Let’s imagine that the entire slate of films nominated for the Palm d’Or this year at this year’s Cannes Film Festival consisted solely of films directed by white men.

Oh, sure, they’ll put Marilyn on their poster, but they won’t allow a women-directed film to enter competition.

Or how about this: imagine that every single director nominated for this prize was French. Would anyone argue, in defense of such a decision, that all those other directors of color “just weren’t good enough,” that such a decision could be based purely on the merit of the films involved?

Yet when the Cannes organizers advertised their final slate of nominees — none of which was directed by a woman, just as it had been all-male in 2010 — the worldwide uproar prompted the jury to deputize its sole female jury member, Andrea Arnold, to respond with such a statement:

I would absolutely hate it if my film was selected because I was a woman. I would only want my film to be selected for the right reasons and not out of charity because I’m female.

Now, I’m not interested in attacking Arnold for getting stuck in this position, or even for believing this statement. In fact, her framing the problem in these terms reveals the real problem: at least as articulated here, she (and many other women and/or directors of color) actually isn’t sure she’s good enough.

Given the way women and people of color are viewed when it comes to these conversations about merit, is it really any wonder we don’t sometimes believe we’ve failed? A year ago I wrote about exactly this question — the insidious “what if I’m not good enough?” worry that proves a self-fulfilling prophecy if asked often enough, as it did in Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s 2008 film, Sugar, about a Dominican baseball pitcher trying to wend his way through the American minor leagues. Riddled by fears that he’s not good enough, Sugar proves to himself that those fears were correct.

But to claim that Cannes’ 22 films in competition are objectively better than any work by a woman this year isn’t just a depressing example of women and people of color internalizing those fears. It’s also a manifestation of the concept of meritocracy used as a weapon against exactly those populations intended to benefit from it in a truly meritocratic world.

  • Tell me, how does one objectively compare a film by a film great like Abbas Kiarostami or David Cronenberg to a film by an unknown  woman director?
  • What incentive does Cannes have to feature unknown directors if they can stock their nominees with favorites who’ve won prizes in the past?
  • If your jury has only one woman on it, as this one does, how likely are those jurors going to be to fight to include the unknown director’s work?
  • Jurors who are white and male will generally find greater merit in stories about white male protagonists because that’s the norm in film.

The notion of meritocracy is infuriatingly persistent, no matter how much we acknowledge that money, connections, and normative notions about white men onscreen all combine to alter views of merit.

  • SAT scores can win you a spot at a prestigious university, but if your parents have enough money, they can buy you the SAT prep course and/or tutors that raises your score by 200 points.
  • Having more money for a film permits you to buy favorite/ highly talented actors and crew who make a film objectively better and subjectively more appealing.
  • Having strong connections to money is often equivalent to having strong connections to power and influence.

The question is not whether you have “earned” your spot. The real question is how we can still be using the notion of merit in a real world of college admissions any less than to official selection for prestigious festivals, for the inevitable result is to give more to society’s haves, and less and less to the have-nots who cannot buy themselves a place at the table.

So, what’s a girl to do? Sign a petition. (Hey, at least it’s a start.) Melissa Silverstein over at Women & Hollywood now has a petition seeking to pressure Cannes into changing its tune of this issue.

And read more. A fiery group calling themselves La Barbe (“the beard”) has barraged the jury with questions on this topic and has offered up a scathing sarcastic congratulatory statement to the festival’s directors for their achievement this year:

Last year, doubtless due to a lack of vigilance, four women somehow sneaked in among the 20 people nominated in the official competition. Thierry Frémeaux, the festival’s director general, correctly remarked: “It is the first time that there are so many women.” How weak! 

[This year] Sirs, you came to your senses and we are glad. The Cannes film festival 2012 applauds Wes, Jacques, Leos, David, Lee, Andrew, Matteo, Michael, John, Hong, Im, Abbas, Ken, Serguei, Cristian, Yousry, Jeff, Alain, Carlos, Walter, Ulrich, Thomas, all of whom show us once again that “men are fond of depth in women, but only in their cleavage.”

…With great understanding of the monumental importance of such an event, you were able to dissuade women from aspiring to set foot in this closely-guarded world.

Signing the petition over at Change.org takes less than a minute. (And thanks, Tam, for pushing me to get on this!)

I love Andrea Arnold, the British director whose Red Road and Fish Tank remain two of my favorite films made during the past five years. Especially Fish Tank, which I found a stunning piece of work, and which still swirls around in my mind for its portrayal of a 15-year-old girl. So now that I’m hearing about her new film, Wuthering Heights, you can imagine how intrigued I am by the possibilities of Heathcliff as a young Black man.

To be honest, I never liked the book, which I found overwrought in an alienating way. I tried to give it another try a couple of years ago, but found myself up against the same wall: I just didn’t care what happened to Heathcliff and Cathy.

That said, I find the filmic versions compelling — I believe this is a book that begs for visuals, moody interior moments, vignettes. Which is what Arnold appears to give it. It remains to be seen whether I’ll like the actual film as much as I like the idea of the film — reviewers appear mixed — but oh, these photo-stills and clips are persuasive.

James Howson as the grown Heathcliff, in one of those mid-century vests that makes me swoon:

Kaya Scodelario as the grown Cathy — isn’t this exactly how she should look?:

And a teaser trailer that’s more sensual evocativeness than narrative:

The whole idea — that a powerful, almost lifelong love and supernatural bond between two 19th-century people might be so problematic because they’re not the same race — is so rich for exploration. Andrea, I’ll be there on opening day.

Remember being 15? Everyone seems like such an asshole, and no one’s more of a douche than you. Interactions with your mom amount to screaming matches. Seems like nothing’s going to get better, either. Your hair won’t do what you want and your body’s all over the place — childish in parts and alarmingly womanly in others. Your entire world seems small, stupid. If you’re lucky, you have one thing you’re good at. In Andrea Arnold’s spectacular Fish Tank, Mia (Katie Jarvis)’s one thing is hip-hop dancing. She sneaks upstairs in their depressing council estate flat to an empty apartment, turns on the music, and works on perfecting her moves. I can’t remember seeing a film like this that shows us the world through the eyes of a 15-year-old so intimately — we’re always with Mia, sharing that lonely, locked-in feeling with her, never looking at her. It’s an extraordinary way to put the viewer into a 15-year-old’s head.

Things shift when suddenly her very young single mother Joanne has a new man in her life — Connor (Michael Fassbender), an Irish guy who just doesn’t fit into the council estate world. He’s so cute, has a middle-class job and a practical man’s car, and expresses such paternal ease and a light touch with Mia and her little sister: what’s he doing with the trashy, foul-mouthed Joanne? And here’s where Arnold captures Mia so perfectly. She doesn’t know whether she wants to flirt with Connor or turn him into the father figure who’d give their lives more stability; she wants both, of course. Because we see everything through Mia’s eyes, we wonder whether Connor is sending mixed signals — and we’re a bit alarmed to realize that we hope he is, even as a sense of unease grows about this seemingly nice guy.

When you’re 15, anything can happen to you — and Mia’s clearly on that precipice. Teenage pregnancy and/or rape are more likely in her precarious world than education or another path to mobility. When she looks at her improbably blonde, half-dressed, alcoholic mother, we know a lot of the venom between them results from the fact that they both know Mia might follow that path too. That’s why her hip-hop dancing is so evocative. It might be private, almost secret, but it gives her power and control over her lanky 15-year-old limbs. Yet being a good dancer gives you no marketable skill. “You dance like a Black,” Connor tells her when he catches her dancing in their miserable little kitchen, she in her pyjamas and he shirtless, unknown. “It’s a compliment,” he clarifies, creating a little bit of confidentiality between them. She scowls, flattered and invaded and attracted. Could dancing be a way out for her? Is she still dancing for herself, or is she dancing for him? When Connor plays Bobby Womack’s haunting, 1960s mellow soul cover of “California Dreamin’,” it means too much to Mia — it becomes their song.

Americans don’t like to watch films about the poor, proclaiming them “depressing,” yet these stories are so real that it seems Katie Jarvis herself is living this life. She had no acting experience when she was discovered for this part fighting with her boyfriend on a train platform. She’d already left school without a diploma, was unemployed, and learned all the dance moves during the filming, giving them a sweet uncertainty. By the time the film was screened at Cannes (where it won the Jury Prize, the first of many awards and nominations for the film) Jarvis was pregnant, limiting her capacity to take more roles.

When she was interviewed by UK’s The Guardian Jarvis explained her life with telling caution and honesty: “Whereas before I was doing nothing all the time [the film] made me learn that I could do things if I wanted to do it. It was hard, but it was fun and rewarding. Now I want to make the most of it. It shows that you don’t have to go to drama school to get into it, but I think I was one of a kind, I don’t think anyone else will get picked off a train station.”

Whether or not she gets more parts, she’s extraordinary in this film, which is easily in my Top Five of last year (it was released in a very limited way in the US in 2010) and one of my favorites of the whole decade. It’s so much better than An Education, which I really liked (see here for A. O. Scott’s reasons for agreeing with this point), and probably even better than Winter’s Bone which I keep singing about. I keep this blog for the hope of seeing films like this and spreading the news about them. It’s streaming on Netflix now — watch it and feel this filmmaker’s amazing vision of what it means to look through the eyes of a 15-year-old. And let’s keep watching for more from Andrea Arnold and Katie Jarvis.