Cannes Diary #5: A Step Towards Change

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And on the fifth day of the Cannes Film Festival, women fought back.

This festival has always had a tricky relationship with women. In its 71 years history there have only been 82 female directed movies accepted into competition, and 1,688 men. Only two women have ever won the prestigious Palme D’Or - Agnès Varda was given an honorary award in 2015, and Jane Campion won for ‘The Piano’ in 1993. But Campion actually shared the award with a male director, Kaige Chen, who won in a tie for ‘Farewell My Concubine’. This year, there are three women in competition - Eva Husson, Nadine Labaki and Alice Rohrwacher.

And aside from the films, there have been reports of sexual harassment and abuse toward female festival-goers, babies not allowed to go inside the main headquarters (meaning breastfeeding mothers covering the festival as reporters had to go outside to feed), a rule against women wearing flat shoes on the red carpet, and there are the parties. Hopefully these have been toned down in this post-Harvey world. Because I remember going to one a few years ago, where I watched an actress be told in no uncertain terms that she had to spend time with each of the male financiers of the film. One of them asked her to sit on his lap. She downed her drink, forced a smile and a polite no.

But today, change was in the air. I knew it from the moment I opened Twitter, and saw Melissa Silverstein tag me into a thread. She is the journalist behind the blog ‘Women And Hollywood’, and a fearless advocate for change. Her tweet linked to a Thunderclap campaign – a petition of sorts – asking people to add their names in support of gender equality in Cannes. I immediately added mine, and then just as immediately got a tweet from a man telling me well, actually… I was wrong. There was no issue with the gender imbalance in Cannes.

Shrugging that one off, I headed out to see a documentary in the Cannes Classics section, directed by a woman. Documentaries historically have had better numbers of women directors than narrative features, mainly because they’re cheaper to finance, and considered less of a “risk”. The film was ‘Bergman: A Year in a Life’ by Jane Magnusson, which uses the framing device of 1957 to do a deep dive into the mythical auteur Ingmar Bergman. ‘57 was a very productive year for Bergman, with the release of the masterpieces ‘The Seventh Seal’ and ‘Wild Strawberries’, plus a TV movie, four plays and several affairs while being married. It was also the year when he found his stride by creating personal films. He was a complicated man, and Magnusson doesn’t shy away from showing his darker, sometimes angry side. It’s a comprehensive documentary, looking at how he sometimes revised (or lied about) his own personal history. All of that cannot be ignored, and neither can the fact that he did so much for Swedish cinema, and world cinema in general. And though the basis of the film is 1957, ‘Bergman: A Year in a Life’ actually goes through his entire life, so I recommend this to cinephiles who will eat up every little detail.

At the end of that film, I walked out of the theater and straight into a swarm of people. A very loud, very angry crowd had formed to see the next event – a two hour talk with Christopher Nolan. The anger came from people who had bought tickets, but seemed unlikely to get in. There was much shoving and yelling from the crowd, and I shook my head in disbelief at the woman next to me. “I guess you don’t get anywhere in Cannes if you’re not a man who yells?” she asked. I squeezed my way out of the horde, to search for respite (and free coffee) at the Nespresso booth. Suddenly, a man pushed past me, shoving aside an old lady to get to the front. I couldn’t help but wonder if the lady was right, or if there was a metaphor to be found somewhere in there.

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My next movie was not by a woman, but it did have an unexpected touch of femininity. ‘Angel’ (‘El Angel’) is an Argentinian gangster film, made by Luis Ortega. Set in 1970’s Buenos Aires, it tells the shocking true story of Carlos Puch, the longest-serving convicted felon in Argentina. He began robbing houses as a teenager for fun, and soon moved onto bigger robberies and eventually murder. Here Puch is played by a young actor named Lorenzo Ferro, who bears a striking resemblance to him. His angelic looks contrast with the gruesome crimes, where the character appears to have zero empathy or emotion. It feels like a film Martin Scorsese could have directed, though apparently Carlos Puch himself wanted Quentin Tarantino and Leonardo DiCaprio. But the interesting twist here, which I haven’t seen Scorsese or Tarantino tackle, is the sexual and gender fluidity of the character. He has plenty of male bravado and ego, like many film gangsters, but layered on top of that is a touch of femininity… and plenty of homoerotic tension between the character of Puch and his partner-in-crime, Ramon (Chino Darin).

At the end of that film I rushed to watch the main event of the day. It had been announced a few hours earlier that 82 women would walk the red carpet in protest of the lack of gender equality in the history of Cannes. This was an event organized by Times Up and 5050x2020, which aims for gender parity in the entertainment industry by the year 2020. The premiere chosen for the protest was for one of the three female directed films in competition, Eva Husson’s ‘Girls of the Sun’, and the women walking were a handpicked selection of actors, directors, jury members, agents, publicists and journalists from around the world. It gave me chills to watch rows and rows of women walking arm-in-arm up the carpet, gathering together on the famous stairs.

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At the top, Cate Blanchett and Agnès Varda read out a statement… their powerful voices carrying over the photographers, crowds and other red carpet attendees. “On these steps today stand 82 women representing the number of female directors who have climbed these stairs since the first edition of the Cannes Film Festival in 1946,” they read, “Women are NOT a minority in the world, yet the current state of our industry says otherwise. As women, we all face our own unique challenges, but we stand together on these stairs today as a symbol of our determination and commitment to progress.”

The statement went on to call for diverse workplaces, equal pay and gender parity at the executive level. It acknowledged the women and men who are already standing for change, and pointed to solidarity with women in all other industries. It was, in all, a strong call for change. Watching on a TV inside the Palais des Festivals, I felt moved. Inspired. Emotional. The statement ended and the women turned to make their symbolic walk up the stairs into the theater. At which point, the DJ decided it was the perfect time to play “Pretty Woman.” It was one small step towards change, but obviously, there’s still a giant leap ahead.

But feeling invigorated, I rushed off to my final film of the day, the documentary ‘Jane Fonda in Five Acts’ by Susan Lacy. Fonda was in attendance to introduce the film, which she did in both English and French, thanking Lacy for making it. This was a movie I missed at Sundance, but was happy to catch here. Fonda is a fascinating figure, who seemingly has had several lives. From being born in the shadow of her famous father Henry Fonda, to becoming a sex symbol, being an activist, getting called a traitor, releasing workout videos, marrying a billionaire, having children and juggling a successful career as an actress and producer. All of that is why I wrote about her in my book, ‘Backwards and in Heels’, and it was great to see her story on the big screen, and told by Fonda herself. She’s vulnerable, resilient, funny, whip-smart, and delightfully candid. She’s honest about her relationship with her father, her mistakes in Vietnam, how she took a while to find her voice. Overall it’s a fascinating look at Jane Fonda - a woman who has worked in Hollywood from the pre-feminist era, throughout the feminism of the 70s and to now, where it feels like we may actually see things change.

I was sitting near the door when Jane Fonda walked out of the theater, and watched her turn to her friends, who all praised her intro. She smiled, hitched up her dress and said, “Now I need a drink!” Which, when I think about it, is kind of the perfect encapsulation of how it feels to be a woman right now...