Celebrating Women at Cannes With the Real-Life Thelma & Louise

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Scenes from the Kering and Cannes Film Festival dinner.Photo: Getty Images

Cannes may have a woman problem in its lineup — just three of the films in competition, or 15 percent, were directed by women — but the festival has spent the last two years very publicly throwing its support behind finding a solution. How can they assure better roles for women? How can they offer more opportunities for female directors, producers, gaffers?

To that end, for the second year in a row, Cannes Film Festival president Thierry Fremaux has made his centerpiece President’s Dinner a forum for honoring women in film. The festival leadership is so serious about feminism, in fact, that even the night’s chef was a woman, Anne-Sophie Pic, who is the first and only woman in France to have received three Michelin stars, for her restaurant in southeast France.

Last night, in the courtyard of a medieval castle atop a hill in Cannes’s Old Town, advocates of the year-old Kering Women in Motion initiative gathered to honor Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon for their contributions to film. Freida Pinto and Kirsten Dunst were there, as well as men-for-the-cause Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal.

Liveliest of all was Salma Hayek, who is married to the night’s organizer, Kering president François-Henri Pinault, whose company owns Alexander McQueen, Balenciaga, Gucci, and Yves Saint Laurent, among others. “I’ll walk very fast!” I overheard her tell Pinault as he tried in vain to usher her inside from the good time she was having chatting with friends in the courtyard.

Another friend, Pedro Almodóvar muse Rossy de Palma, came over and Hayek got down on the ground in her beige gown for the perfect selfie angle. Finally, a very amused Pinault came over and grabbed her hand. “I didn’t even finish my ceeegarette!” she pouted, but was soon running around the dinner party taking more selfies.

Introducing Davis and Sarandon, Pinault pointed out how far the industry still had to go: “Did you know, for example, that the last 20 years, the two [film] roles most played by women have been nurses and secretaries?”

Geena Davis, who ten years ago founded an institute to research gender in media, talked about how Thelma & Louise had changed her life.

“It really, dramatically changed the course of my life, and part of it was the reaction that women had to it,” she said. “It brought home to me how few opportunities we give women to feel inspired and impacted by the female characters in a movie, and if you think about it, one of the best aspects of watching a movie is identifying with the characters. If we’re not giving women that opportunity, we’re robbing them of one of the best parts of seeing a movie.”

She said she’s found unconscious gender bias even in the preschool cartoons her kids once watched. “There’s no plot against women in Hollywood. So much of it is unconscious,” she went on, “and when people have the numbers and the vision, change is going to happen. I predict within five years we’re going to see a huge change in the onscreen representation.”

Sarandon, who’d already made headlines earlier in the day by unequivocally stating that Woody Allen “sexually assaulted a child,” said she cared less about raising statistics than raising substance. “It’s not about the numbers — the number of the salary, the number of the films made, the number of the roles you get, because really, women, do we want to do all those roles? I don’t think so. We want things that we feel passionate about, we want to tell stories that are about connection, that are about love, that are about something that we care about, something that encourages people to be the protagonist in their own lives, something that is really moving, something that is really feminine, something that is special.”

She continued, “And it doesn’t matter if there are more of them, although we want to have this shot that men have. But let’s make sure that they’re special, let’s make sure that we enjoy them, because now we can have everything, we can have families, we can have careers, we can have anything we want.”

She concluded by encouraging women to support other women, and to create their own definition of success that’s less contingent on box office and more on satisfaction. “To make things we’re proud of, to make things we care about, to make things that move us,” she said, “[that should be the measure of] whether we’re hugely successful.”