Four filmmakers – Mati Diop, Jessica Hausner, Celine Sciamma and Justine Triet – will be trying to make history at this year's Cannes Film Festival by becoming the first female director to win the Palme d'Or outright.
In 71 previous outings of the world's premiere film festival, the only woman to win the top prize was New Zealander Jane Campion in 1993 for The Piano, but it was shared with Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine. That was also the last time the Palme d'Or has been split between two films, as now, the rules have been changed so the top prize can only go to one winner.
Later, when Abdellatif Kechiche won the Palme d'Or in 2013 for Blue is the Warmest Colour, the jury also named the film's stars Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux as co-winners, in a highly unusual move. But then, perhaps it's a sign of something being very wrong with the judging if Cannes needs to make bizarre exceptions and name actors for a director's prize to increase the number of women who can claim to be Palme d'Or winners.
The gender disparity at Cannes
The brutal truth is that Cannes is rightly seen as an old boy's club. Male directors are constantly being given a pass into the competition even if the film being chosen to play is not their best work. But change may be afoot. Last year, Cannes signed an equality charter in a push for gender parity on the administrative side of the festival, so programmers will now be an equal balance of men and women. The move came about after 82 female film stars, including Cate Blanchett, Kristen Stewart and Salma Hayek, protested on the red carpet against gender-based discrimination in the film industry. But Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux insists there will be no quotas on the number of women selected to play in the competition and that all films are judged on "artistic merit".
This year 21 films are competing for the Palme d'Or, but the odds are stacked against women with only four female directors in the running. These four filmmakers will be trying to overcome the weight of history, and going up against a jury that is this year made up of five women and four men, presided over by Birdman director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.
Can Mati Diop make history?
It's always a big surprise when a filmmaker's debut feature film lands in competition at Cannes, and an even bigger one for that film to go on to win the Palme d'Or. It's certainly not impossible to do so, but it last happened in 1989 with Steven Soderbergh's Sex, Lies, and Videotape.
The only other director to win with their debut film was Delbert Mann for Marty in 1955, the first year the Palme d'Or was awarded. Diop is attempting to add her name to this exclusive club. The French actress and director's film Atlantics is the first by a black woman to compete for the Palme d'Or since the festival began as a biannual event in 1946.
Diop certainly has good pedigree, as the niece of Senegalese cinema pioneer Djibril Diop Mambety and daughter of jazz musician Wasis Diop.
In 2013, Diop directed 45-minute short film Mille soleils (A Thousand Suns), in which she meets the lead actors of her uncle's seminal 1972 film Touki Bouki. She is also an accomplished actress, starring opposite Alex Descas in Claire Denis's excellent 35 Shots of Rhum, as well as writing and starring in Antonio Campos's 2012 crime drama Simon Killer.
Atlantics is loosely based upon Diop's 2009 documentary short of the same name, which won several awards, including the Tiger Award for Best Short Film at the Rotterdam Film Festival. The film tells the story of a young woman from Dakar whose life is dramatically disrupted when her lover disappears.
The lover in question is one of a group of construction workers building a futuristic tower who decide to down tools after not being paid for months, and it's later rumoured that they have left the country by boat in search of a better future.
Diop has said of her new feature film: “After devoting a short film to the men who leave by sea, my current interest is in the women who stay behind, the ones who wait for a brother, a lover, a son to come back.”
Why Celine Sciamma could pull off the upset
The film was shot in Senegal with local actors playing characters who speak the local dialect, Wolof. Diop co-wrote the script alongside French screenwriter Olivier Demangel. But of the four female filmmakers, critics believe Sciamma has the most potential to pull off the unlikely win – despite the fact no one has actually seen any of the films yet.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the French auteur's fourth film in a distinguished career.
The 40-year-old director's last outing, Girlhood, in 2014, was selected in the Director's Fortnight in Cannes, one of the sections of the festival that runs in parallel to the official selection. But many critics were then left wondering how that fabulous coming-of-age tale missed out on a competition spot. It was, after all, one of the best films of that year, and is now used as another example of how female filmmakers have traditionally been overlooked at Cannes.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a period film set in Brittany in 1760 and tells the story of painter Marianne (Noemie Merlant), who is commissioned to do the wedding portrait of Heloise (Adele Haenel), a young lady who has just left a convent. Valeria Golino, who played Tom Cruise's girlfriend in Rain Man, also stars.
The other female contenders
Austrian auteur Hausner is another much-admired female filmmaker appearing in competition for the first time. The 47-year-old director is a disciple of two-time Palme d'Or winner Michael Haneke, and has always had a remarkable eye for detail and framing, making films that highlight human foibles and irrational behaviour. She is also interested in the spiritual world versus the everyday.
Her latest film, Little Joe, is her first in the English language and has a plot that seems like it could have come from the mind of Adaptation writer Charlie Kaufman.
Single mother Alice (Emily Beecham) is a plant breeder who has engineered a special crimson flower that has therapeutic properties. When she sneaks one home to give to her son, strange things start occurring.
Lastly, 40-year-old French director Triet built her stellar reputation on a knack for mixing fiction with real-life events. Her most celebrated film, Age of Panic, was shot on the streets of Paris during the 2012 elections.
More recently, she has turned to comedies with strong female characters at their heart. Her last film, In Bed with Victoria, screened in the Critics Week sidebar section of Cannes. Her competition effort Sibyl sees Victoria star Virginie Efira play the eponymous psychotherapist who decides that she wants to return to her first passion: writing. This passion is fuelled by the arrival of her latest patient, an actress played by Adele Exarchopoulos, the French star who is one of only three women who can claim to have won the Palme d'Or.
Time will tell if this is the Cannes where the festival’s biggest glass ceiling comes crashing down.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 14 to May 25