Eva Hussons cramped and chaotic room at the Hôtel Barrière Le Majestic in Cannes didnt seem like the kind of place where a revolution gets launched. An ironing board blocked a closet full of colorful dresses and high-heeled shoes, and overflowing suitcases lined the floor. A trio of maintenance workers fumbled with a power drill to open a broken safe as Hussons young son, her husband, and mother flowed in and out of the tiny space.
A few floors below Hussons room, the Croisette was filling with people in gowns and tuxedos headed to the gala premiere of her film at the Cannes Film Festival, Girls of the Sun. In many ways it felt like an ordinary, glamour-soaked Saturday night at Cannes. But instead, a historic moment was about to unfold.
Husson is the only female French director with a film in competition at Cannes, and women in her industry had chosen the premiere of Girls of the Sun as the occasion to deliver a powerful statement about gender equality. Kristen Stewart, Jane Fonda, Cate Blanchett, Ava DuVernay, Patty Jenkins, Marion Cotillard, and Agnès Varda were among 82 women who climbed the steps of the Palais together Saturday night in solidarity. Husson, in a saffron-colored gown and 150,000 Euros worth of borrowed jewels, followed behind them.
In her hotel room in the moments before she left for her premiere, Husson took in the weight of the evening. “It feels weird,” she said, sitting on her unmade bed and holding a bejeweled clutch. “Cannes loves to love and it loves to hate. I hope…” As her voice trailed off, her son called out “Mama!” and climbed into her arms.
The number of women marching up the Palais steps—82—is significant. Since the launch of the Cannes Film Festival in 1946, only 82 films directed by women have screened as official selections in competition, compared to 1,645 films directed by men—a ratio of less than five percent. This year, just three of the 21 competition films are directed by women.
“Women are not a minority in the world, yet the current state of the industry stays otherwise,” Blanchett said, delivering impassioned remarks on the Palais surrounded by the 81 other women. “As women, we all face our own unique challenges, but we stand together on these stairs today as a symbol of our determination and commitment to progress. We are writers, producers, directors, actresses, cinematographers, talent agents, editors, distributors, sales agents, and all involved in the cinematic arts.”
French director Agnes Varda, one of only two women ever to win Canness Palme d'Or (the other is Jane Campion) continued, guiding the group of women up the steps to the theater to watch Hussons film. “The stairs of our industry must be accessible to all,” Varda said. “Lets climb.”
The activism will continue on Monday at an event on the beach, where the women will ask Cannes artistic director Thierry Frémaux to sign a programming pledge for parity and inclusion at Cannes going forward.
In many ways, Cannes is one of the most entrenched bastions of sexism in the film industry—a place where women are known for the beautiful gowns they wear on the red carpet, but rarely for their creative contributions. As the #MeToo and Times Up movements have unfolded in the U.S., French women have been more reluctant to adopt their messages. But many French women like Husson are nudging their culture toward change.
Girls of the Sun was inspired by Kurdish women in Syria and Iraq who were taken hostage by Islamic State fighters, and escaped. In Hussons film, the escapees form an all-female battalion. “As a woman I realized I had never read a story about that in fiction,” Husson said. “It was strangely empowering for once, to not have the idea that women who go through that are just victims. What that story told me was that we are fighting warriors and we can do everything.”
“Im really proud we pulled off a movie that plays to the strength of who women are,” Husson said. “The fact that were at Cannes is already an enormous victory for us.”
Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Rebecca KeeganRebecca Keegan is a Hollywood Correspondent for Vanity Fair.