- Associated Press - Monday, May 16, 2016

CANNES, France (AP) - Flanked by her colorful cast, the British director Andrea Arnold danced down the Cannes Film Festival red carpet to the thump of the hip-hop that adorns her electric road movie, “American Honey.”

The pulse of Cannes, which already beats at a frenetic pace, was quickened by Arnold’s throbbing and sensory American odyssey into a poor Midwestern underbelly seen through a traveling van of wayward teens trying to scam suburbanites. The exuberance of the film and Arnold’s merry band of youngsters - including breakout star Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf and a number of nonprofessional actors picked up along the way - spilled across the festival’s red carpet Sunday.

At the 69th Cannes Film Festival, there are only three female directors out of 21 in competition for the Palme d’Or, but their impact has been outsized. Midway through the festival, two of the most lauded films of Cannes are the ones helmed by Arnold and German director Maren Ade, whose “Toni Erdmann” is that rarest of birds: a 162-minute-long, crowd-pleasing German comedy.

That Cannes has been led by a pair of female filmmakers is not notable in and of itself. It’s no shock that Arnold, the shape-shifting director of “Fish Tank” and “Wuthering Heights,” has crafted something blazing in her first U.S. film, nor is it surprising that the unexpected, humanistic turns favored by Ade (“The Forest for the Trees,” ”Everyone Else”) are so effective (and funny) in “Toni Erdmann.”

But such a midway state has been uncommon at Cannes, where female filmmakers have persistently lagged in representation.

In 2012, there were no women filmmakers in competition at Cannes, prompting protests and outrage. Festival director Thierry Fremaux has pledged to do better while also calling on the industry to improve.

But change has come slowly - some would say too slowly. Last year there were just two female filmmakers in competition, and 2016 improved that figure by just one. (The third is French filmmaker Nicole Garcia’s “From the Land of the Moon,” which made less of a splash in its premiere Sunday.)

Some countries have set goals to improve gender equality in the film business. On Sunday, the Swedish Film Institute touted its program, launched in 2012, that aims to have state-supplied film funding split between men and women filmmakers by 2020. It has already reached that goal.

A similar program was unveiled Sunday by the British Film Institute and other United Kingdom film groups to balance their funding between genders in the coming years.

Meanwhile back in the United States, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) announced last Wednesday that a year after urging the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to investigate discrimination against female film and TV directors, it was “encouraged by the scope of the government’s process.”

Asked at a “Women in Motion” talk in Cannes whether 50/50 quotas should be considered in Hollywood, Jodie Foster (whose fourth film as a director, the hostage thriller “Money Monster,” premiered out of competition) was hesitant to go that far. “It’s an experience,” she said. “Let’s see how it goes.”

While gender equality in moviemaking has been a running conversation at the festival, it’s been overshadowed by the quality of the films.

After “Toni Erdmann” debuted, all anyone could talk about was what an unexpected delight it was. “Not only does German humor exist, it might just save your life,” wrote the Guardian.

The film is about a father-daughter divide in which a bearish, jokester dad (Peter Simonischek) tries to close the gap with comedy and pranks. He visits his 30-something daughter (Sandra Huller) at her high-powered corporate job in Bucharest. When his first efforts at warming up to her fail, he takes to posing as an alter ego (“Toni Erdmann”) in increasingly outrageous encounters. As the comedy gets more extreme, the film manages to get emotionally deeper, too.

“American Honey” is much wilder. Arnold, first intrigued by a New York Times story about such traveling bands of teenagers, prepared for the film with her own road trip across the U.S. Along the way, the found much of her cast, including Lane, who initially feared she was being approached for a pornographic film.

In “American Honey,” the romance of life on the road alternatively flourishes and suffocates in a country of parentless children, meth-ruined families and kids without futures. Arnold’s cast was immersed in the adventure of the film, often learning their scenes and destinations at the last minute.

“I find real life and real people inspiring,” Arnold told reporters, adding that she avoids referencing other films or filmmakers. “I try to find my own way. I try to find my own voice.”


Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP

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