The true crime at Cannes was not the screening of Von Trier’s horror film, but the devaluing of diverse cinema

It’s no real surprise that the history of Cannes programming is a history of celebrating men by male programmers

Sophie Monks Kaufman
Tuesday 22 May 2018 10:48
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Cate Blanchett addresses crowd as 82 women walk the red carpet in Cannes film festival protest

Many critics expressed visceral revulsion over The House That Jack Built, the latest film by Danish provocateur Lars von Trier which had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival on Tuesday. The 155-minute chronicle of a serial killer includes scenes of female bodily mutilation and children being gunned down.

Jessica Kiang at The Playlist called it “a tawdry, nasty little movie”. Caspar Salmon walked out at 100 minutes and wrote a piece for Pajiba entitled “This Is Not A Review”, saying he was “sick of heartless men playing loveless games”.

Von Trier’s body of work is full of the intense physical suffering of both women and men, and it is hardly surprising that he has continued his theme of using disturbing images as a technique for stirring audiences. The big questions to be asked do not concern a director doing what he has always done.

The greater matter is to do with the programming values of the Cannes Film Festival, which gave him a space on their coveted platform.

Von Trier is held in great affection on the French Riviera. Five of his films premiered in Cannes, three won prizes and one, Dancer in the Dark, won the Palme d’Or in 2000. He is held in such special regard that he was welcomed back this year despite being banned in 2011 for saying (among other things), “I understand Hitler”. The board of directors reacted quickly at the time to distance themselves from comments they claimed to be “contrary to the ideals of humanity and generosity that preside over the very existence of the festival”.

Fast forward seven years to Thierry Frémaux, the head of selection, announcing the addition of The House That Jack Built to the programme, by saying that Cannes president Pierre Lescure had “really worked hard over the past few days to remove this persona non grata status which von Trier received seven years ago”.

This type of attitude – the willingness to work very hard (whatever this means) to reinstate a controversial darling of the Croisette – exposes values which nod towards established male auteurs, and exist in stark contrast to the level of effort that the festival is willing to direct towards pursuing parity of gender representation.

Cannes is notorious for the gender imbalance of its programming. Every year, there is outcry as the tally of women competing for the Palme d’Or is totted up to a measly end. This year, three of the 18 films in competition were directed by women, which is broadly representative of how things have been since the festival’s inception in 1946.

Sure, the average has crept up from zero to three, but (as this damning infographic from the French organisation 5050 by 2020 illustrates) the overall picture is one of prejudice, not progress.

When confronted with this situation, as he regularly is, Frémaux walks a line between vaguely acknowledging the problem while being defensively non-committal. “There are not enough women directors but we don’t have time to talk about that here,” said Frémaux in April. “Our point of view is that the films are selected for their intrinsic qualities. There will never be a selection with a positive discrimination for women.”

On 12 May, jury president Cate Blanchett led 82 women to the red carpet to flag that they, versus 1,652 men, have had work eligible to win the Palme d’Or in Cannes’ 71-year history. The man standing behind them, looking misty-eyed, was none other than Thierry Frémaux.

A man showing up to protest a problem he has the power to tackle conveys a doublethink which perfect encapsulates where the Cannes Film Festival is at. Sure, they don’t want to kick women down, but neither do they want to fix the problem because the paragon most worthy of recognition, more than equality, is their precious cinematic taste.

The three heads of Cannes selection are male: Frémaux has final say over everything in The Official Selection (Competition, Un Certain Regard, Out of Competition, Special Screenings, Midnight Screenings ad Cannes Classics) while the artistic directors of Director’s Fortnight and Critics Week are, respectively, Édouard Waintrop and Charles Tesson.

It’s no real surprise that the history of the Cannes competition is a history of celebrating men when it is also a history of men programming these titles. What Frémaux takes for his intrinsic artistic sensitivity are subjective values shaped by living as a white man. His taste does not exist in a transcendent bubble above his identity. Nobody’s does, which is why we need programmers from a range of backgrounds if we want to reflect the true variety of humanity.

Cannes is an extraordinary arena for critics to discover new talents and for new talents to find recognition. It is in everyone’s interests for the festival to evolve at a faster rate away from its embarrassing history of inequality.

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Two days after the 82 women protested, an equality charter was signed by Frémaux, Waintrop and Tesson. Geared towards greater transparency, it pledged to record the gender of the cast and crew of the films submitted and – most interestingly – to make public the names of the programming selection committee.

While exposing the genders of those in decision making positions will help us fill in the bigger picture of the ideals at play, this is very much a small-fry move. A true commitment to the festival’s supposed ideals of humanity and generosity would be to make diverse hiring decision across gender, age, sexuality and race.

The battle for Cannes to recognise greater diversity is taking place on many fronts, as evidenced on Thursday when 16 black actresses, led by Aissa Maiga, went to the red carpeted steps to protest against racism, calling for industry changes so that we “start to see the real France on screen”.

Because the most offensive fiction, worse than anything von Trier could come up with, is that the current gatekeepers represent the true richness of this world and cinema.

Sophie Monks Kaufman is a contributing editor at Little White Lies

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