Cannes Film Festival tackles ‘nunsploitation’, gender bias and the male gaze

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Paul Verhoeven’s spirited take on the genre of lesbian sex in a convent has reignited talk of the “masculine gaze” in Cannes, even as female authors hailed (some) progress in tackling gender bias, both on and off-screen. .

Has the film world gone puritanical?

According to Paul Verhoeven, the experienced provocateur who gave us “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls”, the answer is yes. Five years after his rape revenge thriller ‘Elle’, the Dutch director is back in Cannes with his latest competition entry ‘Benedetta’, a spirited non-romance set in counter-reformation Italy. During Saturday’s press conference, he looked annoyed at times when he asked questions about profanity, nudity and raunchy sex scenes in his film.

“Remember that people generally take their clothes off when they have sex,” Verhoeven snapped to a reporter. “So I’m actually baffled by the fact that we don’t want to look at the realities of life,” he added. “Why was this Puritanism introduced? That is wrong in my opinion.”

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“Benedetta” is based on the true story of a mystical abbess who miraculously protected her Tuscan hometown of Pescia from the plague, but was stripped of her rank because of her relationship with a fellow nun. Virginie Efira stars as the eponymous abbess and often shows it as she charts Benedetta’s journey through spiritual and sexual ecstasy (which, in Verhoeven’s eyes, clearly go hand in hand).

A comeback of nunsploitation for the Covid-19 era (although Verhoeven filmed it before the onset of the modern “plague”), “Benedetta” is outrageous, erotic and often very funny, not least due to its kinky use of liturgical objects as props. But the extended softcore quality of the sex scenes barely fits the idea that the protagonists are novices to the convent – and will no doubt rekindle the conversation about lesbian romance getting the “male gaze” treatment at Cannes.

The male gaze

The world’s largest film festival, which launched Verhoeven’s ‘Basic Instinct’ nearly 30 years ago, is no stranger to talking about the ‘male gaze’. In 2013, Palme d’Or laureate Abdelatif Kechiche was accused of voyeurism for his lesbian drama “Blue is the warmest color”. He faced more protests when he returned six years later with part two of his “Mektoub My Love” series. The film took the most grueling elements from its otherwise sublime part one—particularly the endless buttshots—and expanded them into a completely plotless nighttime study of hedonistic release. Two years later, it has still not been released in theaters.

In the middle of its thumping, throbbing, three-hour dancefloor sequence, Kechiche’s “Mektoub” featured a seemingly endless oral sex scene in which only the woman showed any flesh (though at least she was on the receiving end). This year, another sex scene caused a stir at Cannes, though critics have hailed it as deeply feminist. It featured in Joachim Trier’s “The Worst Person in the World,” about a young woman trying to find herself while switching between lovers.

The Norwegian director has been credited in the past for directing lesbian sex scenes without playing for the “masculine look”. His latest work has stunned both French and foreign critics, who praised the portrait of changing gender dynamics and declared it an early favorite for the Palme d’Or. It has also spotlighted previously little-known actress Renate Reinsve, an instant favorite for the Best Actress award.

“Growing up before #MeToo, you kind of mold yourself with the strong opinions and presence of men,” Reinsve said in an interview with AFP. Speaking of her character in the film, she added: “She finds her identity in the eyes of others. If you break free from that, you become yourself and stronger.”

‘The first feminist director’

Although they are very different, the films of Trier, Verhoeven and Kechiche are at the heart of what French filmmaker and screenwriter Nathalie Marchak describes as an important and stimulating debate about the ‘male’ and ‘female’ gazes in film.

“There are a million ways to film a scene; the key question is where do I place my camera and what is on it,” she explained in an interview with Jowharin Cannes. “It is an exciting debate that we do not shy away from. It’s part of cinema’s role to question the way we look at ourselves.”

It’s not just a matter of opposing male and female filmmakers, Marchak added, stressing that it’s “perfectly possible for male directors to take on a female gaze.” The point, she said, is to question the way we represent male and female characters.

Speaking of Pedro Almodovar, earlier this week, American filmmaker and actress Jodie Foster described the Spanish director, who has put women at the center of so many of his films, as “the first feminist director for me.”

“It was the first time I saw films that talked about women in an authentic way,” Foster said of Almodovar’s films, a day after the legendary director presented her with an honorary Palm d’Or at Cannes. She called Almodovar an exception among male directors who “cannot easily put themselves in a woman’s body and wonder what a woman’s complicated and complex experience consists of”.

Foster was just 13 when she first came to Cannes in 1976 for Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” which won a controversial Palme d’Or that year. Subsequent star turns included her Oscar-winning role in “Silence of the Lambs” (1991). She has also directed several films, including “Money Monster” starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts.

Speaking at the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday in impeccable French, Foster said there had never been a better time for women to enter the film industry. While male dominance “hasn’t completely changed,” she said, “there’s now a realization that it’s been too long since we haven’t heard stories from women.”

“I know it’s a bit cliche to say ‘tell your own stories,'” Foster said. “But what I mean is, ask yourself about the truth of things and whether they resonate in you instead of pleasing others, be it the audience or the producers.”

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Adam Driver – Cannes © Juliette Montilly

Leveling out the gender bias

The lack of women in top positions in the industry, and in particular female filmmakers, is a recurring theme in Cannes, where only one woman – Jane Campion for “The Piano” (1993) – has ever won the Palme d’Or.

Speaking to Jowharahead of the festival, Thierry Frémaux, artistic director of Cannes, pointed to the relatively high number of female directors in the sidebar of Un Certain Regard, dedicated to emerging talent. He cited it as proof that “the future of cinema will be female”.

But what about now? There are still only four women in the main competition, out of a record 24 entrants. The lack of progress is all the more striking when compared to the main parallel selections, Critics’ Week and Directors’ Fortnight, which have nearly leveled out this year.

The Cannes defenders point out that the huge gender inequality in the main competition generally reflects the imbalance in the number of films submitted. But critics refute that the selection process is naturally skewed in favor of established directors who are fixtures in an industry still dominated by males. As the person ultimately responsible for selecting candidates for the most prestigious film award, they add, the Cannes Artistic Director has enormous influence in the film world and a responsibility to promote change.

Find the Woman: Jane Campion, the only female director to win a Palme d’Or, along with other past laureates at the 70th Cannes Film Festival. Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

While Frémaux has spoken out in support of women-led initiatives for greater gender equality, he has steadfastly refused to push female directors into the festival’s main competition through affirmative action – which in France translates as “positive discrimination”, but as negative. is considered to. The Cannes director has repeatedly emphasized that he chooses films based on merit and not gender.

It’s a view shared by Marchak, himself a vocal campaigner for greater gender equality but for whom talking about “positive discrimination” is “offensive” to women.

“Women directors want to be selected for major festivals, not because they are women, but because their films deserve attention,” she explains. It’s not about favoring female directors over their male colleagues, she added, but about ensuring that women are included in the selection process and that their lack of visibility in the industry is addressed.

“When it comes to selecting films for competitions, I don’t think women are more lenient towards female directors than men,” Marchak said. “But female directors may not enjoy the same visibility from the start, so it’s important to start finding them.”