PARIS — Hollywood has its boys club, full of swaggering Scorseses, Soderberghs, Spielbergs and the like. But in Paris, female filmmakers are swiftly rising to the top of the cinematic heap. The most talked-about movies in France this winter are all made by women.
Female directors already produce more than a quarter of all movies coming from the traditionally macho French film industry. But it’s more than a numbers game: Most of these women are turning out box-office hits. Danièle Thompson’s “Jet Lag” was seen by more than a million movie-goers in France in its first month. Nicole Garcia’s “L’Adversaire” equalled that score. Jeanne Labrune’s “C’est le Bouquet” is expected to do as well. And Tonie Marshall’s “Nearest to Heaven” got the press raving, even if star Catherine Deneuve is no longer the draw she once was.
All the movies are comedies, with witty dialogue and romantic elements. Most directors, however, are loathe to ascribe their success to their gender.
“When I direct,” says Labrune, “I direct. I don’t look at myself directing as a woman. I make movies, I explore the world, I explore myself and I give something for others to watch, that’s it.” Delphine Gleize, whose first full-length feature, “Carnages,” stars Chiara Mastroianni, agrees: “The most interesting thing in making a movie when you are a woman is precisely not to think that you are one.”
To be sure, these directors aren’t bringing a woman’s touch to war epics or experimenting with extraordinary special effects. Like most French movies, their films explore sentimental behavior and are more modest than most American productions.
In “Jet Lag” — scheduled to be released in New York in June — or in “Nearest to Heaven”— which has an American distributor in the wings — romance is definitely in the air. One might suspect that these movies attract mainly a feminine audience. Not true, even if Thompson allows that “the psychological approach of movies made by women is certainly closer to the feminine sensibility.” It turns out that as many French men see their films as women do. “This is not a one-man show,” says Gleize. “The public does not come to see a woman, but a film.”
And beautiful ones at that. Films directed by women have been on the rise since Marshall won a César, the French equivalent of an Oscar, for “Institute” in 1999, and Agnes Jaoui earned various prizes for “The Taste of Others” in 2000.
To succeed in this business, everyone agrees talent is the key — and a good physical condition. After directing her first movie, Jaoui says she never imagined how exhausting the job would be. Labrune agrees: “I love directing because it is a strength-testing experience as well as a psychic and energy-weakening experience.”
Now, French actresses are out to try directing for themselves, among them Sophie Marceau, Isabelle Nanty and Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi.
“For many of them, it is a way of being in charge and expressing things they were not offered as actresses,” explains Daniel Toscan Duplantier, president of Unifrance, which promotes French movies abroad. “So many women in this business is wonderful news. There could not be progress without women’s eyes and judgment.”