Cannes: Thierry Fremaux Shares Secrets Behind the 2015 Selection

With more titles still to come, Cannes' programming chief explains some of the tough choices his team has made so far.

thierry fremaux
Copyright Institut Lumière/Photo Jean Luc Mège

After announcing 43 films selected to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival earlier today, festival delegate general Thierry Fremaux sat down with Variety to parse some of the artistic and personal decisions his team faces, explaining how the committee justifies the 2015 lineup’s seemingly uneven distribution of nationalities (with France and Italy faring best) and a mostly male-dominated pool of directors: Just six of today’s new titles were directed by women, only two of them in official competition.

Praising the previously announced opening-night selection “Standing Tall” as “magnifique” in its own right, Fremaux insisted that audiences not fixate on the gender of its director, Emmanuelle Bercot, stressing how the film responds to the Charlie Hebdo tragedy and touches on issues important to this year’s program. Here, Fremaux opens up about the inclusions, omissions and other surprises still in store with Cannes’ 2015 lineup.

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The world thinks of Cannes as the Olympics of world cinema: There’s the expectation that every country will send its best film to competition. In your process, how important is trying to find a diverse international representation?

First, it’s important to understand that Cannes is the biggest festival in the world. We receive the greatest number of submissions, 1,854 films, and we accept the fewest. That means when we’re done, the official selection numbers only 50 to 60 films, no more. So we can’t represent everyone, unfortunately. But when it comes to the best and most universal achievements in global film culture, we pay attention to that. Cannes has the duty of giving the world a sense of the general spirit that reigns in global cinema. At the press conference this morning, lots of people had questions. The Italian asks about Italy (which has three films in competition); the Mexican asks about Mexico (with none). Every country wants to talk about its own films.

Although there are only two American directors in competition, many of the films were made in English with big Hollywood stars — and that seems to be true of other countries as well. The lineup seems to represent a very international mix this year.

With any Cannes lineup, I always say, we don’t select the films, the films actually manage to get themselves selected by us. The films are out there, and they announce, “I exist!” Therefore, the films themselves reveal the temperature — or perhaps the color — of the year, while Cannes reflects their echo. For sure, this is a very international year with lots of new talent, and since the opportunity was possible, we took it.

And does it work the same way when considering the balance between male and female directors? I know that was a touchy issue for Cannes a couple years ago.

It’s an important subject, the question of the presence of women in world cinema. Cannes was blasted in a way that was ultimately fair because it’s an important subject and one that I work on. But if Emmanuelle Bercot’s film was chosen to open Cannes this year, it’s not because she’s a woman, it’s because she made a beautiful movie. I feel no more proud to have Emmanuelle Bercot as the opening film than I do guilty when there are no women in competition. I don’t know whether the filmmakers are men or women, big or small, white or black or red, young or old. We select the films; we don’t choose according to the gender (of their directors). This year, there are no Spanish films in competition. That’s how it is.

In your experience, given the sheer number of films you screen for consideration, do female directors have a different way of telling stories? Should Cannes adjust its criteria to be more accommodating of such differences?

Last year, Jane Campion was the president of the jury. Did she give the prize to another woman? No, she awarded a man (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, for “Winter Sleep”), so she remains the only female Palme d’Or winner. If Cannes could solve all the problems of male domination (in world cinema), I would do it, but I don’t think that’s realistic. This year, the film by Valerie Donzelli that’s in competition features a script by Jean Gruault, which was originally written for Francois Truffaut. Would Truffaut have made a masculine film? Did Donzelli make a women’s movie? I don’t know, but it’s an interesting question. Does Maiwenn (whose romance “Mon roi” was chosen for competition) make women’s movies? Alice Winocour, who is in Un Certain Regard (with “Maryland”), her film is almost a genre movie, so there you have it.

Can you explain the thinking of how you decide whether to put a film in competition or Un Certain Regard?

To make a film worthy of competition is extremely difficult. The bar is very high. When the press see a film in competition at Cannes, they watch with a tough eye, and to find 20 films that deserve to compete is very difficult. But there is also another way of making cinema, and Un Certain Regard may be there to stress that there are films in another format from competition or for young directors who must also show their films at Cannes, after which, they can advance. There are lots of directors who come by way of Un Certain Regard and then afterward are invited into competition, and there are others who come from Critics’ Week or Directors’ Fortnight.

You said the nature of films determined the color of Cannes, and this year you mentioned the festival was more political than romantic. How so? 

We have a bit of both in the official selection. Opening the festival with “Standing Tall” is a way for us to pay homage to a contemporary and engaged cinema, and also to associate ourselves with those causes. Emmanuelle Bercot chose to make a film which is profoundly universal; it could have been an American movie. It deals with education, it makes us wonder about the transmission of culture, social security, and we’re happy to open with a film like this. France has just lived through a wave of terrorist attacks in January and the question “How do we live together?” is more crucial today than ever. The people who perpetrated these attacks were not outsiders like the ones involved in 9/11: They were people born and raised in France. So there are problems with education and social integration in this country and Bercot’s film addresses these issues. It deals with the flaws of our society as well as generosity and love, and we want to address all of these things.

In the press conference, you mentioned that the issues raised in “Standing Tall” connect with your choice of closing-night film, but you didn’t reveal its title.

The closing-night film, we haven’t announced it yet, but we have it. I didn’t want to announce it today because we had a lot of things to announce, and we’ll talk about the closing film later.

How important is it for Cannes to show politically engaged and daring films?

If we tell you, the journalists and critics, “This film is average, but the topic is strong,” you’ll just shout, “Come on, we’re in Cannes!” That said, we do show political movies as we did with “Inside Job, “An Inconvenient Truth” or “The 11th Hour.” It’s part of our job to show such films, and it’s important to me. Cannes is not an alternate world. Movies that are about love are great, but sometimes we need films that are engaged, and when they’re also beautiful movies, that’s even better.

You do show controversial movies in a way that other festivals don’t do, for instance with Gaspar Noe, Bertrand Blier, Abdellatif Kechiche.

The question of freedom of expression is very important, especially with what we’ve just gone through in January. No one, no government is putting pressure on us. It’s a lucky thing to have this freedom, and it’s essential.

After today’s press conference, why are there still so many movies left to announce?

I like leaving a few slots open. The important thing is to be ready for May 13, when the festival opens. But a month before, we’ve already announced 90% of the program. Now we have a bit of time to leisurely go back — the French are like that — and to watch some things and embellish it even more. But also, it’s partly a result of digital filmmaking. These days, it’s easy to make films in very little time, or to finish them fast, and as a result we were not able to see everything. Now, more and more films are being submitted by Internet, sometimes via Vimeo, and I must say that I hate watching a film that way. I never watch a film by computer.

But you must watch some films in truly challenging conditions.

Yes, “The Assassin” by Hou Hsiao-hsien is a movie that we saw on DVD and judged based on its potential, because it’s not done. And then Matteo Garrone’s film (“The Tale of Tales”), we saw it three months ago and we initially refused it because the movie wasn’t finished, with a lot of special effects missing, so we just said no. Then Garrone said, “Hold on,” and he reworked the film, and we ended up taking it.

What about Arnaud Desplechin’s film, “Nos arcadies”?

That’s a different story. I liked the film very much, but we have too many French films and too few slots.

And what happened to Gaspar Noe’s film, “Love”? 

I’m pushing him to show me what he’s got. We’ll see.

This year, it seems that you’ve made a particular effort to go off the beaten path and be more daring than usual. Why is that?

In general, and at Cannes in particular, you can’t have too many habits. We’re the biggest festival in the world, but we never think about it; we just do our job. I’ve received wonderful messages from Dieter Kosslick and Alberto Barbera today, and I find it great that we’re able to talk to each other even though we do the same job. Whether it’s Berlin, Venice or Cannes, we’re all serving world cinema.

Finally, how concerned are you by the issue of copyright, which is being hotly debated right now between the European Commission and film communities throughout Europe?

Instead of authors’ right we should say “artists’ rights.” Film is an industrial art which requires money, and often those who hold the purse strings are not the authors. But now the issue of copyright is a battle fought not only by the French but also by the Europeans. The protection of artists is the protection of everyone, because these days, everyone can be an auteur. On Google, if you post a video, you’re an auteur. Artists depend on their work, and if it’s not recognized as such, how will they make a living? Just imagine a life without films — impossible!