Cannes, France — In a week when men behaving badly dominate the headlines, a refreshing sense of cognitive dissonance has set in at the 64th Cannes Film Festival.
Not only does the festival feature a record four female directors in contention for the coveted Palme d’Or — the festival’s grand prize, which will be bestowed on May 22. But some of this year’s most highly anticipated films by men, including such legendary figures as Terrence Malick, Lars von Trier and the Dardennes brothers, have shared a startling common thread in the sensitivity with which they depict archetypal feminine impulses and female characters.
The uncanny thematic and even aesthetic motifs that have emerged over the past week are all the more vivid considering that, last year, not one woman was included in the competition program. Perhaps in response to the inevitable criticism that followed, Cannes chief Thierry Fremaux included the four female directors in this year’s slate, with far-ranging styles and thematic concerns.
An early film to divide audiences was “Sleeping Beauty,” Julia Leigh’s elegantly staged but substantively empty drama about a young Australian woman (“Sucker Punch’s” Emily Browning) who becomes a high-priced call girl catering to a particular sexual fetish. Leigh’s carefully composed erotic take on the historic fairy tale was presented here by filmic fairy godmother and feminist icon Jane Campion, which makes the movie’s exploitation of the male gaze and female passivity all the more troubling. (The fact that “Sleeping Beauty” was swiftly picked up by Sundance Selects bears witness to the fact that Leigh is far more canny a marketer than transgressive a thinker.)
Far more genuinely complex is “Polisse,” a law-and-order procedural about a Paris sex crimes police unit. Directed by the French actress who goes by the name Maiwenn (who also stars), “Polisse” delivers the same absorbing, sprawling narrative as a good prime-time cop drama, delving into the lives of its tough, compassionate protagonists with a bracing combination of moral outrage and breathtaking hilarity. As unthinkable as it sounds that a film about the exploitation of children could make filmgoers cry and laugh, Maiwenn has threaded that needle with surprising, altogether winning aplomb. (And to be fair, we never laugh at the exploitation, just at the irreverence and psychological steel that enable the officers to confront the unspeakable every day.)
In “Polisse,” the female cops are often tougher and more iconoclastic than their male colleagues as they try desperately to save children who have suffered grievous betrayals. But no female protagonist here has been as prickly as the spiky, ironic Eva Katchadourian as portrayed by Tilda Swinton in “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” The Scottish director Lynne Ramsay has adapted Lionel Shriver’s tense, tautly written novel — about maternal ambivalence, the difficulties of psychological attachment and what it means to be a good parent — with a bold visual design, brave performances and dire sense of foreboding in its flashback-present day structure.