Filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius knows about extreme reactions. His film “The Artist” was a sensation at the Cannes Film Festival, and with the support of The Weinstein Company, swept the 2012 Academy Awards. Two years later, his remake of the Fred Zinneman’s classic 1948 film “The Search” was trashed by the press at Cannes and barely received a theatrical release. With “Godard Mon Amour,” his playful look at a young Jean-Luc Godard (Louis Garrel), he landed somewhere in the middle of the spectrum: It divided critics at Cannes and will receive a limited theatrical release in the U.S. almost a year later.
You can’t please everyone all the time and neither has Jean-Luc Godard, as Hazanavicius’ film explains with scenes involving the political radicalization of the character that led some to charge him with anti-Semitism. Sitting down in a New York hotel with IndieWire, Hazanavicius mused on Godard’s modern legacy just a few weeks before Godard premiered his latest movie, “The Image Book,” at Cannes.
Hazanavicius also had plenty of thoughts about that festival, including its ongoing dispute with Netflix and decision to program a film from Lars von Trier, for good reason: Hazanavicius serves as the president of the French Civil Society of Writers-Directors-Producers, which means he sits on the festival’s board.
Did you ever hear from Godard after the film played at Cannes?
I’m sure someone sent him the film and some journalist wanted him to say something mean about me. I’m grateful that he didn’t. But first of all, he’s 88, and he’s been unpredictable for his whole life. I don’t know him, but I’ve been told that one of the things he hates is people who worship him. So it would have been stupid to make a bad movie that’s a statue of Jean-Luc Godard. To pretend that he was a good, sympathetic guy would have been stupid. He’s the opposite and he knows it. It’s not his problem. He doesn’t care if people love him or if they don’t. Now, the question is, who or what will he hate more — the movie or the critics?
Agnes Varda and JR’s “Faces Places” includes that major scene where she attempts to visit him at home and he doesn’t show up. It was serendipitous to see that the same year that your film was at Cannes. It was almost like a scene from the sequel.
Exactly. I love that film, I love her and JR. That movie is great, but I have to say, Godard co-wrote one of the best sequences of the movie. By not opening the door, in a way, he created that situation. Let’s say he had opened the door and they’d had a discussion at his kitchen table. That might have been sweet, but not a great sequence. Here, it’s the end of the movie — you’re so full of empathy for her, and she’s so nice. Their relationship is so cool. Then he makes her sad. But it would be interesting to have the reverse shot, and spend one hour or 90 minutes with Jean-Luc Godard to understand why he didn’t open the door. I would love to see that.
What have you heard about Godard’s new film, “The Image Book,” screening in competition at Cannes?
I have the script, actually. I work with some people who know him. Just in terms of how he approaches his work, he can compare him to Picasso. He’s had these different periods. Now, I think he’s like a poet, doing images and sounds. If it creates something to be advancing the art, that’s cool, and maybe it won’t. It’s out of the traditional field of cinema.
What does the script look like?
It’s more like a collage. You have images and some texts from something, you don’t know exactly where. It’s not like a page-turner. You have to trust him.
Does his dog make an appearance again?
I don’t think so. I have to say that I’m not all that connected to his cinema. I’ve seen “Goodbye to Language,” where suddenly one shot will strike you — like when he disconnects two 3D images. I think it’s really funny. He had to be the first one to do that shit. Now he’s like this old, semi-god who can do whatever he wants. He’s not making traditional cinema. We should put him in the contemporary arts category. That’s where he belongs now.
What’s it like to be on the board of the Cannes Film Festival?
I go to a meeting once a year. They tell us, “OK, this is what we’ve done,” and we say, “OK, cool.” My last three movies went to Cannes. It would be weird otherwise, if I said, “I think you should take my movie. What do you guys think?” I have no power or control of anything. They just showed us the poster.
So much seems to have changed about Cannes this year, starting with the timing of press screenings, which spare filmmakers from walking the red carpet after their films have been reviewed. How do you feel about this?
You know what? Anything Cannes does will be criticized. [Artistic director] Thierry Fremaux is right to do what he wants. I like that he put the press screening at the same time as the audience one. I’ve been there with a movie that critics didn’t like, “The Search.” In fact, they hated it, they killed it in the morning. When I went to the evening screening, I felt like I’d been condemned to death. It wasn’t a red carpet; it was a death corridor. You go there and think, “There’s 2,000 people, they’re going to hate my movie, they’re going to boo me, it’s going to be the worst evening of my entire life.” So you go and it’s a nightmare.
Suddenly, after 90 minutes of the film, there was a sequence that people applauded. I turned Berenice [Bejo, Hazanvicius’ wife] and said, “I don’t get it. Do they like the movie?” It was a drama, so the audience was quiet, and we had no idea. Then we had this huge ovation after the screening, longer than we had for “The Artist.” So it was really strange. It wouldn’t have changed anything if the morning screening hadn’t happened, but I would’ve felt better, and that’s important. When you want to bring directors to your festival, you have to take care of them, so I think it’s a good move.
What do you make of Netflix pulling its films from Cannes?
Cannes is different. It’s a very special way to screen movies disconnected from the rest of the world. I try to see things from the movies’ point of view — by which I mean the producers and directors — and, from that point of view, if Netflix is the only way to finance your movie because the market otherwise can’t, I’d go to Netflix. They tried to approach me and so far I don’t have any issues financing my movie. We all agree that the best situation would be to finance your movie, and go into theaters, but that’s the ideal situation. The reality is changing. Series are so good now that it moves everything. Now that people can stream very specific, imaginative, high-quality programs, when they go to theaters they want to know what they’re going to see. If they prefer to see something where they know what it is, instead of being curious and discovering something, for that there are series.
If you had to choose between getting a project financed by Netflix or going to Cannes…
Consider last year, when Bong Joon Ho did “Okja.” He could’ve done it with Netflix or not done it. He did the right move, for sure.
It also might be one of the last movies to play in Cannes competition.
Maybe they’ll reach an agreement. I don’t know. But the way to screen movies is changing now. The technology has changed. Viewers are changing with that. When these movements will be clearer, things will adapt to them. I can’t say how things will go, but in France, we’re very attached to our theaters, and the owners are trying to make them really great — the technology, the presentation — even as the market is changing.
The other big Cannes story was whether or not Lars von Trier would be allowed back to the festival. Ultimately, the festival invited his movie, but out of competition. What do you make of the way this dilemma has played out?
I think every case is a specific case. I don’t think you can have a global attitude about it. We all have principles, but every human being is different and every case is different. In the case of Lars von Trier, he was joking. It was a bad joke, but he’s not a Nazi. It was a provocative thing. I was raised in the ’70s and ’80s. Back then, a provocation was like rock ’n’ roll, it was something cool. Now things have changed. Maybe I’m going too far here, but let’s try. So many people have untied the system that we don’t know what to do. Now, if you want to be subversive, you should support the system, to protect what we have. It’s very difficult to have one behavior for this topic. For von Trier, I think it was more of a rock-star attitude.
The thing is, Godard said some very, very bad things, so controversial, much worse than Lars von Trier on this very same topic. He’s in Cannes competition and everyone seems to think he’s untouchable. In France, we have Brigitte Bardot. Before the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Jean-Luc Godard, she was there. She was the first one to go naked, the first really free personality after the war. But she said really bad, alt-right type of things. Nobody forgave her. She was banned and never had an honorary award or anything. Nobody respects her anymore in France. At the same time, you have someone like Godard or even Gerard Depardieu — who said some very strange things about Chechnya and Russia — and everybody seems to be OK with it. So I think there’s something misogynistic about this. They banned her, but not them.
From my point of view, I’m not sure that Brigitte Bardot was worse than Godard or Depardieu. That doesn’t mean we have to condemn all of them. It’s very difficult for people to accept the idea that you can be a jerk in your personal life and a great artist.
The first reporting on Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assaults broke almost six months ago. “The Artist” was the last movie released by The Weinstein Company to win the Oscar for best picture. How have you been dealing with these developments?
In my personal life, this is so not a topic. In my family, going back to my grandparents, women have always been treated as the equals of men. I agree and support all these movements. I think they’re for the best. Concerning Harvey himself, I was absolutely not aware of anything. I know some people are saying they knew, but I didn’t. I was not his friend in any way. I knew he was a brutal, tough guy, but there’s a big gap between being rude and sexually assaulting women. I couldn’t imagine that. I was shocked.
Also, things are different in the U.S. than in France. In the U.S., you give this huge power to lawyers. That means when you have a guy like Harvey with an army of lawyers around him, when you’re a victim, you have to think a long time before attacking or accusing him because you know he will spend the next 1o or 12 years in a trial that doesn’t mean anything for him because he can pay all these lawyers. It’s different in France. So it makes these guys feel like they are untouchable because they’re highly protected by their lawyers. We don’t have that in France.
What will happen to “The Artist” now?
I don’t know. That’s a question. I don’t even know what will happen to his catalog. We have a producer of the film who is himself in bad shape. When something you’ve done is in a bad situation, you can spend a lot of energy to try to fix it, but that means you won’t do anything else. I prefer to focus on my next movie. I’ve been in court before. You spend so much energy and money focusing on stupid things instead of doing your job. My priority is my mental health and protecting my relationship with my family and friends. I just hope that the movie will be able to be screened again.