The Cannes jury press conference, usually softball questions and guarded answers, proved no more eventful with Joel and Ethan Coen in the boss seats. That was a little disappointing given that the Coens, who won the Palme d'Or back in 1991 with Barton Fink, promised Le Figaro in pre-festival interview that they planned to "give contradictory orders" and "confuse the jury."
More telling was the professional make-up of the jury, which included four male directors – Canadian Xavier Dolan, Mexico's Guillermo Del Toro and Americans Joel and Ethan Coen – along with three actresses (England's Sienna Miller, France's Sophie Marceau and Spain's Rossy de Palma), along with one actor, Jake Gyllenhaal, and one woman musician-writer, Mali's Rokia Traoré. Dolan is also an actor, and Marceau has directed two feature films but overall, the jury conformed to the gender lines that have been causing a fuss at Cannes lately: Mainly, women are there to be looked at and male directors are doing most of the looking.
"Women take spotlight as Cannes Film Festival Opens" declared a Agence France-Presse headline yesterday morning. That, at least, is the impression that Cannes is striving to make. Yes, director Emmanuelle Bercot's La Tête Haute (Standing Tall) is the first film by a female director to open the festival since 1987. The earnest social drama starred Catherine Deneuve as a dedicated tough-love juvenile judge, who goes the extra mile to help a hell-bent youngster (newcomer Rod Paradot) is nothing flashy, but solid.
At the post-screening press conference, director Bercot said she didn't really subscribe to the idea that her opening the festival had much to do with female directors, but felt it was a hopeful response to the Charlie Hebdo attack earlier this year, suggesting that if the perpetrators had gotten the right guidance in their youth, things might have turned out differently.
Cannes organizers are keen to be seen as pro-women right now. This year, they announced the first honorary Palme d'Or to a woman, 86-year-old godmother of the New Wave, Agnès Varda. There's also a special screening of the debut film from actress Natalie Portman, A Tale of Love and Darkness, set during the early years of the state of Israel. And this year also sees a new Cannes initiative, along with the French luxury goods brand, Kering, called Women in Motion. Kering's CEO François-Henri Pinault is the husband of Salma Hayek, who, along with Frances McDormand, Isabella Rossellini and French director, Claire Denis (among others) will present a series of talks on issues pertaining to women and film.
While Cannes's small percentage of women directors is no worse than Hollywood's (where about five or six per cent of big budget films are directed by women), the optics are different. Cannes is a state-supported, curated artistic festival that aims to represent the best in global cinema, but its record is embarrassingly androcentric.
In 2012, there were no women directors in the competition, which inspired an open letter in Le Monde from the French feminist group La Barbe and a petition in protest. A corresponding petition, entitled "Where are the Women Directors?" was organized in the United States by well-known film blogger Melissa Silverstein (Women and Hollywood), signed by such celebrities as Gloria Steinem and Selma director Ava DuVernay.
For all the changes, though, there are still just two Cannes films by women in the competition this year: Valerie Donzelli's Marguerite and Julien (from a script originally written for Francois Truffaut) and Maïwenn's romance Mon Roi. That's the same number as last year. There was only one in 2013. Perhaps of greatest concern for the future: There's not one woman director among the seven feature films in competition in the Critics' Week sidebar, which focuses on up-and-coming directors from around the world.
Thierry Frémaux, the director of the festival, has said the problem is serious, but that Cannes, for two weeks a year, can't solve the problems of male domination of world cinema. But Cannes is too important an event not to try. And the key isn't more honorary awards and panels: It's getting more women in the competition.
The argument that this means watering down quality doesn't really cut it. Cannes is built on relationships with directors that last decades, and this sometimes leads to dubious films chosen out of loyalty. There are very few women in the circle of the elect (a rare example would be Japan's Naomi Kawase, who has had four films in competition, and returns this year with a film, An.) The answer is to reach further and look harder. To paraphrase a French expression coined by novelist Alexandre Dumas, it's time to cherchez les femmes.