Cannes: Director Claire Denis Talks About Breaking Barriers in French Cinema

“I was not afraid that it was a man’s world,” she said of breaking into the industry and explained how channeling her inner Virginia Woolf helped her persevere.

The "Women in Motion" talks, presented by The Hollywood Reporter and luxury group Kering, resumed Sunday with a conversation with French film writer-director Claire Denis, Chinese director Liu Shu and Chinese producer Ying Liang that addressed the challenges faced by female filmmakers in international cinema.
THR’s chief film critic Todd McCarthy led the conversation, which touched on how growing up in Africa shaped Denis as a director and how channeling her inner Virginia Woolf helped her persevere in a male-dominated industry.
“I was not afraid that it was a man’s world,” said Denis, one of the leading helmers in France since the late 1980s, when she burst onto the scene with Chocolat about a young French woman who returns to West Africa to contemplate her childhood days in a colonial outpost in Cameroon. “You don’t grow up naive in Africa.”
After being a first assistant director on Wim Wenders Wings of Desire (“My voice was not loud enough when I said, ‘Roll camera'!”), Denis made the jump to directing. She said she struggled with her own insecurities far more than any gender bias.
“The doubt is, ‘Am I creating a good film?’ ” she said. “I’m tiny. I’m small. Maybe people were saying, ‘Who is this [woman]?’ But this was not touching me at all.”

At the time, there were few French women behind the camera, but those who were “had something special. They were fierce. They had no fear. … [So,] I was obsessed with being a Virginia Woolf.”
Denis, whose most recent feature is 2013's Un Certain Regard film Bastards, said she has encountered subtle forms of gender bias over the years. “I see doubt in someone’s eye…that I can go as strong and far as a man director,” she said.
In an effort to mentor the next generation of international female filmmakers, she is playing the role of “godmother” to the pair of up-and-coming Chinese filmmakers on the panel, who are in Cannes as laureates of the Fabric du Cinema du Monde with their film Lotus Position. The two talked about a cultural climate of sexism in China that has led to male-centric storytelling.

“I don’t watch TV,” said Liu, noting that it is full of stereotypes such as men with a wife and many mistresses.
Still, the women see signs for hope. “This movement is not going to be stopped -- neither by economy nor by [sexism],” Denis said.
The series of talks, which runs throughout the 68th Cannes Film Festival, will resume Monday with a conversation with producers Christine Vachon and Elizabeth Karlsen, here with the competition film Carol, moderated by THR’s deputy editorial director Alison Brower. Kering is the official fashion partner of the festival.