Reviewed by Moira Sullivan
This review is part of a double feature on the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. Please check out Moira Sullivan’s article on Agnès Varda.
For years, the Cannes Film Festival has been criticized for selecting far too few films directed by women for the official selection divisions. Last year as head of the jury, Jane Campion took the festival to task for this exclusionary policy, as we knew she would. This year at the 2015 Cannes, the festival slowly showed signs of changing. For the first time in the festival’s history, a film directed by a woman was selected as the opening film, Standing Tall by Emmanuelle Bercot. (Bercot also shared the best actress award for her role in My King, directed by Maïwenn, with Rooney Mara in Todd Haynes’ Carol.) However, the record shows impoverished statistics for women’s films chosen for the official selection between 1962 and 2015. Beginning with Agnès Varda and ending with Maïwenn and Valérie Donzelli, there have been only 45 women selected to be nominated for the Palme d’Or.
The most significant award this year went to veteran director Agnès Varda who received an “Honorary Palme” at the closing ceremony of this year’s festival. Varda, after whom agnès films is named, is the first woman selected for this distinction in the company of only three other directors — Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood, and Bernardo Bertolucci. The award honors the global impact of her work (discussed in this companion article).
This year at Cannes there were seminars with women in film sponsored by different women’s organizations. The Cannes festival began with a meeting on May 18 organized by the Créteil Women’s Film Festival and the Society of Dramatic Authors (SACD) entitled “Women Make Great Movies: Strategies for Success.”
A panel of professional film organizers for women’s organizations, institutes, and festivals included Anna Serner, director of the Swedish Film Institute; Kate Kinninmont, director of “Women in Film and Television” (WIFT) in the UK; Cameron Bailey, artistic director of the Toronto International Film Festival; Melissa Silverstein, founder of the blog “Women and Hollywood” and writer for Indiewire’ and Jasmila Žbanic, Bosnian director and producer. The event drew over 100 participants.
Sweden has been a role model for gender equality in film production. Anna Serner proclaimed that the Swedish Film Institute’s aim is to achieve gender equality by the end of 2015. They have established a website entitled “Nordic Women in Film,” which provides the history of women in Nordic countries from the pioneers to today’s authors. Because it is harder to get a second and third film made, SFI has begun a mentorship program for women. SFI also systematically monitors how many women and men get key positions in film productions and designates mentors for young women filmmakers at festivals, film camps, and regional talent development. Since only one out of five films in Sweden are financed by SFI, the Institute has also set up a research project with the “Swedish Film and TV Producers Association” to study today’s structures in the industry.
Serner was interviewed in Melissa Silverstein’s blog “Women and Hollywood” where she presented statistics of Swedish women in film: “In 2014 we had 50 percent female directors, 55 percent female scriptwriters and 65 percent female producers, but in the past three, we have had 43 percent female directors, 49 percent scriptwriters and 53 percent producers. Women creatives also take home 69 percent of the trophies at film awards ceremonies in Sweden.”
The Créteil International Woman’s Film Festival is the most prominent showcase of films directed by women in the world. Women whose films have been shown at the festival include Margaretha von Trotta, Suzanne Osten, Chantal Akerman, Jane Campion, and Ulrike Ottinger. Each year there are 9 feature films and documentaries, 18 shorts, and 5 young audience films that debut at the festival with prizes of over 40,000 Euros. The next festival will be March 18th to 27th 2016.
An organization of German women filmmakers, Proquote Regie, rallied support for a petition to be sent to the 41st annual G7 meeting in Germany for the financial advisors of participating countries at the summit on June 7th and 8th. They stand behind a statement made by Jane Campion at Cannes last year: “Especially when it comes to public money — it has to be equal.”
It was exciting to learn at this meeting that the Bechdel test, which is an index of how women are represented in film, is used in many countries today. Ellen Tejle, the manager for the Stockholm movie theater Bio Rio where the Bechdel test was first launched in Sweden, passed around leaflets on the Bechdel Test:
The Bechdel Test, sometimes called the “Mo Movie Measure” or “Bechdel Rule” is a simple test which names the following three criteria: (1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man. The test was popularized by Alison Bechdel’s comic Dykes to Watch Out For in a 1985 strip called The Rule. For a nice video introduction to the subject please check out The Bechdel Test for Women in Movies on feministfrequency.com.
Despite the success of the test, there are still skeptics who feel that the rating system can be passed by films and filmmakers that aren’t good. Swedish film studies academics, Anu Koivunen, Ingrid Ryberg, and Laura Horak, disagree:
Instead of rejecting the Bechdel test and the ‘A’ rating as simplistic, critics should focus on the obvious. What does it mean that, in film, women can barely be imagined to have important things to say to each other? Does this have anything to do with implicit criteria of quality and taste? Why not take the challenge to push one’s imagination outside the conventions that come most easily to mind? This is a call for producers, distributors, critics and audience alike.
According to Jackie Buet, director of the Créteil festival for 37 years, “We are still writing the young history of women’s cinema, essential for knowledge of film, all the past and present cinema is fair and complete.” In 1982 at the 20th anniversary of the festival, Agnès Varda was honored.
Also at Cannes this year were a series of talks presented at Hotel Majestic entitled “Women In Motion,” financed by the French luxury firm Kering, an official Cannes partner for the next five years. It is the first edition of such talks, and in the 2016 festival, Kering will present an award to an outstanding woman in film and a young, talented filmmaker. The impressive list of guests included Agnès Varda, producers Christine Vachon and Elizabeth Karlsen (at this festival, for Carol), Claire Denis, Frances McDormand, Isabella Rossellini, Isabelle Huppert, Salma Hayek, and the president of the Cannes Film Festival, Thierry Frémaux. This list of guests for the Kering talks was in great contrast to the SACD meeting, with only celebrities who have been relatively successful in Hollywood being invited to the Kering talks.
At this year’s festival it was almost as if directors took note of the importance of women in film proclaimed at last year’s festival. References to women found their way to films such as the jury prizewinner The Assassin (Taiwan, 2015), directed by Hou Hsiao Hsien. But even when women are profiled in film language, they are an artifice, something unlike themselves. It is difficult to peal away the veneer of one-dimensional stereotypes and create something new, which is the problem for films directed by men about women. The Assassin is based on a short story from the 9th century Tang dynasty. Hou Hsiao-Hsien said there were a lot of female assassins at that time. Given this premise, lead actress Shue Qi was asked if after working in three films with the director, he actually focused on women in this film. “No, not women, nor men,” she replied. “But smoke and fire and wind.”
Another film in competition presented the paradox of aging, revealing differences for men and women in Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth. Jane Fonda as septuagenarian actress Brenda More has the more vital role of the trio featured in the film, resulting from the passionate internal power Fonda brings to her roles. She spoke at the Youth press conference of passion being the inspirational life force of youth and of aging. Her character, Brenda, tells the aging film director, Mick (Harvey Keitel), that his films are no longer good and that he should stop making them. He is insulted and retorts that television has ruined film, but she disagrees and says television is where it’s at today. He reminds her how he saved her from “sleeping her way to the top.” She replies that it is what she wanted — “to pay her own way.” The most resilient and fresh part of Youth is the placement of several women in the Swiss Alps representing how stereotypical women’s roles have been in film throughout Mick’s career. These images correspond with the truths of Brenda More, who later is shown in a compromised position in an airplane when her wig falls off.
The history of Créteil with pioneers behind the camera such as Alice Guy, Germaine Dulac, Musidora, Lois Weber, Rose Lacau Pansini, Elvira Notari, Dorothy Arzner, Ida Lupino, and Jacqueline Audry reflect a different film language. To make a one-dimensional woman look three-dimensional after almost a hundred years of stereotyping is not easy. Women do it best because they understand the complexities and realities of their own existence.