La femme est l'avenir de l'homme? Woman is the Future of Man? By Barbara Lorey

in 61st Cannes Film Festival

by Barbara Lorey de Lacharriere

If cinema is an image of the world we live in, it’s a gloomy and brutal world that was reflected in the selection of films presented this year in Cannes, a world of misery and private pain, of family dysfunction and economic deprivation, lawless capitalism, organized crime and social cruelty, with often harrowing stories that keep haunting us, just like Ari Folman’s nightmare of a running pack of dark, ferocious teeth-baring dogs with glowing yellow eyes, crushing everyone and everything in their path, in Waltz with Bashir. It’s a man’s world, and strangely enough, the only competition film made by a woman bore the enigmatic title The Headless Woman (La mujer sin cabeza).

Yet, there was light, resistance and even hope in most of these films, born by a number of strikingly impressive and strong female figures — and actresses — knocking over the established male order, fierce heroines fighting courageously for truth and dignity or just for their own dream of happiness. And often it is the dramatic circumstances that reveal to them a strength they had been unaware of before.

An example: Argentinean director Pablo Trapero’s Julia (Martina Gusman) in Lion’s Den (Leonera), who, accused of having murdered her boyfriend’s male lover, gives birth to her child in a prison for women. It is in this particularly harrowing environment of dirty cells, barbed-wire and promiscuity inhabited by women and children that the somehow helpless and abused university student slowly reappropriates her own life. When her mother tries to take her baby away, she fights like a lion for her son and finally finds a way to escape.

For Christine (Angelina Jolie), the lustrous and, with her crimson red lips, stylish heroine of Clint Eastwood’s Changeling aka The Exchange, it’s the sudden disappearance of her son that gives this single mother the strength of desperation to fight against a police system corrupt to the bone. When the police, anxious to cover up its incompetence, tries to ‘replace’ her missing son with another boy, Christine rises to the occasion and engages in a larger battle against the Los Angeles Police Department, stubbornly offering resistance even when they lock her up in a psychiatric hospital.

Light years away from the cozy environment of grieving Angelina Jolie is the story of Cleuza (Sandra Corveloni), a pregnant single mother of four sons from different fathers, struggling to get by in the poverty-stricken, working-class suburbs of Sao Paolo in Linha de Passe by Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas. Relentlessly on the move in their daily struggle for a decent life, each of them tries to live up to his dreams, despite the ferocious environment of this crazy Brazilian megapolis. But alas, the future looks bleak, and there seems to be not much else to rejoice in than football and the dubious promises of religion.

It is resistance against dehumanization, on the other hand, that Arta Dobroshi offers as the Albanian immigrant Lorna, in Lorna’s Silence (Le silence de Lorna), the wonderful new film by the Dardenne brothers when, with unobtrusive yet radiant strength, she takes up the struggle against a Mafia gang of refugee smugglers. In an attempt to realize her dream of opening a snack bar with her boyfriend in the Belgian city of Liège, the young Albanian girl gets caught up in the network of the smuggling organization, which at first pushes her into a sham marriage with a Belgian junkie, only to try and force her to marry a Russian Mafioso once she gets the sought-after Belgian passport. To do this, she first has to be turned into a widow. It is here that Lorna is suddenly shaken awake, triggered by a brief but overwhelming moment of genuine feelings for the junkie. Lorna, who, as a worthy sister to all of the Dardenne heroines, is quite ready to fight with no holds barred for her place in the sun in this social jungle, suddenly rears her head in protest and achieves truly heroic greatness through her humanity. At the end of the film she wanders alone through the dark forest in the Ardennes, once again faced with raw survival. But this time she determines her own life, and the scene is so marvelous that it takes your breath away.

Finally, Andreas Dresen’s lovely film in the section “Un Certain Regard”, Cloud 9 (Wolke 9), tells a simple and almost trite tale of desire, frustration and adultery — except that here the protagonists are all far into the age of retirement. You could hear a pin drop in the theatre when in the opening minutes of the film the rather frank and unsophisticated sixty-something Inge (outstandingly played by Ursula Werner) tears off her sweater and pounces onto the now single, 76-year-old, but still quite vigorous pensioner Karl. To make matters more complicated, she has been leading a rather harmonious 30-year marriage with Werner, who likes to sit at his computer, ride on the train watching the countryside flow by, or else listen to records that have preserved the sound of various passing trains. By contrast, Karl prefers to ride his bike through the beauty of nature and go skinny-dipping with Inge in a lake. This is all so joyful, gentle, matter-of-fact and somehow very ex-GDR on down to the panties, that even in the very explicit sex scenes it is never awkward or embarrassing. Neither of them had been expecting this ‘coup de foudre’ ever to happen, least of all Inge, but when love comes, there’s nothing they can do, as Inge tries to explain to her husband, who is unable to understand what’s happened to them. And so this unexpected love story finally and sadly turns into a drama. Perhaps Dresen saw no other solution to this situation.

In sections other than Competition and “Un Certain Regard” there were also magnificent women protagonists to be found.

In Snow (Snijeg), for example, the debut film of Bosnian director Aida Bregic, in the Critics’ Week, we are led into a small, godforsaken mountain village that has been almost entirely destroyed by the war, where a handful of women and children are struggling to survive. Except for a grandfather, who is taking care of his orphaned grandson and also acts as an imam, almost all of the other inhabitants — men, women and children — have disappeared in the war, and probably been killed.

At the centre of the story is Alma (Zana Marjanovic), a quiet but strong-willed young widow. She is the only person in the village who doggedly resists selling her house and property to foreign investors who suddenly show up in the village one day. Her dream is to set up a business with canned fruit and bring the village back to life. Whether she will succeed in feeding half of Bosnia as planned remains to be seen, but at least she manages to save the village from the real estate sharks.

That it doesn’t always have to be dramatic is proven by Flemish filmmaker Christophe Van Rompaey in his Critics’ Week debut film Moscow; Belgium (Aanrijding in Moscou), a warm-hearted and yet entirely unsentimental and refreshing comedy set in a working-class area in Ghent. Matty, 43, the mother of two adolescent children, has just been ditched by her husband for one of his young students and has given up hope of ever finding happiness. But while driving out of a parking space she bumps into the truck of Johnny, a long-haired suburban cowboy in tight jeans. Johnny promptly falls head over heels in love with the more-than-ten-years older Matty, dragging her into a maelstrom of conflicting emotions. Love does you good and age doesn’t really matter is the message, and it is so refreshingly and humorously told that it warms your heart.

But let’s switch back from screen to reality. It’s one of Cannes’ secrets to juggle joyfully back and forth between its own contradictions. Not unlike the famous champagne served to celebrate films denouncing poverty and exclusion, Cannes never misses an occasion to honor those who are generally excluded from the real thing. This year, the “Cinemas of the South” pavilion, sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, dedicated its program to women filmmakers coming from the so-called “Southern Cinematography” — a term lumping together countries that happen to be located “south” of Western Europe. To close the three day Women’s Careers Event, hosted by Tunisian filmmaker Moufida Tlatli, Thierry Frémaux invited the delegation of 22 women filmmakers, actresses and producers to climb the famous red carpet for the screening of Philippe Garrel’s very Frenchy and artsy arthouse film Frontier of Dawn (La frontière de l’aube). Let’s hope that at least one of these courageous women will herself one day gain access to official honors, and this time with her own film.