Does Cannes have a woman problem?
Over the course of its 71 years, the most prestigious cinema gathering in the world has feted the likes of American filmmakers such as Francis Ford Coppola, Quentin Tarantino and Terrence Malick, as well as male auteurs from all over the world. Despite its rich legacy, some glass ceilings remain firmly in place. Only one female director, Jane Campion, has captured the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or, and few women have traditionally been invited to screen their films in competition.
It’s a bad look, particularly given the historical moment. Time’s Up and #MeToo are dominating the conversation around Hollywood, and top female talent are pushing for pay equity and more opportunities, but Cannes has remained stubbornly resistant to change. This year’s gathering has only three films in competition from female filmmakers, which shockingly represents Cannes’ best showing since 2011. Over the past 10 years, of the nearly 180 films that have competed for prizes, a mere 18 have been from women directors.
One bright spot is the composition of the juries that will determine the award winners. The competition jury is headed up by Cate Blanchett and the panel, which includes Kristen Stewart and Ava DuVernay among its nine members, is majority female.
Despite the greater representation, the female-dominated jury fielded questions about sexism and selection bias during a press conference on Tuesday.
“Would I like to see more women in competition?” Blanchett asked rhetorically. “Absolutely.”
She added that she didn’t think that the reverberations from the industry-wide reckoning about sexual harassment had yet to influence the films being highlighted by Cannes.
“There are several women in competition,” she said. “They are not there because of their gender. They are there because of the quality of their work.”
In an interview with Variety last month, festival artistic director Thierry Fremaux hit back at criticism that Cannes should have highlighted more films from female directors. He implied that there were a dearth of seasoned women filmmakers who had the body of work necessary to withstand the jeers and boos that can accompany a screening gone south in the Palais.
“Many of these films directed by women are first or second films,” he said. “They are still young filmmakers, and I wouldn’t be doing them a favor by putting their films in competition. It can be very harsh.”
Other festivals have put diversity front-and-center in their programming choices. Nearly 40% of the films in last year’s Sundance Film Festival were directed by women, and its London edition fared even better with seven of the 12 films at the gathering coming from female talents. The exposure has been critical, serving as a launching pad for the likes of Debra Granik, Lynn Shelton and Dee Rees. The Park City-based festival also made a concerted effort to tap a female programmer, elevating Kim Yutani to the top selector role after Trevor Groth, the festival’s longtime director of programming, departed in January to join shingle 30West.
Sundance is the exception. A survey of 23 U.S. film festivals by the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film at San Diego State University found that male directors were three times as likely to have their films selected by programmers than female filmmakers.
Nor is Cannes the only European festival with a dicey track record when it comes to attracting female talent. Only one of the 21 films that screened in competition at last year’s Venice Film Festival was from a female filmmaker. Berlin fared better, with 21% of the competition pictures in the 2018 edition hailing from women helmers.
Cannes’ image problem extends beyond the gender of the filmmakers it tends to celebrate. The festival’s emphasis on haute couture and glamour means that female stars are often objectified, dodging the klieg lights in form-fitting gowns and stilettos. In 2015, for instance, the festival drew the ire of female guests by denying a group of women who were wearing flats, not heels, entrance to a premiere. While Cannes enforces its black tie dress code for premieres, the unofficial (and not overly enforced) ban on flats blew up on social media, and every other media outlet.
Not everyone is of the same mind. Blanchett, for one, hit back at questions about whether or not women’s rights are being set back by celebrating stars’ red carpet looks.
“Being attractive doesn’t preclude being intelligent,” she said.
Ramin Setoodeh contributed to this report.
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