than the percentage submitted, but to ensure that the percentage submitted is directly correlated to the number chosen (statistically speaking, over time).

    The real problem here is not necessarily that no films by women were chosen, but that women–who make up half the population–are only responsible for 7/100 submitted films. That shows that either women are not as confident in their films and not submitting (HIGHLY unlikely) or that opportunities for women to MAKE films are slimmer.

    Thesis: Awarding bodies should not be paying any mind to whether or not a film is directed by a woman. This is anti-feminist. Instead, studios should be making sure that they give women as many opportunities to direct films as men.’

    You’re completely correct that women are not given as many opportunities to direct films as men, but how can that be reversed? The solution lies in changing attitudes. Top brass at studios and production companies need to change their attitude. But, also, the attitude of the collective general public needs to change. And, within the film industry, this will only change if women can observe a more positive, welcoming environment toward them there.

    This is where you’re wrong about which films ought to be chosen for festivals like Cannes. The committees involved in selecting films for these festivals do not make their choices based on merit, and they are not awarding bodies. They pick shit like Captives and The Search for their premier competition slate because they want to encourage attention from worldwide audiences who want to see celebrities on the red carpet and films they’re likely to eventually see screening at their festival. In selecting more films directed by women, the Cannes selection team could aid the progression of gender equality in the film industry. That would be seen as a positive move. They have no obligation to select films based solely on their quality.

  8. As a screenwriter {undiscovered} I have often been questioned “Why do you write movies about girls?”. I tend to always struggle to answer that question. Yes, my sexual preference is women. But that is not the whole ball of wax. I am male, so maybe my artistic soul wants to counterbalance this. Am I trying to subconsciously create more stories for women? Maybe I just prefer to see stories about women, period. The fact is, I find women more interesting and cinematic – and it might just as simple as that.

    Even when I write movies were the female character is perhaps not the protagonist, she will be the most memorable, or important. Or the male characters are lost, depressed, submissive. And the female characters, strong, often quirky, the heroes if you like.

    I dream of my movies making it and seeing the story of the French angel who finds love rather than pursuing her heavenly duties. The eleven year old girl who is abandoned in England by her American parents and then changes the lives of the people she comes across. Or the leg model living in the fifties whose guardian angel, a little girl, guides her towards a huge secret from her own childhood. And frosty but no-nonsense Irish woman who is wrongly dismissed from the army only to rebuild her life in London where a new danger awaits.

    I may have gone overboard there. :-)

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