With less than a month to go until Cannes Film Festival director Thierry Frémaux reveals this year’s Official Selection, speculation is mounting over the female presence in competition this May after last year’s all male line-up.

Potential female-directed Palme d’Or contenders being bandied about on Internet wish lists include Catherine Breillat’s Abuse of Weakness, Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring and Claire Denis’ The Bastards

But female directors on these lists remain in the minority and it’s not certain that all these titles will be ready in time for Cannes.

The presence and perception of women in cinema, on and off the screen, was at the heart of a timely conference entitled “Gender and Cinema” at the International Festival of Women’s Films in Creteil, on the outskirts of Paris, earlier this week to mark the event’s 35th edition.

“We didn’t pull the idea for this conference out of the air,” said festival director Jackie Buet in her opening remarks.  

“It’s a reaction to a series of alarms bells which went off in 2012 led by the controversy over the lack of female directors in competition at Cannes - which didn’t just shock feminists but many cinema professionals too.”

In France, like rest of the world, female directors are a minority. Figures released by France’s National Cinema Centre (CNC) on Tuesday as part of its annual production report revealed that just 25% of the 77 first-time pictures it approved in 2012 were directed by women.

Anecdotal evidence suggests this percentage wanes beyond first and second-time features although there are no hard statistics.

“A recent study out of Belgium showed that although the ratio of female to male students in films schools across Europe is roughly 50:50, women tend to apply less for film subsidies… but when they do they are generally successful. It’s as if they lack confidence or self-censor,” commented producer Bérénice Vincent.

“Roughly 20% of directors in France are female against 12% in the rest of Europe and 5% in the US so we’re doing better than elsewhere but the situation still isn’t great when you think the female to male split on the directors course at the La Femis is roughly at parity,” she added.

Vincent, who worked as a sales agent at Celluloid Dreams before heading into production, has just launched a lobbying and network group focused on women in film called the Le Deuxième Regard (www.ledeuxiemeregard.com) alongside former Celluloid colleague Delphyne Besse and Julie Billy, a producer with Paris-based Haut et Court. The trio presented the organisation at Monday’s conference.

“We want to create a network of women from both the business and creative side of the industry. The idea is to connect female distributors, producers and finance specialists with directors, scriptwriters, editors and cinematographers to get more films directed by women made and get more women into positions of responsibility across the industry,” said Vincent.

“The glass ceiling has become a lead ceiling… women really need to mobilise if they want to change this current macho state of affairs - take to the streets over gay marriage if you wish but it’s current situation regarding women in the industry you should be marching about,” commented screenwriter Sophie Deschamps, a former president of the Society of Authors and Composers of Dramatic Works (SACD) — France’s equivalent to the Writers Guild of America - who now oversees women’s affairs at the influential body.

“One of the big problems is that there is no concrete data breaking down employment in the sector by gender… until we have some transparent statistics it will be hard to argue our case,” she said, adding that The Ministry of Culture has recently agreed to initiate a proper study on the issue. 

“It’s a step in the right direction but nothing is going to move fast — if women don’t act we’ll be having the same discussions in 15 years time as today,” she continued. 

Further suggestions from the panel to help foster more female filmmaking included anonymous subsidy applications, female-male parity on subsidy and festival selection committees and even the adoption of Sweden’s recently implemented policy to divide film funding equally between female and male applicants.

Other speakers at Monday’s conference include feminist film academics Génévieve Sellier and Brigette Rollet.  Sellier gave an amusing gender-based presentation of French cinema from the 1930s through to the emergence of The New Wave at then end of the 1950s, regarded by many in the audience as a disastrous period for women in cinema - in both terms of both their portrayal and involvement in the industry.

Turning their attention to the Cannes Film Festival, few at the conference were expecting last year’s protests to result in an avalanche of female-directed pictures to hit the Palais this year but no-one apportioned particular blame to Frémaux on this score. 

There was some speculation, however, over whether the official festival poster featuring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward was some sort of attempt to be subliminally more embracing of both sexes.

“Can you imagine the discussions at the brain-storming sessions to come up with the right image for this year,” laughed Deschamps.

A rough and ready, non-exhaustive list of upcoming female-directed pictures - recently completed or in post.

  • Catherine Breillat - Abuse of Weakness
  • Susanne Bier - Serena
  • Joanna Hogg - Untitled London Project
  • Valeria Golino - Vi Perdono
  • Claire Denis - The Bastards 
  • Isabel Coixet - Panda Eyes
  • Kimberley Peirce - Carrie
  • Kelly Reichardt - Night Moves
  • Valeria Bruni Tedeschi - A Castle in Italy
  • Cherin Dabis - May in the Summer
  • Eugenie Jansen - Above My Head
  • Rebecca Zlotowski - Grand Central
  • Elaine Constantine - Northern Soul
  • Lisa Langseth - Hotel
  • Laetitia Masson - GHB
  • Claire Simon - Gare du Nord
  • Sofia Coppola - The Bling Ring
  • Emma Dante - Via Castellana Bandiera
  • Lucia Puenza - Wakolda
  • Katell Quillévéré - Suzanne
  • Louise Archambault - Gabrielle
  • Caroline Strubbe - I’m The Same I’m Another
  • Marion Vernoux - Bright Days Ahead
  • Yolande Moreau - Henri
  • Anne Weil and Philippe Kotlarski - Friends from France
  • Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani  - The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears

Any more suggestions?