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

·7-min read

Paul Verhoeven’s racy take on the lesbian-sex-in-a-convent genre has reignited talk of the “male gaze” in Cannes, even as female auteurs hail (some) progress in addressing gender bias both on and off the screen.

Has the film world turned puritan?

According to Paul Verhoeven, the veteran provocateur that 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 saucy nun romance set in counter-reformation Italy. He looked irritated at times during Saturday’s press conference as he fielded questions about blasphemy, nudity and raunchy sex scenes in his film.

“Don’t forget, in general, people, when they have sex, they take their clothes off,” Verhoeven snapped at one reporter. “So I’m stunned basically by the fact that we don’t want to look at the reality of life,” he added. “Why has this puritanism been introduced? It is, in my opinion, wrong.”

>> In pictures: Paul Verhoeven, Virginie Efira grace the red carpet in Cannes

“Benedetta” is based on the true story of a mystic abbess who was credited with miraculously protecting her Tuscan hometown of Pescia from the plague – only to be stripped of her rank on account of her relationship with a fellow nun. Virginie Efira stars as the eponymous abbess, frequently baring it all as she charts Benedetta’s journey through spiritual and sexual ecstasy (which, in Verhoeven’s mind, clearly go hand in hand).

A nunsploitation comeback for the Covid-19 era (though Verhoeven actually filmed it before the onset of the modern-day “plague”), “Benedetta” is outrageous, erotic and often very funny, not least in its kinky use of liturgical objects as props. But the elaborate softcore quality of its sex scenes hardly fits with the notion that the protagonists are convent novices – and is bound to reignite talk of lesbian romance getting the “male gaze” treatment in Cannes.

The male gaze

The world’s leading film festival, which launched Verhoeven’s “Basic Instinct” almost 30 years ago, is no stranger to talk of the “male gaze”. In 2013, Palme d’Or-laureate Abdelatif Kechiche faced accusations of voyeurism for his lesbian drama “Blue is the Warmest Colour”. He faced more protests when he returned six years later, with part two of his “Mektoub My Love” series. The film took the most gruelling elements from his otherwise sublime part one – most notably the endless butt shots – and expanded them into an utterly plotless nightlong study of hedonistic release. Two years on, it still hasn’t been released in theatres.

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

The Norwegian director has been credited in the past with directing lesbian sex scenes without playing to the “male gaze”. His latest work has dazzled both French and foreign critics, who praised its portrayal of shifting gender dynamics and proclaimed it an early favourite for the Palme d’Or. It has also shone a spotlight on the previously little known actress Renate Reinsve, an instant favourite for the Best Actress award.

“Growing up before #MeToo you kind of shape 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 others’ eyes. When you free yourself from that, you become yourself and stronger.”

‘The first feminist director’

While very different, the movies by Trier, Verhoeven and Kechiche are at the heart of what French filmmaker and screenwriter Nathalie Marchak describes as an important and stimulating debate on the “male” and “female” gazes in film.

“There’s a million ways of filming a scene; the key question is where do I place my camera and what does it say,” she explained in an interview with FRANCE 24 in Cannes. “It’s a fascinating debate and one we shouldn’t shy away from. It’s part of cinema’s role to question the way we look at ourselves.”

It is not merely a matter of opposing male and female filmmakers, Marchak added, stressing that it is “perfectly possible for male directors to adopt 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, US filmmaker and actress Jodie Foster described the Spanish director, who has made women central to so many of his films, as “the first feminist director for me".

“It was the first time I'd seen films that talked about women in an authentic way,” Foster said of Almodovar’s movies, a day after the legendary director presented her with an honorary Palme d’Or in Cannes. She called Almodovar an exception among male directors who “can't easily transpose themselves into a woman's body and ask themselves what the complicated and complex experience of a woman 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. Later star turns included her Oscar-winning part in “Silence of the Lambs” (1991). She has also directed several films, including "Money Monster" with George Clooney and Julia Roberts.

Addressing the Cannes Film Festival in impeccable French on Wednesday, Foster said there had never been a better time for women to enter the film industry. Although male domination has "not changed completely", she said, "there is now an awareness that it's been too long that we haven't heard stories told by women."

“I know it's a bit cliche to say 'tell your own stories',” Foster said. “But what I mean is: Ask yourself questions about the truthfulness of things and whether they resonate within you instead of pleasing others, be it the public or producers.”

Levelling out the gender bias

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

Speaking to FRANCE 24 ahead of the festival, Cannes’ artistic director Thierry Frémaux pointed to the relatively high number of female directors in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, dedicated to emerging talent. He cited it as evidence 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 participants. The lack of progress is all the more glaring when compared with the main parallel selections, the Critics’ Week and the Directors’ Fortnight, which have attained near-parity this year.

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 in 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.

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

It’s a view shared by Marchak, herself a vocal campaigner for greater gender equality, but for whom talk of “positive discrimination” is “insulting” for women.

“Female directors want to be selected for major festivals not because they are women but because their films deserve the spotlight,” she explained. The point is not to favour female directors over their male counterparts, she added, but to ensure women are present in the selection process and that their lack of visibility throughout the industry is addressed.

“When it comes to selecting films for competitions, I don’t think women are any more lenient with female directors than men,” Marchak said. “But female directors might not enjoy the same visibility from the get-go, so it’s important to go find them.”

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