A few hours after unveiling Cannes Film Festival‘s 2022 Official Selection on the Champs Elysees, artistic director Thierry Fremaux sat down with Variety to discuss the festival’s drive to not give in to calls for a cultural boycott of Russian films and filmmakers, efforts to have more female directors in competition, discussions to bring back streamers in a near future and what those rumors about David Lynch in the lineup were about. The all-star competition lineup of this upcoming 75th edition boasts no less than four Palme d’Or winning directors, including Japanese master Kore-eda Hirokazu (Japan) and Swedish helmer Ruben Ostlund (“Triangle of Sadness”), as well new films by David Cronenberg (“Crimes of the Future”), Kelly Reichardt (“Showing Up”), James Gray (“Armageddon Time”) and dissident Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov (“Tchaïkovski’s Wife”).
Congrats on putting together this wonderful lineup. I think it’s the most exciting Cannes lineup I’ve seen on paper in a long time.
And it’s not over! There are 49 films and there are always between 55 and 60 so we could still add about 10.
What about the competition?
We have about 18 films in competition so we have room. 20 titles would be good so that means there could be two more. We’re happy to have a diverse lineup with films from Egypt, Iran, Korea and Costa Rica.
How do you feel about organizing this festival amid the current political turmoil and the war in Ukraine? Is it important for you to have a politically-engaged figure as jury president this year?
We always have to separate the artistic vocation of Cannes from the collective and political issues that are going on around the world. But obviously, political events are often reflected in films we show at Cannes because artists are making movies with social, political and environmental themes. What we strive to do at Cannes is to maintain our legitimacy. This year, we’ll present “Butterfly Vision” which is the first film of Maksim Nakonechnyi and it will play in Un Certain Regard because it’s very good film. We’re never taking a film to please anyone. That said, the Cannes Film Festival isn’t removed from the rest of the world and this war that is taking place is unfolding a three-hour flight away from Paris, so we will carry on to celebrate cinema and filmmakers at Cannes without ever stopping to think about what’s going on around us. And there will be two Ukrainian films to remind us.
Looking at the lineup, I see two movies that could be quite political, “Holy Spider” from Iran and “Boy From Heaven” from Egypt.
“Holy Spider” is not outwardly a political film, it’s a police thriller about a serial killer, but this police film genre is a vehicle to shed light on the underworld of a society, show the night, the shadows, what lies beneath the surface . And then “Boy From Heaven” is a film that will explore in a suspenseful way the issue of rivalry within a religious community. What’s interesting is that films can show all that. Jean Douchet (the revered film critic) used to say that cinema is a tool to know the world better. Well, it still is.
Speaking of a politically-engaged filmmaker, Kirill Serebrennikov should be able to attend the festival to present his film in competition now that he’s in Germany. He couldn’t attend the world premiere of his last two films (“Leto” and “Petrov’s Flu”) in competition because he was under a three-year travel ban in Russia.
Yes, I hope so, and it’s quite a sad story that the year where he was finally able to flee Russia and will be able to attend Cannes to be celebrated is the year when Russia invaded Ukraine. His film of him, “Tchaikovsky’s Wife,” is a period film which takes place in the 19th century. A great film that’s both classical and modern at the same time. So yes, we’ll be happy to welcome him.
What’s your position on a cultural boycott of Russian filmmakers and films?
We don’t never give in to anything. The strength of Cannes is to firmly respect who we are by respecting others. We don’t give in to political correctness, we don’t give in to cultural boycott. We go on a case-by-case basis.
One thing that I find surprising is that year after year there are never more than three of four films directed by women in competition. How do you explain that?
These kinds of questions can only be answered by putting them in perspective. If we compare this year and 40 years ago it’s not comparable. If cinema was the only problem, it would be fine. Last year, women won all the top prizes at Cannes, including the Competition, Un Certain Regard and Cinefondation. There are no quotas so we are selecting movies based solely on their artistic merits.
Last time I interviewed you, you said you were in favor of bringing streaming services back in competition, and that it was the exhibitors represented on the administration board of the festival that were blocking this evolution. Why is it important for you to work with Netflix, for example, now?
French exhibitors consider that streaming services represent a danger. I get it. But me, I’m paid by the Cannes Film Festival, I’m not paid by exhibitors. So my role is to think of the way in which the Cannes Film Festival must position itself. So I make proposals and the board decides. So far, I haven’t succeeded in convincing them. I hope to succeed, one day.
Because you can’t change this rule which requires each film in competition to have a theatrical release in France, you need to convince Netflix to present their films out of competition. But you haven’t succeeded in doing that either.
I haven’t and I understand Netflix’s position. And it’s normal, look at producers, when they have a beautiful film they also want to be in competition. What’s Netflix’s big movie this year? It’s “Blonde,” by Andrew Dominik. It’s a wonderful film which deserves the competition. So I do understand Netflix when they say they don’t want to come out of competition. There you are.
But do you think Netflix could agree to release their films in French theaters down the line?
I know that’s also what’s blocking things, if they could release films in theaters there wouldn’t be any issue; but this is an issue only in France, They release films in theaters everywhere else nowadays.
But while you’re looking after Cannes you’re also a big supporter of theaters — you actually lead the Lumiere Institute in Lyon and run a theater there. Theaters are going through a rough patch right now with admissions going down. Is that a conflict?
Theaters are more and more threatened and admissions have been falling since January 1; and Cannes will always strive to support cinemas, especially now that they need us. This year, with anticipated films like “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Elvis” and also with big French films like “November” and “Masquerade,” we hope Cannes will be able to contribute to bring people back in theaters starting in June.
Although theatrical admissions have been falling I’ve been stunned by how excited people have been on social media when we made our predictions. Especially with David Lynch! By the way, where is his mystery project of him?
At Cannes, we don’t talk about what we’re not showing, we talk about what we are showing.
But he has a new project, right?
(Fremaux smiles coyly.)