Women directors front, centre


Even as the competition began showing signs of life as the Cannes Film Festival moved through its first weekend and fourth full day, the 64th edition of the planet’s most famous cinematic gathering spot has been most notable as a breakthrough year for female filmmakers. Thus far, no fewer than 12 of the significant features to have debuted in various categories were directed by women, something surely unprecedented in the history of this still-reigning grand dame of international festivals.
By no means have all of these women’s films been roundly applauded but, then, neither have those by the men, meaning that both sexes are equally responsible for the generally lackluster state of affairs visible on Cannes screens thus far. But there have been a few titles here and there attracting at least a measure of critical favor, a number of them by directors new to the festival.
After an opening night film that could scarcely have been better designed with that particular function in mind, Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” the competition kicked off with three films by women: Australian novelist Julia Leigh’s sexually dicey and mostly ill-received debut “Sleeping Beauty,” Cannes veteran Lynne Ramsay’s powerfully made but bluntly obvious look at a teen-mass-murderer-in-the-making, “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” and French actress-director Maiwenn’s first Cannes appearance with the rambunctious, TV-like special unit cop melodrama “Polisse.”
Nor did the three subsequent competition offerings provide full lift-off: Nanni Moretti’s less-than-satisfying Vatican insider tale “Habemus Papam,” Josef Cedar’s probing, uneven account of an intriguing father-son academic world conflict “Footnote,” and Austrian first-time director Markus Schleinzer’s opinion-dividing look at a long-term child molester, “Michael.”
Improvement came with Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s “The Kid With a Bike,” a bracing, sharply observed account of a wayward boy’s redemption, about which the only arguments will concern just where it ranks in the brothers’ small but distinguished cannon, followed by French director Michel Hazanavicius’ Los Angeles-shot “The Artist,” a delightful if lightweight black-and-white silent film about the decline of a 1920s Hollywood leading man and the rocketing stardom of a young actress.
After launching with Gus Van Sant’s soppy doomed teen romance “Restless,” the only real news out of the Un Certain Regard section of the Official Selection has been Gerardo Naranjo’s “Miss Bala,” an inventive look at the terrible violence that has overtaken Mexico in recent years. Another Mexican effort, Natalia Almada’s “The Night Watchman (El Velador),” has been one of the notable titles in the Directors’ Fortnight thus far.
Runar Rnarsson’s “Volcano” has also received some approving reactions, as have five other section entries by women: Alice Rohrwacher’s “Corpo Celeste” from Italy, Rebecca Daly’s “The Other Side of Sleep” from Ireland, Valerie Mrejen’s “Iris in Bloom” from France, Liza Johnson’s “Return” from the US and Urszula Antoniak’s “Code Blue” from the Netherlands.
In the Critics’ Week, the biggest reaction, mostly pro but some strongly con as well, has gone to Valerie Donzelli’s cancer tale “Declaration of War” from France, but women were also heard from in this sidebar in Delphine and Muriel Coulin’s “17 Filles,” about a group of teenagers who decide to get pregnant at the same time, and Hagar Ben Asher’s “The Slut,” about an Israeli hen keeper who never meets a man she doesn’t like.
Some of the real heavyweights start arriving shortly, beginning with Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” on Monday.