At Cannes, record number of women filmmakers competing for top festival prize

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.

Ramsay couldn’t help but preserve Shriver’s regrettably overheated climax, during which the book resorts to grotesque extremes. Still, “We Need to Talk About Kevin” features yet another fearless performance from Swinton (an early odds-on favorite to win best actress here), and it has dared to give voice to the great taboo of mothers who don’t love every minute of being pregnant or who, through little fault of their own, might not click with their offspring.

Excavating the past

Given her brave portrayal of the most treacherous side of motherhood, it was somehow fitting to spy Swinton at a screening of “Walk Away Renee,” Jonathan Caouette’s affecting, ambitious follow-up to his 2003 documentary hybrid “Tarnation.” Like the earlier film, “Walk Away Renee,” which was shown as part of the Critics Week side program, concerns Caouette’s mother, Renee Leblanc, who suffered from schizophrenia when he was young and now has brain damage from an accidental lithium overdose.

Using footage from “Tarnation” as well as a fictional conceit that involves New Age self-help, reenactments and the possibility of alternate universes, Caouette at times seems to be inventing a new language for excavating the past that embraces, traps and confounds him. That happens to be exactly what Trier and Malick do in their respective films, “Melancholia” and “The Tree of Life,” both of which evince an uncannily similar focus on issues of the individual and the cosmic. These three films possess wildly different voices but strangely consonant attempts to depict weighty philosophical ideas on screen, with the help of special effects involving planets, nebulae, stardust and, in Malick’s case, dinosaurs.

If the results are uneven, the lasting impression from these movies is that of filmmakers eager to take on the headiest and most deeply intimate concepts with disarming honesty. Malick, who declines to speak publicly about his work, has delivered the most personal film of his career, depicting his youth in Texas as a series of vivid vignettes reminiscent of Thornton Wilder, then pulling back to deliver a long, symphonic visual discourse depicting the creation of the planet.

Brad Pitt delivers one of the most memorable performances of his career as the movie’s thwarted, authoritarian father. But it’s “The Tree of Life’s” ethereal mother figure — played by a nearly wordless Jessica Chastain — who emerges as the film’s valorized moral center, a paragon of the spiritual grace her grown son (Sean Penn) and the filmmaker clearly long for.

Poetic, moving, flawed but breathtaking in its scope, “The Tree of Life” shares a similar-size canvas with Trier’s “Melancholia,” which stars Kirsten Dunst as yet another woman ambivalent about her role, in this case of a would-be wife. And both exemplify the kind of go-for-broke ambition that characterizes several films here, including audience favorite “The Artist,” French director Michael Hazanavicius’s charming period-style homage to the silent films of the 1920s.

But just as common have been films that choose a much more restrained narrative style, in some cases to explore similarly all-encompassing issues. Upon leaving “Hanezu no tsuki” by Japanese director Naomi Kawase (the fourth woman competing), one wag was overheard calling it “Shrub of Life.” And indeed, Kawase’s drama about a modern-day romantic triangle engages similar themes of troubling parental and historical legacies.

Far more powerful were films that eschewed Kawase’s often precious lyricism for a more lucid, direct realism. For example, one wonders what Samantha, the matter-of-fact heroine of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes’s “The Kid With a Bike,” would make of the overpowering female archetypes in “We Need to Talk About Kevin” and “The Tree of Life.” Played with straightforward simplicity by Cecile de France, the Dardenneses’ Samantha brings both lack of sentimentality and awesome moral force to bear when she impulsively decides to bring an abandoned 11-year-old boy into her home. But as depicted in the filmmaking team’s famously spare style, the story of “The Kid With a Bike” exerts its grip without broad operatic gestures or bravura flourishes.

The same can be said for “Le Havre,” Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki’s winsome comedy that, judging from the applause at its first screening, may be the audience favorite at Cannes. Set in the French harbor city and starring French actor Andre Wilms as a shoeshine man who takes a young African refu­gee under his wing, “Le Havre” combines naturalism and pure fantasy to create a thoroughly satisfying wish fulfillment fantasy for a world mired in nativism and xenophobia.

And as the portrait of a man contemplating his identity, his responsibility to others and his spiritual place in the universe, Kaurismaki’s film represents just one more instance at Cannes where filmmakers — men and women alike — are grappling with questions that are at once sharply personal and deeply metaphysical. Somehow, one decade into the 21st century, those questions seem like just the right ones to ask.

Ann Hornaday is The Post's movie critic.
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