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When the director of the world’s most prestigious film festival came to Cannes for the first time, he lived out of his truck and spent his nights sleeping in a highway rest stop. The year was 1979, and FrÃ©maux had taken an extended sabbatical from the University of Lyon after deciding that the study of science was less appealing than the pursuit of cinema.
“I never got to see a movie that year — I just didn’t know how to do that,” he recalls. “But I was there, and I was in love with Cannes from the beginning.”
We are now walking along the banks of the RhÃ´ne River, as the late-evening light fades and amorous Lyon teenagers huddle on blankets in the deepening shadows. In the distance, one can make out the illuminated smokestacks of Venissieux, the working-class suburb where the Grenoble-born FrÃ©maux arrived with his parents as a young boy and spent his formative years. The neighborhood was (and still is) a rough one, but the adolescent FrÃ©maux escaped whenever he could, disappearing into Lyon’s dozens of local movie houses. It was, he says, a way of discovering both cinema and the city, as he would later do in Paris and the rest of the world.
“In my 20s, I was a big traveler, and everywhere I went I would go to the movies. I saw films in Australia, in Tierra del Fuego. I saw films in Africa. I saw films everywhere, because to me, being in a movie theater... it’s one of the great experiences.”
Today, FrÃ©maux retains much of that youthful enthusiasm — you can see it in the way his eyes light up when he tells you about a great new film he’s just seen, or a forgotten classic he’s rediscovered, and it’s there in the way he bounds onto the Cannes stage before a screening, greeting the audience with a boisterous “Bonjour Ã tous!” At 46, he has the jocular demeanor and lithe physicality of an ex-athlete (he put himself through college and supported himself for years by running a pair of judo dojos, which he describes as his life’s great passion after cinema).
He is also, in nearly every respect, the opposite of his predecessor, the stately and reserved Jacob, who oversaw the Cannes selection during 25 of its most celebrated years and has largely remained the public face of the festival even since transitioning into his more administrative role. While Jacob hosts a nightly festival dinner at Cannes’ Carlton Hotel for which formal dress is required, FrÃ©maux is more likely to be found with his sleeves rolled up, singing karaoke in a cramped barroom, perhaps in the company of the other members of the Tiger Club, a loose fraternity of filmmakers and festival directors known for their late-night pub crawls in such far-flung festival locales as Rotterdam, Pusan and, of course, Cannes.
For his part, FrÃ©maux says that the media has made too much of the supposed clash between himself and Jacob, who he describes as “a wonderful teacher” and a continuing influence. “It’s not fair and not honest to say that we have a relationship problem, because we don’t.”
And like Jacob, he’s dedicated to keeping Cannes focused on films and filmmakers, even in this age of record media attendance and corporate sponsorship.
“What Gilles has done, and what I hope I am doing, is to show that inside this big machine, if you clear away all the dust, there is still this diamond, which is cinema.
“To me,” FrÃ©maux adds, “Cannes is not a city in the south of France. It’s a city of the world, a town of 30,000 people who, for 10 days, form this small community, where everybody forgets who he is and where he comes from — and where, from breakfast until the last glass of whisky at night, all of the conversations are focused on cinema.”
Part of that global village is the American film industry, which has long enjoyed a healthy relationship with the festival (Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend and Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious were among the films screened at the inaugural Cannes, in 1946) but has shown renewed presence on the Croisette during FrÃ©maux’s tenure, starting with the selection of Moulin Rouge! for opening night back in 2001.
“When I came to Cannes, one of the first things Gilles asked me was to go to Hollywood and to make a new connection with American cinema and especially with the studios,” says FrÃ©maux, who makes several trip to Los Angeles each year to screen films and to meet with executives. “The reception was wonderful, from the studio people to the filmmakers to the critics. I must confess that it’s always a pleasure to go there. Of course, I hope that Hollywood sometimes needs Cannes, but we also need Hollywood.”
Night has fallen by the time FrÃ©maux and I find ourselves sharing a beer at the bar next door to my hotel. The dented blue minivan in which he tears through the city streets (“Lyon is famous for its crazy drivers,” he cautions) is double-parked outside, and FrÃ©maux is telling me about the challenges of maintaining Cannes’ pre-eminence in an age when there are nearly as many film festivals in the world as there are Starbucks and when the competition — especially from Cannes’ closest rival, the Venice Film Festival — is fiercer than ever.
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