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Jessica Chastain on women’s roles at Cannes: “it was quite disturbing to me, to be honest”

The actress wants more films where women have “their own point of view.”

Palme D'Or Winner Press Conference - The 70th Annual Cannes Film Festival
Jessica Chastain has no patience for your empty female characters.
Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

As a member of the jury for the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, Jessica Chastain saw 20 of the film industry’s most exciting new movies from all over the world — but she also saw a troubling pattern.

“One thing I got to take away from this experience is how the world views women, from the female characters I saw represented,” the Academy Award-nominated actress said at the festival’s final press conference. “It was quite disturbing to me, to be honest.”

While Chastain allowed that there were exceptions, she was firm that she was overwhelmingly “surprised by the representation of women onscreen,” who were mostly passive and empty shells of characters, rather than resembling any woman she’d encountered in real life.

Chastain continued to respond to a reporter’s question of whether the jury hopes to see more female filmmakers in future with a resounding yes, as fellow jury members like Paolo Sorrentino (The Young Pope) and jury president Pedro Almodóvar (Volver) nodded in agreement.

“I hope that when we include more female storytellers, we will have more of the women I recognize in my day-to-day life,” Chastain said. “Ones that are proactive, have their own agencies, don’t just react to the men around them. They have their own point of view.”

Chastain’s impassioned moment is being passed around the internet today to glowing reviews from her industry peers. Selma director Ava DuVernay, for one, kept her endorsement straightforward:

Chastain’s point really is simple: If you get more women involved in making film, film will naturally reflect the actual experiences of women, rather than putting forward approximations of clichés that have been recycled too many times to be compelling in any way.

Through their awards, the Cannes jury seemed to exhibit some optimism that a wave of change might be happening for women both onscreen and behind the cameras: This year, Lynne Ramsay co-won the festival’s screenwriting prize for the thriller You Were Never Really Here, and Sofia Coppola won Best Director for The Beguiled. But to Chastain’s point, Coppola is also the first woman to win Cannes Best Director since Russian director Yuliya Solntseva got the honor in 1961 — and they are the only two women who’ve won that category in the festival’s 71-year history.

That’s exactly the kind of bleak statistic that Nicole Kidman — who had no less than four projects premiering at Cannes this year — has cited as she’s pledged to make it a priority to work with female directors more often from now on. “That’s the only way statistics will change,” Kidman told the New Zealand Herald, “when other women start to go, ‘Oh, I’m actually going to choose only a woman now.’”

As Cannes jury member Maren Ade — director of the Oscar nominated film Toni Erdmann — said after Chastain, the industry not making room for more women filmmakers isn’t just unfair, but also means “we’re missing a lot of stories we might [otherwise] tell.” But hopefully, the combination of the jury’s blatant disdain for films that ignore women and the strong showing by women-created films at this year’s Cannes will make the problem harder to ignore — and just a little easier to change.

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