Cannes 2015: Women Warriors & Sexual Emancipators

thefilmbook by Benjamin BThis post presents some of the themes that struck me in Cannes.

This year I was struck by the emergence of strong women characters, notably women warriors and sexual emancipators.

Furiosa fights

Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road


woman warriors

Mad Max: Fury Road, an amazing action film by George Miller, with dazzling cinematography by John Seale, ASC, ACS, is perhaps the most unexpectedly feminist film of the year. The film’s world premiere was an Official Screening in Cannes — out of competition.

Despite the title, the heroine of the movie is Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a formidable one-armed woman warrior who lives up to her name. The film is chock full of strong women characters, including the five slave wives Furiosa liberates, and the Vuvalini band of matriarch bikers who help her fight off the bad guys along with Max.

Furiosa looks-

Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa

During a press conference for the film, Miller explained that he designed the film as one big chase sequence:

Initially, there was no feminist agenda. The idea was simply for there to be an extended chase, and the thing that people were chasing was people, the five wives. It couldn’t be a man taking wives from another man — that’s a different story. So once you build the architecture around that, that stuff pops out.

It’s noteworthy that Miller asked Eve Ensler, the author and performer of The Vagina Monologues, to act as a consultant for the actresses playing the five wives. Ensler works with abused women around the world. In an interview on NPR, the author explained that she spoke with the actors about heavy topics:

How do you feel carrying a baby of someone who’s raped you? What does it mean to be held captive by a warlord who is using you as a breeder and raping you constantly? … This is a post-apocalyptic movie, but it seems to me that for many in the world, the future is now. There are many people living this story.

Charlize Theron during the press conference-

Theron during the Cannes press conference

This kind of preparation created a strong backstory, and an authenticity that underlies this powerful action film. During the Cannes press conference, Theron offered:

For me it was … incredible to get to play in this sandbox, literally, and be a woman, not try to be a man! And celebrate everything there is about being a woman, not trying to put women on a pedestal, but being surrounded by other women who were just real, in a story that was informed and real.


FBI agent, Chinese assassin

In Sicario, a film in Official Competition by Denis Villeneuve, with dazzling cinematography by Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC, Emily Blunt plays a less extreme woman warrior, a tough FBI agent called Kate. The film opens with Kate leading an armed raid on a suspected drug dealer’s house.

Emily Blunt and Denis Villeneuve-

Emily Blunt and Denis Villeneuve during the press conference for Sicario

During the press conference, Blunt and Villeneuve revealed that there were early misgivings about a female hero for an action film, and that screenwriter Taylor Sheridan had to fight to keep a woman as lead character in his first few drafts.

Sicario is great action film that uses the genre to pose the question of whether the end justifies the means in the pursuit of bad guys. While the villains in the film are Mexican drug lords, allusions to waterboarding evoke other political issues, like the war on terror.

Sicario is the story of a woman warrior who is dragged into a battle that she does not want to wage.

Nie Yin Niang by Hou - DP Ping Bin Lee-

Qi Shu as the martial-arts assassin in Nie Yin Niang by Hsiao-Hsien Hou, with cinematography by Ping Bin Lee

Nie Yin Niang (The Assassin) by Hsiao-hsien Hou, with masterful 35mm cinematography by Ping Bin Lee, is a beautiful, slow film set in 9th century China. The titular character is an unbeatable woman assassin with killer hands and a compassionate heart. She is sent on a mission to kill her cousin, who has become lord of a provincial court. Here, too, the heroine is a reluctant warrior.

The film unfolds in a series of beautiful painterly tableaux that reveal the conflicts of the court.
The jury awarded Hou the best director prize of the Official Competition.

Last year I wrote about the “elastic frame,” the easy change of aspect ratio enabled by digital. I noticed that this year, both the Chinese films in Official Competition changed aspect ratios to indicate different historical periods.


sexual emancipation

Some of the other strong women characters in this year’s Cannes films have to fight their traditional cultures to affirm their sexuality. These women are warriors fighting for the right to be sexual, underscoring the variations in sexual mores in different cultures. This was highlighted for me by three tales of sexual emancipation from Turkey, India and the U.S.

Mustang by Deniz Gamze Ergüven - cinematography by David Chizallet and Ersin Gokby-

Mustang by Deniz Gamze Ergüven – cinematography by David Chizallet & Ersin Gokby

Mustang by Deniz Gamze Ergüven, with beautiful cinematography by David Chizallet and Ersin Gokby, is set in Turkey. After some innocent play with boys on a beach, five young sisters are treated as sluts and imprisoned in their home to protect their hymens, while their aunt, uncle and grandmother strive to marry them off quickly. This striking first feature was often compared to Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides. The director is a Franco-Turkish woman who attended the French Femis film school.
Mustang won the Label Europa Cinema Prize of the Directors’ Fortnight.

Masaan (Fly Away Solo) by Neeraj Ghaywan, with accomplished cinematography by Avinash Arun Dhaware, intercuts between two stories set in Benares, India. One strand follows a young woman, Devi, who is caught by policemen in a hotel as she attempts to lose her virginity. A corrupt police officer threatens to publicly shame her by releasing cell-phone footage of the arrest unless he receives a huge bribe. As Devi struggles to raise the money with her father, she faces sexual harassment and leaves home to be on her own.

Masaan by Neeraj Ghaywan - cinematography by Avinash Arun Dhaware-

Richa Chadda plays Devi in Masaan by Neeraj Ghaywan -cinematography by Avinash ArunDhaware

The second story strand follows Deepak, who works with his family cremating bodies, but is taking engineering classes to obtain a better future. Deepak falls in love with a well-to-do girl, but hesitates to reveal his humble station in life. The ending of this promising first feature combines the two stories.
Masaan won the Special Prize from the jury of the Un Certain Regard competition and a Fipresci (critics association) Award.

Carol by Todd Haynes, with luscious 16mm cinematography by Edward Lachman, ASC, recounts a lesbian love story in the 1950s. The film starts with the mutual attraction between Carol (Cate Blanchett), a sophisticated married woman, and Therese (Rooney Mara), a young store clerk. The film builds up to the consummation of this forbidden love, which will transform Carol and Therese. The ending is a memorable piece of filmmaking.

Carol by Todd Haynes - DP Ed Lachman-

Cate Blanchett as Carol by Todd Haynes, cinematography by Edward Lachman, ASC


sex offscreen

It’s interesting that all the films mentioned above are quite conservative in their depiction of sexuality. This is of course to be expected of Indian movies, which have only recently shown couples kissing, and of films set in Turkey.

However, the American and Australian movies are almost as restrained as the Turkish and Indian films. The stories of sexual emancipation have less sex and nudity in them than a typical HBO series.

By contrast, two years ago, the Palme d’or went to Histoire d’Adèle (Blue is the Warmest Color), a lesbian love story with a prolonged, graphic sex scene.

While many of the films I saw in Cannes this year with strong woman characters spoke of sexual emancipation, they chose keep the sex offscreen.


Emmanuelle Bercot

Emmanuelle Bercot accepting Best Actress prize at Cannes 2015Emmanuelle Bercot directed the festival’s opening film, La Tête Haute (Standing Tall) – shot by Guillaume Schiffman, AFC – which was well received by critics.

Bercot also acted in Mon Roi (My King), an Official Competition film directed by her friend Maïwenn, with cinematography by Claire Mathon. Bercot was awarded the jury’s Best Actress prize for her performance as a lovesick wife (an honor she shared with Rooney Mara).

At the press conference for La Tête Haute, Bercot was asked about being a woman director opening the festival. She answered:

I don’t pay any attention to the fact that a woman directed the opening film… It’s the selection of the film that honors me. And I don’t feel at all like a minority. In France, I don’t think that women directors can honestly say that we can’t find our place… or that we suffer any discrimination whatsoever. I know that it’s different in other countries, but in France women filmmakers have wide berth to express themselves, and they do it more and more… and there are a lot of younger women filmmakers emerging.

A journalist pressed Bercot on the gender issue, saying that with 19 films in the Official Competition, the two women directors do represent a minority. Bercot offered her practical view of female filmmaker numbers:

In France it’s simple: 77 percent of the directors are men and 33 percent are women. Given that statistic, it’s normal that we are less represented. Women directors are a recent phenomenon. It’s like many other métiers; there didn’t use to be women surgeons, now there are. So it’s going to evolve…
What matters is that the films chosen for the competition be beautiful, no matter what the gender of the director is.


new characters

Bercot’s point is that it’s unfair to criticize festivals for showcasing fewer women than men directors. Festivals should show the best films, and the resulting gender breakdown should eventually mirror the increasing proportion of female directors.

Of course, the number of women directors will increase at different rates in different countries, and as Bercot points out, France is leading the way, with one out of three directors. As I mentioned in a previous post, this year’s Cannes Selection also shows a growing number of French women cinematographers.

Film schools play a key role in this evolution by accepting similar numbers of male and female students for directing, cinematography and other cinematic disciplines. Since many of the best European film schools accept foreign students, the schools can also play an important role in increasing women filmmakers in other countries.

During the final jury press conference, director Xavier Dolan noted that the jury realized “there were very few leading ladies” in the Official Competition. Unlike the number of directors, the number and quality of leading roles for women can be changed very quickly. It’s up to screenwriters to write them and filmmakers to shoot them.

The three movie rules of the Bechdel Test, first introduced by Alison Bechel in her comic Dykes to Watch Out For, remains a good starting place for developing future films with female characters:

1. The movie has to have at least two women in it,
2. who talk to each other,
3. about something besides a man


Vuvalinis in Mad Max Fury Road-

Women warriors in Mad Max: Fury Road



Festival de Cannes
Official Selection

YouTube: Mad Max: Fury Road press conference
YouTube: Mad Max: Fury Road Featurette Wives
NPR: The Women Pull No Punches in Fiery, Feminist Mad Max 7 Ways Mad Max Fury Road Sublimely Subverts Movie Sexism by Donna Dickens

wikipedia: Sicario
YouTube: Sicario press conference

YouTube: The Assassin 11 minutes of Teasers
wikipedia: The Assassin

YouTube: Mustang trailer (French sub-titles) Mustang review by David Rooney

wikipedia: Fly Away Solo (Masaan) Wasaan press kit

wikipedia: Carol Carol review – Cate Blanchett captivates in woozily obsessive lesbian romance – by Peter Bradshaw

thefilmbook: Cannes 2013 – The Gay Palme d’Or

wikipedia: Emmanuelle Bercot
YouTube: trailer for Standing Tall

thefilmbook: Cannes 2014 – Women Filmmakers
wikipedia: The Bechdel Test