Female Perspectives: Women Filmmakers At Cannes

in Festival International du Film, Cannes 2023

by Thomas Abeltshauser

When Jane Fonda recalled at the closing ceremony how in 1963, her first time at the Cannes Film Festival, naturally no one spoke about the fact that the competition was firmly in male hands, it was clear that the Palme d’Or was about to go to a film by a woman director. Seven out of 21 entries were directed by women this year, more than ever before. “We’ve come a long way, and we have a long way to go, but still we have to celebrate change when it happens”, said Fonda before jury president Ruben Östlund announced the winning film: Anatomy of a Fall (Anatomie d’une chute) by Justine Triet. TRIET is only the third woman in the history of the most important film festival in the world to receive the award for best film. The French director used her acceptance speech to make a fiery declaration of war against Macron’s neo-liberal government and its austerity measures that commercialise culture and destroy a funding system without which she would not be here. Her film about a writer suspected of having killed her husband is an exciting and clever reflection on misogynistic prejudices in the legal system, which, in the name of a supposed search for the truth, intrude deeply in the private sphere and expose intimate details.

An award with a signal effect and thoroughly deserved, even if surprising. The international press had another, formally more radical favourite early on. The Zone of Interest by Jonathan Glazer is about the family of the camp commandant of Auschwitz, who lives in seemingly idyllic ignorance in a villa with a large garden, and simply ignores the systematic mass murder behind the wall. Glazer focuses on the perpetrator’s perspective and thus delivers a disturbing work that at best only hints at the horrors in the concentration camp as unrepresentable on the soundtrack. The British auteur was awarded the Grand Prix. Sandra Hüller plays the leading role in both, the woman under accusation in Triet’s film, the wife of concentration camp commander Höß in Glazer’s, and many saw her as a contender for the prize for best actress. The fact that both films have now won the festival’s two most important prizes instead is also thanks to Hueller’s brilliant, highly different performances. And they are a belated redemption for the actress who took Cannes by storm seven years ago with Toni Erdmann by Maren Ade, which was then completely ignored by the jury at the time.

The best actress award went to Merve Dizdar for the outstanding About Dry Grasses (Kuru otlar ustune) by Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Dizdar dedicated her award to “All women who struggle to overcome the difficulties of existence in this world.” Ceylan’s discursive epic is set among teaching staff in snowy Anatolia, that expands into a microcosm of Turkish society, in which over three and a half hours ever new layers are uncovered, and ethical issues are not merely touched upon, but negotiated in long but never tedious dialogues. The men in this film pretend to be enlightened and yet, at the slightest resistance, prove to be immature and insecure children who insist on the status quo. Dizdar plays a colleague who surprisingly stands up to them and proves to be the strongest, most mature character.

As with Ceylan, it is the female characters in many Cannes films that stand out this year: not as the cliché of the “strong woman”, but complex, ambivalent and controversial. Finally, one would like to shout. Also in view of the deafness with which the festival and its artistic director Thierry Frémaux reacted to justified criticism of the lack of diversity in the programme, which, despite the record seven female directors in the competition, was once again dominated behind the camera by the usual male Cannes veterans (Aki Kaurismäki, Ken Loach, Nanni Moretti, Wim Wenders).

On the big screen, however, things looked a little different: Karim Aïnouz celebrates Katherine Parr (Alicia Vikander), the sixth and last wife of Henry VIII, as a great troublemaker in his historical drama Firebrand. In Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, Mollie (Lily Gladstone), the indigenous wife, is the quiet centre, surrounded by power-hungry, often dumb men. And in May December, Todd Haynes has two dazzling women clash at once, an ambitious soap opera actress (played by Natalie Portman) and her real-life model for a role in a true-crime drama (Julianne Moore). A high camp mirror fencing with two protagonists whose ambivalences are more fascinating than the film’s inconclusive concept. In the romantic drama Banel & Adama by Senegalese Ramata-Toulaye Sy, the only directorial debut in competition, a young woman tries to free herself from the constraints of her village, where traditions and superstition make a free, self-determined life impossible. The Tunisian Kaouther Ben Hania chooses a hybrid form for her portrait Four Daughters (Les filles d’Olfa), which traces the trauma of a single mother through a kind of cinematic family therapy. Two of her daughters have disappeared, and the director replaces them with actresses whom she lets meet the real women, thereby repeatedly succeeding in making emotional fractures visible.

The young French woman in Katell Quillévéré’s melodrama Along Came Love (Le temps d’aimer) is also traumatised. During the Nazi occupation, Madeleine had a brief affair with a German Wehrmacht soldier; after the liberation, she was shorn and exposed for it. The film follows her life as she flees this past, dutifully but lovelessly raising her young son alone at first, and her fragile happiness with a man who struggles with his own homosexual desire, and the love and solidarity that sustain these two outsiders over the years.

As impressively diverse as films by and about women were this year, not all of them were convincing. After a ten-year break, French director Catherine Breillat presented Last Summer (L’été dernier), an amour fou about a married woman and her teenage stepson, which was more perplexing than shocking in its indecisiveness. And Jessica Hausner chose a zeitgeisty subject in Club Zero about a group of students who go into sectarian starvation with “conscious eating”, which she staged in a formally strict and distancing way without gaining anything new from it in terms of content.

Much more interesting and multi-layered was Alice Rohrwacher’s La Chimera, about a gang of robbers who loot Etruscan tombs in the Italian province and sell the antique sculptures and vases to a wealthy clientele. Rohrwacher uses different formats from Super8 to 35mm and thus transfers the archaeological to the aesthetics of film. In its free meandering, a beautiful conclusion to this Cannes edition full of female wonders.


Thomas Abeltshauser
Edited by Rita Di Santo