The September trifeca of Telluride-Venice-Toronto inevitably produces talk of Oscar contenders, but the difference this year is in where awards hopefuls are showing some strength.

In ways both subtle and extreme, women held the spotlight in Venice this year, and not simply by presenting their bodies onscreen in an array of roles.

Notably, there were three female directors in competition: Sofia Coppola, Kelly Reichardt and Athina Rachel Tsangari, and a number of competition titles were particularly focused on stories and themes of female agency and empowerment, from Reichardt’s Oregon Trail oater “Meek’s Cutoff,” anchored by Michelle Williams’ performance as a spitfire frontier heroine, to Tsui Hark’s “Detective Dee and the Mystery of Phantom Flame,” a historical whodunit set around the controversial coronation of China’s first and only empress (an imperious Carina Lau). Another epic set in ancient China, Su Chao-pin and John Woo’s out-of-competition “Reign of Assassins,” cast Michelle Yeoh as a skilled professional killer trying — unsuccessfully — to enjoy her retirement in peace and quiet.

Natalie Portman (“Black Swan”), Catherine Deneuve (“Potiche”) and the “Machete” tough-girl trio of Michelle Rodriguez, Jessica Alba and Lindsay Lohan all clicked as well. But femme issues reached an apotheosis at the Sept. 7 press screening of Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Black Venus,” which raises thorny questions about the ethics of representation and female objectification that will loom large over the film as it makes its way through festivals and, it’s hoped, into arthouse cinemas.

Despite the molto U.S. filmmakers at Venice, which ended Sept. 12, arguably the biggest buzz was reserved for an American director who was nowhere to be seen.

For a year, cineastes had predicted Terrence Malick and his “Tree of Life” would bow at Cannes, then it was a guessing game of Telluride-Venice-Toronto. At each step, the explanation was that the film wasn’t ready.

Last week, the Lido was rife with updated rumors, some contradictory: that the film has been finished since July, that it had been screened for London distribs, that it’s opening in October, and that Italian distribs had hoped for an easy-to-sell Brad Pitt-Sean Penn star vehicle but were stunned at their screening to discover it’s an artfilm. (Had they not seen Malick’s earlier pics?)

But it all ended Sept. 10 when Fox Searchlight took on the pic, adding it to its 2011 schedule and raising the next big question: Does that mean a Berlin launch?