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Lumière’s Descendent: Thierry Frémaux

Frmaux soaks up the sun during a recent Los Angeles visit.

In the main screening theater of the Cannes Film Festival, more than 2,000 plush, high-backed seats — some in a sweeping orchestra, the rest in a vertigo-inducing balcony — offer uniformly unobstructed views of the kind of screen that is to your neighborhood multiplex what King Kong is to a chimpanzee. Christened the Grand Théâtre Lumière, it has been cited by many as one of the world’s greatest movie theaters. But it holds a special meaning for Cannes’ resident artistic director, Thierry Frémaux.

Frémaux, you see, hails from Lyon, the French city where, in 1895, the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière first pointed a contraption known as the cinématographe at the entrance to their father’s photographic factory and the art form known as cinema was born.

The Lumières weren’t the first to record and exhibit moving pictures, but they were the first to project them before a large public audience, at a moment when their transatlantic rival, Thomas Edison, kept his movies confined to coin-operated viewing boxes. More than 100 years later, the Grand Théâtre Lumière stands as a beacon to the shared viewing experience, while the many modern descendants of Edison’s kinetoscope — portable DVD players, video iPods, et al. — conspire to return movie-watching to a solitary pursuit.

“Even though we all have CD players and radios, that’s not the same as seeing a performer live onstage,” Frémaux says. “In Cannes, the Lumière Theater to me is like going to a concert. Here is the new concert of Quentin Tarantino! Of the Coen brothers! Of Gus Van Sant!”

It’s a warm evening in late April, and Frémaux and I are standing on the aptly named Rue du Premier Film, directly across the entrance to the former Lumière factory. This is a heady place — a Bethlehem for movie lovers — though by the 1970s, neglect and natural disaster had reduced much of what once stood here to ruins. Now, the property is a combined museum and cinematheque (founded by Lumière scholar and Positif magazine publisher Bernard Chardère) that attracts nearly 200,000 visitors annually and hosts in-person tributes to some of the world’s leading filmmakers.

Since the early 1980s, when he was a student at the nearby University of Lyon, Frémaux has been involved with the Lumière Institute in one capacity or another. “For me, even to bring film reels from the archive to the projection booth was a way to work in the movie business,” he recalls. “I had the feeling that I was in.”

Then, in 1990, he became the Institute’s director, a position he refused to relinquish in 2001 when Cannes came calling. So, for the last six years, he has worked both jobs, a decision that has periodically brought him into conflict with Cannes president (and former festival director) Gilles Jacob, who initially gave his blessing to the unconventional arrangement.

On this particular night, however, Frémaux is in high spirits: After being sequestered in Paris for the last several weeks during the most intensive part of the film-selection process for this year’s festival, he’s finally able to spend some quality time with his wife, Marie, and their two sons, five-year-old Victor and two-year-old Jules. What’s more, the French daily newspaper Le Monde, which has been harshly critical of Frémaux in the past, has given its grudging blessing to the 2007 Cannes lineup, and as we make our way to dinner at Frémaux’s favorite neighborhood bistro, Le Passage, he keeps a copy of the article tucked under his arm, like a schoolboy brandishing a gold-starred report.

Frémaux’s resolve to keep “one foot in Lyon” is but one of his unorthodoxies. Since arriving in Cannes, he has made a point of infusing the festival with animated features, documentaries, comic-book adaptations and other forms of cinema considered anathema by previous Cannes regimes. It was Frémaux who put Sin City, the first two Shrek movies and Michael Moore’s Palme d’Or-winning Fahrenheit 9/11 in the main competition, and who staged a tribute to horror auteur George A. Romero at the festival in 2005.

As the curtain rises on Cannes’ 60th edition, attendees can expect more of the same, with Tarantino’s Death Proof and David Fincher’s Zodiac jockeying for attention alongside new films by Mexican cinematic provocateur Carlos Reygadas, Cannes regulars Emir Kurturica and Wong Kar-Wai, and a special out-of-competition screening of The War, a 14-hour contemplation of the Second World War made by American documentarian Ken Burns.

That diversity has lead some observers to deem Frémaux’s taste as “eclectic” — a designation he personally despises. He prefers the term “hypothesis — the idea that it’s better to ask questions than to give answers.”

“The point of this job,” he explains, “is not to say ‘I like’ or ‘I don’t like.’ That’s your job — the job of the critics. My job is to say, ‘Do we have to screen this film or not?’ Maybe I don’t like a film, but I think I have to show it. Maybe I like a film, but I’m not sure that we have to show it.”

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 Frémaux 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 Rhône 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 Frémaux 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 Frémaux 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, Frémaux 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 à 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, Frémaux 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, Frémaux 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,” Frémaux 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 Frémaux’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 Frémaux, 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 Frémaux 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 Frémaux 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.

“The fight today is different from the fight five or 10 years ago, because now it’s impossible to miss a director,” he says. “Today, if you’re a young filmmaker with a good short film, there are already three satellites focused on you. If there is an interesting, first-time Korean filmmaker, everybody knows who he is. There are many more filmmakers, more films to see and more pressure. Cannes is something like the Nobel Prize for cinema. But the Nobel Prize is sometimes given to an unknown Irish poet, or an unknown Turkish novelist.”

The trick, according to Frémaux, is staying grounded. “That’s why going back to Lyon, having a normal life, talking with friends about cinema — it’s very good.”

Once he is rid of me, he will spend the rest of the weekend with his family at their country house on the outskirts of the city, before returning to Paris (and festival-preparation mode) on Monday morning. Yet, as the final countdown to Cannes — and its inevitable torrent of good, bad and ugly publicity — begins, Frémaux seems calm and unruffled, like the confident judoka awaiting his next opponent.

“This job is a collision of the best and the worst,” he says as he downs his last gulp. “You have to do this job sincerely, but without forgetting that you can make mistakes. Then I feel comfortable. I will make a lot of mistakes this year.”For more on Cannes, read Scott Foundas' "Eye of the Storm: Gilles Jacob"

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