From a sex offender to far-from-perfect mothers and girls unabashedly exploring their sexuality, this year’s Cannes Film Festival has thrown out the stereotype of the one-dimensional female character.
Cinema has long stood accused of ignoring women’s inner lives and complexities, or telling a story through the male gaze.
However, men and their opinions were relegated to a secondary role in many films at the world’s leading industry shindig.
In “May December”, Julianne Moore plays a woman who had a sexual relationship with a 13-year-old boy — now her husband — and is in denial years later over her wrongdoing.
A loving mother, but also a registered sex offender, the film sees her character grappling with buried crimes, in the role alongside Natalie Portman.
“The entire range of human behaviour should be accessible to women because women are simply humans,” said Portman, who loves to see women “behave in morally ambiguous ways”.
“It always drives me crazy when people are like, oh, if only women rule the world, it would be a kinder place. No, women are humans and come in all different complexities.”
This year Cannes boasts a record seven female directors in the official competition for the Palme D’Or prize — and some films barely focus on men at all.
Even in “Firebrand”, starring Jude Law as a repulsive King Henry VIII, the spotlight is on his sixth wife Catherine Parr as she struggles to avoid the fate of her predecessors.
– Multi-faceted mothers –
In “Homecoming”, by French director Catherine Corsini, a black woman returns to Corsica with her two daughters years after fleeing the French island in a hurry.
As they explore their mysterious past, her teenage daughters — even the model student — experiment with crime, drugs and sexuality.
At the same time, the complexity of motherhood, sacrifice and the decision to lie to your children all run under the surface.
Cannes cinemagoers also got an unusual glimpse into the lives of women from countries where they are often portrayed as merely oppressed and conservative.
In “Four Daughters”, Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania made a hybrid film-documentary about a real mother, Olfa Hamrouni, whose two daughters joined the Islamic State group.
Hamrouni is at times sympathetic and at times repulsive as she recounts her own violence towards her daughters.
She is seen joking about her awful ex-husband, yearning for affection, yet intolerant when she overhears her daughters giggle about kissing boys or exploring their bodies.
“I wanted to show how women have internalised some patriarchal reflexes,” Ben Hania told AFP.
In “Goodbye Julia” — not in the main competition — male director Mohamed Kordofani confronted his own sexism and racism as he put women at the forefront of a story about war in Sudan.
The movie explores the complex friendship between a black woman from pre-independence southern Sudan and an Arab woman from the north with an overbearing conservative husband.
“I started to review how I was behaving in my previous relationships. I reviewed my own racism,” Kordofani told AFP.
– ‘How to Have Sex’ –
Elsewhere at Cannes, British director Molly Manning Walker took a nuanced look at sexual assault and consent in her feature debut “How to Have Sex” on a judgement-free alcohol-fuelled girls trip abroad.
“For me consent isn’t black and white, it’s not yes and no… if someone is having a bad time you should be able to recognise that,” she said.
One Cannes showing that drew scorn for its portrayal of sexuality was new HBO series “The Idol” and its graphic raunchy scenes, directed by “Euphoria” creator Sam Levinson.
While the main character, played by Lily-Rose Depp, is portrayed as a complex character exploring her sexuality, some critics did not buy it.
Variety slammed its “tawdry cliches” and said the show “plays like a sordid male fantasy.
“One could argue there’s something revolutionary in the way Levinson depicts female sexuality… but Levinson takes things too far in the other direction.”