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Exclusive: Cannes Artistic Director Thierry Fremaux Explains Why ‘The Cinema Is Alive’

Exclusive: Cannes Artistic Director Thierry Fremaux Explains Why 'The Cinema Is Alive'

Even the world’s classiest movie theater can’t rival the exclusivity of the Cannes Film Festival. Selectivity bleeds out of every pore of this chaotic showcase for world-class auteurs and newcomers alike, which begins its 67th edition on Wednesday. But the rarified circumstances of a Cannes selection only really take shape when you look at the numbers, which artistic director and delegate general Thierry Fremaux uses to put the program in context. “Of course we said no to great filmmakers,” he told Indiewire in a recent conversation, reflecting on the 60 titles that comprise the main selection. “We have seen 1,800 movies for the selection, which means 1,740 times we say, ‘No.’ Among the ‘no,’ there are many great filmmakers.”

In other words, 96% of the movies jockeying for a spot at the world’s glitziest festival fail to make the cut. But for Fremaux, who has held a top spot at the festival since 2000, the narrow field of possibilities has become de rigueur. “The process was the same,” he said, recalling a programming experience that began in the fall of 2003. “To be selected at Cannes is a privilege, and it must remain so. But the world is changing, and Cannes must ask all questions that will be asked of the biggest festival in the world.”

The Old Guard Has the Power

Among those questions: At a time when more movies are produced than ever before, could some of many Cannes slots consumed by directors whose works seemingly play at the festival whenever they’re ready in time—this year’s lineup includes stalwarts like Ken Loach, Jean-Luc Godard and the Dardenne brothers—step aside to make way for more new or at least some different talent? 

However, Fremaux holds steady on his allegiance to the history of the event. “The large presence of known and celebrated filmmakers is a process that has always been at Cannes, from the sixties where Fellini, Bergman and Antonioni were here,” he said. “I think it’s a trick question: the great museums show the great painters. Cannes shows great filmmakers.”

And he’s got his own reputation on the line as well. “If I was not able to show all these great directors, someone would reproach me,” he said, citing Jean Luc-Godard’s “Farewell to Language,” Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner” and Naomi Kawase’s “Still the Water” as examples of the various favorites from this year’s lineup. Fremaux, who can be seen throughout the festival bounding onto the stage like a gymnast and vanishing through mysterious exits just as quickly, repeats old party lines about the festival that haven’t changed in decades. He wants the festival to feel “like in the sixties, when people used to go to Cannes knowing that cinema is the most important thing in the world,” he explained. “I’m very confident. The cinema is still alive!”

Keeping Standards Alive

But that’s not to say that Cannes merely opens the gates to better-known filmmakers: One festival staple, Abel Ferrara, reportedly locked horns with the programming team over his Dominique Strauss-Kahn portrait “Welcome to New York,” which was denied a competition slot unless Ferrara worked on a version more to the festival’s liking. (Wild Bunch is presenting the movie on festival grounds at an unofficial event.)

Fremaux also balks at the notion that the festival prioritizes celebrity ingredients when considering films for the official selection. As an example, he cited Argentinian director Damián Szifrón’s “Wild Tales,” an ensemble drama from a director whose previous films have rarely screened outside of his home country. Fremaux admitted he was unfamiliar with Szifrón prior to the festival. “Reputation does not play a role,” he claimed, even when it comes to Ryan Gosling: The actor makes his directorial debut with “Lost River,” a dreamlike family drama that will premiere in the Un Certain Regard section. “The Ryan film is superb, very ambitious and personal,” Fremaux said. “The point is the movies.”

Timing Takes Over

Still, not even Cannes has the ability to speed up the timeline on movies far from finished. This year, that includes Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice,” which Fremaux said was unfinished. He added that, in other cases, studios decided to bypass the festival — placing the blame on Fox Searchlight for declining to submit Alejandro Gonzalez Iñaritu’s “Birdman,” the story of a struggling actor played by Edward Norton. (They might have had the right idea: Iñaritu’s “Biutiful” faced a slew of negative reactions following its Cannes premiere in 2014.) 

But Fremaux is unfazed. “I’m very happy with what we’ll show,” he said. “It’s a selection of strong movies directed by directors who have a strong faith and conviction in cinéma.” 

Showcasing the World

Such platitudes take on better definition when Fremaux discusses the international component of the selection. He cites healthy showings in the lineup from Canada (veterans David Cronenberg  and Atom Egoyan with “Maps to the Stars” and “Captive” along with “the promise” of 25-year-old Xavier Dolan’s “Mommy”) and England (Loach’s “Jimmy’s Hall” and Leigh’s “Mr. Turner” in competition, first-timer Andrew Hulme’s thriller “Snow in Paradise” in Un Certain Regard). Other cultures represented include Russia, with director Andrey Zviagintsev’s “Leviathan”; Sweden, with “Force Majeur,” and two African films, including the competition entry “Timbuktu.” 

Some film festival programmers come up with ramshackle themes to unite their choices. But Cannes strikes a markedly different tone. “Cannes is, and must be, the place for the best art in cinema,” he said, when asked about general tendencies among this year’s selection. “So the first tendency is the quality of the mise en scene.” 

Movies and Money

Of course, it’s unlikely that the scores of buyers running around the festival seeking new product will prioritize the delicate framing techniques of the movies they see. But Fremaux shrugs off complaints about the chaotic marketplace that runs parallel to the actual program. “The cinema is an industry,” he said. “It needs money to exist and the market is there for it.”

If Fremaux does hope to shake things up now that his longtime president Gilles Jacob is stepping down to make room for newcomer Pierre Lescure, the pair are keeping things mum for the moment. “We will make a great team,” Fremaux said, “but I’ll talk about the future later.”

Tough Times Ahead

That diplomacy may actually serve everyone involved. An avowed cinephile, Fremaux wanders festival grounds with a wry smirk that embodies the paradoxes of the festival: It’s at once open to fresh visions and tied to traditions. Push hard enough and Fremaux will confess that no matter how high the standards that Cannes brings to the table, nothing about this job has gotten easier. “Today, everything is more difficult, less relaxed, with more limited financial and economic issues,” he said, expressing further disdain for the clamor over famous faces that dominates the streets of Cannes. “Gone is the time when Fellini and Mastroianni were walking freely on the Croisette,” he said. “But I hope that time will come again. Cannes is also a place where people enjoy being and the world of cinema is found.”

And in the next 10 days — if Cannes does its job — we’ll have a better idea of what that world looks like. “The world changes,” Fremaux said, “the world of film changes, the world changes Cannes.”

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