Cannes’ Female Troubles: Women Directors Have Always Been Scarce

TheWrap Cannes magazine: Since the festival began, only 4.3 percent of its competition films have been directed by women — and while the percentage is improving, it’s doing so slowly

Last Updated: May 14, 2018 @ 4:08 PM

A version of this story appeared in TheWrap’s magazine’s Cannes issue.

For decades, the Cannes Film Festival has had a dismal record of showcasing the work of female directors. The rarefied club of Cannes-approved art-house auteurs, the filmmakers on whom the festival rests, has simply always been predominantly male.

Over the years, oversights and snubs have been easy to find. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, that directors as esteemed as Agnieszka Holland, Julie Taymor, Mira Nair, Kelly Reichardt or Elaine May haven’t warranted spots on the Croisette, or that Agnès Varda hasn’t deserved more than her single placement in the main competition, which she got in 1962 for “Cleo From 5 to 8.”

Yes, a female director, Barbara Virginia, had a film in competition in 1946, the first year that Cannes took place. But it wasn’t until 1954, with Carmen Toscano and Kinuyo Tanaka, that two women had films in the competition, and it wasn’t until 1961 that a woman won Cannes’ best director award. (Russian director Yuliya Sointseva was the first for “The Story of the Flaming Years.”)

The stats are pretty dismal: Over the first 71 years of Cannes, a paltry 4.3 percent of the competition films have been directed by women. (See chart below.) Only one, Jane Campion’s “The Piano,” has won Cannes’ top prize, the Palme d’Or, though actresses Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seudoux were given honorary Palmes alongside “Blue Is the Warmest Color” director Abdellatif Kechiche’s real one in 2013.

Admittedly, things are getting better. Of the 11 times that three or more women have placed films in competition, eight have come in the last 13 years. Three women made the cut in 2006, 2007, 2009, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 — and four did so in 2011.

Women at Cannes 2018 Magazine

And the current decade is the first one in which more than 10 percent of the competition directors have been women — though Cannes faced immediate criticism this year for only including Alice Rohrwacher, Eva Husson and Nadine Labaki among its 21 competition directors.

Festival chief Thierry Frémaux has insisted that he will never make gender a programming factor, but the Un Certain Regard section has six solo women directors and one co-director among its 18 films, while the independent Critics’ Week competition finds women outnumbering men four to three.

Rohrwacher, by the way, is in the Cannes main competition this year for the second time, bringing “Lazzaro Felice” to the Palais four years after her film “The Wonders” won the festival’s grand prize.

That makes her one of 10 women to have placed two films in the competition, the others being Sofia Coppola, Maiwenn Le Besco, Samira Makhmalbaf, Lucrecia Martel, Marta Meszaros, Lynne Ramsay, Margarethe von Trotta, Lina Wertmuller and Mai Zetterling.

The only women with more than two: Andrea Arnold, Jane Campion, Liliana Cavani and Nicole Garcia, with three each, and Japanese director Naomi Kawase with five.

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