Female directors out in force this year


In the 60 years of the Festival de Cannes, only once has a woman taken home the Palme d'Or. But this year, three French "femmes" are ready to tread on the once male-dominated stamping ground of Godard, Truffaut, Lelouch and Berri.

Lola Doillon, Celine Sciamma and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi have been selected for the fest's Un Certain Regard category. Also, veteran Catherine Breillat is In Competition with "An Old Mistress," and six women helmers can be found in the Directors' Fortnight sidebar.

"I observe with joy that there are a lot of women showing their films in Cannes this year," Sciamma says. "It's the year of the woman, especially of first films by women."

Fourteen years after Jane Campion struck a chord among Jury members with "The Piano," the Festival de Cannes may be ready to sing another female tune.

Sciamma and Doillon's debut features each deal with the theme of adolescence from a female perspective. Doillon's "Et toi, t'es sur qui?" (Just About Love) follows 15-year-old Elodie and her best friend Julie (nicknamed "Batman" thanks to her gothic look) as they rush to lose their virginity before summer vacation. Sciamma's "Naissance des Pieuvres" (Water Lilies) follows three 15-year-old girls who explore their sexuality against the backdrop of synchronized swimming in a small town.

With two films about sexually curious adolescents in the French suburbs, did the two directors feel threatened by such striking similarities?

"I think it's great, the fact that we're two young, female directors making movies about adolescents," Doillon says. "The films are very different. The more films about adolescents, the more young female filmmakers, the better. There's no competition at all between us."

"I don't feel at all in competition with them," Sciamma adds.

While Doillon's film is very modern -- the teens communicate on cell phones and through instant messaging -- Sciamma aimed to create a timelessness in terms of the costumes and dialogue. As both filmmakers experienced their first time in the director's chair, their leading female characters also experienced their "first time," with "Water Lilies" depicting a homosexual encounter between two of the young actresses.

"I specifically chose synchronized swimming because it's the only sport reserved just for females," Sciamma says. "It produced a dialogue about femininity. You also have to smile and not show any effort; these girls are soldiers made up like dolls."

Meanwhile, spectators will be able to pass from dolls to dames with "Actrices," Bruni Tedeschi's sophomore turn in the director's chair (she stars in the film as well).

After presenting "It's Easier for a Camel" at Cannes in 2003, Italian-born, French-reared Bruni Tedeschi is back directing as well as starring as Marcelline, a 40-year-old single actress, alongside Mathieu Amalric, Louis Garrel and Noemie Lvovsky. It's been a nice run for Bruni Tedeschi, who had a role in "A Good Year," Ridley Scott's romp through Provence, and has been a familiar face on international screens with parts in Steven Spielberg's "Munich," Francois Ozon pair "5x2" and "Time to Leave" in addition to myriad roles in French and Italian films.

"It's definitely a female film that tells the story of a woman, but it's also a film about any actress -- or actor -- who realizes that he or she spent his or her life living in fiction than in reality," Bruni Tedeschi explains. "It talks to women, but not necessarily just 40-year-old women, 20-year-old women, 8-year-old girl, women of many different ages."

Doillon doesn't see her film as deliberately targeted to female audiences. "Because I'm a woman, of course I'm going to have the regard of a woman," she says. "It's natural, it's not a will where I'm saying, 'I want to represent women.' No. I just want to tell a story, whether it's feminine or not."

Sciamma is hoping her film will reach a wider audience outside of young girls questioning their sexuality. "My film is made from a feminine point of view, that's certain," she says, "but I don't want to defend it as a 'female film.'"

The festival's artistic director Thierry Fremaux poses the same questions: "Do these films have a feminine regard? Are they different? Do they bring something new? That's for you to say after the screenings."

He adds: "We chose these films because we found them interesting, not because they were made by women, men, children, old people, etc.

"It must be understood that there isn't any quota and we don't want to be anti-man or pro-woman. It's a great opportunity for Cannes 2007, and it's only afterward that we realized that there were so many women."

The contestants all expressed a will to be seen as filmmakers and not identified based on their sex.

"'Female directors,' that means nothing to me. Everyone has a different perspective whether you're male or female, young or old," Bruni Tedeschi says.

None of the directors felt her female status was a problem as far as getting funding. Sciamma skipped the short film route and started shooting her first feature slightly more than a year after graduating from French film school La Femis. She wrote the script before graduation and quickly found funding and production support; the film is made by Les Productions Balthazar and funded by the CNC, the Ile de France Film Commission and presales from Canal Plus, with Films Distribution handling international sales.

A first assistant director on her father's films as well as on films by Cedric Klapisch, Doillon expanded upon her short film about adolescence, "Majorettes," which she presented at the 2005 Cannes Directors' Fortnight and the Tribeca Film Festival. The $1.7 million "Just About Love" was produced by Klapisch's Ce Qui Me Meut production company and backed by presales from Canal Plus and France 2. "Actrices" was produced by Fidelite with CNC advances on receipts and presales to Canal Plus, with Wild Bunch handling international sales.

"This time, I found funding relatively easily," Bruni Tedeschi says. "But for my first film, people looked at me as not just a woman, but also an actress. They said, 'She's too fragile, too emotional.' But I'm glad I had such a hard time the first time. It made me work."

Finding funding wasn't always so simple in France, according to Breillat, whose sexually explicit films have been controversial in her native country.

"France was extremely male chauvinist with a national motto it was very proud of: "Liberty, Equality, Freedom" -- but no liberty, no freedom for women," Breillat says. "It was the most chauvinist of all of the secular countries in the world. Finally, France is starting to say 'liberty, freedom' for women. It's changed."

She added: "It was very hard. Why do you think I waited six years between films? When a woman made a film people said, 'OK, she's expressed herself. What else does she want?' When a man made a film, people said, 'What will his next film be?' A woman was like a lemon; once she expressed herself, there was no juice left. But it's true that it's changed. Now, a woman makes a film and people say, 'What will she make next?'"

After more than 30 years of making films, this will be the first time Breillat, with "An Old Mistress," has made it to the Official Selection. "Madame Breillat is like a big sister for female filmmakers in France," Fremaux says.

Females are in the spotlight all over the Riviera, with six out of 22 titles in the Directors' Fortnight sidebar made by women, including French first-time directors Sandrine Bonnaire for "Elle s'appelle Sabine" and Mia Hansen-Love for "Tout est Pardonne."

So why the sudden change of heart?

"I think women have always been capable of making movies, but it's society that's changed," Doillon says.

Bruni Tedeschi agrees: "Women are allowing themselves more and more to make movies, but also to work. (France) almost had a woman president! Women have had to travel down a long path in order to be able to allow themselves to create, to operate, to lead. But they are just as creative as men.

Adds Fremaux: "I think that it's a reality in France that there are a lot of female directors (there are also a lot in the Directors' Fortnight), and it's nice that Cannes is the echo of this phenomenon."

So will the red carpet to the Grand Palais be turning pink anytime soon? "There's still a lot of work to be done," Doillon says, "but it's a good start."