It’s a good year for women at the Cannes Film Festival. But not everyone is cheering just yet.
Four of the 20 films in the festival’s main competition are by female directors, a record number — and better than last year’s total of zero.
It’s still a small minority, however, and in the festival’s 64 years, only one film by a woman has won the top prize: Jane Campion’s "The Piano" in 1993.
Campion says there is still a long way to go.
"I think, weirdly enough, progress in the arts for women is really slow," Campion said after a screening of Julia Leigh’s Cannes entry "Sleeping Beauty," a film she has championed. "This festival has been very kind to me, but I’m still the only woman that’s ever won the Palme d’Or."
Films from female directors at this year’s festival include Lynne Ramsay’s mother-son tragedy "We Need to Talk About Kevin"; Australian director Leigh’s "Sleeping Beauty," an icy film about a student who becomes an object of male erotic desire; and "Polisse," a vibrant movie about a Paris police child-protection squad from actress-turned-director Maiwenn.
Screening Tuesday is "Hanezu No Tsuki," a film about ancient and modern life in the Asuka area of Japan by Naomi Kawase, a former winner of Cannes’ second-place Grand Prize.
If the three films already screened have anything in common, it’s a willingness to tackle tough and intimate subjects, from child violence to pedophilia to sexual exploitation.
"We Need to Talk About Kevin" has met with the widest praise and is a favorite to win prizes when Cannes trophies are announced Sunday. Most critics approved of its unflinching and inventive depiction of a woman struggling to cope, first with parenthood and then with an unspeakable act of violence by her son.
In "Polisse," the blend of pathos, melodrama and humor was not to all tastes, and some viewers found "Sleeping Beauty" contrived and exploitative. Its central character spends a great deal of time naked and unconscious, while elderly men enact their fantasies on her.
Campion thinks the negative reaction may partly result from the comparative rarity of women’s voices in cinema.
"We really need women’s voices out there," she said. "People that may have problems with this film, they are just not used to a strong feminist voice being shown on the screen."
Maiwenn, who goes by just one name, said a director’s gender shouldn’t be relevant to discussion of their films.
"I’d hate to think that my film was selected because there was a quota for women," she said. "I know my film was chosen because people like the film, not because I’m a woman."
But she conceded that "it’s hard to be a female director on the set."
"It’s a very masculine role," he said. "We have to cope with people putting up the funds who may be more comfortable working with men than with women."
A walk around Cannes’ film market, where hundreds of movies are bought and sold, reveals that cinema is still largely a man’s world. The market is dominated by thrillers, horror and action flicks — still largely male-dominated genres.
Cannes is full of high-profile performances by women — Tilda Swinton as the grieving mother in "We Need to Talk About Kevin"; Berenice Bejo as a silver-screen starlet on the rise in silent film "The Artist"; Cecile de France as a hairdresser who takes in an abandoned boy in "The Kid With a Bike."
But moving behind the camera can still be a struggle.
Famke Janssen, who played a Bond girl in "GoldenEye" and telepath Jean Grey in the "X-Men" franchise, has made her writing-directing debut with comic drama "Bringing Up Bobby." The film is for sale in the Cannes film market.
She said that although "we’ve come a long way. … it’s still a male-dominated business on every front."
"And there’s not that many actresses who direct, either," Janssen said. "It is very difficult to do, especially in a male-dominated world. Studio movies especially are still directed primarily by men."