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Cannes: Thierry Fremaux on the Lineup’s Record Number of Female Directors, American Cinema and Political Films

The Cannes Film Festival has unveiled a lineup for its 72nd edition that includes some high-profile Hollywood titles, genre movies and films from 13 female directors. The official selection has been applauded by many for mixing established auteurs like Pedro Almodovar (“Pain and Glory”), Terrence Malick (“A Hidden Life”) and Xavier Dolan (“Matthias and Maxime”) with newcomers such as French-Senegalese helmer Mati Diop (“Atlantique”) and Ladj Ly (“Les Miserables”).

Cannes chief Thierry Fremaux sat with Variety to discuss the showing of political films, the presence of women filmmakers in the official selection and the festival’s relationship with American cinema.

Although this year’s competition roster is less political than last year, you have a few politically minded films, especially “Les Miserables” which is inspired by the 2005 riots in Paris. This year has been marked by widespread civic unrest in France. To what extent do you take into consideration current events during the selection process?

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We don’t take [that] into consideration in an explicit way, but you know, filmmakers are citizens, I’m a citizen, and the moviegoers are citizens, too. That said, we don’t take a film for its topic. With respect to “Les Miserables” by Ladj Ly, I would place it in the category of an audacious film which has the strength to play in competition with a very contemporary and timely subject matter.

A political film like this one represents part of what Cannes aspires to be. But we also have films like Pedro Almodovar’s “Pain and Glory,” which represents a master who comes to Cannes to unveil his film. Cannes is like a big publishing house with several collections. One is dedicated to foreign literature, another to essays, experimentation, etc. That’s what we try to do with the competition, out of competition, Un Certain Regard. And this year we have a more balanced selection between masters and emerging filmmakers than last year.

There are 13 films directed by women in the official selection. Is that a record for the Cannes Film Festival?

Yes, that’s a record at Cannes. I believe that in previous years, that number never exceeded 10. But I continue to find it difficult to consider films based on gender. There are as many different kinds of films directed by women as by men. Justine Triet’s film, “Sybil,” which tells the existential crisis of a woman, could have been made differently by a man, but I’m a supporter of having women filmmakers express a certain artistic, creative and feminine sensibility. Some things are purely feminine.

Do you think it’s realistic to expect gender parity in the competition?

It’s a question that has to be addressed to the rest of the industry. Cannes is only at the end of the cycle and reflects the fact that for a long time – and it is absurd – our society has been dominated by men. It’s also been the case in the world of painting. How many female painters within the Impressionist movement? Hardly any. How could Cannes be the miracle of a potential parity if the film world as a whole has yet to accomplish it?

Do you think parity is also difficult to accomplish because the competition is mainly dedicated to established directors who have a long career behind them, whereas many female directors are emerging or have yet to achieve that track record?

If you look at Jane Campion, all her films have played in competition. And I would love to show Kathryn Bigelow’s films in competition. If Jane and Kathryn were making films more often and in the right timing for us, we could have returning women auteurs as we do with the male “habitués.”

Have you observed any trends with regards to films directed by women?

There is an exciting new generation coming out of the African continent and women are making half of [those works], if not more. We have Mati Diop, who is French-Senegalese; Maryam Touzani from Morocco; Mounia Meddour from Algeria. We’re sensing a simmering in Africa. Women are are driving it and Cannes is its arena.

Do you think the fact that the selection committee has gender parity played a role in increasing the representation of women in the official selection?

I had already made sure in previous years to have a committee almost evenly spread between men and women, and this year we only needed one more woman to achieve gender parity, so we did it.

You mentioned during the press conference that you might add a few more films. How many additions will you make?

There is room to add two or three movies [in competition]. We can go up to 20 or 21 films.

Are you still considering changing the date of the Cannes Film Festival?

Last year I joked, “We’ll schedule Cannes in September,” because people were obsessed with the Oscars. But that was a joke, obviously. Cannes is in May, and we do show American films, and we are still paying attention to the Oscars. This year, we are going to welcome John Bailey and Dawn Hudson [from the Academy]. John Bailey is going to be honored by the culture minister during the festival. We have excellent relationships with Jim Gianopulos at Paramount, who’s bringing “Rocketman,” [and] Universal, which is bringing Jim Jarmusch’s film [“The Dead Don’t Die”]. I just got a nice text message from Robert De Niro telling me that he found it audacious and great to open the festival with Jarmusch’s movie. And I’m crossing my fingers for Sony to bring us [Quentin] Tarantino’s film. We also have Warner Bros. bringing us “The Shining” at Cannes Classics.

There are way more American films in the official selection than last year. Is it just a better year for U.S. indie movies?

I love American cinema and there is no kind of disenchantment between Cannes and American cinema. We’re happy to show three films from young women filmmakers – Danielle Lessovitz, Annie Silverstein and Pippa Bianco – as well as Michael Covino, Ira Sachs. Cannes is showcasing new faces of American cinema.

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