Allow me to preface this piece with a disclaimer. I am a lifelong fan of film, a (wannabe) screenwriter, and an ex- (very, very amateur) actress. I stay up to watch the Oscars even though it kills me every year, I write reviews of films for my own amusement, and we are largely, in my opinion, living through the second Golden Age of cinema. I am also, naturally, supporter of equality and of a greater representation of diverse women on camera and behind it.
This is why, then, when Cannes put themselves forward following the Weinstein revelations & #MeToo movement as being eager to change with the times (as much as Cannes is ever eager to change), when the ‘famous’ part of the jury selected were some female industry creatives that I thoroughly admire, and when I heard that measures including a harassment hotline were being taken to ensure women’s safety, I was absolutely ecstatic.
This is also why, now that I’ve had time to reflect, I’m somewhat disappointed.
Cannes has long been fending off criticism of their treatment of women. But this year was foretold to be different. On the face of it, we were promised the world – shocking, really, that ‘the world’ is equal representation and basic respect, but there we are – but what was delivered felt forced. It felt like I’d seen a sign at the side of the road saying ‘free beer!’ and then discovered that the pub in question had been burnt down. Like I’d found a fiver in my pocket, but it was the out-of-circulation one. The Cannes Film Festival promised me a lot, and in a lot of ways, it failed.
Not in every way – no, certainly not! This year’s jury had a healthy mix of female talent, headed up by the likes of Cate Blanchett, Ava DuVernay, and Kristen Stewart. There was the 5050×2020-organised silent protest on the red carpet, made up of 82 women who represented the 82 female directors whose films have premiered in competition during the Festival’s 71 years, in contrast to some 1,600 films made by men. There was the impassioned speech made by Blanchett and French director Agnes Varda calling an industry-wide shift in equal rights. There was Stewart’s blatant flaunting of the Festival’s outdated rules on women’s attire, as she took off her stilettos and walked the red carpet barefoot. We had a plethora of photo- and headline-worthy moments – but that’s mostly all it felt like it was.
It felt like the changes made were sometimes only skin deep. Certainly, the establishing of a sexual harassment hotline was a huge step in the right direction at Cannes, given that the Festival has been branded a ‘hunting ground’ (taken from Asia Argento’s astonishingly powerful speech at the closing ceremony: more on that later). But when you look a little deeper, you find that rather than update their code of conduct to explicitly ban harassment, Cannes organisers instead chose to create the hotline. Adaptation rather than mitigation. Festival director Thierry Frémaux’s comment that ‘Cannes cannot be a substitute for the justice system or police,’ felt just a touch too close to blame-shifting – how difficult would it really have been to actively commit to the condemnation of abuse and harassment, rather than instead try and convince people that it’s not your job to do so?
It also felt that whilst spokespeople and attendees were fully committed to their position, the Festival ran against them. During the 5050×2020 protest, following Blanchett and Varda’s speech, as the 82 women turned to ascend the steps to attend the gala premiere of Eva Husson’s Girls of the Sun (a drama based on Kurdish female freedom-fighters), they were played out by Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman’. We were given a fleeting moment of female power, before we were reminded of a woman’s place as a sex object by a sardonic DJ.
At Cannes 2017, Jessica Chastain, after watching 20 films in 10 days, declared that ‘the one thing I really took away from this experience is how the world views women from the female characters that were represented. It was quite disturbing to me, to be honest – with some exceptions. I hope when we include female storytellers they will be more like the women I know in my day-to-day life.’ And in an interview with Variety in April, Frémaux noted that Chastain’s comments had opened his eyes to the way women were being portrayed in the Official Selection, adding ‘she was right.’
But this year, after twelve months of vocal outcry, and that remark, this year’s Palme d’Or competition had the lowest number of female-directed entries for seven years – just three of the eighteen movies in competition were made by women. Frémaux’s response to this felt equally as non-committal: ‘Many of these films directed by women are first or second films. They are still young filmmakers, and I wouldn’t be doing them a favour by putting their films in competition. It can be very harsh.’ Is anyone else sensing a pattern here?
Maybe I’m being too harsh. I know that arguing for a proportional representation of female-led selections at Cannes opens up an entire, much larger debate about the accessibility of the film industry at large to women – and I know that Cannes is not the thing to blame for the shockingly unequal state of affairs. But what it is, however, whether you like it or not, is a stalwart of the cinema industry. Cannes is the popular kid in year 9 whose trendy backpack gets copied by half of the year group the week after they buy it. It sets a precedent for what’s ‘in vogue’ in the film industry, which people in ‘the biz’ pay attention to. It’s also, quite literally, a marketplace for selling films.
Now imagine, for a moment, that Cannes had actually actioned a more representative selection of female-directed films for this year’s competition. Imagine if, say, Girls of the Sun had won the Palme d’Or. What might the next six months of film financing look like? What kind of a morale boost might it give female screenwriters and directors writing unique narratives and experimenting with structures and visuality? And, importantly, how might this trickle down into mainstream cinema? Cannes might not be the film industry itself, but it’s got a big old stake in what’s going on in it.
From open to close, the festival largely felt like it was all mouth and no trousers – or no dresses, if you’re a woman on the red carpet. During a press conference at the start of the ceremony, reporters were addressing self-aggrandising questions about the importance of film to only the male jury members, causing Blanchett to sarcastically tell the other women on the panel that they couldn’t answer that question. During the Kering Women in Motion series, which was, in an exasperating twist of irony, moderated by a man, Carey Mulligan was asked by a male reporter what she’d think if he told her she was beautiful, and whether she’d consider working with Lars Von Trier now that his producer had promised to stop ‘slapping asses’. Never mind the fact that she’s just been an Academy Award-nominated, female-directed film (Mudbound). And never mind the fact that Von Trier’s latest film, The House that Jack Built, depicts the violent mutilation of women (and children, just to balance the argument a little).
It’s no surprise, though, that out of the plethora of failed ‘moments’ that were both planned and sabotaged by men, the most palpable notions of change at this year’s Festival came from women. During the closing ceremony, Italian actress Asia Argento gave a raw, unadulterated speech which eclipsed every ceremonial effort to pat themselves on the back that the Cannes organisers had orchestrated. Argento accused Harvey Weinstein of sexually assaulting her at the 1997 Festival, and whilst she used her time onstage to condemn him once again, she also gave the audience and the watching world a sharp, uncomfortable reminder of how far the film industry has left to go:
‘Sitting among you, there are those who still have to be held accountable for their conduct against women for behavior that does not belong in this industry, does not belong in any industry or workplace. You know who you are. But most importantly, we know who you are. And we’re not going to allow you to get away with it any longer.’
Her speech was powerful, an uncompromising demonstration of just how thoroughly done women in the creative industries are, how passionate and fearless they have been – and will continue to become – in their fight for justice and equality. I just wish that Cannes had paid attention. They’ve only had twelve months to notice.
Still, there’s always next year.
Words by Jess Ennis