Writing this monthly column, one of the conclusions I’ve regularly drawn—and it’s not exactly a controversial one—is that Cannes is more progressive and forward thinking than the Oscars. (Given the fest’s usual preference for provocations and non-Hollywood fare, how could it not be?) Yet, when it comes to recognizing the achievements of female filmmakers, both voting blocs have a long way to go: Only once has either handed their top prize to a movie directed by a woman—the Oscars in 2010, when Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker won Best Picture, and Cannes in 1993, when Jane Campion’s The Piano took home the Palme D’Or. If you want to get technical about it, the Academy actually has a slightly better track record in this regard; while Bigelow remains the only woman to win a Best Director Oscar, the French film festival has yet to bestow that honor on any woman.
For all its devotion to multiculturalism, Cannes remains something of a boys club, even when women make up a significant percentage of its jury. In 2005, 2010, and 2012, no female filmmakers were represented in the competition lineup. Last year, only Italian actress-turned-director Valeria Bruni Tedeschi made the cut. Naturally, this pattern of exclusion has provoked charges of sexism; defenders of the prestigious fest have fired back that programmers are simply working with the pool of available talent. (As the argument goes, the majority of the world’s most acclaimed, revered filmmakers are men, so why wouldn’t that be reflected at Cannes?) What this perspective fails to account for is the festival’s general reluctance to promote promising and established female filmmakers, even when the talent is there. Last year, for example, Claire Denis’ Bastards—flawed, troubling, but undeniably a major work—was relegated to Un Certain Regard, the fest’s second-tier competition slate. (The programmers have snubbed Denis, one of the world’s greatest filmmakers, more than once.)
The insult to injury is that even when Cannes did shatter its own glass ceiling, it undermined the historic victory by issuing a split decision. What does it say that the first Palme winner made by a woman had to share its prize with an old-fashioned epic about a woman who comes between two men, essentially destroying their creative relationship? Perhaps it says nothing, other than that year’s jury, led by French director Louis Malle, had difficulty deciding between two worthy candidates. In all likelihood, though, there was at least some rationale to calling a draw between The Piano, a vision of forbidden fucking in the bush, and Farewell My Concubine, a portrait of forbidden, unrequited desire that looks positively chaste by comparison.
Are they so different, these joint award winners? Both are period pieces—though that was true of many of the contenders at Cannes ’93, where a time-warp trip to medieval Italy (Magnificat) might follow a flashback to Depression-era America (King Of The Hill). Both feature love triangles, one explicit and the other implicit. The Weinsteins, who preserved the frank nudity of The Piano, while chopping away at the hefty running time of Farewell My Concubine, snatched both up. (“It was better before those guys made cuts,” remarked Malle, one of the first to publicly lament Harvey Weinstein’s hatchet jobs.) More fundamentally, both are about powerless artists whose gifts don’t save them from the sexual whims of their oppressors. Less fundamentally, both feature scenes of their protagonists losing a finger.
Gender, integral to any serious reading of The Piano, is only one angle from which to come at Farewell My Concubine, Chen Kaige’s decades-spanning portrait of the friendship between two opera singers in 20th-century China. Based on a novel by Lilian Lee, who co-wrote the screenplay, the film incorporates the famous Beijing opera of the title as a work-within-the-work—the long-running production that its main characters, Dieyi (Leslie Cheung) and Xiaolou (Zhang Fengyi), become famous for performing. They meet as boys, at a notoriously demanding Beijing opera school; here, the burly Xiaolou forms an intense, quasi-romantic friendship with the effeminate Dieyi—one that the two later dramatize onstage, in their respective roles of king and loyal concubine. The intersection of art and life becomes a chief thematic thrust, especially once Dieyi’s scarcely concealed feelings for his co-star are threatened by Xiaolou’s relationship with a former prostitute (Gong Li, terrific in a rather thankless part).
Maybe the best-known work of China’s Fifth Generation cinematic movement, to which the films of Zhang Yimou (Raise The Red Lantern, Hero) also belong, Farewell My Concubine remains the only Chinese movie to claim the Palme. There was surely a political dimension to its victory: Plainly critical of Mao Zedong and his revolution, Farewell endured great scrutiny from Chinese censors, who reportedly trimmed scenes that made Dieyi’s queer desire more overt and cut around some of the more damning anti-Communist language of the second half. The film was eventually banned in its country of origin, but after it won the Palme—and became acclaimed on an international scale—officials reversed this decision. (China, which was then bidding to host the summer Olympics in 2000, was in positive-PR mode.) What all of this suggests is that the Cannes jury, which also included the socially minded Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, may have felt compelled to honor such an “important” achievement. That’s pure speculation, of course, but there’s no denying that the very existence of the film—an ideological threat to the culture that spawned it—is itself an honorable feat.
Not that thematic boldness is the film’s only commendable quality. As directed by Chen—whose career has been largely downhill ever since Farewell My Concubine—it’s a handsome, often lively melodrama, flush with colorful depictions of its titular opera and plenty of immaculate period detail. If the performances sometimes teeter into shrillness—especially in the early scenes, starring a whole troupe of mugging child actors—that’s both in keeping with the theatrical nature of the material and preferable to the stiffness of many similarly large-scale historical epics. Farewell is never better than when focusing on the muted passion between its leads, two men whose love affair can only be consummated through fictional surrogates. And while the censored version of the film is a little cautiously vague about Dieyi’s sexuality—whether he’s gay or transgender is up for debate—Cheung expresses the agony and the ecstasy of living through performance, of revealing one’s true self when playing a character (and, in this case, slipping into a different gender).
About halfway through its almost three-hour running time, Farewell My Concubine begins to lose the dramatic thread, mostly because the compelling relationship at its center becomes dwarfed by the enormity of recent Chinese history. Spanning about five decades, the film eventually thrusts its protagonists into the Japanese occupation, then the Cultural Revolution. The rest can’t help but feel faintly duller, as Chen attempts, with only middling success, to preserve the equilibrium between personal and national conflict. This is the problem with historical dramas: They too often get bogged down in the history.
No such issue exists with The Piano, which is as poetically compressed as Farewell My Concubine is sprawling. Though it’s also a period piece, Campion’s film drags the genre to a wilder, more primal place—a territory as uncharted as the muddy, Victorian-era New Zealand where its heroine is unceremoniously dumped. Loosely riffing on Bluebeard, the film finds a mute, pasty Scotswoman, Ada (Holly Hunter), sold by her father into an arranged marriage to landowner Alisdair (Sam Neill). Carting along an unruly young daughter (Anna Paquin), as well as a piano, Ada is a stranger in a very strange land. Her subsequent struggles, for autonomy and with the yearnings of the local men, unfold against a mythic woodland backdrop. Campion’s past world, a fever dream of a bygone century, is as vividly imagined as the not-so-ancient China of Farewell My Concubine. But it’s also more faintly fantastic, as though the filmmaker filled the gaps in historical record with memories of childhood fairy-tales.
Like Dieyi, Ada expresses herself through art; the piano of The Piano is her surrogate language, the way she communicates her repressed passions. Trouble in this Kiwi paradise arrives early, as the un-chosen, undesired husband opts to leave her cherished instrument to rot on the beach. It soon falls into the grubby hands of Baines (Harvey Keitel), an illiterate, “gone-native” settler who resides in a shack in the woods. He quickly negotiates a bargain with the piano’s rightful owner: In exchange for “lessons,” she can earn it back in piecemeal, swapping sexual favors for keys. Justifiably suspicious, the cuckolded Alisdair lurks in the forest, stealing voyeuristic glances into this makeshift love nest and going violently mad with jealousy.
At once artful and a bit tawdry, The Piano deliriously perverts a Merchant & Ivory scenario, sexing up its tale of competing affections with full-frontal nudity and such eroticized images as Baines slowly tracing a circular tear in Ada’s stockings.
The carnality caught critics off-guard, but how did so many of them mistake this tale of manipulation and submission for a swoon-worthy love story? I’ve always found bell hooks’ scathing critique of the film, tucked into a 1993 essay on gangster rap, to be deeply persuasive. As she notes, The Piano is essentially a colonialist fantasy, celebrating the domestication of both a free land—populated by grinning natives who are essentially props—and a free spirit. Campion may be a feminist filmmaker, by her own admission and the proclamation of her fans, but there’s nothing especially empowering about the story of a woman forced to choose between two rapists—one who takes her by force when she rejects his advancements, another who blackmails her into sex. That Baines eventually regrets his actions (“The arrangement is making you a whore and me an idjit.”) doesn’t automatically transform him into a worthy suitor. Yet to hear some tell it, the fact that Ada suddenly develops a deep attraction to her abuser somehow redeems their tryst, as though the mere acknowledgment that women have desires renders The Piano progressive.
There is, of course, much to admire about this lush, idiosyncratic movie. Often a better director than writer, Campion fills the frame with striking imagery, like the long shot of Ada and her daughter on the beach, their fragile figures juxtaposed against the endless sprawl of yellow sand and the blue ocean raging behind them. She’s great with actors, too: Hunter, who won Best Actress at both Cannes and the Oscars, does wonders with an impossible role, conveying a full range of private emotions without the aid of any dialogue. Contrary to popular opinion, the film’s best performance probably belongs to Neill. As written, he’s an uncaring, aristocratic monster—“I clipped your wing is all,” his mad patriarch tells Ada after chopping off a digit—but Neill invests the character with a certain befuddled vulnerability. His Alisdair is a bad man who fancies himself a good one; another actor might have just leaned on the character’s vileness. As for Paquin, who also took home an Oscar, she excels by simply behaving like a loud, undisciplined urchin. (It’s a much less mannered, more naturalistic portrayal of wild youth than the ones offered by the adolescent stars of Farewell My Concubine.)
But while it’s possible to be seduced by The Piano’s form, its content remains difficult to love. The film’s unsavory three-way romance culminates in a final exchange; while Ada barters to win back her possession, Alisdair essentially gifts the woman and her daughter to Baines, who sets sail for greener pastures with his bequeathed family in tow. Has she “chosen” this new husband, or has the choice been made for her again? Either way, the film finds her shoving her mighty piano into the water, choosing domestic bliss over artistic expression. (“It’s spoiled,” she insists.) Had Campion ended the film as she originally intended to, with Ada dragged into the drink and drowning next to her instrument, The Piano might have scanned as a critique. Instead, it fades into a “happy” ending, with Ada and her offspring left to luxuriate in the care of a “reformed” sexual predator.
Watching these final minutes, I thought about what Campion told reporters in 2009, when asked about gender disparity in film culture. “I think women don’t grow up with the harsh world of criticism that men grow up with,” said the director, back at Cannes with the lovely (and unproblematic) Bright Star. “We are more sensitively treated, and when you first experience the world of filmmaking, you have to develop a very tough skin.” Campion, a film-festival perennial and one of only four women to score a Best Director Oscar nomination, knows a thing or two about circumventing institutional sexism. (In a nice bookend to her ’93 victory, she’ll preside over the Cannes jury this May.) Is The Piano, in which a woman submits to a man’s harsh terms in order to regain access to her art, really a coded treatise on the compromises involved in succeeding within a male-dominated industry? If so, what are we to make of its severely compromised denouement, which instantaneously transforms a critique of oppressive patriarchy into an (accidental?) affirmation of it? Is The Piano as “spoiled” as Ada’s piano? The gender-biased rule at Cannes is depressing, but so too is the way Campion became the exception—by creating a “feminist” parable, expertly shot and paced, that anti-feminists could love.
Did they deserve to win? I feel kind of dirty suggesting a retroactive reconsideration of this Palme victory, as doing so would mean robbing the one and only female winner of her prize. On the other hand, to choose between Farewell My Concubine and The Piano is really to choose between unremarkable filmmaking in the service of something “important” and remarkable filmmaking in the service of something slightly distasteful. So why choose either? Cannes ’93 had no shortage of strong films, many of which would make fine substitute winners. Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers put an unsubtle, but crackerjack spin on the sci-fi classic, though it’s no match for Philip Kaufman’s terrifying 1978 adaptation. The tender coming-of-age story King Of The Hill shows a side of director Steven Soderbergh that hasn’t really been seen since. And Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s hard-to-acquire The Puppetmaster—about a famous Taiwanese puppeteer— is a much defter fusion of the personal and the political than Farewell Than Concubine. But the best in show was probably Mike Leigh’s caustic character study Naked, starring David Thewlis as a verbosely fascinating human monster. Its depiction of an irredeemable misogynist comes without cathartic forgiveness. Why hand the toxic people redemption when you can beat the snot out of them?
Next up: Friendly Persuasion