The complicated history of women at the Cannes film festival

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The glitz and glamor of Cannes was back in full force this year after being canceled out by the pandemic in 2020. It was nice to see some things change as this time more women won awards and gender parity took off. been improved through the festival.

There were more female director films in competition and in boxes than ever before. The festival’s main prize, the Palme d’Or, went to French director Julia Ducournau for Titanium. The price in Directors’ Fortnight (Directors’ Fortnight) went to Croatian director Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic for Murina. And the price in the avant-garde section In some perspective, awarded to a film with an unusual style and story, was awarded to Russian director Kira Kovalenko for Unlocking The Fists.

The number of winning women is increasing. However, while things may change, there are still some strong ideas about women making films – in the broader industry, but especially among those who decide who wins at Cannes. In my research, I study the history of the festival looking for clues as to why the work of female directors has been overlooked over the years and what factors can help change the image.

Little-known female directors

The women who have won this year join a few precious others who have done so throughout Cannes’ history. Ducournau’s victory is only the second time the Palme d’Or has been awarded to a woman – the other was almost three decades ago when New Zealander Jane Campion won the award for The Piano in 1992 Likewise, the award for best director has only been given to women twice. – in 1961 to Yulia Solntseva for Chronicle of Flaming Years then, 71 years later, to Sofia Coppola for The Beguiled in 2017.

Bodil Ipsen was one of the first women to win in Cannes but is often excluded from the history of cinema.
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One of the very first winners of the inaugural Cannes Film Festival in 1946 was Bodil Ipsen, a Danish actress turned director with ten films to her name. The men who won that year included David Lean, Billy Wilder and Roberto Rossellini. Unlike Bodil Ipsen, their names are still widely known today. It’s just a testament to how women’s achievements are gradually being erased due to a certain tendency in film criticism and festival history writing not to mention women’s victories as often as those of men.

In view of the Cannes winners, the festival has hardly ever included any female directors in the running. This includes those who are considered some of the best directors in France in general.

Agnès Varda (1928-2019) is a legendary figure in the history of cinema. Often referred to as the “godmother of the French New Wave,” she was prolific. However, she only competed once in Cannes in 1962 for Cléo 5-7. Only men won prizes that year.

Claire Denis is one of the most famous living French directors. His only film in competition at Cannes was Chocolate (1988). Denis’ most famous film is [Beau Travail], which is a meditation on male identity in crisis. It is widely recognized as one of the greatest films of all time but, despite its critical success, it was not selected at Cannes.

Catherine Breillat’s films are about the sexual desire of women. She is celebrated for her work which takes an honest look at adolescent sexuality, such as A Real Young Girl (1976) and 36 fillets (1988). His film Romance (1999) is a daring exploration of conflicting intimacy. In France, however, she was initially treated as a pornographer and often censored.

It is only in recent years that her work has become respected and celebrated for challenging conventional representations of womanhood. Breillat has been making films since the 1970s, yet the only time his film was presented in competition at Cannes was in 2007 for The Last Mistress.

Many women with a distinctive style

One of the excuses frequently used to explain the lack of work by women at major festivals is that there are simply not enough films directed by women to consider, so the problems lie in the production. However, this is not really the case.

Women’s film festivals like the one in Créteil (a Parisian suburb) have been taking place since the 1970s, showing more than 100 films directed by women every year. Over the past 20 years, more than 50 festivals dedicated to women have sprung up around the world, from Belgium to Egypt. Yet the films shown at these festivals are often labeled “women’s films”, implying that they lack universal appeal.

Even where women directors are recognized, they have rarely been treated as “authors”. This term is given to directors who have a recognizable and unique style and worldview that is visible through their films. Director François Truffaut developed the concept in his 1954 essay A certain trend in French cinema (A certain trend in French cinema).

This idea of ​​“autership” is important in Cannes, which is known to celebrate such directors (there is even a category for them, “the regulars of Cannes”). It is clear that the Cannes idea of ​​the “author” remains painfully masculine. A French study scrutinized the work of the special commission responsible for nominating French films for participation in the festival over a 54-year period (1946-2001). He found that of the 180 nominations, only six were for films directed by women.

So with the conclusion of Cannes 2021, I’m looking to the next step. It’s great that so many women have won this year and done so in the best categories, but how many theaters around the world will be showing their films? How often will these films be mentioned by critics? How many will go down in the annals of cinema history? We need to ensure that these women, unlike Ipsen, Varda, Denis and Breillat, continue to be celebrated – and that they continue to be selected for awards.


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