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Montreal’s Cinemania Film Festival continues the dialogue about women in film

Anaïs Demoustier in Marguerite & Julien.

Céline Nieszawer - © 2015 Rectangle Productions

This year's edition of the Cannes Film Festival was deemed "the year of la femme" by the New York Times. As stars, cinephiles and directors assembled on the Croisette in May, the discussion of where women fit in the industry was in the spotlight. But while a strong female presence both in front of and behind the camera suggested a sea change was imminent, the film world's double standard quickly revealed itself after a controversy erupted over women having to wear high heels to walk the festival's red carpet.

To take up the torch from Cannes, though, Montreal's Cinemania Film Festival, which runs Nov. 5 to 15, seeks to continue this much-needed dialogue, featuring a solid lineup of French cinema with nearly one-fifth of the selections helmed by women.

Most notably, there is Maïwenn, best known for acting roles in Léon, The Fifth Element and High Tension. She transitioned into directing in 2006 with her debut, Pardonnez-moi, though she would only find widespread acclaim years later with 2011's Polisse, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes. In spite of the film's popular appeal, Polisse leaves something to be desired. It is a social picture with compelling characters, but is also symptomatic of a trend in contemporary French cinema that finds filmmakers favouring politics and faux realism over any incisiveness.

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In Maïwenn's new film Mon roi, which is screening at Cinemania, Tony (Emmanuelle Bercot) is in rehabilitation following a serious ski accident, and as she recovers she remembers a tumultuous love story from her past. The film opened in France to mixed reviews, but it will be interesting to see how Maïwenn's work has evolved, especially as she moves away from hot-button social topics.

Indeed, this new wave of socially minded cinema has been heavily criticized in French publications, notably Cahiers du Cinéma, which pointed fingers at several notable homegrown releases from the Cannes lineup. Among them was the festival's opening film, Standing Tall, directed by Mon roi star Bercot, which will also be screening at Cinemania. While Cahiers du Cinéma had harsh words for Bercot's work – critic Jean-Philippe Tessé said the film is "brutally full from its appetite for crisis and emotional tripe and finishes by being a conformist, vaguely populist and right-wing mouthpiece" – it earned mostly positive reviews from the international press. (Writing for Sight & Sound, Geoff Andrew contextualized the film in comparison to recent Cannes opening films, writing that "Bercot's movie is different primarily because it's a serious slice of social realism about a likewise serious question: how we, as a society, should best deal with the thoroughly alienated and criminally delinquent young.")

Another actor-turned-director at Cinemania is Valérie Donzelli, whose career is far more idiosyncratic than Maïwenn as she works mostly in independent productions and shorts. But like Maïwenn, 2011 was also a breakout year for Donzelli as she made waves with her film La guerre est déclarée (Declaration of War). Based in part on the true story of her own child's illness, the drama focuses on two young parents struggling to cope with the news that their child has a brain tumour. Throwing aesthetic realism out the window, the film is part fantasy, part musical, and channels the characters' desire to escape from the real world. It is fresh and youthful, and tackles tragedy with an unusual passion.

Donzelli's new film Marguerite & Julien, about an incestuous love affair between siblings, will screen at Cinemania. Based on a script initially written for François Truffaut, the film is inspired by real events that took place in the 18th century. While it was not well received internationally, it hints at being an interesting failure rather than an outright turkey.

Other notable Cinemania films with women directors include Disorder, where writer-director Alice Winocour brings together Matthias Schoenaerts and Diane Kruger in a story about an ex-soldier recovering from PTSD; Audrey Estrougo's Taulardes, about everyday life in a women's prison; 10 % by Cédric Klapisch and Lola Doillon; Le dernier coup de marteau by Alix Delaporte; and Les héritiers by Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar.

While it may be refreshing to see so many films by female directors, there is, of course, still a long way to go. As of 2014 in American cinema, women accounted for just 13 per cent of directors releasing films commercially. In France, things fare a little better, with 23 per cent of directors being women as of 2013, a 41.9-per-cent increase since 2008. The numbers tell a grim story, but don't reveal the real need for increased parity. As women take more roles behind the camera, it's increasingly clear that it was never talent holding women back, but lack of opportunity.

Cinemania runs at Montreal's Imperial Cinema from Nov. 5 to 15 (festivalcinemania.com).

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