CANNES, France — For the last several years, the Cannes Film Festival has been criticized by feminist film critics and female members of the international film industry for continually underrepresenting women in the competition for the Palme d’Or, the festival’s most coveted prize. In its 71 years, only 82 female-directed films have screened in competition at the fest, compared to 1,645 by men.
In 2018, as the #MeToo movement exerts an increasing amount of influence, the outrage has reached critical mass. On Saturday, 82 female members of the international film industry, including this year’s jury president Cate Blanchett, the legendary French director Agnes Varda, and Marion Cotillard stood on the red-carpeted steps of the festival Palais before the screening of Eva Husson’s Girls of the Sun, one of only three films directed by women in the competition.
Blanchett read the English text of a statement written by Varda, which had the tone of a manifesto: “Women are not a minority in the world, yet the current state of our industry says otherwise… As women, we all face our own unique challenges, but we stand together on these stairs today as a symbol of our determination and commitment to progress.”
It now appears that every female film professional finds herself required to take a stand on gender parity. Cotillard, the star of Vanessa Filho’s Angel Face, an entry in this year’s Cannes Un Certain Regard sidebar, has not always considered herself an ardent feminist. Several years ago, when asked about her commitment to feminism, she demurred: “I don’t qualify myself as a feminist. We need to fight for women’s rights but I don’t want to separate women from men.”
Yet Cotillard has since modified her skeptical view of feminist precepts. In January, she weighed in and criticized a statement in Le Monde, signed by, among others, Catherine Deneuve, decrying Me Too as exemplifying the “new puritanism.”
When I asked her on Sunday about her criticism of Deneuve’s position, she insisted: “I wasn’t critical of her. I admire her a lot, but just said that I didn’t agree with the statement she signed. I would never judge her negatively. After the statement was published she realized, it seems, that some parts of the text she signed didn’t reflect her own positions accurately.”
Asked if the disparity between Deneuve’s stance and that of other, often younger, French feminists represented a generational divide, she disagreed: “I don’t think it’s generational. Some people perhaps live protected lives and aren’t aware of the consequences of sexual assault. I’m not talking of Deneuve, but of Catherine Millet, the woman who wrote the text. Again, I’m not judging her. She didn’t understand the whole picture and didn’t consider all the women and men who suffer sexual abuse.”
Filho’s Angel Face certainly makes an effort to present a distinctively female story on screen—even though most of the early reviews have not been kind to the film.
Pilloried as a partial, less insightful retread of aspects of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project (which had its world premiere at last year’s edition of the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight), the film deals with the sad saga of Marlène (Cotillard), a substance-abusing single mother living in a French seaside town. Marlène leaves Elli, her eight-year-old daughter, alone for long intervals to fend for herself. Bullied by primary school classmates and scarred by feelings of abandonment, Elli comes close to becoming an alcoholic herself.
Queried about what appealed to her about this project, Cotillard explained: “It was a combination of things. I loved the script and I wanted to explore this character and her relationship with the kid. A few years ago, I heard this story about a woman who abandoned her two kids. That was a hard story to understand. And I asked myself, ‘Why would a mom abandon her kid and never come back?’”
“That was part of the story,” she continued. “The other part involved the people judging her very violently. It was hurtful that so many people, who didn’t know this woman, would judge her so violently. When I read the script, it resonated with me.”
Although the Oscar-winning Cotillard is known for scrupulously researching her roles, she maintains that no research was required for this film: “Research, no. The thing I did was fill in the blanks and invent this woman’s backstory. Vanessa told me a lot about her. She wasn’t based on an actual person, but someone imagined for the script. She gave me details of what she thought this woman was like as a child and as a mother. And I used this and invented more details. I asked myself about her life story. The key is that these mothers have such a hard time and often experience deep depression. It’s obvious that Marlène loves her daughter. She just doesn’t know how to tell her. The key is that most of the women think these kids will survive without them. It’s important to capture that truth.”
According to Cotillard, the fact that Angel Face was directed by a woman had little to do with making the story more convincing or empathetic: “I don’t think that being a sensitive film director is necessarily a product of being male or female. There are very sensitive male directors and less sensitive women. Vanessa is not a mom; I am. Maybe it would be a different film if it was directed by a father.”
Although critics have viewed Angel Face as a condemnation of its troubled protagonist’s behavior, Cotillard herself confesses: “I don’t really like to judge people. Sometimes I can’t help it, but most of the time I tell myself that I want to understand people as human beings. That’s why I’m an actor. Judging doesn’t provide any answers or compassion. You just bring to the part what you think is real and true.”
When I point out that audiences might nevertheless condemn Marlène’s behavior, she concludes: “Yeah, with movies, audiences are subjective and react according to what they have inside them, their personalities, and how they see things. Of course, sometimes movies can open people’s minds.”