Anyone can formulate a personal version of heaven — an aerie of angels, a tropical getaway, a cloister with 72 virgins, a sports bar with unlimited beer and bigscreen, or an ethereal place where you could mingle and chat with everyone from Socrates to Groucho Marx. Last week I discovered the closest approximation of paradise I can imagine for the hardcore film buff at the Grand Lyon Film Festival in the center of France. This six-day event was defined by three elements: reliably fine films, incredible food and good, smart people to share both with. This setting afforded attendees a state not of ecstasy, perhaps, but of a consistently high mellowness.
The St. Peter of this blissful environment was Thierry Fremaux. Though Fremaux is best known to the world as major domo of the Cannes Film Festival, his professional base has long been his native Lyon. There, working with fellow Lyonnois Bertrand Tavernier, he has been director of the Institute Lumiere, a superbly administered shrine to the fathers of cinema, Auguste and Louis Lumiere. The brothers’ stately home is maintained as a beautiful museum devoted to the movies’ earliest days in the 1890s; right next to it is an intimate modern cinema where the institute runs an outstanding year-round screening schedule of classics, strongly contributing to the city’s conspicuously avid and film-literate population.
The new film festival could accurately be called “Cannes Classics X 10,” a notable magnification of the annual Cannes sidebar Fremaux initiated to spotlight the latest in global archival restorations. Part of Lyon’s charm is that it doesn’t show bad films. The reason is that it doesn’t show any new ones, except for the odd documentary about cinema subjects.
In the fest’s inaugural year, two of the major retrospectives were devoted to Sergio Leone (the complete works) and Don Siegel. The first Prix Lumiere, an award Fremaux expects to present annually and ambitiously conceives of as “the Nobel Prize of cinema,” was bestowed upon Clint Eastwood, many of whose films as a director were also shown. The 79-year-old actor-auteur was busy in Lyon for four days, during which he was feted as the special guest at several dinners; gave a press conference introducing Siegel’s 1958 pic “The Lineup”; accepted his fest award at a public ceremony before 3,000 people; kicked an opening ball at a soccer game in front of 40,000 fans; and introduced a largescreen showing of a new print of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” for 5,000 rabid cinephiles. At each event he caused a rock star-like frenzy.Fremaux was able to lure nearly 40 international directors to the fest’s opening night; within my first five minutes at a reception, I bumped into Alfonso Cuaron, Jerry Schatzberg, Emir Kusturica and Claude Lelouch. The great restaurant Le Passage functioned as the festival’s canteen, open at nearly all hours, and the central tented meeting place featured an embarrassment of enticing books and DVDs for sale.
As to films, my own priorities were clear: to see whatever I had never seen or is difficult to catch at home. After an 18-hour trip by plane and TGV, I ventured to a distant corner of Lyon to see Carl Theodor Dreyer’s superb first film, “The President,” from 1918, only to wonder what the Danish master would have made of the eccentric, overpowering electric guitar musical accompaniment.
I made a point of checking out early Don Siegel films I had only ever seen on TV or in crappy 16mm prints years ago: “Riot in Cell Block 11,” “Hell Is for Heroes” and, above all, the criminally neglected “Baby Face Nelson,” in which Mickey Rooney plays the title character like a man possessed and Leo Gordon shows what was missing from Johnny Depp’s wan recent turn as John Dillinger.
I spent most of my time, however, in the literal dark of “The Art of Noir,” presented by Film Noir Foundation topper and author Eddie Muller along with genre expert Philippe Garnier. Among the seven gems were such extreme rarities as Robert Siodmak’s first Hollywood film, “Fly-by-Night”; Michael Gordon’s “The Web,” notable for screenwriter William Bowers’ sparkling banter; Norman Foster’s “Woman on the Run,” which stars San Francisco as comprehensively as does Edward Dmytryk’s “The Sniper”; and Felix E. Feist’s “The Threat,” which persuasively argues that future character actor Charles McGraw could and should have been a star like his pal Robert Mitchum.
There was much more: a retro of the late Korean director Shin Sang-ok; orchestra-accompanied screenings of the silents “Tabu,” by F.W. Murnau with Robert Flaherty, and the 1919 Italian drama “La Contessa Sara,” directed by Roberto Roberti, whose real name was Vincenzo Leone, father of Sergio; and 11 international restorations, ranging from Julien Duvivier’s 1935 “La Bandera,” which made Jean Gabin a star, and comedian Pierre Etaix’s 1965 “Yoyo” to Vincente Minnelli’s 1954 “Brigadoon” to Jacques Bral’s 1980 “Exterieur, nuit.” So many films, so little time.
Nowhere at this extravagant and extravagantly successful event were any signs of contemporary financial constraints. Grand Lyon means Greater Lyon, which Fremaux was able to induce to support his institute’s event in a massive way. The onscreen fest logo featured no fewer than 54 governmental and corporate sponsors, a reflection of how thoroughly the entire city and region were invested in this event. All the local exhibitors got onboard, and attendance was very strong all around town.
To my knowledge, there isn’t another film festival quite like Lyon anywhere else in the world. Bologna specializes in old films and rarities but remains rarefied rather than public, Pordenone focuses on silent cinema, Telluride maintains equally high standards but concentrates on the new. Roger Ebert’s annual fest is perhaps closest in its devotion to past and neglected glories but shows far less.
In principle, the type of program put on by Fremaux in Lyon this year is one that could be successfully imitated elsewhere, including in the United States. There are institutions in major American cities — the Museum of Modern Art and Lincoln Center in New York, the American Cinematheque and UCLA in Los Angeles, the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley and others — that offer buff-oriented calendars similar to that of the Institute Lumiere. The Lyon festival’s extraordinary accomplishment was to elevate what, for 51 weeks of the year, is relatively specialized programming into an event embraced by an entire large city. That took money, extensive local support, star power and showmanship, a combination once the specialty of Hollywood but recently in conspicuously short supply.