Cannes topper delivers talk on French film pioneers

Just as Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” is popularizing George Melies, Cannes topper Thierry Fremaux was in Madrid recently at the Filmoteca Espanola’s Cine Dore to underscore the efforts of two other French founding fathers of film, Louis and Auguste Lumiere.

The presentation said a lot about the Lumieres, and about Fremaux, as he advances on the lineup for Cannes in May. Via an improvised Spanish-language audio commentary over a 69-minute anthology of the Lumieres’ 50-second movies, Fremaux sought to enthuse a largely young crowd with cinema’s origins.

“Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory” — whose exhibition at Paris’ Grand Cafe on Dec. 28, 1895, marks cinema’s birth, by the reckoning of some — screened in three versions: two with workers and a horse; yet another sans horse. That means, Fremaux quipped, that the Lumieres made not only the first film but also the first remake.

There was a serious purpose to the presentation. As director of Institut Lumiere in his home city of Lyon, Fremaux dispelled century-old notions, such as — quoting Wikipedia — that the brothers called cinema “an invention without any future.” That, Fremaux argued, was a ruse to discourage competition, including from Melies himself who, attending the Grand Cafe screening, sought to buy the Lumieres’ Cinematographe camera-projector patent.

Commenting on many of history’s oldest films, then leading a Q&A, Fremaux spotlighted his faith in the future for film thanks to the collective experience of cinemagoing, the nearest movies come to a live event.

Cannes’ red-carpet glam, world preems and auteur attendance gives its movies natural event status. But Fremaux has begun to take this sense of moviegoing as live communal entertainment further afield.

Prix Lumiere ceremonies for Clint Eastwood, Milos Forman and Gerard Depardieu at the Lumiere-Grand Lyon Festival, launched in 2009, pack a 4,000-seat auditorium at a festival dedicated to retros, revivals and restorations.

With plans to expand the European Film Week and the Institut Lumiere celebrating its 30th anniversary next year, Fremaux’s enthusiasm for cinema as an event both historic and contemporary will manifest in even wider spheres.

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