The Real Winners At Cannes Might Appear To Be Women, But Don't Be Fooled

sienna miller cannes film festival 2024
The Real Winners Of Cannes Aren't Women Afterallgetty images

First it was Greta Gerwig – she of history-making, billion-dollars-at-the-box-office Barbie fame – becoming the first female American director to serve as the Cannes Film Festival’s jury president this year. Next came the the turn of three-time Academy Award winner Meryl Streep, who was presented with an honorary Palme d’Or — the festival’s highest honour — at the opening night ceremony. Then it was Sienna Miller being accompanied by her 11-year-old daughter Marlowe – setting quite the vertiginous bar for future nepo film babies’ red carpet debuts – to the premiere of Horizon: An American Saga. If one thing has been emerged so far from the Festival, it’s that women are, on the surface at least, this year's real winners.

At the very least, the presence of women has shown that the event's organisers are doing what they can to correct the film industry’s historical gender imbalance. ‘I’ve been making movies for almost 20 years,’ Gerwig said on the opening night of the festival. ‘And this has never not been a question: increasing the number of female directors. In my lifetime it’s changed and gotten better. Every year I cheer because there are more women directors. We’re not done yet, but we are certainly moving in the right direction. It’s all about the long arc of history.’


Long arc of history indeed. Joining Gerwig on the jury this year are Eva Green and Academy Award nominee, Lily Gladstone, while Dame Donna Langley, the chairman and chief content officer at NBCUniversal, was bestowed with the Women in Motion Award at a lavish dinner before the festival's official opening.

cannes film festival 2024
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The festival also appointed veteran producer Iris Knobloch as its overall president last year, making this year her second in the role. ‘I feel that defending the cause of women is a big part of my role,’ she said in a press conference. ‘And if anything, I feel it much stronger than I did last year. We can see the progress being made, with many more films [by women] coming in and more women speaking up. That’s why having Greta Gerwig as jury president is so important. She is the future of cinema. But of course there is still a long, long way to go.’

Among the celebrations of female filmmaker's work so far are British director Andrea Arnold’s triumphant Bird, a delicate coming-of-age story about a 12-year-old girl, Bailey. It stars Nykiya Adams and Barry Keoghan and is in the running for this year's prestigious Palme d'Or. If Arnold wins the coveted prize, she'll become the fourth woman to win it in the award's history, a fact that's at once both an honour and a horror. At this year's Directors Fortnight, which runs alongside the Cannes Film Festival, the American Honey director was also awarded the honorary Golden Coach Award. The French guild described Arnold as an 'avid explorer of the fringes of society' who has 'a knack of sounding out the power of bodies and souls.' BAFTA winner Rungano Nyoni's sophomoric film, On Becoming A Guinea Fowl, has also impressed critics, while César award-winning director Yolande Zauberman's The Belle from Gaza tells the story of transsexual women moving from Palestine to Tel Aviv to live out their new identities.

cannes, france may 19 margaret qualley and demi moore attend a photocall at the 77th annual cannes film festival at the carlton cannes hotel on may 19, 2024 in cannes, france photo by pascal le segretaingetty images
Pascal Le Segretain

The longest standing ovation so far at this year's annual gathering was after the premiere of Coralie Fargeat's horror film, The Substance, which pokes holes in about society's fetishisation of youth (it stars Demi Moore and former ELLE UK Margaret Qualley). The audience cheered for the film, which speaks largely to the female experience, for 13 minutes.

Women might be the face of the Cannes Film Festival this year, but there is an argument to be heard that behind-the-scenes, this is an industry still rife with misogyny. Besides its efforts to diversify proceedings, stormy weather has threatened this year's festival both literally and figuratively.

According to reports in Le Figaro, in the run-up to this year's event, rumours began circulating of the existence of a secret list of 10 leading men in the film industry, including actors and directors, who have been abusive to women. The names, which have been described as 'explosive', are believed to have been sent anonymously to the National Centre for Cinema in Paris, along with other leading film finance companies in France.

France has been accused of being slow to wake up to the #MeToo movement sparked by the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Speaking to Variety ahead of the festival beginning, Knobloch, said: 'For reasons I can’t explain, it took much longer in France than in the U.S. for women to dare to speak out, and maybe it also took longer for women to be heard.'

cannes, france may 19 sienna miller, marlowe sturridge and oli green attend the horizon an american saga red carpet at the 77th annual cannes film festival at palais des festivals on may 19, 2024 in cannes, france photo by samir husseinwireimage
Samir Hussein

Judith Godrèche's short film, Moi Aussi, which was a last-minute addition to the schedule, seemed timely, as not only was she an early accuser of Weinstein but at the beginning of 2024 she also filed complaints against French directors Benoit Jacquot and Jacques Doillon, alleging sexual assault (both have denied the claims). The president of the National Film Board, Dominique Boutonnat, has also been accused of sexual assault and has been the focus of two investigative stories in French newspaper Liberation. He denies all charges and faces a criminal trial next month while in the autumn, French actor Gérard Depardieu, stands trial on charges of sexually assaulting two women on the set of The Green Shutters. Depardieu has denied any wrongdoing and claims any relationships he has had were consensual. In an open letter published last year, he said: 'Never, ever have I abused a woman.' Yet as the accusations and rumours threatened to overshadow the event, before it officially commenced, French legislators conceded to pressure and agreed to a government inquiry into sexual and gender-based violence across the country’s performing arts and fashion sectors.

Of course, change is rarely linear, but in the words of Cate Blanchett at Kering's Women In Motion panel earlier this week as part of the festival, it all too often feels like 'Groundhog Day'. Yes, Streep won an award and Moore received a standing ovation; but if the Oscars are the north star of the industry, a grand total of three female directors have won the Academy Award for Best Director in the almost century-long run of the awards. Last year, no women were nominated for Best Director and, since the Academy Awards began in 1929, only seven female directors have been nominated. Only 6% of the directors of the 1,700 top-grossing films in America between 2007 and 2023 were women, according to the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, but ultimately, it is these roles, the ones that don't often make headlines or trigger a thousand paparazzi's camera shutters that are the true litmus test of parity. 'I do the head count, and I'm back in the same place, working with men who I love working with and respect, [but] I'm walking on set and there's 50 people on set and there's three women,' Blanchett said. 'When is this going to deeply, profoundly shift?'

Progress happens incrementally, bit by bit, and it's not until we look over our shoulders that we have the clarity of vision to see how far we've come. And while the inclusion, presence and celebration of women – both on and off-screen – is wonderful, it shouldn't be so much of a rarity that we are encouraged to mark as though we should feel grateful for it. We shouldn't be made to feel grateful for something that ought to be rightfully ours, the way it is men's. In the words of Knobloch, there really is still a long, long way to go.

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