Fremaux sees value in all good movies

Thierry Fremaux isn’t going anywhere. But if the man who has steered the Cannes Film Festival for the past decade were to step down tomorrow, at least two things are certain: He’d be going out on a high note, and he’d have plenty to keep him busy.

At 51, the Lyon native continues to head his hometown’s Institut Lumiere (alongside helmer Bertrand Tavernier), a film museum located in the birthplace of the cinema. In that capacity, he just wrapped a popular second edition of his Festival Lumiere, a cinephile buffet devoted to classics and retro-spectives — as well as an implicit retort to those who questioned his decision to stay in Lyon when he took the Cannes reins in 2001.

These days, few would dispute Fremaux’s ability to multitask. (He shows up for his sit-down with Variety on his Trek bicycle, and admits he often negotiates film deals by phone while riding through the streets of Lyon and Paris.) Similarly, few would dispute his talent for making unpopular choices that pay off down the line.

Since his first day as artistic director at the grande dame of international cinema events, Fremaux has been conscious of his place as a leading force in the ongoing evolution of film festivals as a species. He’s fulfilled that role by embracing new technologies while remaining an advocate for the bigscreen experience, welcoming genre fare as well as traditional art cinema and generally refusing to settle on any simple definition of a festival film.

As he prepares to set the table for Cannes’ 65th anniversary in 2012, he’s still basking in warm notices for his most recent selection — a program that seemed emblematic of his largely acclaimed, sometimes controversial tenure, while effectively realizing almost everything he set out to accomplish 10 years ago.

“In a way, last year was my first real year,” Fremaux tells Variety. “Over the last five years I’ve had more freedom, but last year I had the most, the best freedom I could have had.”

Largely absent was the tension between old and new that has occasionally dogged his selection: Here was a festival boasting career-highlight work from heavyweight auteurs like Aki Kaurismaki and Nuri Bilge Ceylan, programmed alongside down-and-dirty genre fare like Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive.” Here, too, was a festival reasserting its ability to command media attention like no other, serving up its juiciest, ugliest scandale in years courtesy of Lars von Trier.

Most crucially, from an industry perspective, the 2011 slate offered an encouraging sign that relations between Cannes and Hollywood remain as strong as ever. Apart from obligatory big-ticket attractions like “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” the fest reasserted its importance as a Stateside-friendly arthouse platform with warmly received premieres for “Midnight in Paris,” “The Artist,” “The Tree of Life,” “Melancholia” and “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” all stirring an appreciable degree of year-end buzz alongside films from the more recent Venice and Toronto fests.

To that end, Cannes couldn’t have scripted a happier Hollywood ending than the Palme d’Or win for Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life,” itself an emblem of the contradictory forces of rarefied auteurism and red-carpet glamour that have long defined the festival.

“Cannes is a small village in the South of France that becomes a world village for two weeks. It’s the place of the auteur film and the place of the red carpet. It’s all of that,” Fremaux says. “It’s a collective property. It’s not mine, it’s yours. The filmmakers, the producers, the professionals, the press, the market — they all trust us to keep Cannes safe.”

Safeguarding Cannes’ legacy for the future, particularly with regard to Hollywood, was one of Fremaux’s unspoken mandates when he was tapped to replace Gilles Jacob as a.d. (he was upped to delegate general in 2007). He stepped in at a time when the festival and the studios didn’t always get along so swimmingly, following a few years of mutual near-neglect during which Berlin and Venice had begun to rival Cannes in terms of Stateside cachet.

Since then, Fremaux has restored the balance, making frequent trips to the U.S. and lobbying hard for studio pics; those that have made the trip to the Croisette range from classy critics’ darlings (“Mystic River,” “No Country for Old Men,” “Zodiac,” “A History of Violence”) to big-budget popcorn fare (“Troy,” two “Star Wars” prequels, “The Matrix Reloaded,” “Kung Fu Panda”).

One of his boldest early moves — virtually a statement of intent — was to invite Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge” to open the 2001 festival. Yet he maintains such decisions are always governed by more than desire for a splashy studio title.

“I don’t select studio films just to have studio films. I do it because David Fincher, for example, is one of the most interesting filmmakers working today,” Fremaux says. ” ‘Moulin Rouge’ was an auteur film, a mainstream film and a big-star film. It was exactly what we wanted. But to have DreamWorks with ‘Shrek’ or George Lucas for ‘Star Wars’ coming to Cannes also makes me proud.”

Fremaux has long sought to eliminate easy distinctions between high and low, serious and mainstream, art and commerce. He may have shocked festgoers by offering competition slots to blood-soaked entries like Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s “Sin City,” Gaspar Noe’s “Irreversible,” Johnnie Toe’s “Election” and Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy,” but he also armored the festival against charges of stodginess, snobbiness and resistance to change.

In encouraging Cannes to evolve into something vital and modern, Fremaux freely admits he even considered inviting “The Hangover Part II” this past year. Many in the festival fold are no doubt grateful he passed, but few could accuse him of not thinking out of the box.

“When people ask me, ‘What is your genre of film?’ I say the genre of good films. … I don’t want to wait 20 years to recognize that an exploitation film was made by a great director. My job is to get it now.”

At times, he may have gone too far, turning down more traditional work as part of what struck many as a misguided anti-auteurist statement. Slamming programmers for their high-profile rejections is a time-honored festival sport, and it was under Fremaux’s leadership that Cannes turned down Mike Leigh’s “Vera Drake” and Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain.” (It didn’t help that both films went on to win the Golden Lion at Venice, whose director, Marco Mueller, is arguably Fremaux’s only equal in terms of programming smarts and catholic sensibility.)

But for the most part, Cannes a la Fremaux has tended to operate in a spirit of generous inclusion. Last year, he famously went to bat for Olivier Assayas’ 5 1/2-hour epic “Carlos,” asking the festival’s board of directors to let the film compete even though it was a TV miniseries (they refused). He’s proven particularly friendly to animation, giving studio toons (“Shrek,” “Shrek 2″) and hand-drawn documentaries (“Waltz With Bashir”) pride of place in competition. He opened the 2009 festival with Disney-Pixar’s “Up,” taking the stage before its press screening to snap an impromptu photo of the assembled journos in their 3D glasses. And this year, Takashi Miike’s live-action “Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai” became the first 3D pic to screen in competition.

At a time when technology is continually reshaping modes of production and exhibition, Fremaux fondly recalls the 2002 fest, when two pics that could hardly be more different — Alexander Sokurov’s “Russian Ark” and George Lucas’ “Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones” — both seemed to herald the exciting possibilities of a digital filmmaking revolution. Since that year, Fremaux has given filmmakers the option of screening either in 35mm or in digital, and he reckons that in 2011, about 60%-70% of all Cannes films were projected in the DCP format. (Croisette perennial Quentin Tarantino remains one of the few celluloid-loving holdouts.)

Yet for all his technophilia, Fremaux remains an ardent champion of the theatrical moviegoing experience. He likens the current battle between bigscreens and iPods to the historic difference between the Lumiere brothers’ cinematograph and Thomas Edison’s pay-per-view kinetoscope.

“What the Lumieres invented in 1895 is still what we want. Of course we can watch a film on an iPad, on a train or a plane, but it’s not sharing the same emotion.” He goes on to personalize the metaphor by suggesting the experience of communal entertainment is no different from going to a concert by Bruce Springsteen (“my hero”) or attending a soccer match, to name a sport he follows with near-religious fervor.

Fremaux’s goal to democratize Cannes in terms of genre and aesthetics hasn’t gone uncriticized over the years. He’s not afraid to return the criticism, particularly when it comes to the touchy subject of the Directors’ Fortnight, which sprang up in 1969 as an independent corrective to the official selection. In Fremaux’s eyes, the sidebar has served its purpose. He notes that the official selection has long since absorbed and rendered obsolete the Fortnight’s definition of an alternate cinema, as evidenced by such Palme d’Or winners as the Dardenne brothers’ “Rosetta” (1999) and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” (2010).

Fremaux is known for seeking a level of direct engagement from his audiences, often by rolling up his own sleeves. Whether he’s at the Institut Lumiere or the Palais des Festivals, he makes a habit of taking the stage to present the films himself, projecting his voice and his boundless gusto into the audience — a skill he taught himself years ago as a professor of judo addressing his black-belt students.

“I had to put my voice out there to be respected,” he says. “To be able to do a Q&A, to deliver a good introduction that’s not too boring — it’s part of my job. I’m the director of this festival, I’m onstage, and I do it myself.”

That level of enthusiasm wasn’t always there. Back in 2001, many dissuaded Fremaux from accepting the job, noting that his predecessor, Cannes prexy and elder statesman Jacob, had left massive shoes to fill. Indeed, the press has made much of the duo’s reportedly fractious relationship over the years, and Fremaux concedes that replacing someone generally deemed irreplaceable wasn’t an easy task. “He did that job for 25 years. Gilles is eternal,” he says. “I’m very dedicated to him.”

When Fremaux did take the job, his decision to remain in Lyon rather than move to Paris (he now splits his time between both cities) was interpreted by many as a sign that he wasn’t planning to stay with Cannes in the long run. As he admits, there was some truth to that assumption. That he chose to stay on longer is a testament to the idea that failure can be the greatest motivator.

“My idea was to stay there only three years and go back to Lyon, but my third year, 2003, was very bad,” Fremaux says. “So I decided to stay, to prove myself. I didn’t want to leave with a bad feeling. And I’m still here.”

But he takes with a grain of salt the sometimes negative coverage his wide-ranging programs have received in French publications. “I know exactly what I have to do to ensure only good reviews from certain newspapers, but it won’t make a good film festival,” he says. “The journalists here criticize me by saying, ‘We don’t know his taste.’ I think it’s a good sign. I’m proud of that.”

As any fest director knows, learning to separate individual taste from programming decisions is an essential part of the job anyway. For Fremaux, the question of whether he likes what he shows is far less important than the question of whether it’s important for the festival to show it.

“I can refuse a film I love, and I can accept a film I don’t like. I don’t like to say that Cannes represents me and my taste. No, no, no. Cannes is about a world image of cinema. If you tell me you hated the film yesterday, but you could understand why I put it there, it’s a compliment.”

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