Marvelous Women at Palm Springs International Film Festival 2019 – Marietta Steinhart reports

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The Palm Springs International Film Festival, one of the largest in North America, plays a key role not only in attracting Hollywood stars, but also in showing lesser-known, artful, sometimes difficult to watch movies of cultural relevance.

After opening with a portrait of William Shakespeare in the last act of his life, All is True (directed by Kenneth Branagh), the festival closed with Ladies in Black, directed by Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy) – a commentary on women’s changing societal roles that remains timely even today.

The PSIFF programming team, working with artistic director Michael Lerman, consisted of no less than six remarkable women, including Lili Rodriguez, Alissa Simon, Hebe Tebachnik, Therese Hayes, Jessica Eskelin, Jane Schoettle (from the Toronto International Film Festival), and former Newsweek critic, David Ansen.

The festival showed 228 films of which 55 were either directed or co-directed by women (about 24 percent), leaving room for more female directors in the future. Nevertheless the festival has no lack in films with or about women.

The line-up included a focus on cinema from France, India and Mexico, Premieres, Talking Pictures, Special Presentations, Foreign Language Oscar Submissions, Gay!La, Local Spotlight, Modern Masters, True Stories, World Cinema Now, a 30-film retrospective from past festivals called The Palm Springs Canon, as well as two new programs this year, one focusing on New Jewish Stories and the other on Queer Cinema Today.

While there was no category specifically dedicated to female artists, women stood out in some categories and were showered with awards. Here are some of the highlights:

Miranda de Pencier’s sports drama, The Grizzlies (much overlooked by critics), about the resilience of a group of Inuit students in a small Arctic town, won top audience votes for best narrative.

The lesbian indie drama Rafiki, that was previously banned in its country of origin, Kenya, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year and received quite a bit of attention as the first film from Kenya to ever play in the festival. From writer and director Wanuri Kahiu, the film is about a romance between two young girls in Kenya, where same sex relationships are still considered taboo.

In honor of her new book, Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes America, author Karina Longworth presented a special screening of the Marilyn Monroe-Jane Russell-starring film, Gentleman Prefer Blondes. Longworth’s book examines the roles of gender, sex and power in Hollywood’s golden age through the lens of many woman pursued by Howard Hughes, including Russell herself.

Few films capture the difficulties of circumnavigating the patriarchy like Mouthpiece, by Canadian filmmaker Patricia Rozema. The film was screened in the category dedicated to “Modern Masters”. Rozema was in good company here, but notably she was one of only two female directors (out of twelve) in this category, along with Karyn Kusama and her masterful film, Destroyer.

PSIFF has traditionally shone a spotlight on foreign-language Oscar submissions. This year it screened 43 of the 87 official entries. Only 9 out of 43 films here were directed by women (that is hardly the festival’s burden), including Capernaum by Nadine Labaki, who has made history as the first Arab female filmmaker to ever be nominated for an Oscar in the best foreign language film category.

Working Woman from the award-winning feminist writer-director, with Michal Aviad, (Liron Ben Shlush), is an interesting drama about workplace sexual harassment, and it delivers an authentic take on the subject.

Supremely well-acted, Kent Jones’s narrative film debut and character portrait, Diane, offers Mary Kay Place a chance to shine as a 70ish widow in rural Massachusetts trying to deal with a slate of problems, including her son’s (Jake Lacey) ongoing battle with addiction.

Richard Billingham’s bleak feature-directing debut, Ray & Liz, is about a working-class family falling apart. It’s not an easy watch, but the best performance comes from Ella Smith (Liz) as the titular mother, endlessly neglecting her children.

The John Schlesinger Award for the director of a debut documentary feature was presented to Shannon Service and Jeffrey Waldron for Ghost Fleet. Carmen & Lola directed by Arantxa Echevarria, was honored with The CV Cine Award for the best Ibero-American film.

The festival’s New Voice New Visions Award for unique viewpoints from first- and second-time directors, was given to Sofia, Meryem Benm’Barek’s film about a young Moroccan woman who has a child out of wedlock. The powerful film proved one of the jury’s personal favorites.

Finally, the festival’s new Ricky Jay Magic of Cinema Award (given to “a master filmmaker who exemplifies a pioneering spirit in furthering the language of storytelling and the magic of cinema”), named after the late actor and magician, went to the Chinese film Dead Pigs, directed by Chinese-American filmmaker Cathy Yan – an engaging comic debut about overlapping lives and misfortunes in modern China.

The PSIFF gala’s reputation as a bellwether of Academy Awards nominations has made it attractive for Oscar hopefuls to attend as well. And so I was happy to hear that this year’s festival honored some of my favorite actresses.

British Golden Globe winner Olivia Colman received the Desert Palm Achievement Award for her role as Queen Anne in The Favourite by Yorgos Lanthimos (one of my favorite filmmakers working today). The outstanding Regina King, an artist, who way too often goes snubbed, was honored with the Chairman’s Award for her performance in Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk – a role for which she has been getting award after award this season, and for which she has been nominated for an Oscar in the Best Supporting Actress Category.

Glenn Close, whose face also graced the Palm Springs Magazine, received the Icon Award for playing a wife whose writing talent is unseen in favor of her award-winning husband’s. Her performance in The Wife (directed by Björn Runge and written by Jane Anderson) gives voice to women who, because of backward gender roles, went unnoticed.

Melissa McCarthy, one of the funniest women working in Hollywood today, was honored with the Spotlight Award for her role in Can You Ever Forgive Me? by Marielle Heller, who wrote and directed The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

The Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF) ran from January 4-13, and celebrated its 30th anniversary this year.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Olivia Coleman, Regina King, Glenn Close and Marielle Heller, all strong presences at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, were honored with 2018 AWJF EDA Awards, presented in January, 2019

ABOUT MARIETTA STEINHART: Born and raised in Vienna, Marietta Steinhart is a New York City based film critic, contributing to Zeit Online, among other media, covering US cinema and TV. She’s an esteemed member of The International Federation of Film Critics and a frequent juror in Film Festivals.

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