A Brief History of Women Nominated for Cannes’ Palme d’Or

We’ve admired this year’s glamorous Cannes Film Festival poster — featuring an intimate, mythical moment with screen legend Marilyn Monroe — and we’ve been readying ourselves for the latest news streaming from the French Riviera city, but the prestigious film fest is already seeing its share of controversy before the gala kicks off on May 16.

A letter recently published in Le Monde signed by a group of women — including Baise Moi director Virginie Despentes, filmmaker Coline Serreau, and actress Fanny Cottençon — have condemned this year’s Palme d’Or nominations. The shortlist of 22 directors for 2012 are all men, prompting the group to point out that, “Men love their women to have depth, but only when it comes to their cleavages.”

Two women who will be walking the Cannes red carpet this festival are Angelina Jolie and Madonna. Both directed films this year — Jolie’s Bosnian War tale In the Land of Blood and Honey, and Madonna’s King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson romantic drama W.E. — but the stars were not amongst the names nominated, according to the Guardian. “ … Never let the girls think they can one day have the presumptuousness to make movies or to climb those famous Festival Palace steps, except when attached to the arm of a prince charming,” the letter jabbed.

If you’re wondering about films directed by women that were featured at other festivals, like this year’s Berlinale, for example — which included Kirsten Sheridan’s Dollhouse, or Malgoska Szumowska’s Elles starring Juliette Binoche — Cannes’ rules preclude any movie presented at another international motion picture event for consideration.

Cinema’s large-scale gender divide is no secret. Thanks to a study performed earlier this year, we know that white men make up an astonishing 77% of Oscar voters (94% are Caucasian). We also know that while the number of female cinematographers, writers, and producers increased in over a decade, in 2011 only five percent of the directors working in Hollywood were women. The numbers are absolutely pitiful and are indeed partly to blame for the Palme problem. The letter reminds us that since Cannes’ inception in 1946, the festival has only seen male presidents. This year’s Palme jury is being led by Italian filmmaker Nanni Moretti — a man — but there are an equal number of male and female judges on the festival panel, including two-time Palme nominee, director Andrea Arnold.

Only one woman has won the Palme (56-years running) in the history of Cannes. In 1993, Jane Campion’s 1850’s New Zealand drama The Piano starring Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, and Sam Neill won the Palme, with Hunter also taking home the prize for Best Actress. It’s interesting to note that the film actually tied with Kaige Chens Farewell My Concubine. The only other instance of a woman winning such a revered award at the French festival was in 1946. The Palme wasn’t introduced until 1955, and the highest prize at the time was the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film, which Danish actress and filmmaker Bodil Ipsen won with co-director Lau Lauritzen Jr for The Red Meadows.

The meager statistics left us wondering what the past 12 years of the festival have looked like for women when it came to Palme nominations. In 2008, 2007, and 2001, women were co-nominated with male filmmakers. In 2008, Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas won the nomination for Linha de Passe; 2007 saw Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud receive recognition for Persepolis; and animated fave Shrek won a nomination in 2001 with Vicky Jenson and Adamson behind it. Including this year, 2010, 2005, and 2002 also saw absolutely no female nominations. Last year’s Palme nominees numbered four. A barb from the group’s letter reminds that festival director Thierry Frémaux himself was shocked at the stat. “It is the first time that there are so many women,” he said. “How weak!” the group retorted. We briefly examine those four women’s works and Palme misses below, and share the complete list of female Palme d’Or nominees over the past 12 years.

The selection process is invariably subjective, leaving many observers to reject the notion that there’s a problem with the criterion used to select nominees. For these critics, who point back to the lack of female-directed films on offer, this year’s shortlist is a fair reflection of the marketplace. Still, Cannes has the option to set the agenda, rather than mutely follow accepted conventions. As the group’s missive states, this year’s event will entirely celebrate girls on film, rather than those who stand behind the camera — and in refusing to acknowledge the minority of women filmmakers, the venerable institution appears to have implicitly endorsed it. While the reasons for this gender apartheid are certainly complex, these are still crucial actions to address that raise important questions.

How would you judge this year’s all-male selections? Do you have faith that the festival would have honored films made by deserving female directors? Does the group’s letter encourage what some are calling tokenism? Each time a report highlights the dearth of female talent in the industry, we can only hope that these woeful statistics incite more women to pick up the directorial reins.

2011 Maïwenn Polisse
2011 Julia Leigh Sleeping Beauty
2011 Lynne Ramsay We Need to Talk About Kevin
2011 Naomi Kawase Hanezu
2009 Jane Campion Bright Star
2009 Andrea Arnold Fish Tank
2009 Isabel Coixet Map of the Sounds of Tokyo
2008 Lucrecia Martel The Headless Woman
2008 Walter Salles, Daniela Thomas Linha de Passe
2007 Naomi Kawase Mogari no mori
2007 Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud Persepolis
2007 Catherine Breillat The Last Mistress
2006 Andrea Arnold Red Road
2006 Sofia Coppola Marie Antoinette
2006 Nicole Garcia Charlie Says
2004 Agnès Jaoui Look at Me
2004 Lucrecia Martel The Holy Girl
2003 Samira Makhmalbaf At Five in the Afternoon
2003 Nicole Garcia The Adversary
2003 Naomi Kawase Shara
2001 Vicky Jenson, Andrew Adamson Shrek
2001 Catherine Corsini Replay
2000 Samira Makhmalbaf Blackboards
2000 Liv Ullmann Faithless


French filmmaker-actress Maïwenn won the Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes, but the director had a fair share of detractors when it came to her ensemble comedy-drama Polisse. The emotional film centers on the daily lives of a Parisian police squad dedicated to solving child-abuse crimes and was applauded for its realism and naturalistic performances. Several major publications, however, saw it as “wildly unconvincing and melodramatic,” with a “ridiculous” ending. Last year’s Cannes jury included Olivier Assayas and Johnnie To — two filmmakers with close ties to French cinema — who may have favored Maïwenn, and director Mahamat Saleh Haroun (A Screaming Man) may have appreciated the movie’s social slant. Still, in the end Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life swept the Palme.