Cherchez la femme—and Angelina, crayoning femme fatale

The Cannes kicks off the competition with with a fusillade of three provocative films by women
Emily Browning at the 'Sleeping Beauty' press conference in Cannes / photo by Brian D. Johnson

Each year we come to Cannes, hoping to be shocked, surprised, possibly blown away—but expecting at the very least to see the values of conventional cinema turned upside down. That usually happens here, up to a point. In Cannes, high art is placed on an Olympian altar, while Hollywood fare provides the tacky floor show, safely sequestered out of competition. But one area where Cannes has too often fallen into lock step with Hollywood is in its deference to the pantheon of Male Genius. Last year there was not a single female director in the main competition. Ah, an oversight, no doubt. This year, as if to shake up the optics, if nothing else, the competition has opened with three movies in a row from female directors—Sleeping Beauty, We Have to Talk About Kevin, and Polisse—each of which throws down a provocative gauntlet to conservative notions of motherhood and sexuality.

And we’re not even counting The Beaver, Saint Jodie Foster’s ritual cleansing of Mel Gibson, which is programmed out of competition. Or Kung Fu Panda 2, which DreamWorks showcased in Cannes this week, even though it’s not even dignified by an out-of-competition slot in the official selection. It, too, is directed by a woman, Jennifer Yu, and marketed by the unparalleled celebrity of Angelina Jolie.

Cherchez la femme. At the end of Day Two, that could be the rallying cry of Cannes. Last night I collared festival director Thierry Frémault at the opening night party at the Majestic Beach for Midnight in Paris. I asked if he was making a statement with this opening fusillade of films by women. It was midnight, and Frémault—in a hurry to get to the VIP area, where Rachel McAdams and Michael Sheen were exchanging fond looks—seemed as if like he was about to brush me off. Then he shrugged, grinned and said, “Oui, un peu!”

The trifecta of women’s films kicking off the festival are attention-getting. Sleeping Beauty, a feature debut by Australian writer Julia Leigh, is an erotic/narcotic, fable that doubles down sexual taboos by exploring a pedo/necrophilia demimonde. An endlessly naked Emily Browning stars as a twentysomething waif who looks 15, in a Story of O/Belle de Jour tale of a university student who is paid to be drugged unconscious and ravished by filthy rich dirty old men. (If a male director, like Atom Egoyan, had made this film, he would have been crucified.) Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, adapts Lionel Shriver’s prize-winning novel about the tormented mother of a demon-seed boy whose idea of high school excellence is mass murder. And Polisse, by French actress-director Maiwenn is about a raucous squad of child services police in Paris who investigate pedophilia while negotiating their own torrid relationships. (I could have done without the lingering shot of the teenage rape victim’s stillborn baby.)

'Sleeping Beauty' director Julia Leigh

At a press conference for Sleeping Beauty, Browning, 22, said she had no problem whatsoever with being naked on screen, as if it barely warranted talking about—although the film has fetish gear to rival Eyes Wide Shut and more arty nude tableaux than anything by Peter Greenaway. I asked director Julia Leigh a question about the the male gaze, and how her film tried to redirect that, which she never quite answered. Midway through, Leigh pointed out that Browning’s mentor, Australian director Jane Campion, was sitting among the journalists. Later she told me that even though this was Leigh’s first film, she’s an ardent cinephile and knows way more about movies than herself.

This morning, I was forced to choose between the Panda 2 press conference and one for We Need to Talk About Kevin, featuring the lethally articulate Tilda Swinton as the mother-in-hell. I thought the latter would be more interesting, but like any self-respecting media slut, I obeyed the summons of Hollywood royalty and headed down to the Carlton Hotel to pay homage to Queen Angelina, who was flanked by competing jokers Jack Black and Dustin Hoffman. Black basically did bursts of self-absorbed stand-up. He cited his greatest influence as Bobby McFerrin (from his before-“Don’t Worry” period), explaining how Bobby could sing while breathing in. Which was an excuse to show us how he, Jack Black, could sing while breathing in. After Jack did a passable impression of a human harmonica, Hoffman, who was being largely ignored by the assembled hacks, candidly expressed his frustration. He was so game to do comedy and couldn’t find a straightman in the room.

He did get off one good line: “I do feel that if I had a male director I would have had a much bigger part.” Which may well be true. Hoffman voices the role of Panda’s zen master, who preaches inner peace—which is as scarce in this 3D action blockbuster as Hoffman’s own dialogue.

I was tempted to ask Dusty about Barney’s Version, and why he didn’t support Robert Lantos’ labour of love by doing publicity, but I figured that would just bum him out even further.

So I asked Angelina a question. Why? Because she was there. And from previous experience in Cannes, I knew that when she answers a question she looks right at you. It’s like getting laser eye surgery at 20 paces. I didn’t have a question prepared but I blathered out something:

“Angelina, you play a lot of fighters, a lot of rough women, a lot of femmes fatales. Are you a fighter? Where does that come from? You’re a tough customer on the screen. What’s the personal alter-ego to that?”

“Well, my alter ego is who I am 100 per cent, which is a mommy who is changing diapers and colouring. So, I’m sure I’m very, very soft. But I’ve always been drawn to strong characters and I admire strong women, emotionally—people who are fighting for something. I admire strong characters. I have a sense of justice and injustice. It’s always been more that than just wanting to be tough. And I’m very lucky that I came to my career at a time when women are being allowed these roles and being allowed great opportunities.”

Spoken like with diplomatic aplomb, as controlled as the gaze that stares me down, and as unerring the carriage of that tall, regal neck.

But hell, I’m still kicking myself for not asking who would win a cage match between her and Brad. Even if the answer is obvious.