If the box-office success of “Wonder Woman” – a female superhero movie directed by a female director – has given you something to cheer about, then you might want to consider a round of applause for the Sacramento French Film Festival.
The 2017 festival, which kicks off Friday, June 16, and runs through June 25, includes several movies featuring prominent and complex female characters played by some of the most talented actresses in the industry, including French cinema’s “grande dame” Catherine Deneuve, “Amelie” star Audrey Tautou and American actress Kristen Stewart.
Marquee roles for women might seem scarce in the U.S., but “there are plenty in France,” said festival director and co-founder Cécile Downs. Festival treasurer Jane Berner added: “We had the most difficulty putting together (this program)” because of the wide selection of women-centric movies to choose from.
The Sacramento French Film Festival comes on the heels of the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, where actress, jury member and one-time Sacramento resident Jessica Chastain made headlines by stating the cinematic representation of women there was “quite disturbing to me, to be honest.”
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Whereas Chastain saw too many shallow, passive female characters in the movies that played Cannes, the Sacramento French Film Festival presents women on screen whose actions and reactions do not depend on men, Downs said. Instead they lead rich professional lives, grapple with familial relationships, and retain their independence – whether a romantic interest is involved or not.
In “The Midwife,” for example, Deneuve’s character strikes up an unlikely friendship with her ex-boyfriend’s daughter, a stressed midwife and single mother played by Catherine Frot. It’s a nuanced drama that gives both actresses meaty roles. In “The Odyssey,” Tautou plays the wife of biologist and innovator Jacques-Yves Cousteau, supportive through her husband’s insatiable hunger for success, his infidelity, and their son’s death. In “Personal Shopper,” Stewart plays assistant to a superficial celebrity by day, but at night she tries to contact her recently deceased brother’s spirit.
While this year’s French Film Festival appears to be a tribute to strong female cinematic representation, Downs and Berner did not approach selecting its movies with any particular agenda. They said they looked for films that were well-received by French moviegoers and awards committees and found many centered on female protagonists. “We just watch the films and then realize a theme,” Downs said.
Chastain recently said female representation in cinema begins with female storytellers. Four of 19 films at the Sacramento French Film Festival are directed by women. That may not seem like a large amount – just over 20 percent – but a comparison of statistics tells a different story. According to the advocacy group Women in Hollywood, female directors represented only 4 percent of the top 100 grossing films in 2016.
In addition, the Sacramento French Film Festival has selected films that feature women of all ages. In France, actresses are not phased out simply because they can no longer play young romantic leads, Downs said.
Not every film at SFFF centers on women, though. As Downs and Berner noted, this year’s festival guest is Nathan Willcocks, the lead actor in “The Taste of Ink,” a film Downs admits is “full of testosterone.” Willcocks’ character is a tattooed post-punk singer, mourning the death of his mother and living with his emotionally distant father and his father’s new girlfriend. It’s mainly a moody coming-of-age story that examines masculinity.
But that film stands in contrast to the other female-centric movies. “At the Sacramento French Film Festival, women don’t need to wear superhero outfits to be wonder women,” Downs said.