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The complicated history of women at Cannes film festival

Woman in black dress holds an award.
French director Julia Ducournau wins the coveted Palm d'Or prize for her film Titane at Cannes 2021. DPA Picture Alliance/Alamy

The glitz and glamour of Cannes was back in full force this year after being cancelled by the pandemic in 2020. It was nice to see some things change as this time more women won awards and gender parity was improved across the festival.

There were more films by female directors in competition and the sidebars than ever before. The festival’s main award, the Golden Palm, went to French director Julia Ducournau for Titane. The award in Quinzaine des Réalisateurs (Director’s Fortnight) went to Croatian director Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic for Murina. And the award in the avant-garde section Un Certain Regard, awarded to a film with unusual style and story, went to Russian director Kira Kovalenko for Unclenching the Fists.

The number of women winning is increasing. However, while things may be changing, there are still entrenched ideas about women who make films – in the larger industry but particularly among those who decide who wins at Cannes. In my research, I investigate the history of the festival seeking clues as to why the work of female directors has been overlooked over the years and what factors may help in changing the picture.

Overlooked women directors

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

Black and white picture of a woman in a fur coat.
Bodil Ipsen was one of the first women to win at Cannes but is often left out of film history. Wikimedia

One of the very first winners at the inaugural Cannes festival in 1946 was Bodil Ipsen, a Danish actress who became a director with ten films to her name. The men who won in that year included David Lean, Billy Wilder and Roberto Rossellini. Unlike Bodil Ipsen, their names are still widely known today. This is just a testament to how women’s achievements are gradually obliterated because of a certain tendency in film criticism and festival history writing to not mention the wins of women as often as men’s.

Looking at Cannes’ record, the festival has hardly ever included female directors in the running for awards. This includes those who are considered some of France’s finest directors generally.

Agnes 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 at Cannes once in 1962 for Cléo from 5 to 7. Only men won awards that year.

Claire Denis is one of the most famous French directors living. Her only film to compete at Cannes was Chocolat (1988). Denis’ most well-known film is [Beau Travail], which is a meditation on male identity in crisis. It is widely recognised as one of the greatest films of all time but, despite its critical success, it was not selected for Cannes.

Catherine Breillat’s films focus on women’s sexual desire. She is celebrated for work that casts an honest look at adolescent sexuality, like A Real Young Girl (1976) and 36 Fillette (1988). Her film Romance (1999) is a daring exploration of conflicted intimacy. In France, however, she was initially treated as a pornographer and often censored.

It is only in recent years that her work has come to be respected and celebrated for challenging conventional depictions of femininity. Breillat has been making films since the 1970s, yet the only time her film was entered in competition at Cannes was in 2007 for The Last Mistress.

Plenty of women with distinctive style

One of the frequently used excuses for the absence of women’s work at the big festivals is that there simply aren’t enough films made by women to consider, so the problems are at the production level. However, this is not really the case.

Women’s film festivals like the one in Creteil (a suburb of Paris) have been running since the 1970s, showing more than 100 films directed by women each year. In the past 20 years, more than 50 dedicated women’s festivals have emerged around the world, from Belgium to Egypt. Still, the films that show at these festivals are often labelled “women’s films”, implying that they lack a universal appeal.

Even where the female directors are acknowledged, they have rarely been treated as “auteurs”. This term is given to directors who have a recognisable and unique style and worldview that is visible across their films. Director François Truffaut developed the concept in his 1954 essay Une certaine tendance du cinéma français (A certain trend in French cinema).

This idea of “autership” is important at Cannes, which is known for celebrating such directors (there is even a category for them, “Cannes regulars”). It is clear that Cannes’ idea of the “auteur” remains painfully male. A French study scrutinised the work of the special commission charged with nominating French films for participation at the festival over a 54-year-long period (1946-2001). It found that out of the 180 nominations only six have been for films directed by women.

So, with the conclusion of Cannes 2021, I am looking to the next step. It’s great that so many women won this year and did so in the top categories but how many cinemas around the world will show their films? How often will these films be mentioned by critics? How many will enter the annals of film history? We must make sure that these women, unlike Ipsen, Varda, Denis and Breillat, continue to be celebrated – and that they keep getting selected for awards.

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