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Has the world of cinema become puritanical? According to Paul Verhoeven, the veteran provocateur who signed “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls”, the answer is yes. Five years after his thriller ‘Elle’ about the revenge of a raped woman, the Dutch director is back in Cannes with ‘Benedetta’, a sassy nun-clad romance that takes place around the time of theCounter-Reformationin Italy, in the 17th century.
He seemed annoyed at times when he had to face, on Saturday July 10 at a press conference, questions about profanity, nudity and the scorching sex scenes of his film.
“Remember, in general people, when they have sex, they take their clothes off,” he said. ‘So I’m basically stunned that we don’t want to look at the reality of life. Why was this puritanism introduced? In my opinion it does not have to be ‘.
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‘Benedetta’ is based on the real-life story of a mystical abbess, known to have miraculously protected her hometown of Pescia, Tuscany from the plague, before being stripped of her rank due to a relationship with another sister. Virginie Efira embodies this abbess, stripping herself naked to retrace the spiritual journey and sexual ecstasy (which go hand in hand according to Paul Verhoeven).
‘Benedetta’ marks the return of ‘nonnesploitation’ (a portmanteau word made up of nun and exploitation), a cinematic sub-genre inspired by religious domination, this time during the period of Covid-19 (although Verhoeven directed this film before the ’emergence of the contemporary’ plague ‘). This film is outrageous, erotic and often funny, like these liturgical objects transformed into accessories. But the elaborate eroticism of the sex scenes does not suit protagonists supposed to be new to the subject. In fact, the film reignited the debate in Cannes about the male gaze of lesbian romance.
The brilliant Renate Reinsve
The most important film festival in the world, which offered ‘Basic Instinct’ by Paul Verhoeven almost 30 years ago, is no exception to this social subject. In 2013, Abdelatif Kechiche, winner of the Palme d’Or with ‘La vie d’Adèle’, was accused of voyeurism for his lesbian drama. He had suffered even more criticism six years later by presenting the feature film ‘Mektoub My Love: Intermezzo’, the second part of a three-volume fresco. This film took the more controversial elements of the sublime ‘Canto Uno’, in particular his endless shots of buttocks in a nightclub, to prolong them ad nauseam during three hours of hedonistic trance without real story. Two years later, it has still not been released in theaters.
In the midst of its resounding and haunting sequences on the dance floor, Kechiche’s ‘Mektoub’ offered endless cunnilingus during which only a woman exhibited her intimacy. This year, another sex scene, in the film “Julie (in twelve chapters)” by Joachim Trier which tells the identity quest of a young woman torn between several love stories, caused buzz in Cannes. This has earned the Norwegian director to be classified as ‘deeply feminist’.
Joachim Trier has already been praised in the past for having known how to abandon the male gaze during lesbian sex scenes. His latest work won over French and foreign critics who emphasized his ability to portray new gender dynamics, making him a favorite for the Palme d’Or. A film that also highlighted a little-known actress until now, Renate Reinsve, now among the favorites for the award for best actress. .
‘Growing up before #MeToo, you build yourself up based on men’s opinions and presence,’ the Norwegian actress told AFP. Adding to the subject of her character: ‘She finds her identity in the eyes of others. When you manage to break free from that, you become yourself and stronger.
Almodovar, the ‘first feminist director’
Although very different, the films of Trier, Verhoeven and Kechiche lie at the heart of what director and screenwriter Nathalie Marchak describes as an important and stimulating debate.
“There are a million ways to film a scene. The question is to know where I place my camera and what it tells’, she explains to France 24 during an interview carried out in Cannes. ‘This is a fascinating debate that we should not avoid. It is also the role of cinema to question the way we look at ourselves’.
According to Marchak, it is not simply a question of opposing directors and directors. And she considers ‘perfectly possible that a director adopts a feminine gaze’. It is above all a question of asking how the male and female characters are described. .
Speaking this week about Pedro Almodovar, who has given a central role to women in many of his films, American actress and director Jodie Foster described the Spaniard as ‘the first feminist director in (his) eyes’ .
“It was the first time that I saw films which spoke about women in an authentic way, said Jodie Foster of the work of Almodovar, one day after havingreceived an honorary Palme d’Orfrom the hands of the legendary filmmaker. She called the latter an exception among directors’ who cannot easily put themselves in a woman’s shoes and wonder what the complex and difficult experience of being a woman is.
Jodie Foster was only 13 when she first came to Cannes in 1976 for Martin Scorsese’s ‘Taxi Driver’, which won a controversial Palme d’Or that year. She became a big star, notably playing the role of an FBI agent in ‘The silence of the lambs’, awarded in 1992 with an Oscar for best actress. She has also directed several films, including ‘Money Monster’ with George Clooney and Julia Roberts.
During a master class on Wednesday, July 7, Jodie Foster said, in impeccable French, that there has never been a better time for women wanting to enter the film industry. Even though male dominance has ‘not changed completely’, she said, ‘it is now evident that it has been too long since we have heard stories from women.’
‘I know it’s a bit of a cliché to say ‘tell your own stories’,’ said the actress. ‘This is what I mean: ask yourself questions about the veracity of things and if they resonate with you, instead of wanting to please others, whether they are the audience or the producers.
Give more visibility to women
The shortage of women in senior positions in the industry, and of female directors in particular, is a recurring topic at Cannes, where only one woman won the Palme d’Or, Jane Campion in 1993 with ‘The Piano Lesson’ .
Speaking to France 24 ahead of the festival, its deputy director Thierry Frémaux underlined the relatively high number of female directors in the Un Certain Regard category, dedicated to emerging talents. For him, this proves that ‘the future of cinema will be female’.
>> To see:Thierry Frémaux, fan of screenings – at the Cannes Film Festival or in judo
But what about today? There are just four women (Mia Hansen-Love, Catherine Corsini, Julia Ducournau and Ildiko Enyedi) vying for the main category, which nevertheless hosts a record number of 24 films this year. The lack of progress is all the more glaring in the light of the main parallel selections, the Critics ‘Week and the Directors’ Fortnight, which this year reached near parity.
Cannes supporters point out that the enormous gender imbalance observed in the main competition mirrors that of the films presented at the Festival with a view to being selected. Critics point out that the selection process is naturally skewed in favor of well-established directors in an industry still dominated by men. And for the latter, the deputy director of Cannes, responsible for selecting the candidates for the most prestigious cinema prize, has a certain power in the community as well as a responsibility to promote change.
While Thierry Frémaux spoke out in favor of initiatives aimed at gender equality, he firmly refused to push female directors into the main festival competition through ‘positive action’ – a concept translated into France by the term ‘positive discrimination’ but perceived negatively. The Cannes director has repeatedly stressed that he chooses films based on merit, not genre.
Nathalie Marchak shares this point of view. Although she advocates for greater gender equality, she believes that talking about ‘affirmative action’ is ‘insulting’ to women.
“Women directors want to be selected at major festivals not because they are women but because their films deserve to be highlighted,” she explained. It is not a question of favoring female directors over their male counterparts, she added, but of ensuring the presence of women in the selection process, by ensuring that action is taken against their lack of visibility across the industry.
“When it comes to selecting films for competitions, I don’t think women are more lenient with female directors than men,” said Marchak. “But women directors may not have the same visibility from the get-go, so it’s important to go get them.”
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