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After Weinstein, gender inequality still stalks Cannes

France 24, May 8

Harvey Weinstein will not be holding court on the French Riviera this year. But gender and power relations in the film industry will be under special scrutiny as the Cannes Film Festival kicks off on Tuesday.

“Dirty sex” kits, “Viagra cocktails”, and men clad in “DSK” bathrobes lounging around a king-size bed with a sign reading “Love Hotel”. That was the Cannes idea of fun four years ago (at least for some people it was), when Abel Ferrara’s “Welcome to New York” – about the Dominique Strauss-Kahn hotel maid assault case – fetched a non-official screening and a lewd after-party. It was poor taste even by the Croisette’s wildly erratic standards, but the kind of vulgar spectacle many festivalgoers could easily shrug off in the days of pre-#MeToo nonchalance.

Harvey Weinstein had his own “love hotel” on the French Riviera, the exclusive Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc, a short boat ride away from the brouhaha of Cannes. That is where Italian actress Asia Argento alleges he assaulted and raped her back in 1997, when she was 21. The Hollywood mogul would hold court at the festival for a further two decades until the abuse scandal broke out in October 2017, prompting some one hundred women to accuse him of rape, harassment or assault. Since then, the press has been awash with reports of industry insiders, Cannes chauffeurs and hotel staff confirming Weinstein’s predatory behavior.

Now a pariah in the very places – the Riviera, Beverly Hills, New York – where he once held sway, Weinstein has been seeking treatment for sex addiction and undergoing anger-management therapy at various luxury rehabs across the US. For the first time in decades, he will not be bossing the Cannes film market before hitting the famed red carpet and sauntering off to lavish yacht parties. But there is little doubt the disgraced film producer will remain the elephant – or “The Pig”, as Cannes habitués now say he was known – in the room.

“The Cannes Film Festival will never be the same again,” said the festival’s artistic director Thierry Frémaux as he unveiled this year’s line-up in April, tackling the Weinstein issue head-on. The world’s premiere film gathering described the latter’s behaviour as “unforgivable” and his downfall as an “earthquake” in the movie world. Like other film festivals, it has rewritten codes of conduct and pondered ways to advance gender equality – with, critics say, less than satisfactory results.

Last week, France’s minister for women’s rights, Marlène Schiappa, said her office had teamed up with festival organisers to devise an anti-harassment campaign for this year’s edition. Upon arrival in Cannes, participants will be given written warnings (flimsy little leaflets, in fact) urging appropriate behaviour. A telephone hotline has been set up for victims or witnesses to report aggressors. Schiappa said the measures were designed to protect not only actresses but all women working in or around the film industry.

‘No going back’

The dearth of women holding senior positions in the industry, and of female filmmakers in particular, is a recurrent subject at Cannes – one Schiappa’s colleague at the culture ministry, Françoise Nyssen, is planning to address during an event on the Croisette aimed at helping aspiring female directors raise the funds needed to get their projects off the ground. The May 13 talk will be co-hosted by Nyssen’s Swedish counterpart and the Swedish Film Institute, the first public film financing body to achieve gender parity in its allocation of funds – an initiative dubbed “50/50 by 2020”.

While Frémaux has endorsed “50/50 by 2020”, he has steadfastly refused to push female directors in the festival’s Official Selection through affirmative action – which in France translates as “discrimination positive” but is often viewed negatively. The Cannes director has repeatedly stressed that he chooses films based on merit and not on gender. This year only three female directors made the cut in the Palme d’Or race, out of a total of 21 – the exact same number as in last year’s edition, which preceded #MeToo and the Time’s Up movement against sexual harassment and in support of gender parity in cinema.

Cannes’ defenders point out that the huge gender imbalance in the main competition generally reflects the imbalance in the number of films submitted. But critics counter that the selection process is naturally skewed in favour of established directors who are fixtures of an industry still dominated by men. As the person who is ultimately in charge of selecting candidates for cinema’s most prestigious award, they add, Cannes’ artistic director has immense clout in the film world and a responsibility to foster change.

Last year, photographs from the festival’s 70th-anniversary celebrations, which saw past Palme d’Or winners gather on the red carpet, were a galling reminder that only one woman – Jane Campion – has ever won the prize. Cannes’ record in selecting jury presidents is only marginally better, with Cate Blanchett this year becoming only the 12th woman to fill the seat in 71 editions. In a gesture to the Time’s Up movement, of which Blanchett is a champion, her jury features more women than men, including Weinstein-accuser Léa Seydoux. Days before the festival’s start, Blanchett told Variety magazine that there will be “no going back to ground zero” on women’s rights and their place in cinema.

Sexual assault and gender imbalance are of course very different issues, as Frémaux himself pointed out in April. And yet they are not entirely unrelated in the context of an industry that is especially prone to treating women as pretty commodities. For all its progressive outlook, Cannes remains the largely male-dominated showcase of a male-dominated world, with all the potential for latent sexism this entails. Two years ago we had the “shoegate” scandal, when women in flat shoes were barred from the red carpet. Then came the airbrushed Claudia Cardinale on last year’s official poster. Expect another faux pas this year to kick up a much bigger stink.

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