Cannes and ‘Wonder Woman’ show what happens when women challenge archetypes — and triumph

In April, Thierry Fremaux, longtime artistic director at the Cannes Film Festival, was asked about the chronically low number of female directors in the festival, a challenge to which he responded with a typical Gallic shrug. It’s “a question that I despise,” he told Variety’s Elsa Keslassy dismissively, before vaguely noting that more women were represented this year, “which is a good thing.”

Since the festival’s close Sunday in the wake of a largely ho-hum program, Fremaux may not be feeling quite so haughty: Although only three women competed for the Palme d’Or at this year’s festival, they punched far above their weight in terms of impact, with filmmakers such as Sofia Coppola, Lynne Ramsay, Jane Campion and veteran Agnes Varda arriving with bold, resonant films and, often, leaving with a clutch of awards. At a news conference following the awards ceremony, juror Jessica Chastain noted her disappointment at the dearth of women at Cannes, not just as artists but in substantive roles on screen. “What I really took away from this experience is how the world views women,” the actress said. “It was quite disturbing to me, to be honest. . . . I was surprised by the representation of female characters on film.”

A movie that might have improved Chastain’s overall outlook, but that was sadly absent from Cannes this year, was the comic-book origin story “Wonder Woman,” which opens Friday and easily could have taken one of the big-budget ballyhoo slots Cannes has reserved for such past films as “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” and “Up.” It was viewers’ loss that Cannes didn’t fit into Warner Bros.’ rollout for “Wonder Woman,” resulting in a festival that, intentionally or reflexively, too often reflected a definition of cinema that is archetypically heroic, auteurist and, above all, male.

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Directed with superb taste, focus and a thoroughgoing sense of fun by Patty Jenkins — whose most recent film was 2003’s $8 million indie “Monster” — “Wonder Woman” skillfully reframes that hidebound image, delivering a stirring, visually dazzling spectacle that revels in the vicarious aggression, hyperbolic potency and cartoonish violence that has thoroughly colonized our pop culture, but is in this case acted out mostly by women. The film’s battle scenes and stunts are being emphasized in ad campaigns that seem created to reassure boys and men that, even if it’s about a girl, seeing “Wonder Woman” won’t destroy their macho bona fides. But even with that caveat, when the Austin-based theater Alamo Drafthouse announced that it would hold a women-only screening of the movie as a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood, howls of sexism pealed across Texas’s Hill Country, a wounded cry of male distress not heard since last summer’s all-female and utterly nonthreatening “Ghostbusters” reboot.

We’re familiar with this strain of derangement, which sets in whenever women dare to claim power, whether literally in the form of political or corporate leadership, or symbolically, in the imaginative world of cinema. As some observers noted during the Alamo standoff, when you’re accustomed to unquestioned power, equality feels like oppression; the complainers had all of the self-righteousness and none of the self-awareness to understand that their feelings of being shut out, unconsidered and invisible is precisely what most of us feel every time we’re asked to view yet another white heterosexual male protagonist as a neutral “norm” and internalize his journey as our own.

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That’s why, even as the comic-book movie as a genre seems to be on the brink of exhaustion, “Wonder Woman” is worth celebrating. In a Twitter exchange last week, veteran screenwriter and film journalist Steven Gaydos suggested that women making gains in this particular space isn’t exactly progress: Rather than buy into the project of world-domination-by Comic-Con, wouldn’t the more subversive act be to dismantle it entirely? Didn’t our high-fructose diet of superhero myths help condition a nation to accept a tough-talking but breathtakingly inexperienced realty-TV star as president. (Quick, who said, “I alone can fix it” first: Donald Trump or Tony Stark?)

It’s a compelling argument. But, as my former boss Gloria Steinem has always said, when we have a choice between two things, why not take both? The basis of both the exhilaration and anxiety surrounding “Wonder Woman” is social space, and what happens when women or any other marginalized group have the temerity to occupy it — in this case, with fantasies and dreams that look like us, albeit in our strongest, most self-actualized and physically imposing forms. Can we savor those escapist pleasures, while still questioning the values that have made them so culturally dominant? Can a female filmmaker wield such notorious Hollywood fetish objects as budgets and “cool” special effects with just as much confidence as her male peers, and maybe with less turgid self-seriousness and more ease and panache?

“Wonder Woman” suggests that the answer is yes. What’s more, along with such female-driven films as “Atomic Blonde,” “Megan Leavey,” “Rough Night,” “Girls Trip” and “Landline,” Jenkins’s movie is poised to help save an early-summer box office already sagging from “Baywatch” and “Pirates” fatigue. Where are the women? The gatekeepers of film at its most archaic and homogeneous can despise that question all they want. But the future of their art form and industry may well lie in the answer.

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