Women in motion

An unprecedented four movies by female directors are in contention for Cannes' most coveted prize

Portrait Of A Lady On Fire. Photos © CANNES FILM FESTIVAL

In Senegal, a teenage Muslim girl in an arranged marriage reunites with her lover, who has returned from his aquatic death. In London, a scientist mother engineers a new plant species that begins to dominate the mind of her young son. In 18th-century France, a portrait painter travels to an island off Brittany to paint a young aristocrat and finds herself smothered by love.

This year there are four films directed by women in the competition at Cannes Film Festival, the highest number in years (I haven't seen the last of the four, which will screen tonight before the festival ends tomorrow). In its 72 years of existence, Cannes only once awarded the coveted Palme d'Or to a woman: Jane Campion, for The Piano -- and that was 26 years ago. To label a movie as coming from a "female director" is either discrimination or advocacy, depending on the context, but in point of fact Cannes (as well as other major festivals and the Oscars) have been criticised lately of neglecting the works of female artists and in effect muffling their voices.

This year Cannes has programmed Celine Sciamma's Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, a rapt, delicate love story between two corseted women isolated from the world; Mati Diop's Atlantique, a coming-of-age tale of a young woman in a coastal town of Senegal; Little Joe, a botanical thriller about an antidepressant flower; and Justin Triet's Sybil, about a psychoanalyst and her patients. Will one of them become the second woman to win the Palme d'Or tomorrow night? My take: Unlikely. But the best bet would be on Sciamma's Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, a sensitive period drama about Marianne (Noemie Merlant), a painter hired to travel to an island to paint a wedding portrait of Heloise (Adele Haenel), a young woman forced to become a bride as a substitute for her sister after she threw herself off a cliff.

Such was the anguish caused by the prospect of unwanted matrimony. Heloise, however, refused to sit for a previous painter, and Marianne is instructed to paint her subject on the fly, from glances and memory, through fleeting moments and furtive sketches as the two women take a walk on the island's wave-crashed beach.

Atlantique. CANNES FILM FESTIVAL

When they finally kiss, the moment comes with a tender finality, like the most natural thing in the world. Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is a rare film that portrays the female-only world -- there's not a single male protagonist -- without making it feel cloistered or convent-like; instead, it's a celebration of rarefied sensitivity by which the lovemaking can never be described as "steamy" -- as is often the case with films about female romance -- but joyful, gentle and almost sacred, like a Renaissance painting. Five years ago, Cannes awarded its top prize to Blue Is The Warmest Colour, a film that wears its steamy, athleticised lesbian sex proudly. Sciamma's win, if the film convinces the jury tomorrow, will amend that skewed male viewpoint to a new equilibrium.

Arranged marriage isn't just a thing in from the 18th century, according to Matti Diop's Atlantique. Diop is a French director of Senegalese descent. The New York Times calls her in a headline "the first black woman to compete for the Palme d'Or", though Diop said she doesn't identify herself as black or mixed race, but just as French. Atlantique is set on the grimy Atlantic coast of Senegal, where young men work on construction sites, sometimes without getting paid, while the girls in braids hang out at a beachside café. One of the boys, Souleiman (Ibrahima Traore), is courting a girl, Ada (Mama Sane); their make-out spot is under a bare concrete pier looking out on the perilous ocean. While Souleiman leaves with other boys on a boat trying to cross the ocean to Spain, Ada is defenceless when her parents marry her to the son of a local bigwig.

Atlantique focuses on the experience of Ada, but it's also a supernatural thriller involving a detective whose investigation of arson leads to something more bizarre, including zombies and demonic possession. Diop's genre-straddling isn't always convincing, and yet the film has a haunting atmosphere and a straight-faced conviction that the incredulous is always possible in a place like Africa, where ghosts aren't scary because they're dead but because they're forgotten. Diop's film has given us a portrait of another lady on fire -- a hotter, more unforgiving fire that burns right next to the cold ocean of the title.

But the coldest of them all is Jessica Hausner's Little Joe, an example of a clinical, minimalist Euro-arthouse movie. Emily Beecham plays Alice, an English scientist who has genetically engineered a new breed of flower that has the ability to make people less depressed -- a botanical Xanax, sort of. She calls it Little Joe, after her son Joe, and when Alice puts the plant in her house and Joe has inhaled its red pollen, the blissed-out boy begins to drift away. The female aspect here is Alice's inadequacy as a mother, but Hausner seems more preoccupied with shipshape formalism and a jarring soundtrack than in creating a resonant mother-son story. Hausner, an Austrian, has made her name from eccentric psychodrama (her film Hotel opened here many years ago); this time, the form just takes over everything else.

All three films, in a way, acknowledge and to a degree celebrate the vulnerability of women: the tremor of their love, the courage in their soul, and the folly of their feelings. Will any of them win over the jury, led by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu? Cannes Film Festival will announce its winners tomorrow, and hopefully a second woman will get up there to receive the Palme.

Little Joe. CANNES FILM FESTIVAL