At a press conference the day before the 2023 Cannes Film Festival kicked off, artistic director Thierry Fremaux defended Johnny Depp, dismissed complaints about the digital ticketing system and declined to comment on Woody Allen. Again and again, he redirected the conversation to movies.
“So you’re not really asking about cinema?” she replied to a reporter. “I’m not going to talk about movies that aren’t here,” she said later.
Fremaux has a history of detour when it comes to the delicate navigation of cultural and political topics at the heart of the world’s premier film festival; one wrong word can unleash a media storm, and many distractions are looming this year.
There’s Depp, who appears for a few minutes in the opening selection of “Jeanne du Barry” (“I’m interested in Johnny Depp as an actor,” Fremaux said) and has a directing vehicle on the market; the impending strike by the WGA, which prohibits American writers attending the festival from promoting their work (“We don’t know much about what is happening”), and another possible strike by the French electricians’ union which could literally threaten the capacity of the festival to keep the lights on (Fremaux stressed that Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne will meet the unions this week, and “we have nothing but a positive dialogue” with them).
He also addressed a recent open letter from “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” star Adele Haenel, criticizing the festival for championing the work of Gerard Depardieu, Roman Polanski and others. “They are ready to do anything to defend their raping bosses,” she wrote.
“It’s very radical, but it’s an incorrect comment,” Fremaux said. “It’s out of place. She didn’t think so when she came to Cannes, unless she was suffering from a crazy dissonance. Now she’s talking like this. People use the Cannes Film Festival to talk about the world’s problems. I think that’s fine… but you wouldn’t be here complaining about not being able to get tickets if you thought we were all rapists.”
Fremaux acknowledged that the Cannes spotlight leads to broader discussions, but he resisted giving them equal weight. “It’s a big event that has to express some issues,” she said. “Above all, we are here to express the state of cinema today.”
Another type of drama stands out on this subject. Three years after the pandemic that canceled the 2020 edition, the box offices of arthouse films around the world continue to struggle and skepticism about future prospects is growing. While Cannes emphasizes the power of the big-screen experience, it’s a difficult business model for all but a handful of famous directors and the biggest commercial releases. Cannes has a few of these premieres (“Indiana Jones and the Dial of Fate” this year, a year after “Top Gun: Maverick” took off; same goes for Wes Anderson’s “Asteroid City”), but its selection journal is dominated by work that may not find an easy path after the festival.
“I have no doubts about that,” Fremaux told IndieWire in a separate interview ahead of the press conference. “The big screen has retained all its magic. It’s even more important than before.”
Fremaux noted that the festival has rejected 10,000 applications for industry accreditation this year (but it hasn’t reduced the number of journalists). The programming team watched 2,000 films for its lineup of approximately 70 features (more could be added on the fly). Many of the 21 films in competition come from filmmakers who have been acclaimed for decades, raising questions as to whether the younger generation is offering enough work that could break the race for the Palme d’Or.
This year’s competition features previous winners like Ken Loach (“The Old Oak”) and Nuri Bilge Ceylan (“About Dry Gasses”), but only one directorial debut (Ramata Toulaye-Sy’s Banel and Adama). Fremaux insisted that Cannes needed to strike a balance between acknowledging newcomers and supporting the old guard. “This is all the more important as cinema faces a future whose contours are unknown,” he said. “Later we will remember the young filmmakers discovered in 2023, but also that this year there was Martin Scorsese”.
Fremaux programmed Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” out of competition at the behest of Apple, which reportedly wanted to avoid the pressure of an awards race so early in its lifecycle (it opens in theaters this fall). The Cannes programmer praised Apple for working with Paramount to give the film wide distribution, both in the United States and France. “Apple is going to be a big voice in cinema,” he said. “It basically already is.”
This statement contrasts with the festival’s relationship with Netflix, which remains banned from the competition unless it agrees to join France’s 15-month theatrical window. Even there, Cannes exerted some influence; conversations about the streamer at the festival impacted a wider discussion about the streamer’s presence in France. Last year, Netflix struck a deal with French film corporations to invest at least $45 million in at least 10 French or European films over the next three years. Among the former is “Jeanne du Barry,” and while Netflix doesn’t have the distribution rights, it is in fact featured on opening night. “This is a good rule of thumb,” Fremaux told IndieWire. “Netflix is welcome in French cinema.”
As with other American studios, Fremaux managed to attract Disney not only with “Indiana Jones”, but also with the closing night produced by Pixar “Elemental”.
“I would have dreamed of being able to present ‘Oppenheimer’, ‘Poor Things’ or ‘Barbie’,” he said, citing the latest expected works by Christopher Nolan, Yorgos Lanthimos and Greta Gerwig. “It was not possible due to timing issues. They are three immense filmmakers. American cinema is so rich that suitors are numerous”.
At the other end of the spectrum, Cannes seems more committed to trying to address distribution issues across the festival. The separate section Fortnight (aka Fortnight), which artistic director Julien Rejl takes over this year, previously allowed Netflix films to be screened at the festival under Rejl’s predecessor, Paolo Moretti. Now, the policy is identical to that for the official selection which requires a French release.
“These filmmakers think movies should be seen on the big screen in the beginning,” Rejl said in an interview with IndieWire. “The question might be, ‘Why does a streaming service need a big screen in Cannes, if the film will then be shown on a small screen?’ It does not make sense.”
Rejl enters the revolving door of Fortnight leadership (he is the fifth person to hold the perch in 15 years) with a background in sales and distribution at French film company Capricci. This gives him additional perspective on the challenges facing the riskiest – and mostly low-profile – picks at Fortnight this year. For the first time, the entire program of 19 films chosen from 4,000 nominations will be screened in 30 cities in France for one week after the festival. The festival has also offered to provide an advertising campaign, trailer and poster for each film to help introduce them to potential buyers.
“I thought if I didn’t coordinate and organize the promotion of those films, maybe it would be difficult to find an audience for them,” he said. “That’s why we launched this June event.”
The highest-profile selection in Rejl’s program is Michel Gondry’s “The Book of Solutions,” but much of the lineup is edgier with less obvious strengths, from Sean Price Williams’ anarchic American travel saga “The Sweet East.” to “The Feeling That the Time For Doing Something Has Passed,” a deadpan BDSM comedy from New York-based director Joanna Arnow.
Rejl said he avoided films that appeared to accept Fortnight as a consolation prize if the Official Selection turned them down. “I don’t want the Fortnight to be seen as second best,” he said. “Perhaps if a film aims for the official selection and doesn’t enter, then it should go to Venice.” While every film competing at Cannes faces exaggerated expectations, Rejl tempered those for his selection. “I’m not looking for perfection,” he said. “I want to see people showing things that have never been seen.”
En route at Critics Week, Cannes’ other self-contained section focused on debutantes, artistic director Ava Cahen struck a similar note. “Discovering new auteurs is a rare opportunity to enrich this cinematic history with new voices, new names, new perspectives,” he said, recalling last year’s success of Charlotte Wells’ debut “Aftersun” in the section, where it was acquired by A24 and earned Paul Mescal an Oscar nomination. “It is more important than ever to encourage auteur cinema and emerging filmmakers,” she said, “but also daring producers and distributors, as well as courageous sales agents and film programmers, and to stimulate audience curiosity.”
In line with the rest of the festival, the seven-film Critics’ Week competition is also requesting a theatrical release in France. “I will always stand by movie theaters, because it was in theaters that I learned to love cinema,” Cahen said. “It is in cinema that we cultivate our curiosity, it is in cinema that we dream big. But we also know that the platforms are very good at nurturing new talent and have always been very interested in our exploratory work.”
Critics’ Week selections will also go beyond the festival to play at film events in Marseille, Corsica, Morelia, Martinique and, of course, Paris. The lineup ranges from satirical sci-fi (“Tiger Stripes”) to Korean horror comedy (“Sleep”), and collectively they make a significant contrast to the veterans who dominate the competition this year. “I think the younger generation has a lot to teach us,” said Cahen, who is 37. “They show that cinema is not dead at all. The whole history of cinema is made up of this balance between established and emerging directors”.
echoed Fremaux. “It’s a beautiful coincidence to see this mix of generations, between the masters and authors of tomorrow,” he told IndieWire. In the press conference he returned to that point. “People might say that in 2023 you had this dialogue between the generations,” he said. “Cinema has its future in its hands.”