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At Cannes, The Year of the Women

Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis reunited at this year’s Cannes Film Festival some twenty five years after “Thelma & Louise” sparked a feminist firestorm.

The film was a box office success, inspired countless think pieces and fierce debate, and scored Oscar nominations for both actresses. But Sarandon lamented that its impact was ephemeral.

“Well I don’t think the studios have fallen off their horse and had some kind of epiphany about women in film,” she said. “After Thelma and Louise, they predicted there would be so many films starring women. But it didn’t happen.”

The numbers suggest that Sarandon is right. Indeed, Hollywood’s glass ceiling remains stubbornly in place even as box office hits such as “The Hunger Games” and “Fifty Shades of Grey” explode old myths that audiences won’t turn up to see  films with women above the title. Last year, women comprised 22% of leads in the top 110 grossing films and 9% of directors on the top 250 most popular films, according to research by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.

At Cannes, however, there is a growing sense that more than two decades later the promise of “Thelma & Louise” is being realized. “Toni Erdmann” and “American Honey,” two of the leading candidates for  the Palme d’Or are directed by women. If either “Toni Erdmann’s” Maren Ade or “American Honey’s” Andrea Arnold takes the stage of the Palais on Saturday they will be only the second woman to win the festival’s highest honor.  Jane Campion nabbed the Palme in 1993 for “The Piano.”

In contrast to major studio films, where actresses are often consigned to playing girlfriends and grandmas, this year’s festival is overflowing with compelling roles for women. Over the course of four “Twilight” films, Kristen Stewart did little more than moon about waiting for Robert Pattinson to rescue her from some undead threat. At Cannes this year, she has emerged as one of the most compelling actresses of her generation, dazzling crowds and critics with her turns as a haunted celebrity assistant in “Personal Shopper” and a young woman torn between two men in “Cafe Society.”

Stewart isn’t the only actress making waves along the Croisette. Ruth Negga has ignited Oscar buzz for her devastating work as one half of an interracial couple in “Loving.” Sasha Lane’s performance as a steely member of the economic under-class in “American Honey” has announced her as an actress to watch. And Pedro Almodovar’s “Julieta,” an adaptation of three Alice Munro short stories, is a love letter to mothers and daughters, offering two showboat roles for Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte, as older and younger versions of a woman unmoored by grief.

Several films have yet to open, but promise more meaty parts for women, among them Xavier Dolan’s “It’s Only the End of the World” with Marion Cotillard and Léa Seydoux helping to anchor the family reunion drama’s cast, and “Elle” with Isabelle Huppert as a woman on the trail of her assailant. Even Nicolas Winding Refn, who has made a career of lionizing hardbitten men in “Drive” and “Pusher,” is getting in touch with his feminine side. The Danish auteur’s “The Neon Demon” is his first film with a female protagonist (Elle Fanning).

The impressive array of projects dominated by women comes after this year’s Sundance Film Festival was heralded for its diversity. Nearly a third of films in the mountainside gathering’s U.S. drama competition were directed by women, and the festival highlighted a number of projects with African-American leads, such as “The Birth of a Nation,” which set a Sundance record with its $17.5 million sale to Fox Searchlight.

At the Women In Motion panel discussion in Cannes, producer Celine Rattray said that the controversy over the Oscars lack of recognition of actors of color coupled with Jennifer Lawrence’s recent essay, entitled “Why Do I Make Less than My Co-Stars,” are a big reason the industry is feeling pressure to become more diverse.

“It’s a conversation all of us have been having for years and years, but (finally)…it spilled into the mainstream press in a big way,” Rattray said. “People are now embarrassed not to have African American representation in casting sessions and female representation on director lists.”

Jodie Foster and Julia Roberts brought their new film “Money Monster” to Cannes last week.
James McCauley/REX/Shutterstock

The question is whether this public shaming will continue to impact the studio side of the business. In an interview with Uproxx, Shane Black, whose film “The Nice Guys” premiered at Cannes, showed that some of these barriers remain stubbornly intractable. When he wrote and directed “Iron Man 3,” he was told that the film could not have a female villain because it would hurt toy sales. Other female roles were reduced in subsequent drafts, he added.

That reticence spills over to female directors, Jodie Foster said during a talk at Cannes. The actress hit the Riviera to debut “Money Monster,” the new financial thriller she directs. She noted that she is the exception to the rule. Studios are making fewer films, preferring to role the dice on costly superhero adaptations and special-effects dominated projects. It’s created a culture of fear on the part of the mostly men who run studios, she said, and that spells trouble for women.

“Everyone before they shake hands to bring a director on kind of quakes in their boots,” said Foster, adding, “It’s hard to look at the face of someone that’s 100% different.”

In that climate, Foster said, “You’re going to go with the guy that looks like you.”

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