Why This Year's Cannes Film Festival Was A Step Forward For Gender Equality

BY Christobel Hastings / May 30 2017 / 14:30 PM

The future is female

Why This Year's Cannes Film Festival Was A Step Forward For Gender Equality
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They come for the sun, the hospitality, and the shimmering cerulean waters. For A-listers, a chance to soak up the European sensibility; for followers of fashion, a chance to see Hollywood stars parading an endless array of the world's most beautiful couture gowns. Quite simply, the Cannes Film Festival has never gone out of fashion.

As much as the festival enjoys a fortnight-long fashion spectacle, it could never reasonably be accused of having an overtly feminist agenda. This is, after all, the place that reportedly laid down a mandate for high heels, and barred women from entering a screening because of their "rhinestone flats". So too has it been criticised for the woeful shortfall of women filmmakers in competition. In 2012, a group of industry insiders including Gillian Anderson, Rachel Ward and the high priestess of feminism herself, Gloria Steinem, presented a petition to Cannes officials, entitled 'Where are the women directors?' And things got off to a shaky start this year when it emerged that an archive image of Italian actress Claudia Cardinale on the official poster had received the airbrush treatment.

This season, however, change was in the air, as Cannes started to question what female empowerment could look like, both in front of and behind the camera. After years of stalling on the issue of gender parity, a new poll by Women in Hollywood showed the number of female film directors was at long last on the rise. Finally, film's glitziest gala was ready to re-energise an important conversation about the representation of women in film.

Kristen Stewart, the first female American actor in 30 years to win a Cesar, was out in force to promote her directorial debut Come Swim, shown as part of the Shatterbox Anthology Project - run by Refinery29 - which aims to redress the disparity between male and female directors. Vanessa Redgrave, magnificent at eighty, picked up the directorial baton with her politically charged documentary Sea of Sorrow, contextualising the refugee crisis. Meanwhile filmmaker Lynne Ramsay found her billing in the main competition, alongside Japanese writer-director Naomi Kawase and Cannes veteran Sofia Coppola.

Elsewhere, onscreen characters were driving the gender parity agenda home.

Jane Campion's Sundance Channel series Top of The Lake: China Girl unveiled some fiercely feminist storytelling, which dealt with everything from sex trafficking to prostitution and illegal surrogacy. The talk of the town though was Sofia Coppola's Southern Gothic melodrama, The Beguiled, based on the 1966 novel by Thomas P Cullinan. The 1971 adaptation starring Clint Eastwood was full of sexualised fantasy and loaded gazes; this time around, Coppola strips away the sexism and spins a fresh, feminist perspective. "You are not our guest, but a somewhat unwelcome visitor. We don't propose to entertain you," foreshadows headmistress Miss Martha Farnsworth to injured Union soldier John McBurney - and, true to her word, the soldier becomes subject to the playful games, lustful seductions and sinister retribution of a school of repressed southern belles. Make no mistake: in Coppola's female-centric world, it is women who transgress the usual codes of behaviour and emerge triumphant.

And then came Nicole Kidman, dubbed this year's 'Queen of Cannes', who graced the Croisette with no fewer than four projects, alternating between a surgeon's wife, a buttoned-up headmistress, a 1977 punk, and a feminist mother. In an age where actresses evaporate from our screens in their forties, Kidman poses a superb, shining rebuff to the ageist patriarchy - and her vocal support of female directors was a welcome addition to the festival too. "I think it's necessary to say that every 18 months I'll make a movie with a female director," she told the New Zealand Herald. "Because that's the only way statistics will change when other women start to go, 'Oh, I'm actually going to choose only a woman now.'"

The truth of gender disparity inspired notable victories elsewhere, too. Juror Jessica Chastain, who was seen sporting Dior's "We Should All Be Feminists" T-shirt during the week, criticised the "disturbing" depiction of women in film. "I do believe if you have more female storytelling you also have more authentic female characters", she noted in a post-ceremony press conference, and fellow filmmaker Maren Ade agreed. "We need more women making films because we all want this business to reflect modern society and we are still not there." Determined to be in on the feminist wave, Jake Gyllenhaal spoke out in support of gender diversity while promoting his latest film Okja. "I absolutely believe in the superiority of women," he told the crowd. "All the people I work with feel the same way, and they must, or else I don't work with them." All of which will no doubt boost #SeeHerNow, the campaign from Women in Hollywood to raise awareness of the work of female filmmakers.

But the real proof of historic change came in the prestigious Palme d'Or awards ceremony, where women rose to prominence. Lynne Ramsay picked up Best Screenplay, Leonor Serraille the Camera d'Or, while Nicole Kidman was honoured with a special award in celebration of the festival's 70th anniversary. Perhaps the most significant triumph was Sofia Coppola's win for Best Director, who became only the second female filmmaker in history to take home the prize after Soviet director Yuliya Ippolitovna Solntseva in 1961, smashing a 56-year streak of male dominance.

Whether Cannes will sustain this newfound focus on gender parity in years to come remains to be seen. There's a long way to go, and change is slow - women made up just seven per cent of all directors working on the 250 highest-grossing domestic releases in 2016. But at a festival widely considered the barometer of political, cultural and creative standing, the centring of female perspectives sends a strong message that our voices, and stories, matter. And by supporting film projects helmed by women, we can help bolster the cause. One day Cannes will have the world's attention for its formidable female directors - and we should all be there to cheer them along.

Via Harper's Bazaar UK