The Cannes Film Festival tackles “nunsploitation”, gender bias and the male gaze

Paul Verhoeven’s racy take on the gender of lesbian sex in a convent has reignited the debate over the ‘male gaze’ at Cannes, even as female authors hail (some) progress in combating gender bias both at screen and off.

Has the world of cinema become puritanical?

According to Paul Verhoeven, the veteran provocateur who gave us “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls,” the answer is yes. Five years after his rape-revenge thriller ‘Elle’, the Dutch director is back in Cannes with his latest competition entry ‘Benedetta’, a cheeky nun romance set in Counter-Reformation Italy. He sometimes looked irritated at Saturday’s press conference as he answered questions about profanity, nudity and steamy sex scenes in his film.

“Remember, in general, people, when they have sex, they take their clothes off”, Verhoeven broken to a journalist. “So I’m stunned by the fact that we don’t want to look at the reality of life,” he added. “Why was this Puritanism introduced? This, in my opinion, is false.”

>> In pictures: Paul Verhoeven, Virginie Efira walk the red carpet in Cannes

“Benedetta” is based on the true story of a mystical abbess who was credited with miraculously protecting her Tuscan hometown of Pescia from the plague – only to be stripped of her rank due to her relationship with another nun. . Virginie Efira stars as the eponymous abbess, often revealing all as she traces Benedetta’s journey through spiritual and sexual ecstasy (which, in Verhoeven’s mind, clearly go hand in hand).

A throwback to non-sploitation for the Covid-19 era (although Verhoeven actually filmed it before the onset of the modern “plague”), “Benedetta” is outrageous, erotic and often very funny, especially in its perverse use of liturgical objects as props. But the elaborate softcore quality of its sex scenes hardly belies the idea that the protagonists are convent newbies – and is sure to reignite talk of lesbian romance getting the “male gaze” treatment at Cannes. .

The male gaze

The world’s biggest film festival, which launched Verhoeven’s “Basic Instinct” almost 30 years ago, is no stranger to talking about the “male gaze”. In 2013, Palme d’Or winner Abdelatif Kechiche was accused of voyeurism for his lesbian drama “Blue is the warmest color”. He faced more protests when he returned six years later, with the second part of his “Mektoub My Love” series. The film took the more grueling elements of its otherwise sublime first half – notably the endless butt-banging – and expanded them into a plotless nightly study in hedonistic release. Two years later, it still hasn’t been released in theaters.

Midway through its throbbing, throbbing three-hour dance floor sequence, Kechiche’s “Mektoub” featured a seemingly endless oral sex scene in which only the woman showed off flesh (although at least she was at the reception ). This year, another sex scene caused a stir at Cannes, even though critics hailed it as deeply feminist. He featured in Joachim Trier’s ‘The Worst Person in the World’, about a young woman trying to find herself as she goes from one love to another.

The Norwegian director has been credited in the past with directing lesbian sex scenes without acting for the “male gaze”. His latest work dazzled critics at home and abroad, who praised his depiction of shifting gender dynamics and proclaimed him an early favorite for the Palme d’Or. It also shone the spotlight on hitherto little-known actress Renate Reinsve, an instant favorite for the Best Actress award.

“Growing up before #MeToo, you kind of shape yourself with the strong opinions and the presence of men,” Reinsve said in an interview with AFP. Speaking about her character in the film, she added, “She finds her identity in the eyes of others. When you free yourself from it, you become yourself and stronger.

“The first feminist director”

Although very different, the films of Trier, Verhoeven and Kechiche are at the heart of what French filmmaker and screenwriter Nathalie Marchak describes as an important and stimulating debate on the “masculine” and “feminine” gazes in cinema.

“There are a million ways to film a scene; the key question is where to put my camera and what does it say,” she explained in an interview with FRANCE 24 in Cannes. “It is a fascinating debate and we should not deprive ourselves of it. It is the role of cinema to question our view of ourselves.

It’s not just about pitting male and female filmmakers against each other, Marchak added, noting that it’s “quite possible for male directors to adopt a female gaze.” The goal, she said, is to challenge how we portray male and female characters.

Speaking about Pedro Almodovar earlier this week, American filmmaker and actress Jodie Foster described the Spanish director, who has placed women at the center of so many of his films, as “the first feminist director for me”.

“It was the first time I saw films that spoke to women in an authentic way,” Foster said of Almodovar’s films, a day after the legendary director presented him with an honorary Palme d’Or at Cannes. . She called Almodovar an exception among male directors who “can’t easily shift into a woman’s body and wonder what the complicated, complex experience of a woman is all about.”

Foster was just 13 when she first came to Cannes in 1976 for Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” which won a controversial Palme d’Or that year. Later, the stars turned, including his Oscar-winning role in “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991). She has also directed several films, including “Money Monster” with George Clooney and Julia Roberts.

Addressing the Cannes Film Festival in impeccable French on Wednesday, Foster said there has never been a better time for women to enter the film industry. Although male dominance has “not completely changed”, she said, “there is now a realization that it has been too long since we have heard stories told by women” .

“I know it’s a bit cliché to say ‘tell your own stories,'” Foster said. “But what I’m saying is, ask yourself questions about whether things are true and whether they resonate with you instead of pleasing others, whether it’s the audience or the producers.”

“Scorsese for me was the best,” Adam Driver told FRANCE 24

Adam Driver – Cannes © Juliette Montilly

Eliminate gender bias

The shortage of women in positions of responsibility in the industry, and female directors in particular, is a recurring subject at Cannes, where only one woman – Jane Campion for “The Piano” (1993) – has ever won the Palme d’ gold.

Speaking to FRANCE 24 before the festival, the artistic director of Cannes, Thierry Frémaux, underlined the relatively high number of female directors in the In some perspective supervised, dedicated to emerging talents. He cited it as proof that “the future of cinema will be female”.

But what about now? There are still only four women in the main competition, out of a record 24 entrants. The lack of progress is all the more flagrant if we compare it to the main parallel selections, Critics’ Week and Directors’ Fortnight, which this year achieved near parity.

Cannes advocates point out that the huge gender imbalance in the main competition generally reflects the imbalance in the number of films submitted. But critics counter that the selection process is understandably skewed in favor of established directors who are integral to an industry still dominated by men. As ultimately responsible for selecting candidates for cinema’s most prestigious award, they add, Cannes’ artistic director has immense clout in the film world and a responsibility to foster change.

Spot the woman: Jane Campion, the only director to win a Palme d'Or, pictured with other winners at the 70th Cannes <a class=Film Festival.” data-srcset=”” sizes=”” loading=”lazy” class=”m-figure__img lazy”/>
Spot the woman: Jane Campion, the only director to win a Palme d’Or, pictured with other winners at the 70th Cannes Film Festival. Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

While Frémaux has spoken out in favor of female-led initiatives for more gender equality, he has firmly refused to push female directors into the festival’s main competition through affirmative action – which in France results in “positive discrimination” but is perceived negatively. The Cannes director has repeatedly stressed that he chooses films based on merit and not gender.

This is a point of view shared by Marchak, herself an activist for greater gender equality, but for whom talking about “positive discrimination” is “insulting” to women.

“Women directors want to be selected at major festivals not because they are women but because their films deserve the spotlight,” she explained. The aim is not to favor female directors over their male counterparts, she added, but to ensure that women are present in the selection process and that their lack of visibility in the industry is addressed. taken into account.

“When it comes to selecting films for competitions, I don’t think women are any more lenient with female directors than men are,” Marchak said. “But female directors may not get the same exposure from the start, so it’s important to go find them.”

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