Meanwhile in France…Cannes to Be Specific

May 14, 2024 - Movies

Back on April 11th, when Cannes Film Festival artistic director Thierry Fremaux and Festival president Iris Knobloch announced most of the films in the Official Selection of the 77th Festival, then a little over a month away (May 14 – 26), there were a number of developments ahead they could not have known about.

On April 24th, it was announced that the UGC Normandie, the beautiful cinema on the Champs-Elysees where the press conference is held annually would close forever on June 13th. I’ve sat in a great many of its 850 comfy seats over the years.

The Champs-Elysees once boasted 33 screens. Since movie-goers now frequent theaters in other parts of town, the total is down to 7. Decades ago, producers would position themselves in a cafe on the so-called Most Beautiful Avenue in the World and watch to see how long the lines were for the first show. I’m told this informal method was surprisingly accurate for judging whether they had a hit on their hands or the film was dead in the water.

For several weeks now, rumors have been swirling that respected online investigative site Mediapart was about to publish a list of 10 French film personalities—actors, directors, producers—who are allegedly guilty of sexual misconduct. Terms like “bombshell” and “explosive revelations” were bandied about. When, exactly, would this damning research be made public? Since several of the men whose names kept cropping up are connected with films that are part of the official line up for this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the conclusion was reached that surely the dread list would surface during the event.

Festival president Knobloch told a prominent magazine that should credible allegations surface, whether or not any given film would be dis-invited would be taken on a case-by-case basis.

On May 13th, after allowing the trepidation and suspense to build, Mediapart stepped in to formally declare that there was no such list although they ARE always looking to report on sexual abuse in the film industry and in other fields.  

So how did this ‘imminent bombshell’ belief take hold? (Reliable sources say that contracts were put on pause and greenlights withheld while industryites held their collective breath, guessing about who might be named, whose reputation ruined, fairly or unfairly). Apparently it all started with an errant Tweet inspired by a web site as devoted to conspiracy theories as it is to contending that this whole #MeToo business has gone entirely too far. 

Hardly a week goes by without women—and men—contending that they were victims of high-profile sexual predators with a connection to the film industry. On the morning of May 13th, a decent-sized crowd turned out in front of the CNC (France’s National Center for Cinema) to demand that its director resign. His godson has accused him of inappropriate sexual advances and the hearing is slated for June 16th. Dominique Boutonnat has the support of the past few Ministers of Culture and was instrumental in finding a way to continue shooting films throughout the nation during lockdown, which put France is an advantageous position when theaters re-opened after being shuttered for 7 months.

While sexual assault—and getting away with it with impunity in the arts—is certainly a serious matter that should not be minimized, it’s sobering to recall that on Opening Night two years ago the screen unexpectedly filled with a live feed of Volodymyr Zelensky addressing the black tie crowd (and, by extension, the folks at home) about the struggles of Ukrainians faced with Russian invaders. The strength of his oratory came shining through and it was impossible to guess that in May of 2024 Vladimir Putin would still be intent on subjugating Ukraine with no end in sight.

Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Losnitza, who has had three features chosen to compete in Cannes, has been bringing documentaries about historical injustices to the Festival for over a decade, detailing, for example the struggles in “Maidan” (2014),  take-over of the “Donbass” (2018) and related acts of agression. Excellent as those films were, they were hardly considered to be must-see titles by Cannes attendees. This year is different, with Losnitza’s “The Invasion” (filmed over the past two years) most definitely a hot ticket. 

The French are almost as skilled at airing grievances and going on strike as they are at making movies. Several categories of essential workers have filed the paperwork to strike between now and September. Hmmm. The summer Olympics start on July 26th and transit workers, street cleaners, police and other security staff will be very much in demand. They want pay increases and hardship bonuses.

Early on the morning of May 13th—the day before Cannes’ official start—a press release went out explaining that if the government did not negotiate successfully to improve the earning power of freelance entertainment support people in the first week of the event, they would be obliged to walk out during the second week, leaving the Festival in the lurch. Nationwide, about 7000 people fall into the category of skill-for-hire needed to keep the nitty gritty of a massive event running smoothly—everyone from projectionists to scheduling personnel. High-profile signatories to the petition read like a who’s who of several generations of successful actors, directors, producers, composers, cinematographers and other film professionals.

They’re not kidding. The organization whose title translates as “Behind the Screen and Dead Broke” asserts that if their wages—recently slashed—are not upped to a living wage, there will be consequences.

The Seed of the Sacred Fig

In France, people are free to protest. In Iran, protestors do so at their peril. Two days before the Festival the stunning announcement was made that top-flight Iranian director and Cannes competitor Mohammad Rasoulof had escaped from his country and gone into exile. In Iran, making a movie or submitting it to a festival without going through proper channels or—as in Rasoulof’s case, supporting the people who took to the streets to protest the collapse of a building and demand better infrastructure, can be a matter of life or death. The director was recently sentenced to 8 years in prison, the confiscation of his property, a ban on making films and an edict declaring he is to be lashed. Flogged. Whipped. For making movies.

The director managed to sneak out of Iran—the government has held his passport for several years—and is currently “somewhere in Europe.” It’s anybody’s guess whether he will make an appearance in Cannes  when his new film “The Seed of the Sacred Fig” is shown on May 24th. The security considerations are considerable and most of the people who excel at that level of protective logistics are hard at work planning the 80th anniversary of the Allied landings that turned the tide of WWII. Joe Biden will attend the ceremony in Normandy on June 6th as will several hundred other upper echelon VIPs. The organizers are also inviting some 200 surviving former soldiers, most of whom haven’t been back to France since they came ashore against the odds on that fateful day.

The Iranian authorities are known for threatening the family members of dissidents persecuted mostly for their creativity. Cannes has often put a spotlight on the work of filmmakers working under duress in their native countries. It’s fine to highlight the honorary Golden Palms awarded this year to Meryl Streep, the master animators of Japan’s Studio Ghibli or George Lucas, a man who for better or worse transformed Hollywood. But I’d argue that the most valable role a major festival can play is to boost the profile of endangered individuals by showing their work, especially if their governments don’t like it.

If you relish the ineffable power of sublime silent cinema, start hoping that the definitive 7-hour restoration of French director Abel Gance’s pioneering epic “Napoleon” will come to your town. The first half premieres in Cannes and the full picture will be shown in Paris in July with a 250-piece orchestra. In “Napoleon,” Gance pioneered the language of cinema when the form was ridiculously young. 

Last year’s festival was dedicated to the late Tom Luddy who, in a long career in the service of cinema, not only was instrumental in co-founding and running the Telluride Film Festival but worked with the then-available materials to restore Gance’s “Napoleon,” which was presented at Radio City Music Hall in 1979. Gance was too weak to travel but film professor Annette Insdorf—who had been his translator on a visit to Telluride—was able, at Luddy’s urging, to hold a telephone out to the bedazzled crowd so Gance could hear the thunderous applause.

This year’s festival is dedicated to the irreplaceable French critic Michel Ciment, who died on November 13th at age 85.

Michel, who wrote for the still-going-strong film monthly POSITIF for the better part of 6 decades, just as he attended Cannes year in and year out and held forth regularly as a panelist on “Le Masque et la Plume,” (The Mask and the Quill) the longest running radio program in France devoted to the lively arts, made film criticism seem like the most important calling on earth. Some found him pretentious; I’d argue he was simply dedicated.

Also, whether you agreed with him or not, the passing of time showed that Michel was usually right. Always on the lookout for new talent and always game for examining established filmmakers, he wrote books about Stanley Kubrick, John Boorman, Joseph Losey, Elia Kazan and Jane Campion and published anthologies of his pieces from Positif and lengthy interviews with masters of cinema. 

Last year he told me a publisher had approached him about bringing out an English-language edition of his Passport to Hollywood, a riveting volume featuring Michel’s instructive and entertaining interviews with Billy WilderJohn Huston, Joseph Mankiewicz, Roman Polanski, Milos Forman and Wim Wenders. “But they want to leave out Polanski! Can you imagine? They want to drop the greatest living French filmmaker. Naturally I turned them down.”

It is that backbone that I’ll miss, along with Michel’s curiosity and sharp, accessible writing. He put Quentin Tarantino on the cover of Positif at the time of “Reservoir Dogs.” Despite a considerable age gap the two men bonded over their fanatical love of cinema. Like I said, Michel was usually right.

I was a guest with Michel on a film program on national French radio a few times and during Cannes in 2019 he was actually physically pained that I had not yet seen Terence Malick’s “A Hidden Life.” “It’s a masterpiece—a masterpiece I tell you.” If a masterpiece graces a screen for the first time and Michel Ciment is no longer around to note that fact…

Last month, the book Go West came out, comprised of 25 interviews Michel did with American filmmakers starting in 1967. For the most part, they jump off the page. Michel could never have written a puff piece if his life depended on it. He set a standard for not only enjoying movies but thinking about them, not in a pedantic or academic way but for the sheer joy of craft in the service of storytelling. For the pleasure of how film language rouses emotion in viewers. Michel taught English Literature in the French university system with a sideline in initiating captivating conversations for posterity with the likes of Wilder and Kubrick.

Michel would be happy to know that those of us fortunate enough to attend the Cannes Film Festival are carrying on the tradition of thinking about movies. Not gossip, not rumors, not red carpet garb but, you know, the films themselves.

Especially the ones that make their mark in the present but may turn out to be as enduringly great as Gance’s “Napoleon.”

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