Lack of Women Directors at Cannes Ignites Simmering Sexism Debate

Lack of Women Directors at Cannes Ignites Simmering Sexism Debate
Marilyn meets the male gaze: A detail from this year's Cannes poster, featuring Monroe.
(Design ★ Bronx (Paris). DR. Photo © Bettmann/Corbis.)

According to the British trade paper Screen International, simmering feminist resentment about the absence of women directors represented in the main competition section at Cannes this year exploded over the weekend into a full-scale dispute over whether the festival is sexist.

With the event scheduled to start Wednesday, the César-winning actress Fanny Cottençon and the directors Virginie Despentes (“Baise Moi”) and Coline Serreau (“Three Men and a Cradle”) signed an article published in Le Monde on Saturday attacking the fact that “the directors of the 22 films in competition this year are all, by happy coincidence, men.

“For the 63rd time in its existence, the festival will crown on of its own, defending without fail the virile values which are the nobility of the seventh art,” the article scathingly continued. “Once in 1993, the Palme d’Or was awarded to a female director, Jane Campion. And in 2011, probably due to a lack of vigilance, four women featured among the 20 nominees in competition.

“This year, gentlemen, you’ve come to your senses and we are overjoyed. The Cannes Film Festival will allow Wes, Jacques, Léos, David, Lee, Andrew, Matteo, Michael, John, Hong, Im, Abbas, Ken, Sergei, Cristian,Yousry, Jeff, Alain, Carlos, Walter, Ulrich, and Thomas” – the first names of the competing directors – “to show one more time that ‘men like depth in women, but only in their cleavage.’”

American observers will note that, similarly, only one woman has been awarded the Academy Award for Best Picture: Kathryn Bigelow, director of 2008’s “The Hurt Locker.” The point about four women directors featuring in competition last year doesn’t strengthen the sexist accusation, nor does the list of directors – few of whom can be tarred with that brush.

On the other hand, the fact that this year’s Cannes poster features Marilyn Monroe (never a festival attendee) blowing out a candle on a birthday cake underscores the women’s point.

The article was apparently prompted by the feminist organization La Barbe, which launched an online petition condemning masculine domination of Cannes. By this morning, it had attracted over 1,000 signatures and had been posted on the websites of Elle, Gala, and Au Feminin magazines. La Barbe is expected to have a presence at the festival.

Cannes’ artistic director, Thierry Fremaux, naturally defended the festival’s selection process. “As a citizen, I fully support feminist activism,” he said on Sunday. “As a professional, I select work on the basis of actual qualities. We would never agree to select a film that doesn’t deserve it on the basis it was made by a woman. That would lead to a quota policy that would undermine the cause.”

Fremaux’s next remarks weren’t guaranteed to calm down the situation. “There is no doubt that greater space needs to be given to women within cinema. But it’s not at Cannes and in the month of May that this question needs to be raised, but rather all year and everywhere. Women’s rights need to be defended beyond Cannes, which is a consequence and illustration of what is going on. It makes sense to highlight the problem during Cannes, but accusing the festival doesn’t serve anybody.”

One of the ironies of the debate is that the French film industry gives more opportunities to women filmmakers than probably any other country. Screen goes on to note that seven French women directors will be premiering new features in official sections of the festival:

Catherine Corsini’s ‘Three Worlds’ (‘Trois mondes’), Sylvie Verheyde’s ‘Confession of a Child of the Century,’ and Alda Begic’s ‘Djeca’ are screening in Un Certain Regard. Noémie Lvovsky’s ‘Camille Rewinds’ will close Directors’ Fortnight, and Sandrine Bonnaire’s ‘J’enrage de son absence’ and Anne Winocour’s debut picture ‘Augustine’ will premiere in Critics’ Week. Candida Brady’s environmental documentary ‘Trashed,’ featuring Jeremy Irons, will receive a special screening.”