Cannes Chief Thierry Fremaux on the Festival’s Emotional Return and the ‘Joyful Mess’ of the Palme d’Or Ceremony

·8 min read

With the 74th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in the rearview mirror, Variety caught up with the festival’s chief and artistic director Thierry Fremaux to discuss the highlights and surprises of this year’s event. He also praised the “audacity” of Spike Lee’s jury and said this edition was “historic” with female directors winning top prizes across different sections, including the Palme d’Or (Julia Ducournau with “Titane”), Un Certain Regard (Kira Kovalenko with “Unclenching the Fists”) and the Golden Camera (Antoneta Kusijanovic with “Murina”). Fremaux also revealed Jane Campion’s reaction to Ducournau’s win, and commented on the closing ceremony snafu and Lea Seydoux’s absence due to Covid-19. Fremaux specified that the festival had less than 50 cases out of 40,000 to 50,000 tests.

What mood are you in these days, are you having a post-festival letdown?

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I’m happy because everyone’s happy. Cannes confirmed some great news: Cinema is back. A year ago, the festival was canceled, movie theaters around the world were closed and professionals envisioned the future in a dark light.

Cannes was the first world event post-Covid and it also gave an optimistic outlook about the future.
Since the closing night, I’ve received many messages from around the world and especially from Hollywood. There was the personal pleasure of being on the Croisette again, and the perspectives are more upbeat than they were six months ago.

What did the festival need to pull off in order to succeed?

We needed four ingredients: the films, the artists, the press and the public. We had them all and so much so! An extremely rich selection, a flurry of artists with incredible red carpets and formidable masterclasses such as the ones with Matt Damon and Steve McQueen, the honorary Palme d’Or to Jodie Foster and Marco Bellocchio, an audience full of fervor, a fantastic jury which delivered a beautiful slate of awards, and journalists who had so much to do and who worked intensely, with lots of courage, devotion and brio — we saw journalists from around the world who did wonders to be able to come to Cannes. The impression that dominated is that everyone was experiencing the same festival and contributing to its success.

What’s one memory of this festival that will last for you?

There are many. Let’s say the opening ceremony: The presence of Jodie Foster, Pedro Almodovar, Bong Joon-ho and Spike Lee reflected the level of universality, artistic quality and notoriety that Cannes aspires to reach permanently. “Annette,” Carax’s movie, is a masterpiece, an operatic film that was ideal to kick off the festivities, keeping with Cannes’ tradition. All of a sudden, once the lights were turned off, each person inside the Lumiere Theater felt the emotion to be together in a cinema. It was the opening and this emotion was expected to some extent, but it stuck during each screening through the festival, and each time the credits rolled. In each room, it was as if the audience was thankful to see the miracle happen again.

What were you most proud of this year?

To not have given in to the discouragement and the bad news. It’s such a privilege to do this job and all my colleagues around the world will say the same thing. I think we showed some wisdom when we decided back in October 2020 to set some contingent dates and we did things with calm and determination.

The attitude of artists and professionals was fantastic. But I’m particularly proud of the way festivalgoers behaved: Each of them respected the guidelines in a way that was reasonable and responsible towards the sanitary rules. While the Delta variant is spreading around the world, the pandemic didn’t strongly affect the festival. Out of 40,000 to 50,000 tests, we had less than 50 positive cases. If there was a place not to catch the virus, it was at the Cannes Film Festival!

What did you think of the closing ceremony snafu?

Ah, it was a wonderful moment. First to see the emotion of Marco Bellocchio when he received the Palme d’Or with a beautiful homage to Paolo Sorrentino. Then there was, as we call it in France, a “joyeux bordel” (a joyful mess) which sparked some joy and an atmosphere never seen before in this type of ceremony. Spike Lee was absolutely fantastic from the beginning to the end of the festival.

What did you think when Spike Lee revealed the Palme d’Or to “Titane” at the start of the ceremony? Was it rehearsed?

Not at all! I didn’t understand right away what was happening! Not everyone in the room heard him and those who did, like the “Titane” team, told themselves that it was best to wait to be sure. They were not reassured at all when they heard it. It made them even more anxious! That’s why there was such an outburst of joy when the final announcement was made. With the way that Doria Tillier, our brilliant emcee, addressed Spike Lee at the beginning of the ceremony, he thought there was a change of plans and that he had to start announcing the Palme d’Or. The snafu caused some laughter within the jury, and it gave the ceremony a touch of cool which summed up the spirit of this year’s festival. Everything was important and nothing was deadly serious.

It was also a milestone year with Julia Ducournau winning the Palme d’Or with her sophomore feature.

Yes, it was a grand moment since only Jane Campion had received this honor in Cannes. She wrote me right away to say how happy she was to see a young filmmaker join her among those ranks. We should also mention that at Cannes 2021, female directors of many different nationalities were celebrated, a Russian director won the Palme d’Or, a Russian director won Un Certain Regard, a Hong Kong filmmaker won the Palme d’Or for best short film, a Croatian filmmaker for the Camera d’Or, and the Oeil d’Or for the best documentary was awarded to an Indian director. I think it’s historic Cannes in this respect. As was this jury which was presided over by a Black filmmaker for the first time and was composed manly of women. That too was a first!

The Palme d’Or was awarded to a pure genre film. What do you think about this daring choice by the jury? Nanni Moretti just joked about it, saying that it made him feel old.

I don’t think the jury realized they were making an audacious choice. They democratically decided the film that they believed deserved the Palme d’Or. The jury showed some boldness in general and some extremely strong opinions. Of course, other films deserved to be rewarded including (Nanni) Moretti and (Jacques) Audiard who directed striking films.

And what about Lea Seydoux, who unfortunately could not attend the festival where she had four films playing?

Lea experienced a terrible situation: She was, along with Tilda Swinton, the queen of Cannes, and she couldn’t come after testing positive to Covid-19 even though she was vaccinated. She took it elegantly and complied with the rules.

It was of course sad but it proved that neither the artists, nor the professionals, nor the festival bypassed the rigorous health rules. Lea was there with us through the four beautiful films she blessed with her acting talent. We will reunite with her soon.

How much did the festival spend on the health protocol?

Financially, we’re close to 1 million euros… But it also demanded an enormous amount of dedication, countless meetings with political figures, the government, the mayor of Cannes, the prefect. All contributed to the success of the festival.

Which filmmakers are you looking to invite to the Lumière Festival in Lyon?

As soon as I returned from Cannes, we started to work on the Lumiere festival with the teams in Lyon. Jane Campion will receive the Lumiere award, it will be wonderful, and the lineup is of course very rich: The beauty of the history of cinema is infinite. I can already announce that we’ll do a retrospective on Sidney Pollack, a film master we should not forget. And we’ll highlight the best restorations of the year. We will also perhaps offer Lea Seydoux the celebration she deserves.

Are you still following the evolution of the health crisis?

Yes, of course. Especially with this fourth wave which is poisoning the summer. But I hope it will be the last! And I’m happy to hear European and American governments say that we must watch over those who don’t have access to healthcare. And I empathize with the organizers of the Olympic Games in Tokyo. What they’re going through is terrible.

What’s the latest on the festival’s president Pierre Lescure, who has been by your side since 2014?

Pierre Lescure was reelected in 2020 for three editions, in 2021, 2022 and 2023. He has said that he wants to start working on finding a successor and he would like that person to be a woman. We too want, as Julia Ducournau declared it, a “world that is more fluid and more inclusive.” Discussions are ongoing with the culture minister and the CNC. I want to take the opportunity to pay tribute to Pierre Lescure. Since he came on board the festival has been able to reinvent itself. Pierre is someone who makes things possible. In “Scarface,” there is this slogan “the world is yours.” And for Cannes, in 2022, the slogan should be “The world of the future belongs to us!”

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