Because we Cannes, Cannes, can’t?

Because Cannes becomes the center of the film universe each year for ten days, the tales that trickle from the Croisette tend to be somewhat inflated, even inflammatory.

Last year, Lars Von Trier stole the show with some off-the-cuff sympathy for Adolf Hitler. A grain of salt, or rather sand, must accompany this sort of scuttlebutt.

Last week, when it was reported that the French feminist group La Barbe (“The Beard”) had published an open letter in Le Monde decrying the festival’s lack of female-directed films, I wrote to a director friend to inquire about the festival’s mood.

“What women thing?” was his clueless response.

But in fact, a scandal was stirring. On Sunday, La Barbe staged a small protest smack on the red carpet during the premiere of Michael Haneke’s “Amour”. Their protest signage, like their letter in Le Monde, was sardonic in tone: “Marveilleux,” ‘’Merci!!!” ‘’Splendide,” ‘’Incredible!” “Le Barbe” [Marvelous, Thank You, Splendid, Incredible, The Beard]—and were proudly wielded by fake-bearded women to challenge the cuckoo Cannes establishment.

“Men are fond of depth in women,” read the now infamous line of their letter, “but only in their cleavage.”

Do the Cannes programmers have any excuse for an Associated Press observation that reads like this: “None of the 22 films competing for the Palme D’Or prize at the festival this year was directed by a woman.”

While some have suggested that this may be symptomatic of larger industry ills in which the percentage of women directors who are hired to work is negligible at best, it does seem odd that a festival that prides itself on progressivism, freedom of expression and art could be so obtuse.

Cannes certainly likes its gaggle of glamourous women on the red carpet, the letter stated wryly: “[N]ever let the girls think they can one day have the presumptuousness to make movies or to climb those famous Festival Palace steps, except when attached to the arm of a prince charming.”

A woman has won the Palme d’Or, Cannes’ highest prize, only once, an honor attached to Jane Campion for 1993’s “The Piano.” And the current powers that be don’t seem to want to scuffle over the issue. Juror Andrea Arnold, a director who has shown two films at Cannes in the past said, “I’d absolutely hate it if my film got selected only because I’m a woman. I would only want my film to be selected for the right reason, not out of charity.”

Festival director Thierry Fremaux agreed. He responded to the Le Monde lambasting by stating that the festival selects films strictly based on merit. “We would never agree to select a film that doesn’t deserve it on the basis it was made by a woman,” he wrote.

But more than 2,397 women in entertainment have signed on to an online petition on the Website demanding some sort of affirmative action. In a letter penned by the Brooklyn based non-profit Women and Hollywood, “Where Are The Women Directors?”, the authors wrote: “We call for Cannes, and other film festivals worldwide to commit to transparency and equality in the selection process of these films. We judge films as human beings, shaped by our own perspectives and experiences. It is vital, therefore, that there be equality and diversity at the point of selection.” 

Signatories to the letter include feminist thinker and writer Gloria Steinem, playwright/activist Eve Ensler, writer Delia Ephron, and several Israeli groups, including the Haifa Feminist Center, Isha L’Isha, The Women in the Picture Association and The International Women’s Film Festival from Rehovot, Israel.

So is the fancy Festival du Cannes snobbish and sexist? Were the offerings from women not up to 4-star snuff? Or is the entire entertainment industry so subsumed in gendered hierarchy, women not only come up short but silenced?