Forget the Cannes jury awards. This year, the most famous film festival in the world showcased something much bigger than a couple of prize-winners: Women filmmakers and actors at the top of their game.
It was hard to miss how much the women before and behind the camera were front and center, dominating the conversation in Cannes. More of the Official Selection films were focused on women than ever before. And a new kind of protagonist emerged at Cannes 2016. She’s independent, strong, often androgynous, and not defined by her relationships with men.
Hollywood producers, executives and filmmakers, take note. This is how it can be done.
Check out the fabulous women of Cannes 2016.
In Paul Verhoeven’s provocative thriller “Elle,” Isabelle Huppert plays a videogame entrepreneur who refuses to allow her violent rape in her own home to ruin her life. She doesn’t miss a beat. She doesn’t call the cops. She changes the locks, gets an STD test, buys pepper spray and learns how to use a gun. She’s a sophisticated, elegant, powerful, modern woman who lives alone, runs her own company, manipulates her family, has sex with whomever she fancies, and is free to do as she pleases.
At 63, Huppert believably plays a younger woman in her sexual prime, bringing all her experience to bear on the role, which was adapted from a French novel by an American screenwriter (David Birke) and then translated back into French when Huppert came aboard. She elevates the character into almost making sense. Typically, Verhoeven refuses to supply psychological underpinnings for what she does. But Huppert makes us believe. With critics and awards-savvy Sony Pictures Classics behind “Elle,” this commercial movie could wind up a North American hit this fall, a French Oscar nominee (if France submits it), and a Best Actress Oscar contender.
Another independent woman is at the center of Olivier Assayas’ “Personal Shopper,” his second English-language film starring Stewart (Cesar-winner for “Clouds of Sils Maria”). She plays Maureen, who acquires fashionable clothes for a rich client, flits around Paris on a scooter, and reaches the people in her life via Skype and mobile. She’s trying to use her skills as a medium to communicate with her twin brother, who has recently died, when mysterious texts suddenly appear on her iPhone. “Who is this?” she asks. “Personal Shopper” tracks a lost and lonely soul who is disconnected from herself. As she tries on her client’s sexy costumes and figures out who is tracking her, she eventually finds her identity again.
Stewart had a good Cannes, showing her stripes not only in her roles in “Personal Shopper” and opener Woody Allen’s “Cafe Society,” but by deftly fielding, with finesse and poise, the many questions thrown at her during press conferences and interviews. She refused to be drawn into the Allen controversy (unlike co-star Blake Lively), wore flats when she could have worn heels, and explained why she likes working with intellectual directors like Assayas. She’s a smart career shaper with a rosy future who rather than conform to Hollywood demands, prefers to make her own choices on the world stage.
Maren Ade and Sandra Hüller
Father-daughter tension forms the backbone of two of the best films in Competition, Screen International’s critics’ poll winner “Toni Erdmann” and directing prize co-winner Cristian Mungiu’s “Graduation.”
German filmmaker Maren Ade‘s third feature is a generational comedy that pits a goofy father (Peter Simonischek) against his workaholic corporate strategist daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller). She’s a woman in a man’s world who thinks she doesn’t need feminism, who Ade sees as almost “a gender-neutral character.” After anxiously trying to prove herself to her male bosses, Ines eventually gets what her father is trying to tell her via his crazy antics and humor. She sees things more clearly, reconnects with him, and takes control of her own life.
The young Romanian star of Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon” shines in Mungiu’s “Graduation,” which sends a controlling father (Adrian Titieni) into a tailspin when his long-held post-graduation plans for his daughter (Dragus) go terribly awry. At the start of “Graduation,” the daughter’s rape sets in motion a series of revelations, compromises and ethical dilemmas as the father tries desperately to keep things on track. To her credit, his daughter refuses to go along with his schemes, stands up to him with strength and moral fortitude, and finally sets free her two protective parents from all their secrets and lies.
Andrea Arnold, Sasha Lane and Riley Keough
Critics adored the film, which was shaped by the American midwestern landscape as well as the editing room. Arnold’s final film was vastly different from its original script, turning toward the young woman finding her identity as its through-line—Shia LaBeouf and Elvis Presley granddaughter Riley Keough (“Mad Max: Fury Road”) offered stalwart support— and was unlike anything else at Cannes this year.
“Money Monster” was the perfect Cannes out-of-competition studio entry, an entertaining populist Wall Street/media critique for festival gala audiences, with major movie stars for the tapis rouge, press conference and junket for a European market launch. Not surprisingly, the actors are terrific: Clooney plays a glib financial TV guru held hostage by an angry victim of his bad advice (a surprisingly sympathetic Jack O’Connell), who fits him with a bomb vest as punishment. Roberts as Clooney’s producer beams the story live as everyone scrambles to come out of the crisis intact.
As a Hollywood movie star who pushed past conventional women’s roles, scoring four Oscar nominations and two wins (“The Accused,” “The Silence of the Lambs”) and has carried many commercial movies on her own (“Contact,” “Panic Room,” “Flight Plan”), Foster beefed up Roberts’ character to give her more purpose and dimension. In the original script she was more of a technician, but Foster turned her into a competent, strong, active producer who helps Clooney’s character find his strength and unravel the mystery.
In Cannes regulars Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s “The Unknown Girl” (Sundance Selects), Haenel plays another gender-neutral character, an excellent, empathetic doctor who is not defined by her relationships or friends; she lives a solitary, monastic life devoted to the well-being of her patients. When she ignores a late-hour doorbell at her private practice and finds out from the police that the young woman was murdered nearby, the doctor embarks on a mission, against the wishes of many including the police, to identify the girl and inform her family of her death.
Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri
With erotic mystery “The Handmaiden” (Amazon) great Korean auteur Park Chan-wook moved the Victorian setting of the novel “Fingersmith” to the 30s period when Japan occupied Korea. Told in two parts from two distinct points-of-view, the lushly mounted movie follows a rich Korean gentlewoman (star Kim Min-hee) and her maidservant (newcomer Kim Tae-ri) who not only fall lustily in love, but plot against their oppressive masters. Park has fashioned a luscious tale of sexual expression and female empowerment.
Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Neon Demon” also puts women front and center, led by Elle Fanning, who was 16 when she was cast, 17 when she shot the film, and is now 18. She plays a newcomer to the LA fashion scene who discovers that starving models literally eat each other alive. In one memorable scene, when one x-ray known as the bionic woman (because she has altered so much of her body) throws up an eyeball, her best friend pops it into her own mouth. Refn said he wanted to make the women characters primary and the men secondary. While the movie was not a critical hit in Cannes and did not win any prizes, the stylishly transgressive genre exercise could become a smart-horror hit stateside when Amazon Studios releases it in June.