Jane Campion Revitalizes the Cannes Film Festival

Reviewed by Moira Jean Sullivan

This review is part of a double feature on the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. Please check out Moira Jean Sullivan’s review of Clouds of Sils Maria, one of the festival’s outstanding films.

This year’s Cannes Festival was momentous thanks to jury president Jane Campion, the only woman to win a Palme d’Or in the entire history of the pageant. She emphasized the accomplishments of women at Cannes in her opening statement, something that was anticipated and even yearned for by audiences and filmmakers around the world. Apparently Cannes is listening to the growing discomfort caused by the marginalization of women in the festival and this was the year they decided to do the best they could. Campion spoke frankly:

“There is some inherent sexism in the industry. Thierry Frémaux [Cannes Film Festival director] told us that us only 7% out of the 1,800 films submitted to the Cannes Film Festival were directed by women. He was proud to say that we had 20% in all of the programs. Nevertheless, it feels very undemocratic and women do notice. Time and time again we don’t get our share of representation. Excuse me, gentlemen, but the guys seem to eat all the cake. It’s not that I resent the male filmmakers. I love all of them. But there is something that women are thinking of doing that we don’t get to know enough about. It’s always a surprise when a woman filmmaker does come about.”

Jane Campion and her majority-female jury

Jane Campion and her majority-female jury

After such a pronouncement it was not surprising that Italian filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher won the Grand Prix award for The Wonders (Italy 2014). Her film is the story of a part German, part Italian family with parents who are former student revolutionaries during a summer in the Tuscan countryside. Rohrwacher captures it all in her art-house coming of age story with an environmental message. The film was popular among critics and well deserving of its award.

The Cannes Film Festival is foremost an auteur festival, which is why when the official competition lineup is announced first thoughts go to the stature of the filmmakers. Cannes is also a cultural event, which values films as artistic accomplishments. It is a festival that despite being held in France is not a national festival but an international one, attended by the best filmmakers from all over the world. Delicate arrangements from the filmmakers, distributors, and sales agents are made to premiere the films at Cannes, and because of that, 4,000 journalists and media outlets are on hand to broadcast the largest and most prestigious festival in the world.

This year Alice Rohrwacher along with Kawaze Naomi (Japan) were the only women in the 18-film official competition lineup. In the official competition of the festival, they were Frémaux’s “20 percenters.”

The majority female jury of the official competition this year was another first in the history of Cannes. Sofia Coppola (USA), Carol Bouquet (France), Leila Hatami (Iran), Jeon Do-yeon (South Korea), and Jane Campion (New Zealand) were flanked by Gael Garcia Bernal (Mexico), Zhangke Jia (China), Willem Dafoe (USA), and Nicolas Winding Refn (Denmark). Like any jury, they were instructed by Campion to not read anything about the films in the mass media.

One incident that marred the festival’s opening was criticism waged against Leila Hatami by the deputy culture minister of Iran, Hossein Noushabadi. He asked that she be lashed and punished for accepting the traditional French kiss by Giles Jacob. Later in the festival, efforts made to protect the “chaste” image of Iranian women were obvious. Hatami was forced to apologize for her behavior.

Alice Worhwacher, director of The Wonders with Sam Louwyck, Monica Bellucci, and Alice Worhwacher

Alice Worhwacher, director of The Wonders with Sam Louwyck, Monica Bellucci, and Alice Worhwacher

The festival got off to an awkward start with the opening film, the out-of-competition showpiece Grace of Monaco (France 2014) by Olivier Dahan. The Royal Family of Monaco, who protested that it was clearly not a biopic, boycotted the festival. In his defense, Dahan claimed that producer Harvey Weinstein stripped the film of its artistic integrity. Grace of Monaco, which will not be released in the US, centers on a period of Grace Kelly’s life in Monaco when she was out of step with the duties of a princess and wanted to return to Hollywood to make Marnie with Alfred Hitchcock.  At the same time, the story alleges that Monaco was about to become annexed to Charles de Gaulle’s France, a situation avoided through Grace Kelly’s charitable efforts in the international Red Cross. It is well known that Princess Grace was foremost interested in art and social welfare in the principality of Monaco throughout her reign. The film deals with Grace Kelly’s homesickness for America and how she felt at isolated and lonely within the Francophile culture of Monaco as an outspoken American woman.

The Jury president of the second Cannes competitive division Un Certain Regard, Nicole Garcia, sat in a press panel for the awards on May 24 with the ensemble prizewinners of the opening film Party Girl (France 2014)—Samuel Theis, Marie Amachoukeli, and Claire Burger, graduates of La Femis film school in Paris. Their film is done in the cinema verité style of realism with non-professional actors.  Angélique Litzenburger, who plays a woman wanting to give up her life as a bar hostess for married life, is the real life mother of Theis.  One member of the press corps criticized Garcia’s jury for not choosing special mention awards, an attack on her leadership as a woman and an attack on the film. Had the jury president not been a woman would this have happened? The situation was tense and Garcia’s choice was defended by the panel discussion leader.

Five women were behind the camera of the 20 contestants in the Un Certain Regard section, including Asia Argento Incompresa (Misunderstood, Italy 2014). This is Argento’s third feature. She is the daughter of the legendary horror film master Dario Argento and his wife Daria Nicolodi, the leading lady in many of his gothic horror films. On Twitter, Asia Argento lists herself as “Ex actor, Filmmaker Screen & Song Writer Red Witch Poet Priestess.” Incompresa is a compression of image and sound with extraordinary mise-en-scène that is both artistic and precocious. The colorful characters and mischievous dialogue show how children and parents can be unconsciously cruel to each other. Nine-year-old Aria (Giulia Salerno) is shuffled between two narcissistic but lovable parents (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Gabriel Garko), preoccupied with their careers and lovers. Their daughter seems to bring the best and worst out of them.

Asia Argento directs Misunderstood

Asia Argento directs Misunderstood

The jury prize of the official competition was shared by two films: Xavier Dolan’s Mommy (Canada 2014) and the French New Wave director Jean Luc Godard’s Adieu au Langage (Goodbye to Language, France 2014). Godard’s film uses partially colorized scenes and fragmentation in a rather well shaped non-linear narrative. Godard seems to be keeping up with innovation and recently announced that he was working on colorizing Breathless (1960), his first feature made when he was 30, starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg.

Xavier Dolan’s Mommy represents a paradigm shift for cinematic language. Defying established aspect ratios, Dolan and his director of photography André Turpin used a perfectly square 1.1 scope instead of today’s widescreen formats. Mommy, shot on 35mm, centers around a mother with a violent son and explores a futuristic Canada with new mental-health laws.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep took home the Palme d’Or, the top award of the festival. Ceylan is a veteran who has received other runner-up prizes at Cannes. The universal appeal of Winter Sleep with its many philosophical comments about life spoke strongest to Campion’s jury. The film is set in Turkey and illustrates class disparities through the story of a disintegrating marriage between an actor and his wife. Winter Sleep was also chosen as the best film of the official competition by FIPRESCI (International Film Critics Association),

There were critics who would have preferred that the Palme d’Or go to Dolan, who seemed likely to become the youngest Palme d’Or recipient at age 25. Had he won with his latest film Mommy (Canada 2014), he would have beat Steven Soderbergh’s record. Soderbergh won the Palme d’Or for Sex, Lies and Videotapes(1989) when he was 26. Soderbergh’s voyeuristic portrait of taped erotic confessions was praised for its innovation. The same is now being said about Mommy and its groundbreaking film language. Dolan saluted Jane Campion when accepting his award for the Grand Jury prize: “You have written magnificent roles for women, with a soul, neither victims nor objects.”

Coming Home's Zhang Yimou, Zhang Huiwen, Gong Li, and Chen Daoming

Coming Home’s Zhang Yimou, Zhang Huiwen, Gong Li, and Chen Daoming

The Cannes film selection for several divisions is always subject to dispute, as we note from the conspicuous absence of films from Asia this year, another marginalized area of representation in film. The festival had the lowest number of features from Asia since 1966, a total of seven, and only one in competition by Japanese auteur Kawaze Naomi. Kawase’s Still The Water (Japan 2014) was regarded as a strong contender for the Palme d’Or. The film is about two teenagers on Anami Oshima, a subtropical island off mainstream Japan. More than half of the film was improvised. Asia, which has double the growth rate of the global average, is hardly making less films but film festival programmers are either not working hard enough or are not knowledgeable enough to sift through production to identify artistic quality and value, according to a report by Film Business Asia.

A particularly noteworthy out-of-competition film this year was Zhang Yimou’s Gui Lai (Coming Home, China 2014), based on the novel by Yan Geling, a novelist and screenwriter who has worked with Chen Kaige and Joan Chen. It is the best film Yimou has done in a while. In Gui Lai he unites with his leading lady and ex-wife Gong Li, regarded to as “the muse of Fifth Generation filmmakers.” Beyond being an actor, Li’s performances have the feel of an auteur with an opulent signature. Yimou has returned to handcrafted tales of emotional relationships and intimate human dramas in mainland China. Coming Home is symbolic of the amnesia of the Cultural Revolution since its demise. A devoted couple is separated when Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming) is sent to prison as a political prisoner. Their own daughter Dan Dan (Zhang Huiwen) gives up her father to the Party. Though he is released during the last days of the Cultural Revolution, when he returns to his wife Feng Wanyu (Gong Li) she has suffered amnesia and does not remember him. Gong Li and Chen Daoming give stellar performances in this difficult tale of familial and political circumstance.

In the short film competition, two films commanded special attention. Ran Huang’s The Administration of Glory (China 2014) was badly translated (censored?) from French to English and specifically mentions the displacement of scientists working in the occult, including members of the Chinese spiritual discipline called Falun Gong in the New Republic.  Embedded within this premise is the actual potential threat this group presents with its independent stance from the government. The subject is intriguing and is achieved in an experimental posture. The capsule of the film purports that the film has to do with shooting odds but the subject and its ramifications is more complex. Huang is the first filmmaker from China to be shortlisted since 1965 in the short film section.

One exceptional short film by a woman that stood out this year was Petra Szocs’ A kivégzés (The Execution, Hungary/Rumania 2014). The film shows the after effects of the reign of the Rumanian despot Ceausescu for a new generation. Three school children from Cluj in 1990 Romania play execution with each other, playing the role of the dictator Nicolae and his wife Elena before the firing squad. Vestiges of pent up cultural rage are present in what appears to be innocent games. In real life, the young lead actress Moldován Katalin is an orphan and it was her first time in Cannes. Petra Szocs announced that 80% of the Rumanian people would vote for Ceausescu if he were alive today, in spite of his ruthless legacy.

The Excecution's Moldovan Katalin photographed by reviewer Moira Sullivan

The Excecution’s Moldovan Katalin photographed by reviewer Moira Sullivan

Finally queer films are beginning to be acknowledged at Cannes due to the efforts of organizer Franck Finance-Madureira. The 2014 Queer Palm award went to Pride (UK, 2014), the story of the coalition between British mine workers and gay activists in 1984. The jury president was Bruce LaBruce. The prominence of gay themes was notable this year with Olivier Assaya’s Clouds of Sils Maria in the official competition (reviewed separately) and Panos H. Koutras’s Xenia in Un Certain Regard.  Koutras explained at Cannes that the title of his film harks back to its ancient meaning of honoring and welcoming strangers. From this word “xenophobia” has taken on negative monumental proportions today. The film is the story of two brothers returning to Greece. Party Girl was also nominated along with Xavier Dolan’s Mommy, and Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent (France 2014) about the legendary fashion designer.  Also noteworthy was Bande de Filles by Céline Sciamma (France 2014), a film about a teenage girl gang, all young women of color. Sciamma previously received acclaim for Tomboy (France 2011), which won the Teddy Award at Berlin.

At the Cannes closing ceremony, Jane Campion’s role as President of the Jury came full circle after attending 30 years of Cannes festivals. Her film Peel (1982) won the Short Film Palme d’Or and The Piano (1993) the Palme d’Or. Cannes made her career take off and attracted financial backers so that she could continue making films and for that she is eternally grateful. By calling attention to the minority of women at Cannes, she raises the question, do we need a quota system as in Sweden to insure that more women are represented? The Cannes organizers claim they only show the best films regardless of gender. Given the statistics that 1800 films were sent to Cannes this year, and only 20% of the films in each category were made by women, one wonders on what grounds the other films were eliminated.

How will it be possible to achieve parity in this oldest of cinematic male establishments: the Cannes Film Festival? This year, the festival offered us Jane Campion and Nicole Garcia as division presidents to demonstrate that they are taking the question seriously.

Make sure to also check out Moira’s review of Clouds of Sils Maria, which screened at the festival.  You can also visit Moira’s profile.

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