While Cannes has always had a love affair with its glamorous leading ladies, relatively few female filmmakers have graced the red carpet since the festival began in 1946. This year, four female filmmakers competed for the Palme d’Or — the most since the festival began.
While four out of 20 isn’t exactly even, it constitutes some kind of progress for women in the world of film — particularly those working behind the camera. There’s nothing tokenistic about these inclusions: a huge buzz rightly surrounded Lynne Ramsey’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, with the word ‘Kevin’ peppered liberally around all conversations about the best of the fest. Japan’s Naomi Kawase (Hanezu No Tsuki) is a veteran Cannes prize-winner and France’s Maïwenn Le Besco has been much-praised for her drama Polisse, in which she also stars.
Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty divided audiences more firmly but received several strong reviews. As a critic firmly in the pro camp, I found this Australian drama haunting and compelling with a terrific lead performance from Emily Browning as the cash-strapped call girl drifting into a world of fetishism. While some criticised the narrative gaps, begging for further explanation, I enjoyed attempting to decode each little mystery this atmospheric film offered.
Elsewhere in the festival, many fascinating portraits of women emerged. One of the most controversial was Israeli drama The Slut (Hanotenet), Hagar Ben-Asher’s minimalist portrayal of a sexually active woman who willingly services the men of her village, seemingly fairly indiscriminately. Which much has been made of the film’s feminist intentions, the motivations of Ben-Asher’s heroine remain unspoken: is she highly sexed, using her sexuality to gain control or both? Does she feel empowered through what appear to be submissive erotic acts? I found this much less compelling than Sleeping Beauty but remained intrigued by this complex character full of contradictions.
A group of female characters much more vocal about their intentions were those in 17 Girls (17 filles), a promising co-directorial debut for French sisters Delphine and Muriel Coulin. Based on the true story of schoolgirls who plotted to fall pregnant at the same time, it’s an engaging watch exploring a group driven by female friendships rather than relationships with men. According to the Coulin screenplay, these girls were less interested in boys for romantic purposes, simply requiring them to impregnate them. The naïve plan is to live in an idyllic commune with their children — yet they’re quick to dismiss the hippy label. There’s an amusing scene in which school staff attend an emergency meeting, each offering their interpretation of the girls’ actions according to their own obsessions. Some declare it a political statement, others a reaction to the international crisis, others a feminist war cry. 17 Girls gleans light humour from the stark realities of the situation which has more to do with peer pressure, naivety and a need to be loved.
Women were also at the centre of numerous features from male directors such as the Chinese Sauna on the Moon, a Critics’ Week selection which explored the life of a group of exploited prostitutes. Also in Critics’ Week, the Bulgarian Avé followed a teenaged girl hitchhiker who escapes from her problems via fanciful stories and manipulative mind games. In Un Certain Regard’s Miss Bala, a would-be beauty queen gets mixed up in the mob — but Miss Congeniality this is not. After her luminous performance in this gritty crime thriller, Mexican star Stephanie Sigman could be one of the most promising acting discoveries of this year’s festival
Back to the official competition, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia centred around two very strong female characters, sisters played by Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsborg. Their sensitive performances combined with a script rich in character detail, exploring the issues of siblings facing family fall-outs, mental health problems and quite literally the end of the world. Whatever the director’s actions, this deeply atmospheric film was no disaster and, for me, rounded off a strong year for films both made by and focusing on women.
© FIPRESCI 2011