Women directors are thinly represented at the Cannes film festival, though with three in competition out of 19 entries, this was a good year.
Only one woman has won the top prize, the Palme d’Or—Jane Campion for “The Piano” in 1993 (and she shared that year’s award). “Seventy years of Cannes, 76 Palmes d’Or, only one of which has gone to a woman. No comment,” Isabelle Huppert, a French actress, declared coolly at the festival.
This year’s prize could well have been the second, and maybe should have been. The Palme d’Or winner, “The Square”, a satire on the art world by Ruben Östlund, received mixed reviews. Sofia Coppola took the festival’s prize for best director for her entry, “The Beguiled”, becoming only the second woman to win that award.
But it was another woman, Lynne Ramsay, from Glasgow, who gave the festival perhaps its most memorable film.
Ms Ramsay was editing her entry, “You Were Never Really Here”, until just before its premiere on the last night of competition (still lacking the closing credits). Starring Joaquin Phoenix as a psychologically damaged war veteran and former FBI agent turned private mercenary, it is an absorbing meditation on a tortured soul that poses as a violent action thriller.
The film, for which Amazon Studios acquired the American rights in a deal made at Cannes last year, earned Ms Ramsay the prize for best screenplay (shared with Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou for their entry, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”) and Mr Phoenix the prize for best actor.
“You Were Never Really Here” follows Mr Phoenix’s character, “Joe”, as he grapples with personal demons while caring for his elderly mother and taking on a dangerous job to rescue a politician’s daughter from a child-sex ring in New York. The film is punctuated by violence and brutality, much of it committed by the film’s protagonist, but Ms Ramsay’s camera lingers most on Mr Phoenix in moments of existential despair and self-loathing.
Joe’s eyes turn glassy and distant as he flashes back to memories where he seems helpless as women fall prey to evil men: his mother violently abused while he remains hidden in a cupboard as a child; a group of young women whom he finds dead in the back of a lorry while working on a trafficking case for the FBI.
Joe barely overcomes his suicidal impulses, willing himself to save the young girl from a powerful politician, the nub of the plot that propels the film forward. Edited down to less than 90 minutes, with a haunting, atmospheric score by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, the result is a taut work of violent introspection.
Ms Ramsay’s previous film, “We Need to Talk About Kevin” (2011), based on Lionel Shriver’s prize-winning novel, was another searing work that was also a critically acclaimed entry at Cannes.
She may have left Cannes again this year without the Palme d’Or, but “You Were Never Really Here” should fix Ms Ramsay’s place as not only one of the finest women directors, but also one of cinema’s most interesting excavators of the darker recesses of humanity.