While it celebrated its 70th anniversary last year, the Cannes Film Festival kicks off this year under the specter of 50 years since 1968’s event, which was derailed amid social unrest in France. There’s plenty of unrest going on today too, but along with the social protests comes disruption in the film industry in general, and also specifically in Cannes. Non-conformist Thierry Fremaux, who is the final word on what gets in, has been making headlines since he took over in 2001. As the 71st Cannes Film Festival gets underway, he reflects on the past and looks to the future.
It’s been 50 years since 1968, and things are changing in the industry; what parallels do you see with 2018?
1968 was the culmination point of a joyful and creative decade; that’s not really the sentiment today. However, the Official Selection 2018, with numerous new countries and many young female and male directors, is reminiscent of the planetary creativity of the ’60s which uncovered many ‘new waves’—Czech, American, Swiss, Japanese, Italian, Canadian, etc. Today, the world of the moving image is in permanent revolution, to use a term from ’68. Cannes is the witness, it has always been the witness, and it will continue to be.
It’s also almost 20 years since your first selection when you put Shrek into competition—something that shocked the establishment at the time. For you, what are the biggest changes at the festival since, in terms of genres which are more or less ‘acceptable’?
When I was simply an audience member, it seemed evident to me that the big festivals needed to open up to genre movies, to documentaries and to animation. For a lot of people—some of the old world—it was a shock to see Cannes open to new things and to transform in such a way. But for animation, I found in Jeffrey Katzenberg a wonderful big brother, a lover of an audacious and ambitious Cannes. I also greatly admired John Woo, who had renewed the Hong Kong crime thriller genre and who is a great director. So why wasn’t this sort of cinema invited to Cannes?
Same for documentaries. Agnès Varda, Fred Wiseman, Chris Marker, Claude Lanzmann, Marcel Ophüls and so many others had made great films. Then came Michael Moore, a gift for a festival. With genre films: Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Yes, our audaciousness paid off and was well-accepted because all festivals [ultimately] have done the same thing. Same for Cannes Classics, which has been followed everywhere. It all seems normal today.
It’s a good thing that everyone is interested in cinema: Netflix, Amazon, China, Saudi Arabia, Africa. Now more than ever, cinema is at the heart of the world.
With so much disruption, how can Cannes adapt with the times? Must it be a pioneer?
A festival must always adapt. It’s what we do. I think a festival has to go towards the impure, towards the new, towards the never-before-seen, towards the bizarre. A festival has to make attempts and experiments; it has to affirm; it has to question and it has to make mistakes.
To welcome Amazon and Netflix in 2017/2018 is to take into account an artistic, cultural and economic reality. America gave birth to two giants who have come to trouble the game and change models. Each has their convictions and no one gives up. I think that’s good; America is definitely a great country of cinema.
When the lineup was initially unveiled, there were a number of names expected that didn’t figure. You mentioned a “generational renewal” among the selection. What are you looking for in that?
The names that were predicted were often in lists that were perfectly fantastical. With social networks, the entire world has become a journalist but no one is a specialist anymore. You have to know that a selection doesn’t show its definitive face until the last minute. When we start, we have no specific project in mind. In a way, it’s the films that make the selection and not us. Some films that were presented to us naturally had their place. They showed something new or young, or they expressed a certain change. Maybe after the 70th anniversary, this change was natural; it had to exist. In any case, we welcomed it with enthusiasm. I hope that will always be the case in Cannes.
Venice has renewed its position on the festival circuit, particularly as concerns the Oscars. Is it important for you that Cannes also has a strong position with regards to awards like the Oscars—and not just for foreign language films?
By foreign language films, do you mean not in English? Cannes is an international festival and speaks all languages. On the Oscars, it’s clear that Venice, Toronto and Telluride are ideally placed on the campaign trail; everyone knows that. As regards Cannes, when films are ready, they show them to us, even if the Oscar obsession of American professionals seems more and more important. But as you know, we saw 1,910 films. That’s proof that Cannes’ attractiveness is intact.
We see studios participating less and less with world premieres. What do you think about that?
It’s not entirely true. When the studios have films, they come—that’s the case with Disney and Universal this year. And recently with Pixar and Inside Out, with Sony and Money Monster and with Warner Bros., which is a studio that’s very faithful to Cannes and brings us Clint Eastwood and Mad Max: Fury Road.
What for you are the biggest challenges and the greatest pleasures surrounding the festival?
The challenge remains the same: to put cinema at the heart of the world, in people’s hearts. Cinema, as with art in general, says things that only it can show and suggest. It’s a strong poetic act. And festivals, which also have media and economic responsibilities, are there to hold the fort. For example, to welcome Terry Gilliam is a great satisfaction. This man, at 80 years old, battled against a terrible curse and he finally made his Don Quixote. He will be in Cannes. He is filled with joy and it’s wonderful.
With everything that’s happened since last year and all the discussions surrounding the festival, has the cinema been lost in all of this? How can the festival turn attention back to its raison d’être?
Its raison d’être is even more fundamental today than yesterday. Personally, I have never spoken so much about cinema, which is the thing I love to do more than anything in the world. But the press talks about it less. The media is interested in the side issues, the scandals. It heats up assumptions about this or that strategy. I would like to have more questions about the selection. For example, on the fact of having selected a female Lebanese director in competition for the first time, or a first Egyptian film, or a Kenyan female director. Or that Jafar Panahi is in competition for the first time.
But no, people prefer to talk to me about selfies. It’s all so futile. Let’s talk about film. Let’s celebrate the films and the auteurs. Let’s also celebrate the critics, those who nurture reflection on the art form.
A film festival is firstly a cultural event and something that we never forget. Cannes 2018 is Martin Scorsese, who is coming to present a restored copy of Emilio Fernández’s Enamorada. It is Christopher Nolan, who wants us to relive the experience of the first screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s the beach screenings. It’s meetings with artists.