Revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual assault jolted the film industry around the world. Yet even as victims continue to speak out, much of the community has been stunned into another silence.
Generations of former Weinstein employees, including those who toiled on his staff during the seminal Miramax days, refuse to speak publicly for fear that the association could make them complicit. Others who collaborated with Weinstein — an expansive Venn diagram of publicists, sales agents, programmers, and their institutions — remain wary of saying anything that could somehow drag them further into his orbit.
The Cannes Film Festival, where Weinstein was the steward for Palme d’Or winners “sex, lies and videotape” and “Pulp Fiction,” is no exception. Taking precedence over any other conversation, the world’s most revered gathering of international cineastes prefer to fixate on the art form. Cannes didn’t create Weinstein, but it was the backdrop for many of his alleged assaults.
Cannes director Thierry Fremaux has been staying out of it. In the week following the initial New York Times article about Weinstein’s history with sexual assault, Cannes chiefs Fremaux and Pierre Lescure provided this statement:
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It is with consternation that we have discovered the harassment and sexual violence charges recently brought against Harvey Weinstein, a film professional whose activity and success are known to all, have earned him a place in Cannes for many years and many films selected at the Festival International du Film, of which he is a familiar figure.
These acts are part of an unpardonable behavior that can only give rise to a clear and unqualified condemnation.
Our thoughts go to the victims, to those women who have had the courage to testify and to all the others. May this case help to denounce once again serious and unacceptable practices.
Fremaux dodged emails and texts for comment from countless reporters; he had other priorities. In the fall, he runs the Lumiere Festival, a nine-year-old classic film festival based out of the Lumiere Institute in Lyon where Fremaux serves as director.
In its first decade, the fall gathering attracted the likes of Clint Eastwood, Quentin Tarantino, Catherine Deneuve, and Tilda Swinton, all of whom curated series around their favorite movies in addition to receiving retrospectives and tributes. Local audiences pour into screenings of some 400 titles, many of which take place in theaters built on the same spot where cinematograph creators Louis and Auguste Lumiere shot some of the first silent films at the end of the 19th century.
It’s here that one can immerse in a retrospective of French master of suspense Henri-Georges Clouzot or Bertrand Tavernier’s latest installments of his sprawling “My Journeys Through French Cinema” television series, then participate as an extra in a recreation of the Lumière brothers’ “Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory,” directed by the year’s filmmaker recipient of the Prix Lumière (look for me wandering through the frame of Wong Kar-wai’s new one-shot masterwork; more on that later).
A world away from Cannes’ late-night dealmaking of fast-talking producers and drunken entourages storming circuit parties, the Lumiere Festival brings a touch of Cannes glamour to a purer celebration of the movies. Belonging to a breed of repertory festivals that attract earnest creative types (Italy’s Bologna silent film festival shares some DNA), the festival comes closer to achieving the image of a cinephilic utopia that Cannes desperately tries to project.
In any case, Cannes never engages in the same debates that often unite the rest of the festival circuit. While the Sundances and Torontos of the world wrestle with questions of diversity, inclusiveness, awards-season competition, and the future of the industry, Cannes only acknowledges these issues on its own terms. Fremaux was fighting to maintain that pedigree, and the Lumiere Festival’s purist approach to the joy of the moviegoing experience did feel like an energetic bubble.
Still, even here the Weinstein saga cast an eerie shadow.
Over the course of its second weekend, French press and industry could be caught at parties muttering about ahr-vee vine-shtine, rolling their eyes and often rushing to change the subject. Here and there, people acknowledged hearing stories about a leering Harvey in his bathrobe making advances; some noted that variations of his behavior could be found at any number of entertainment gatherings where testosterone-fueled power trips run the show.
However, the Lumiere Festival press office cautioned journalists: Don’t ask attending talent about the biggest story associated with the film world. Fremaux wanted to keep the focus on his world-cinema showcase rather than ceding to the pressures of a fragile dialogue in which one wrong move could ignite instant backlash.
That edict seems like a fantasy, but it fits a festival invested in promoting cinema as the world’s preeminent art form. If the Lumiere Festival is a wondrous retreat from a market overrun with mediocrity, the Weinstein story was the ultimate spoiler. The charismatic Fremaux, who can work a crowd with the same dexterity that he brings to debating film history, was one step ahead.
The festival provided plenty of welcome distractions from the Harvey story, including a wondrous two-hour tribute ceremony to Wong Kar-wai, who released several films with Weinstein in the U.S. However, rather than being tarnished by the connection, the evening of clips and emotional tributes from Wong friends and collaborators made clear that his legacy exists on a higher plane.
To that end, the Lumiere Festival provided an ideal contrast to the shock waves reverberating elsewhere; here the emphasis was movies, the artists that make them, and the people who love them, not the corrosive forces that exploit them.
Its inclusive, affectionate vibe continued late into the penultimate night of the festival, as many guests crowded into Passage, an upscale restaurant in Lyon’s 1st District where Fremaux hosts lively dinner parties with the latest arrivals. By 1 a.m., he had finished his regular toast, sung old French pop songs, and bid adieu to several high-profile visitors, including Godard muse Anna Karina, ‘50s French jazz singer icon Charles Aznavour, and Wong Kar-wai.
We retreated to an empty table to discuss the ethos of the festival and its ramifications for the future of movies. Fremaux offered many salient points that deserve their own story, but the conversation kept expanding to wider topics. He was on a tear about the collective experience at Cannes, a festival he started attending as an ambitious cinephile decades before permeating its exclusive hierarchy and rising through the ranks. “Cannes is not my thing,” he said. “It’s your thing, too. It’s the filmmakers, the professionals, the audiences.”
Here, the elephant in the room had to come out. “But not Harvey Weinstein,” I replied.
Fremaux’s typically booming voice dropped a level. “Well, he used to be,” he said. I asked him if Weinstein was up for “persona non grata” status, the punitive title the festival last applied to Lars Von Trier after his notorious Nazi remarks at a press conference. Fremaux hung his head. “I don’t want to talk about that,” he said. “It’s not a problem for the film community. It’s a problem for the world.”
Then he started fleshing out the bigger picture. “I mean, we’ve had before and after Harvey, as in France we’ve had before and after Dominique Strauss-Kahn,” he said, referring to the disgraced banking mogul who attempted to rape a New York maid years ago. “So it’s not a problem with our community alone. These things happen everywhere. It’s easy for the rest of the world to say it’s a cinema problem. We have to go beyond this story.” (A day later, the Los Angeles Times would report on sexual assault allegations against filmmaker James Toback, who has played several movies at Cannes over the years.)
For Fremaux, the aftermath of Harveygate highlighted a need for higher behavioral standards. “We have to keep the victims close to us, and protect them, and encourage them,” he said. “But for [everyone else], we have to go beyond, to the future. We have to teach the youth.” He sneered, as if acknowledging Harvey apologists without calling them out by name. “You know, people used to say, ‘Well, it’s an old tradition,’” he said, seemingly referring to sexual harassment. “It’s not an old tradition. That’s bullshit. Old or young, for the young generation, we have responsibilities.”
No matter how much Cannes has been assailed for not programming enough women directors or otherwise allowing masculinity to dominate the scene, Fremaux’s other festival harbors notes of a progressive agenda operating in tandem with a competitive programming strategy.
“You know, we started this festival by paying tribute to women directors,” he said, citing silent film pioneer Alice Guy Blanche and Germaine Dulac as the focuses of early screening series. “Every year we do that, from Anna Karina to Jane Birkin, to a lot of women directors,” he said. On the world stage, he added, “Agnes Varda used to be the only one for many, many years. It’s not the case anymore. In Cannes, we have selected many of the best in the world.”
He brought the conversation back to his own altruistic focus, a passion to keep the theatrical moviegoing experience alive at all costs. “We need to have people in charge of theaters, exhibitors, who are much more active in teaching the young audience,” he said, noting that the Lumiere Festival includes a sidebar of movies for children. “Maybe, among these kids,” he said, “someone will replace me in 30 years.”