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Cannes Film Festival Continues to Put Marginal Spotlight on “Women in Film”: May 11–22, 2016

Developmental Editing by Alexandra Hidalgo
Copy Editing and Posting by Elena Cronick

Ellen Tejle, promoter of Bechdel-Wallace ratings for Swedish film theaters
Ellen Tejle, promoter of Bechdel-Wallace ratings for Swedish film theaters. Photo by Moira Sullivan.

After ten days of intensity, the Cannes Film Festival came to an end on May 22 with the announcement of the prize-winning films. With the thousands of films in the “Short Film Corner,” the “Marché du Film” (Cannes Market), and the several divisions of the festival both in and out of competition, the prestigious awards seem like a rousing way to end the festivities. During the week up to that moment there is a frenzy of deal making and promotion in operation. Celebrities make appearances to promote their films at screenings, press conferences are held, journalists interview casts and crews, and publicists set up interview sessions for films featuring their stars.

When Ken Loach won the Palme d’Or for I, Daniel Blake, he stressed how important the Cannes Festival is and how it needs to be supported. In so stating, a note of unease filled the air. Is Cannes in any danger? Yes, it is. The future of the movie business is streaming and VOD (video on demand), as evidenced by the enthusiasm of Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, who was courted by Amazon Studios to stream his in-competition The Neon Demon next year after it enjoyed a modest theatrical release. Netflix is also sharing the new market with other conglomerates getting into the act, such as Macy’s, which is now launching streaming videos with Lady Gaga. Beyoncé was also sighted at Cannes, whose award-winning music videos include “Formation” televised on the Super Bowl in February and a special “Lemonade” world event that premiered in April on HBO.

Women over 40 have accepted invitations to Cannes over the last few years from the fashion conglomerate Kering to speak about gender equality at the “Kering Talks.” The first speaker this year was Jodie Foster, who proclaimed that “Hollywood is afraid of women.” After that, Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis took on Woody Allen, whose film Café Society opened in Cannes, for marrying his adopted daughter. Salma Hayek and Juliette Binoche spoke next. Chloë Sevigny was the youngest female director in attendance, presenting Kitty, a short film for Semaine de la Critique (International Critics’ Week). So far, it appears few women under 40 have been invited to speak in this claustrophobic and exclusive venue. Most of the guests have established careers in the film industry. Is this really an agenda to get more women behind the camera? Considering the veteran celebrity status of the invited women, that seems to be hardly the case. The “Kering Talks” exist because of a vacuum that the festival has yet to fill in its practice of selecting films. At the most, one or two films made by women ever make it to the official selection, the main showcase of the festival with a prestigious jury. In the meantime,

Clara and Julia Kuperberg at Cannes.
Clara and Julia Kuperberg at Cannes. Photo by Moira Sullivan.

Kering peddles makeup and handbags to women. Festival fashion conglomerates, which include Miu Miu in Venice and Lancôme in Cannes, dress up women like adult dolls showcasing fashion merchandise every day of the year, while powerful actors or filmmakers in the film industry are invited to “power talks” for the 10-day festival, helping legitimize the merchandise they sell. This is the subtext of these events, which are packaged as equality seminars.

Parallel selections at Cannes feature slightly more work by women in the categories of short films, documentary, out of competition, Critics’ Week, Directors’ Fortnight, and Cannes Classics, a special venue for films, new and classic. Even though today’s film industry does not reflect that reality, women were in front of the camera from the origin of filmmaking. Clara Kuperberg and Julia Kuperberg showed women’s early involvement in the film industry in a special documentary film nominated for the L’Œil d’or, le prix du documentaire (The Golden Eye Award). The film is Et la Femme Créa Hollywood (And Woman Created Hollywood), released as Women Who Run Hollywood. Presented in the Cannes Classic section, the film title is a play on Roger Vadim’s 1956 film Et Dieu Créa la Femme (And God … Created Woman), starring Brigitte Bardot.

In the Kuperberg documentary we learn that Mary Pickford, alongside D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks, formed United Artists in 1919. She was also one of the 36 founders of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She won two Oscars—best actress (1929) and an Academy Honorary Award (1976). Frances Marion was a two-time Oscar winner for her screenplays and she taught Charlie Chaplin how to make pictures. Alma Reville was an editor in England and she taught future-husband Alfred Hitchcock how to cut films. What would these women say to us today about the (mis)representation of women in film and about how few films by women are selected at Cannes? The documentary rigorously demonstrates how “history is written by the victors.” Women were literally pushed out of their director seats when filmmaking become profitable and men took over. A box of photographs of unidentified women from early film history led to the discovery of hundreds of women behind the camera or working in the film industry, the foundation of this excellent film. This film helped make this year’s festival for me. I would have liked it to have been shown in a larger format because it is vital to screen a documentary proving that women were in the film industry from the beginning. It would have helped address the wrong of having so few films made by women shown at Cannes year after year.

Still from "The Women Who Run Hollywood", (2015) Mary Pickford (right) and Frances Marion on left.
Still from “The Women Who Run Hollywood”, (2015) Mary Pickford (right)
and Frances Marion on left.

The other woman-centric event was a seminar hosted by the Swedish Film Institute (SFI) and the Swedish Government.  The CEO of SFI, Anna Serner, addressed her audience in a large venue on the Croisette that eclipsed the “Kering Talks” headquarters, which are located in a hotel suite. Serner illustrated a program for creating gender equality for film financing. She was supported by Alice Bah Kuhnke, the Swedish Minister for Culture and Democracy, and Audrey Azoulay, the Minister of Culture and Communication in France. Through their help and Serner’s work, Sweden set up a plan called “50/50 by 2020” for gender equality in film production and already met its goal a couple of years ago. So far, the British Film Institute has been the only country to adopt the same plan. It is unthinkable that the United States, which does not have a national film institute, will ever do this. That means that the change needs to come from within the private sector for funding films made by women.

One of the seminar panel members was Alexandra-Therese Keining, director, producer and screenwriter of Pojkarna (Girls Lost), a box office success in Sweden, which was selected for Cannes’s Écrans Junior (Children’s Film Section). Girls Lost is the story of three girls bullied in high school, who discover a magic plant that temporarily changes them into boys. The Swedish title translates as The Boys, and ironically was renamed Girls Lost for international distribution in this unique gender bender.

Ellen Tejle, the former manager of Bio Rio, the first theater to screen films with Bechdel (“A” stamp) ratings in Sweden, passed out decals after the seminar for the “Bechdel-Wallace Test.”  Alison Bechdel credits her friend Liz Wallace with the test idea illustrated in her cartoon serial Dykes to Watch Out For. It’s a simple test where in order to pass, a film must feature 1) at least two women 2) who speak to each other 3) about something other than men. Later in the festival Tejle met up with a member of the official Cannes jury—Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, who told her he was “scornful and critical of Swedish feminists.” Tejle was surprised by Mikkelsen’s reaction since she believes that based on his experience he should have greater knowledge about gender representation in film.

The Bechdel-Wallace test
The Bechdel-Wallace test

The representation of women was still problematic in this year’s selection, presided over by a jury headed by George Miller (and including Mikkelsen). Park Chan Wook’s film The Handmaiden (South Korea) was one of the top five films and Ryu Seong-hie won the independent Prix Vulcain de l’Artiste Technicien (Vulcan Award) for her art direction. When asked about his film, Park Chan Wook said it was about “three people who con each other.” However, the film, based on Sarah Waters’ Victorian thriller novel Fingersmith, concerns a young woman molested by her father/guardian and forced into sexual slavery, which includes reading pornographic books to his clients. She falls in love with another woman. Netflix asked Wook to keep a lid on the lesbian content until it was released in order to not spoil the deal.

Swedish Minister for Culture and Democracy, Alice Bah Kuhnke at the 69th Cannes Film Festival
Swedish Minister for Culture and Democracy, Alice Bah Kuhnke at the 69th Cannes Film Festival. Photo by Moira Sullivan.

Several films represented women as “empty signs,” i.e., emptied of a “signified woman” and filled with “the signified: men’s relationships to each other” and exchanged between them. (See Elizabeth Cowie’s classic paper, “Woman as Sign,” 1978) In Elle, directed by Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct, 1992) a woman is raped and later dates the man who assaulted her. In The Neon Demon, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, a 16-year-old woman is thrown into an empty swimming pool and her insides are eaten by a lesbian makeup artist and two jealous fashion models. In Pericles, directed by Stefano Mordini, the daughter of a mafia boss is held at knife point and her children are threatened with heroin injections. A single mother of two children, who finds herself on welfare, resorts to being an escort in Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake, directed by Ken Loach, a familiar trope in female representation. A young woman under 18 is paid by a fellow worker to watch her naked while he jerks off—he is considered “nice” by male critics for not having sex with her—in Jury Prize Winner American Honey, directed by Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, 2009).

Alexandra Therese Keining, Swedish filmmaker of "Girls Lost" (2015), at seminar. Photo by Moira Sullivan.
Alexandra Therese Keining, Swedish filmmaker of “Girls Lost” (2015), at seminar. Photo by Moira Sullivan.

The larger truth behind unemployment and gentrification is the privatization of resources and globalization of the economy. The larger truth to representing women in historical tropes of mutilation and sexualized violence in a globalized industry is that films don’t sell unless these elements are present. If the Cannes Film Festival is later preempted by the saturation of VOD and streaming markets, women will continue to play these kinds of roles, which are profitable. Regardless of this elegant showcase of new original “art work,” the bloodier the tapestry, the more art value it has.

It is not only a question of women as film directors, but of content representing a “signified woman,” such as the work of Maya Deren, Chantal Akerman, Yvonne Rainer, Sadie Benning, Sally Potter, Agnès Varda, and Alice Rohrwacher. Some are examples of écriture féminine (feminine writing) that relate the experiences of women and their corporality and show woman as bearer of meaning. Varda, a feminist filmmaker, makes a distinction that her work is an example of cinécriture (cine-writing), using the properties of film from conception to reception. This she shares with Chantal Akerman and Maya Deren, who wrote, directed, and produced their own work.

Jodie Foster claims that Money Monster, presented out of competition at Cannes, is “a thinking film” with clever dialogue. It is a film about a TV stock market expert and his producer, whose advice contributes to a spectator’s bankruptcy and who holds them hostage on live television. As meaningful as the film may be, the female characters are still empty signs that represent relationships between men. Surrounded by economic systems run by men, a woman’s discourse that is relevant to other women is unable to emerge. When it does, it is caught within parentheses, where women are “punished” for being a threat to the patriarchal order, such as Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise (1991).

The ebbs and flows of the movie business, like the privatized and globalized sale of land, homes, work, labor, and the environment is historically predicated on false images of women. As those forces grow, it won’t make any difference if there are new roles for women. Superficial entertainment platforms cultivate tastes for a new generation that looks upon historic black and white films as examples of bad lighting and bad sound, and experimental work as confusing and chaotic. Throughout film history, the images of women—fragmented, compartmentalized, limited, and bloodied—have continued. These images, primarily made by men, are still a big part of the Cannes Festival and sell to distributors for theatrical release. It is a wonder that women feel excluded when their work is not selected for the official competition. For if films made by women don’t provide new forms and tropes with female characters that signify women, we will continue to produce the same kinds of films where a woman’s discourse is absent and where women are represented as stereotypes eclipsed by an exchange system run by men.

You can also visit Moira’s profile here.

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