Cannes Film Festival kicks off amid French #MeToo and threat of workers’ strike

The festival chief, Thierry Frémaux, is committed to ‘letting films speak’ over the noise of political controversies

Members of the French police paraded on Monday in front of the Cannes Festival Palace.
Members of the French police paraded on Monday in front of the Cannes Festival Palace.Stephane Mahe (REUTERS)
Gregorio Belinchón

Every year, the Cannes Film Festival faces a handful of controversies, wades into various messes, has unexpected problems explode in its face... and also becomes a place where films are screened, bought and sold. For almost all non-film-related issues, Thierry Frémaux, the general delegate — a CEO of sorts — of the most important film competition in the world, invariably responds: “Let’s let the films speak.”

The 77th edition of the festival opens on Tuesday, when there will be an honorary Palme d’Or for Meryl Streep; the list of winners is to be revealed on May 25. At a meeting with the media on Monday, Frémaux said: “Last year, as you know, we had some controversies, and we were aware of it, so this year we decided to organize a festival without any controversies to make sure that the main interest for all of us remains the cinema. So if there are other controversies, they do not concern us.” He did not go into details of what he would do if pro-Palestinian demonstrations were to take place. Asked about the possibility of more media reports about sexual abuse in the French movie industry, he said: “Our selection work is driven by artistic criteria and not by concerns about #MeToo or other scandals. It’s about the movies and whether or not they deserve, aesthetically or artistically, to be there. There is no ideology that guides the selection committee.”

The debate arises after weeks of whispered rumors about the possibility that a media outlet would soon be publishing a major investigation into sexual abuse in France’s audiovisual sector. Last week, in statements to Paris Match, the president of the Cannes festival, Iris Knobloch, said that when the accusations emerged they would be “studied case by case.” Mediapart has denied that they are about to publish anything on this matter, and Le Figaro warned that the festival has hired a public relations firm to advise it if the storm hits.

The actress Judith Godrèche, during her speech at the last César awards ceremony.
The actress Judith Godrèche, during her speech at the last César awards ceremony.BENOIT TESSIER (REUTERS)

That this problem exists in French cinema has been evidenced in recent months: the president of the National Film Board (CNC) will be tried in June for alleged sexual abuse against his godson; the actor Gérard Depardieu faces another trial over accusations of sexual assault, and the actress Judith Godrèche has managed to get the French Assembly to create a committee to investigate the alleged attacks in the film industry after first denouncing two directors, Jacques Doillon and Benoît Jacquot, of raping her as a teenager. Godrèche delivered a powerful speech at the last edition of the Césars, the French Oscars. Godrèche’s directorial work will be shown at Cannes on Wednesday, at the opening of the Un Certain Regard section. Titled Moi Aussi (Me Too), the 17-minute short film was shot in one day and built on the more than 6,000 testimonies received from other victims since the moment when the filmmaker went public with her personal experience.

Last weekend the mayor of Cannes, David Lisnard, wrote an article in which he compared the #MeToo revelations with the investigations of the Stasi, the police of the former German Democratic Republic. “The difference is that some acted in the name of a government with clear objectives, while the current inquisitors do so in the name of popular pressure. From a vertical dictatorship, we have ended up in a horizontal tyranny,” he said in L’Opinion. The festival chief declined to comment on that statement, although he did remark on whether the #MeToo movement will leave its mark on films: “We will talk about this in five years. It may not be there anymore, but will there be self-censorship by artists? Will what is happening today, with new social relations and relations between women and men in the world, stimulate new types of stories?”

As an example of the different time frames that exist between cinema and current affairs, Frémaux highlighted La belle de Gaza, by Yolande Zauberman, which despite its title has nothing to do with Israel’s invasion of the Gaza Strip, confirms Frémaux: “It is a documentary about a young trans Palestinian who flees from Gaza to Tel Aviv.” The festival, however, will continue to support Ukraine against the Russian attack, “as confirmed by the screening of the documentary The Invasion, by Sergey Loznitsa,” or the struggle of Iranian filmmakers “against the dictatorship that rules their country and is persecuting its creators.”

Rasoulof's probable trip to Cannes

The competition, in which 22 films will be screened — like last year, with few female directors and many veterans of auteur cinema — will end in 11 days with The Seed of the Sacred Fig Tree, by Mohammad Rasoulof, who a week ago was sentenced to eight years in prison, flogging and the confiscation of his property for the crime of “collusion with the intention of committing crimes against national security.” On Monday, the filmmaker released a statement from an undisclosed location in Europe, declaring: “With a heavy heart, I have chosen exile. The Islamic Republic confiscated my passport in September 2017. Therefore, I had to leave Iran secretly.”

And after pressure from the Iranian government to withdraw his new work from the Cannes competition, he decided to go into exile: “I knew that my new film would increase my sentence. I didn’t have much time to make a decision, and had to choose between going to jail or leaving Iran.” It has not yet been confirmed that Rasoulof will defend his film at La Croisette, but his presence now seems likely.

Installation of the red carpet in Cannes, Monday afternoon.
Installation of the red carpet in Cannes, Monday afternoon.Clodagh Kilcoyne (REUTERS)

The festival director also has to contend with the demands of a workers’ group called Sous les écrans la dèche, which is independent from the unions and has threatened to go on strike if the event does not meet its demands for salary increases and improvements in unemployment benefits. Their work at Cannes and other film events typically involves short-term contracts of just a few weeks, and they are not covered by France’s unemployment insurance program.

Around 600 people have been hired to work at an event with 35,000 accredited visitors who make up the festival and the market that takes place simultaneously. In addition, 500 members of different security forces are patrolling and monitoring the event.

Greta Gerwig, president of the jury, signs autographs at the entrance of the Martinez hotel on Monday afternoon in Cannes.
Greta Gerwig, president of the jury, signs autographs at the entrance of the Martinez hotel on Monday afternoon in Cannes.Yara Nardi (REUTERS)

The Olympic torch will be on the famous red carpet on Tuesday, May 21, to accompany the premiere of the documentary Olympiques! La France des Jeux, as a warm-up for the Paris Olympic Games, which open on July 26. This year the president of the jury is Greta Gerwig, who directed last summer’s hit movie Barbie (which Cannes had meant to schedule but which was not ready for May 2023). Cannes will also screen Francis Ford Coppola’s Megalopolis for the first time, a film that the festival had struggled to program. Other high-profile screenings include Yorgos Lanthimos’ Kinds of Kindness, starring Emma Stone and Willem Dafoe.

“Cinema reflects history, but you have to understand it as an art form, you don’t have to go beyond that,” said Frémaux, citing as an example The Apprentice, by Ali Abbasi, about Donald Trump’s first steps as a real estate shark, which is premiering in an election year in the U.S. with Trump as the presumptive Republican nominee. “In Cannes, politics should remain on the screen. When we gave the Palme d’Or to Michael Moore for Fahrenheit 9/11, did that have an impact on George W. Bush’s re-election? No.”

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