It’s hard not to notice sexism when it is everywhere. After dealing with a person named Chris for three years trying to find lodging in Cannes I was stunned to find out that Chris was a woman. I’d assumed she was a man and all of this time I thought I was communicating with a man. I trusted “him” that he wouldn’t rip me off, that he knew what he was doing — and once I discovered “he” was a “she” I had to rethink my expectations. Suddenly I worried whenever the wi-fi went out that “she” wouldn’t know how to fix it.
And then there is the matter of the movie blogosphere dominated almost completely by men. They talk mostly to each other, care mostly what one another thinks, and women are rarely included in the conversation. For the honey badger of it, I often butt in to the male tête-à-têtes but that is how you get labeled a bitch on Twitter. The women in our field of work have to play the nicely demure game, never ruffle too many feathers and all of that. I am thinking of making up t-shirts for us women in the business: “Cunts Unite.” That might not go over too well.
Recently, a petition was circulated that upwards of 800 [now over 1700] people have already signed, taking Cannes to task for not including enough films by women directors. Okay, no films by women directors in the main competition category. This offended me too until I started seeing some of those films. Lo and behold, the rarest of all things: movies about women that didn’t have anything to do with the men they were sleeping with or marrying. All of the films I’ve seen so far in competition have had strong female storylines. Only one hasn’t and it still had many well-drawn female supporting players.
These films so far have wiped up the floor with all nine of the Oscar contenders last year, save The Help. In fact, watching these films so far here in Cannes one gets a much more refreshing look at women’s place in the world — wow, there are writers and directors who do consider women to be actual thinking people with motivations beyond getting married.
To that end, one has little choice but tip one’s hat to this fest in that regard — women are represented here more than I’ve seen them represented at any film film festival I’ve ever attended. Yes, it would be nice if one of those films had been directed by a woman — but if it had, would anyone have taken it as seriously? We already know that if you are female novelist and you write a book about a female heroine you are never going to get the label “the great American novel.” The only “great American novels” are written by men. Just like the only universal stories in film are often by and about men. The Oscar contenders last year about the male ego, once again, repairing itself from a damaged state so that the man can go back to saving the world.
Two films I saw today are about female characters. Remarkably, neither film depends on a man to complete things. Male characters are in the film but their roles are less important to the overall story than the females. The first, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a revelation. Not since Tatum O’Neil followed around after father Ryan in Paper Moon has a girl actor exploded off the screen like Quvenzhané Wallis, the bold and formidable hero of this inexplicably brilliant film. I am not sure how its co-writer and director Benh Zeitlin came up with it, how that muse delivered this piece of work, but to me, it is right up there with the best feature debuts by the best filmmakers — we’re talking Orson Welles, Steven Soderbergh, Kathryn Bigelow, Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee. Here is a brand new voice, a visionary who is not afraid of the obscure, and dares to carve a wholly new way of telling a story — with symbolism and poetry — brazen and unclean, not politically correct but the raw and whole truth.
The film is about Hush Puppy (Wallis) who is being raised by her ramshackle of a father — they live in the backwoods trash heaps of Louisiana, killing chickens they keep for food, sometimes cooking cat food for dinner, pulling crawfish out of the ocean and eating them in piles. It’s a precarious existence, living up to its name: these are wild beasts who don’t follow society’s rules but manage to make do outside of them. So much happens between Hush Puppy and her father it would be unfair to recount them here, but suffice it to say he does what every single parent knows they must do: prepare their child for the big bad world after their gone.
One of the ways Zeitlin, and co-writer Lucy Alibar disarm you is with sentences you can’t walk past. They stop you right in your tracks. When we first see glimpses of Hush Puppy’s long since vanished mother she is described as someone who could turn on heat just by walking into the room — literally, turn on the flame underneath the pan. We see just her lower torso as she shoots an alligator — its blood smeared all over her ample thigh. This was a woman, all right.
Little Hush Puppy is being taught John Connor style how to toughen up for the coming apocalypse. She’ll have to be tough, her daddy tells her. She’ll have to be a beast to conquer the wilderness. His one request, “don’t let me die plugged into the wall.” He wanted to be put in a boat and “lit on fire.” I’ll make the assumption now that you won’t see a better female performance all year than the one Wallis brings. Yeah, Oscar is a long shot. Tatum O’Neil was wrapped up in the star system already and Paper Moon was a fairly conventional film. Beasts is anything but conventional.
Mostly I liked the idea that the story turned on the inner life of its heroine, a girl, imagine that. Who will she be, what will she have to survive? The final scenes are some of the most powerful images anyone has ever put on screen, coming from the place that howls through the soul of a brilliant, ballsy artist.
After the movie ended, I couldn’t really catch my breath. It was literally taken from me. I had to wait through the credits in hopes that I eventually could. When the credits finished rolling the crowd applauded once again, loudly, enthusiastically, with shouts throughout the theater. It didn’t get a standing ovation but it came mighty close.
The second film I saw today again turned on its female characters’ storylines. Beyond the Hills (Dupa Dealuri) is the second feature by Cristian Mungiu, who rose to prominence with the much lauded 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Like that film, Beyond the Hills feels destined for controversy. For the last two years in Cannes there have been several pro-religion, pro-god movies that are, frankly, a chore to sit through if you aren’t a believer. But Mungiu’s film is anything but.
The story centers on a passionate “friendship” between two teenage girls which comes under strife when one of them turns to the church. She becomes a nun and takes God into her heart as her one and only love. Her friend has a problem with this. She wants things to be the way they once were. Sex between them is alluded to but never directly confirmed. Once Alina (Cristina Flutur) figures out that her friend Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) is never going to leave the church, her behavior becomes more and more violent. Finally, the father of the church decides to perform an exorcism on her to get rid of Satan’s grasp.
Unfortunately, by the time we finally get to the exorcism, the film has gone on at least an hour too long. Had they shaved off some of the beginning we might be more inclined to get wrapped up in this story. However, if you are a non-believer you will find it satisfying that the film has decided to take on faith versus science.
Beyond the Hills was the first film at Cannes to receive boos — and yes, perhaps the audience were expecting something better but as far as films in general go, the selection committee did right by choosing this complicated story for the Cannes competition.
Two extraordinary films that had more to say from the mouths of their female characters than all of the films I saw last year. Here, at this festival, the films are not judged on their potential marketability but what it is they attempt to say. While many of the films do not fall into the conventional Hollywood norm, and may never make a dime, their inclusion in this festival shows that the people making the important decisions here really do consider more important elements of what a film potential might be. When you are here, the possibilities are endless. Cannes is the best place for dreams to thrive.
Printed with permission. Sasha Stone is the founder of Awards Daily.
Editors Note: Just a reminder, even if you have amazing roles about women that still does not excuse not having films represented by women directors.