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Campion on the Croisette: Is Cannes no longer a man's world?

The selection of director Jane Campion to head this year’s Cannes jury is a welcome corrective to a male-dominated festival and a recognition of a thrilling talent.


The Cannes Film Festival is, to borrow a lyric from James Brown, a man’s world.

Whether the dearth of women directors in competition reflects the sad reality of the industry or a failure of imagination on the part of the selection committee has been a subject of debate.

Whatever the case may be, the choice – presumably by festival president Gilles Jacob – of Jane Campion, one of the world’s foremost female filmmakers, as president of this year’s Cannes jury is both a welcome corrective and a recognition of a singular talent.

The 59-year-old, New Zealand-born Campion rose to international renown with her 1993 masterwork “The Piano”, a lyrical, fiercely romantic drama centered on a mute, 19th-century Scotswoman. The movie won the Palme d’Or at Cannes (tied with Chen Kaige’s “Farewell My Concubine”), making Campion the first, and to this day only, female director to win the festival’s top prize.

She will be the tenth woman to preside over the Cannes jury (following Olivia de Havilland, Sophia Loren, Michèle Morgan, Ingrid Bergman, Jeanne Moreau, Françoise Sagan, Isabelle Adjani, Liv Ullmann and Isabelle Huppert), and the only one known primarily for her work behind the camera.

Lyricism and feminism

From her feature-length début “Sweetie” to her recent TV mini-series “Top of the Lake”, Campion has carved out a spot for herself as an ambitious and distinctive, if not prolific, director of stories about women.

Her heroines tend to be idiosyncratic and independent-minded, chafing at constraints of era, gender and domesticity (suffocating corsets, arranged marriages, family obligations and various other material or intangible obstacles). Often, they plunge themselves into experiences – physical, spiritual, artistic -- that alienate them from society, but transform them in lasting ways.

Aside from Holly Hunter’s Ada in “The Piano”, she has given us, among others, a memorably chilly Isabel Archer (Nicole Kidman) in her bold, fantasy-infused Henry James adaptation, “The Portrait of a Lady” (1994); a sexually hungry high school teacher (Meg Ryan, drained of all rom-com effusiveness) in the spiky thriller “In the Cut” (2003); and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), whose pragmatism flies out the window when she falls deeply and defiantly in love with a penniless, dying John Keats -- and with poetry – in the breathtaking “Bright Star” (which competed at Cannes in 2009).

As a visual stylist, Campion is known for expressionistic compositions of frequently ravishing, tactile beauty, which she uses to conjure the inner states of her characters. Some of the director’s most indelible images, of the New Zealand coastline and forest in “The Piano”, for example, have brought the natural world to lush, foreboding life. Others, like Nicole Kidman brushing her forehead against the drapery in “The Portrait of a Lady”, carry a quiet, but unmistakable erotic charge. “Bright Star” features in many ways the most emblematic sequence of any Campion film: a heartsick Fanny Brawne languishing in a room filled with butterflies, the filmmaker’s twinned interests in nature and human longing on full display.

Predicting Campion’s preferences

Fascinating and erratic, like most great filmmakers, Campion has not been immune to criticism. “Sweetie” was booed when it premiered in competition at Cannes in 1989. Henry James purists slammed “The Portrait of a Lady” for taking too many liberties with the text. “Holy Smoke!” (1999) earned mixed reviews at best. And “In the Cut” drew a litany of grievances, from a lack of realism in its depiction of New York to racial stereotyping of black men.

But as president of the Cannes jury, Campion will be in the judge’s chair, and journalists and cinephiles around the world will soon be buzzing -- and tweeting -- about what is likely to strike her fancy. Will she be swayed by a film that lines up with her natural preferences, like Isabelle Huppert, who in 2009 picked the punishing “The White Ribbon”, directed by her friend Michael Haneke, or Tim Burton, who awarded Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s surreal, supernatural “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” the year after?

Or will she follow in the footsteps of last year’s jury head, Steven Spielberg, who crowned Abdellatif Kechiche’s searing, sexually graphic three-hour lesbian romance “Blue is the Warmest Colour” -- a film about as far, in style and in substance, from Spielberg’s own body of work as one could imagine?

And, of course, the inevitable question: will there be any movies directed by women in competition, or will Campion be faced with a roster of exclusively male peers?

Let the speculation begin.

The 67th Cannes Film Festival will run from May 14 to 25.


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