Film: Cannes Director Makes Daring Choices

For the past 60 years, the Cannes Film Festival has been a veritable cirque du cinéma: topless starlets line the beach, crowds fill the streets and protests, parades, and all-night parties make headlines. For decades, Cannes was the place to premiere big Hollywood studio pictures: Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.” were among the classics to have their debut there. But throughout the ’90s, Hollywood avoided Cannes, in part, because of France’s merciless critics, but also in large part because Cannes didn’t schmooze with the studios. That all changed when Thierry Frémaux, a young, suave English-speaking French cinephile, was named artistic director in 2004. Each year, Frémaux has made increasingly daring—and commercial—choices for Cannes. This year is no different. Among Frémaux’s 50-plus official selections are renegade filmmaker Harmony Korine’s “Mister Lonely” (the story of a Michael Jackson lookalike who falls for a Marilyn Monroe lookalike), “Sicko,” Michael Moore’s highly anticipated documentary about the health industry, and Steven Soderbergh’s star-studded extravaganza, “Ocean’s 13.” NEWSWEEK’s Dana Thomas spoke with Frémaux about the festival and his thoughts on the ever-changing world of cinema. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What do you hope to accomplish with this year’s festival?
Thierry Frémaux:
It’s difficult to become the most important festival in the world, but it’s even harder to remain so. My first challenge was to find and keep the pulse of cinema: to include the new wave of animation and documentary filmmaking, to welcome movies from countries with an emerging film culture and to bring Hollywood back to Cannes. For a while, Hollywood was coming less and less. But now we’ve returned the tradition of splashy world premieres of big Hollywood movies at Cannes. This year it’s “Ocean’s 13.”

What was your second challenge?
Once we got the machine running well, we had to think of the future. This year is a year of celebration, but we don’t want to celebrate the past. Cinema is alive, vibrant. We have to think about how cinema is today: how it addresses both art and commerce, how it meshes with the Internet and new technology. The idea of 45,000 people coming from around the world for 10 days to do cinema helps cinema. That is all part of the future.

New technology—downloading movies to your cell phone, for instance—is changing cinema rapidly. How is the festival addressing this?
Five years ago, we started doing screenings in high-definition digital. This year we are doing 3D—the U2 concert film and “Hondo,” the old John Wayne Western—with glasses, like in the old days, but in digital. The effect is amazing, it’s like you are in the film.

How do you foresee technology affecting the way Cannes is set up in the future?
For Cannes, it won’t change anything. Cinema is basically putting a bunch of people in the same room to watch the same movie together. Whether that’s in digital or on celluloid, it’s the same thing. However, someday we may have a section where movies are on cell phones. Maybe we’ll have short films on the Internet.

Is technological change good for cinema?
It depends. I think the movies on cell phones are very impressive. That will be an addition to filmmaking, not a replacement. But we are currently facing a struggle between classicism and modernity in filmmaking, and technological modernity isn’t always aesthetically pleasing. What is certain is that new technology has created a boom in filmmaking. We receive an enormous amount of entries for Cannes—1,500 this year—and that’s because new technology makes it much easier and cheaper to make a movie. It’s nourishing a new generation of filmmakers.

How does Cannes help young filmmakers?
There is the short-film competition. There’s the Cinéfondation, which is a film school where students come to Paris for six months to make a movie. And most recently, there is the Atelier, to help young directors with movie projects find producers, hopefully while at Cannes.

How would you describe contemporary cinema today?
It’s films that explain heritage, that reflect on the past, like “Zodiac,” by David Fincher, and “Death Proof,” by Quentin Tarantino, both of which are at Cannes this year. They are films that say, “We don’t appear and exist from nowhere, we come from the past,” and they say it in an extremely modern way. What interests me is not fashionable filmmaking—fashionable becomes unfashionable—but a permanent movement, like what’s happening today in Asia, Central Europe and Mexico. I’m also intrigued by stars who are involved in the making of films—particularly controversial or political films. For example, Leonardo DiCaprio is coming to Cannes with “11th Hour,” a documentary about the environment that he produced. That’s very important. It shows that he has conviction.

When you are screening movies for selection, do you see right away when you have a masterpiece on your hands?
No. In fact, I often am afraid for the movies. We judge the world’s cinema, and then we are judged for our selection. Will it go well? Sometimes a movie gets a critical bashing, and sometimes it rises to the greatest heights. We never know in advance, and it’s always a surprise.

So … how is “Ocean’s 13”?
I never talk about movies.

You can’t even tell us if it’s thumbs up or thumbs down?
Never! OK, OK. I will say this: it’s a fun film, lots of stars, lots of action, a big movie.

So you like it?
Of course I like it. Otherwise it wouldn’t be at Cannes.