Grand Lyon – Festival Lumière 2016, Catherine Deneuve, Hollywood : Cité des femmes, Dorothy Arzner, Agnès Varda, Gong Li

Leading ladies

Lumiere Film Festival honours women - big time!

After several barren years of having largely ignored women in cinema – either in front or behind the camera – this year’s Lumiere Film Festival turned out to be a bumper crop. Catherine Deneuve became the first female to be given the Lumiere Prize; there was a series of films on Hollywood, the city of women, and the Permanent History of Women Film-makers honoured Dorothy Arzner, the only female studios director in the 1930s and 1940s. And there was more on the agenda, as K reports.

Grand Lyon – Festival Lumière 2016, Catherine Deneuve, Hollywood : Cité des femmes, Dorothy Arzner, Agnès Varda, Gong Li

Inscrutable, blonde and beautiful, for over five decades she has inspired some of the greatest film-makers of the twentieth century, taking on daring roles and exploring all genres and forms of cinema.

Catherine Deneuve has worked with directors from France like Agnes Varda (The Creatures) and Nicole Garcia (Place Vendome); Europe, including Polanski (Repulsion) and Bunuel (Belle du jour); and America such as Tony Scott (The Hunger). Recently her unique skills and presence have been used by a younger generation such as François Ozon (8 Women) and, last year, Emmanuelle Bercot (Standing Tall).

Francois Truffaut, another great collaborater (Mississippi Mermaid), said “With her romantic and fragile appearance and her sublime face suggesting a second life full of secret thoughts, she creates the dream and invents the mystery.” For Martin Scorsese she’s “The face of French cinema”.

No surprise then that La Deneuve has just been honoured with the Lumiere Prize 2016 at the eponymous film festival in Lyon, southern France. The event is now a week-long film classics extravaganza: 2016 was expected to exceed last year's impressive figures: 152,000 cinema admissions to 371 screenings.

With her romantic and fragile appearance and her sublime face suggesting a second life full of secret thoughts, she creates the dream and invents the mystery.

The organisers presented the award 'for what she is, has done, says, acts, sings and delights from time immemorial and forever'. Averaging two or three films a year, Deneuve has made well over a hundred, and was dressed in no less than seven of them by Yves Saint Laurent who considered her his muse.

Ladies first

On top of her illustrious movie career, she has campaigned for women's rights, signing the Manifesto of the 343 in 1972 when a group of singers admitted they had had illegal abortions and thus exposing themselves to judicial action. She has crusaded with Amnesty International to abolish the death penalty in the US and other countries. And in 2007 she signed a petition protesting against the 'misogynous' treatment of French presidential candidate Ségolène Royal. She was also, for seven years, Unesco goodwill ambassador for the safeguarding of film heritage.

Accepting the award, Deneuve said the most difficult part of her career had been choosing roles: “You have no certainty about the results. My great luck has been to shoot with some great, very young directors.” She cited Jacques Demy, as an example, with whom she made her enduringly popular film, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

Grand Lyon – Festival Lumière 2016, Catherine Deneuve, Hollywood : Cité des femmes, Dorothy Arzner, Agnès Varda, Gong Li

Elsewhere in the festival author Antoine Sire was on hand to introduce a 16-film series based on his recently released book, Hollywood, La cité des femmes (Hollywood, the city of women), published by Actes Sud. Like his compendium, the programme focused on the female stars who made Hollywood: Joan Crawford; Bette Davis; Lana Turner, Olivia de Havilland; Maureen O'Hara; Carole Lombard to name only a few.

Sire's contention is that although the large studios' production between 1930 and 1955 was dominated by men, today we know that it was the women who often had the power on screen. “As well as having an obvious glamour, they all affirmed their independence and differences, contributing to transform the image of women in the cinema,” he said.

Not typecast

His favourite is probably Katherine Hepburn, without whom he wouldn’t have written the book, “She was masculine but had a feminine beauty – one of the most formidable stars”. He singled her out for her performance as eccentric and hilarious woman of wealth in Bringing up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938), as well as that of Rita Hayworth, erotic and fascinating femme fatale in Gilda (1946), as Hollywood legends who embodied women, rich or poor, careerists or lovers, depraved or virtuous, adventurous or housewives.

Hollywood legends were at the same time a reflection and a force acting to transform society.

They had in common the power to seduce and be determined – both inventive artists capable, thanks to their personality, of avoiding stereotypes. “They are at the same time a reflection and a force acting to transform society.”

Woman of the Year (1942) is a perfect example. It’s a satirical comedy with career-woman Hepburn seducing and marrying her journalist colleague Spencer Tracy. In life as on screen: the film was all her own initiative: she found it and sold it to MGM, choosing herself and her lover Tracy as co-stars.

Which brings us neatly to Dorothy Arzner, selected to represent this year's Permanent History of Women Film-makers. The first – and for a long time the only – woman director working in Hollywood, she directed 15 movies during the studios’ golden period. Starting as an editor and then becoming a screenwriter, she directed her first film, Fashions for Women in 1927 and was the first female admitted to the Directors Guild of America. Frequently dressing as a man, she was also the first woman to shoot a talkie, and she invented the boom microphone.

Grand Lyon – Festival Lumière 2016, Catherine Deneuve, Hollywood : Cité des femmes, Dorothy Arzner, Agnès Varda, Gong Li

The truth hurts

With her favourite themes being feminism, homosexuality and male domination, Arzner is often called a ‘woman's director’. Females were at the centre of her narratives and she principally catered for women audiences: an heiress in an unhappy marriage to an unfaithful husband was a frequent theme; or women forging a life in a man's world (Working Girls, 1931). She preferred 'truth' to 'glamour', and was sometimes criticised for portraying weak male characters.

On retiring she became professor at UCLA where a certain Francis Ford Coppola was a student, telling him, “You should always keep that ego of a young man who thinks he knows everything”.

The festival still hadn’t exhausted its celebration of women film-makers. There was a brief homage – a showing of film journal From the East (1993) – to Chantal Akerman, the outspoken and influential Belgian feminist-activist director, who died last year at 65. With movies such as Jeanne Dielman, 23 rue de Commerce (1975), she contributed to revolutionising the cinematic portrayal of female desire.

Grand Lyon – Festival Lumière 2016, Catherine Deneuve, Hollywood : Cité des femmes, Dorothy Arzner, Agnès Varda, Gong Li

Open Gate, an exhibition of Agnes Varda's photography of film stars and landscapes from around the world came next on the agenda. Varda had said, “Between the two fields of vision, photography and film, there is a gate I leave open.”

The generally neglected neo-realist director – and token man – screenwriter and director Antonio Pietrangeli (I knew her well; Sun in the Eye; Ghosts in Rome), received a short retrospective. His films treated women's condition in an Italian society that was profoundly patriarchal.

And finally, China's most illustrious and arguably most beautiful actor, Gong Li, whose career most resembles that Catherine Deneuve’s in the West, was honoured with a series of five screenings, including a 2006 episode of Miami Vice, as well as the Cannes Palme d'Or winning Farewell my Concubine, 1993. We’ll be back next year.