Lumiere luminary

The Institute is Fremaux's secret garden

LYONS — Far from Cannes, Thierry Fremaux holds court before the cream of Gallic film folk, gathered here for the 20th anniversary of the Lumiere Institute.

A photo of Agnes Varda appears on the big screen overhead. “That’s a lovely one of you, Agnes,” he says to the director with the familiarity of friends who go way back.

A month earlier, Fremaux was in the eye of the storm as artistic director of what some were calling the worst Cannes Film Festival in history.

But on this day he is surrounded by loyal friends — industry chiefs, producers, distributors and helmers, as well as Cannes managing director Veronique Cayla — as he dons his other hat as director of the Lumiere Institute.

Fremaux refused to give up his job at the institute dedicated to the memory of cinema’s pioneering brothers when he was catapulted into the Cannes spotlight three years ago. And he is careful to avoid unfavorable comparisons between Cannes and his other, stress-free life here in Lyons.

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“Let’s not talk about Cannes,” he tells Variety, determinedly steering the conversation away from any controversy.

“The Lumiere Institute is my secret garden, as we French say. When I accepted Cannes, Gilles Jacob understood that I needed to keep my link with this place. I started out here and it is a part of my life. I’m faithful to it.”

Others aren’t as reticent.

“If there are problems at Cannes, they are not due to Thierry,” Bertrand Tavernier, president of the Lumiere Institute, says categorically, contrasting the ambiance at Cannes with Fremaux’s other fiefdom a few hundred kilometers north of the Riviera resort.

“Here in Lyons there are no power struggles,” says Tavernier. “No one’s passing judgement. We have fun, we take pleasure in sharing our love of films and receiving the public.”

Varda, a regular visitor, also speaks fondly about the Institute. “I slept in Auguste Lumiere’s bed,” she says playfully. “He was of course dead at the time.”

While they didn’t invent the first camera, Auguste and Louis Lumiere are remembered for coming up with the idea of projecting films onto a screen and charging the public to watch in the late 19th century.

They made scores of shorts, including the famous “first film,” “Workers Leaving the factory,” which was shot outside the Lumieres’ own factory gate, and “Train Coming Into a Station,” before abandoning cinema for other photographic pursuits.

A handful of dedicated cinephiles including Fremaux and Tavernier, saved the Lumieres’ home and the remains of one of their factories from the bulldozers two decades ago. Since then, everyone from Hilary Clinton and Michael Jackson to a roll-call of French cinema giants has visited .

The museum, whose opening coincided with the 20th anniversary bash on June 19, is its newest addition.

Fremaux’s involvement, first as a volunteer, dates back to the day that, as an aspiring radio reporter, he interviewed Tavernier about the need to save the Lumieres’ heritage.

“I opened the door and never went away,” Fremaux recalls.

When a series of short films by the Lumiere brothers are screened during the gala, there are further opportunities to see Fremaux in a more carefree mode than at Cannes.

Away from the formality of Cannes, he doesn’t hesitate to wave his arms like a choirmaster when the rather stuffy Parisian audience won’t sing along to old film tunes played by an accordionist.

During the gala’s informal open-air buffet dinner talk inevitably turns to the annual Cannes Fest post-mortem board meeting taking place on the Fourth of July.

“After all the criticism this year the board will be looking to ensure the same thing doesn’t happen again,” says one industry insider.

But if the fur is expected to fly in Paris this week, Fremaux makes it clear he is not about to ankle his high-profile job at Cannes for the quiet life at the Lumiere Institute any time soon.

“I’m more and more involved in Cannes,” he says.

(Lisa Nesselson contributed to this report.)