Women At Cannes 2008 – Kim Voynar comments exclusively for AWFJ

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This year at Cannes, only a smattering of female directors were represented, which just goes to show that even outside the hills of Hollywood, female filmmakers fight to be seen and heard. In both the Competition and Un Certain Regard categories at Cannes, just two female directors had films competing at Cannes. The Competition category saw Lucretia Martel (“The Holy Girl”) in play with her newest film, “La Mujer sin Cabeza (The Headless Woman)”; Brazilian helmer Daniela Thomas co-directed “Linha de Passe,”, which also played in competition, with Walter Salles, while Un Certain Regard offered Kelly Reichardt’s “Wendy and Lucy,” starring Michelle Williams, and Annemarie Jacir’s “Salt of this Sea.”

“La Mujer sin Cabeza” divided critics at Cannes; the film is a dreamy abstraction about a woman who gets distracted by her cell phone while driving and hits … something. She’s not sure if she hit a dog, a person, or just a bump in the road, but she doesn’t stop to check it out. Later, when her family and friends notice something’s off about her, she confesses that she thinks she hit someone; they check out police reports and assure her that no accident has been reported — yet.

The film drifts along, showing us the lead character’s increasing disconnect as she struggles over feelings of guilt, and Martel layers the intricacies of perceived class value into the film — if a person of the upper class causes injury or death to someone of a lower social status, does that class difference erase the crime? “La Mujer sin Cabeza” is one of those rare films that I wasn’t crazy about immediately after watching, but thought about a lot after; for me, this usually means the director did something right. This film was hard to stay with on the initial viewing, but I was haunted afterward by both its excellent use of visuals and the questions it raised.

“Linha de Passe” is a follow-up to “Foreign Land,” which Thomas made with Salles 12 years ago. I sat in on a roundtable interview with the directors at Cannes, where they told us their intent with “Linha de Passe” was to do a follow-up tale examining the impact of vast changes in Brazilian culture over the 12 years since Foreign Land on the subculture of youth there. The pair plans for “Foreign Land” and “Linha de Passe” to be the first two in a series of six films following this theme; they’ll revisit Brazilian youth for four future films they intend to make with 10-12 years between each effort – quite an ambitious undertaking.

“Linha de Passe” looks at the lives of four fatherless brothers who are struggling to find a path to a solid future. Like a lot of Brazilian youth in the working class, their paths are limited; a tremendous surge in population with little civic planning in Sao Paulo, where the film is set, has resulted in urban sprawl, traffic jams, and a tight job market, even for lower level service jobs. One brother works as a motorcycle courier, representative of the 300,000 or so such couriers who keep Sao Paulo’s business moving with their ability to weave in and out of packed traffic jams. One is a talented soccer player, one of tens of thousands of Brazilian youth who vie each year for the limited places on professional teams; having just turned 18, he sees his window of opportunity for soccer as his doorway out closing on him.

The next brother, who works at a gas station, has sought refuge in one of the many evangelical churches popping up around Sao Paulo; the church, for him, represents both security in the afterlife, and the possibility of a sustainable living in this one. The youngest brother, whose father was black, struggles with issues of race identity both within his family and the outside world; he rides the buses of Sao Paulo endlessly, searching for his father.

Vinicius de Oliveira, who plays Dario, the soccer player, is the only cast member with previous feature film experience, having started out with Salles a decade ago in the Oscar-nominated “Central Station.” The young actor prepared for his role in “Linha de Passe” by playing soccer in Brazil’s junior leagues for four years. The rest of the cast are newcomers, and all give solid performances; the real gem of the film is Sandra Corveloni, who plays the boy’s mother. Her nuanced performance as a woman struggling to support her four sons alone, while pregnant with a fifth child that she’ll also be raising without a father, earned her the award for Best Actress at the fest. If her excellent turn in “Linha de Passe” is any indication, I expect we’ll be seeing more of her in the future.

Reichardt’s “Wendy and Lucy” was one of the films I was most looking forward to ahead of the fest. I loved Reichardt’s 2006 film, “Old Joy,” and hoped I’d find this effort every bit as solid. Fortunately, with “Wendy and Lucy,” Reichardt shows that her critical success with “Old Joy” was no mere fluke; this director has a real talent for telling simple, character driven stories that don’t rely on flashy effects, jazzy soundtracks, or nifty script twists to engage the audience.

“Wendy and Lucy” tells the story of a young girl (Williams) traveling to Alaska with her canine companion, Lucy, in search of a good-paying job at a fish cannery. Wendy’s traveling on a shoestring budget, and when her car breaks down in a small town in Oregon, she has to rely on the help of strangers as she’s forced to make some difficult decisions. This film relies entirely upon William’s abilities as an actress; she’s in every scene and the dialog is minimal. She carries the film remarkably well, conveying Wendy’s increasing desperation in close-shot scenes that rely upon facial expression to convey her tightly-wound emotions.

Where “Old Joy” relied upon the friendship and history of the two main characters as the subtext for the story, in “Wendy and Lucy” it’s all about this one girl in a bad situation, and what she’s going to do to get out of it. As she did with “Old Joy,” Reichardt smartly keeps the exposition and back story to a minimum, forcing us to decide how we feel about Wendy’s plight without letting us know much about the circumstances that got her there. It was great to see such a strong performance from Williams, who I’ve always thought was underrated; she had two films at Cannes this year (she’s also got a major role in Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut,” Synecdoche, NY”), so perhaps we’ll get to see more of her over the next few years; she has what it takes to be considered a “serious” actress, if she continues to make smart choices with the roles she takes.

I did not catch “Salt of this Sea,” so you’ll have to rely upon the review from my colleague, James Rocchi, about that one (LINK: http://www.cinematical.com/2008/05/21/cannes-review-salt-of-this-sea/) ; I can say that I didn’t hear a lot of positive talk among the film journalists we hung out with for this film.

Angelina Jolie was in Cannes to promote Clint Eastwood’s “Changeling,” in which she stars as a woman whose nine-year-old son goes missing. A few months later, police return a boy to her they say is her son; she knows the boy is an imposter, but no one will believe her. The film is based on the true story of Christine Collins. It’s a period piece, set in 1928, a time when women were seen and not heard; if it weren’t based on a true story, today’s filmgoers might find the storyline a bit hard to swallow – after all, who wouldn’t believe a mother who says, “this is not my child?” But knowing that it did happen — that women who got in the way of the men in charge could be locked in an insane asylum with a single signature, or labeled as whores or unfit mothers at the drop of a hat — certainly adds to the sense of tension and indignation one feels while watching the film. Jolie gives a wrenching (some might say overwrought) performance that’s, in many ways, reminiscent of her turn in last year’s “A Mighty Heart”; she’ll almost certainly earn an Oscar nod for her role here — this is the kind of film the Academy eats up.

In a completely different sort of film, German director Andreas Dresen looked at the sexuality of older people with his brave film, “Wolke 9 (Cloud 9),” which won a special award in the Un Certain Regard category. The film tells the tale of Inge (Ursula Werner), an older woman who has a passionate affair with a 76-year-old man, Karl (Horst Westphal). She’s seeking change from the routine of 30 years of marriage to Werner (Horst Rehberg), but her affair has unintended consequences. Dresen unabashedly uses nudity throughout the film; it’s a somewhat risky proposition, given that these are not young actors with perfect bodies we’re seeing frolic on screen. I’d expect “Wolke 9” to play better in Europe than in the United States; Europeans tend to be less uptight about nudity in general, and will likely find the sight of older naked people having sex less shocking than American audiences will.

One the other side of the nudity spectrum was Brilliante Mendoza’s “Serbis,” one of my least favorite films of the festival. Mendoza loves to wallow amidst the poor of the Philippines, and everything about “Serbis” just felt relentlessly exploitative and degrading. Mendoza opens the film with a long shot of completely gratuitous nudity; a young Filipino girl, just out of the shower, preens in front of the mirror. We don’t need to see her naked body to appreciate that she’s a girl on the cusp of womanhood, playing around with her sexuality, but Mendoza fetishizes her, slowly panning the camera onto her breasts and down to her pubic hair. Sure, because we need some completely unnecessary, young Asian girl nudity to titillate the men in the crowd who have Asian girl sexual fantasies.

From there we’re treated to a graphic blowjob between a male transvestite and another character in a projection booth and a graphic sex scene between two other characters, one of whom is afflicted with a boil on his ass. Later, we get to see him graphically pop his boil with a pop bottle; that was it for me. And yes, I get that Mendoza thinks he’s making some larger statement about society, that the boil is a metaphor (as is the goat running around later in the film). I don’t care what he was trying to go for in this film, it just doesn’t work. Mendoza likes to do this thing of following his characters around in some ill-thought attempt at verite; what he misses is that even in a naturalistic approach, you need interesting characters and a compelling story to follow, and if you’re going to have graphic sex and nudity there damn sure better be a reason for it other than just further exploiting the people you’re supposedly representing in your film, and “Serbis” just misses the mark.

There was nothing at Cannes this year that came close to the power of last year’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days” when it came to strong films exploring women’s issues, but at least there were a couple of solid directorial efforts and some strong female performances. In addition to the films I already discussed, I should also note there were solid, interesting roles for women in Atom Egoyan’s “Adoration,” Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, NY” (which boasts Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Catherine Keener, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Hope Davis, and Williams, with Phillip Seymour Hoffman in the lead role), Arnaud Desplechin’s “Un Conte de Noel” (solid, interesting female roles for Catherine Deneuve, her daughter Chiara Mastroianni, Anne Consigney, and Emmanuelle Devos), James Gray’s excellent “Two Lovers,” which matches up Joaquin Phoenix with Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw.

The Dardenne brothers, who won the Palme d’or at Cannes in 2005 for the wrenching “L’Enfant,” had another interesting female-centric film in “Le Silence de Lorna (Lorna’s Silence)” about a woman who gets into an arranged “citizenship acquisition” marriage to one man, only to find the man who set it up intends to have her new husband killed off so she can marry another guy, and Pablo Trapero’s “Leonera (Lion’s Den)” focused on an incarcerated woman struggling to raise her son in prison.

Overall, there were a lot of very good films at Cannes and a couple of excellent ones, but it would be nice to see a larger percentage of fem-helmed films at the fest. I suppose it’s unrealistic to ask for even a fifty-percent representation, but surely there are enough strong films directed by women that we could get up to at least, say, six or seven out of the 20 or so films in competition being directed by women. N’est-ce pas?

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).

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