Cannes Chief Thierry Fremaux's 'Selection officielle': Book Review

A cinephile page-turner with more specifics than secrets.

Cannes Artistic Director Thierry Fremaux tells a lot — though not all — in this 600-page diary about running the world's most important film festival.

The Cannes Film Festival, which will celebrate its 70th birthday this year, is an annual study in extremes: extreme wealth (the yachts, the Lamborghinis, the parties at the Hotel du Cap) vs. extreme artiness (a five-hour film by Philippine auteur Lav Diaz), extreme excitement (last year’s reactions to the German comedy Toni Erdmann) vs. extreme disgust (last year’s reactions to Sean Penn's The Last Face), extreme euphoria vs. extreme fatigue for anyone who spends a week or so navigating the fest’s screenings, meetings and open bars.

Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux, who’s been programming the festival since 2001, now offers up his own form of extreme journal writing with the massive 600-plus-page Selection officielle — a personal diary stretching from the end of the 2015 edition, when Jacques Audiard nabbed his first Palme d’or for Dheepan, to the end of the 2016 one, when regular Ken Loach won his second Palme for I, Daniel Blake.

An addictive read for cinephiles interested in the hectic schedule and occasional reflections of France’s most powerful film figure, but a bit of a letdown for those looking to dig up behind-the-scenes gossip or details about backdoor negotiations, the book is one of the more comprehensive insider works to be written on Cannes thus far. Yet the fact that it’s been penned by Fremaux himself makes it less of an objective or probing analysis than a highly subjective account where the reputation of the world’s premiere festival is boosted by the very man in charge of it — a man who has no plans to step down despite recent rumors to the contrary (rumors which were, in fact, not unfounded, as Fremaux explains in what is perhaps the book’s major revelation).

There’s no doubt that running Cannes is a full-time job, although that doesn’t stop Fremaux from also heading up the Institut Lumiere film foundation and repertory festival during the offseason, as well as clocking a record amount of kilometers on his bicycle as he races to meetings in Paris or navigates the hills surrounding his native Lyon, where he lives with his family. He is a man of action who cannot take a phone call sitting down, and Selection officielle is chock-full of Fremaux’s day-to-day activities, whether it’s trips to South America to promote Cannes abroad, lunches with famous actors and directors or late-night chats with Hollywood producers and power agents.

The substance of such conversations is rarely repeated, which may be disappointing to readers hoping to learn about how Fremaux negotiates the kind of celeb-studded gala screenings that have become a trademark of Cannes over the last decade. Instead, we learn about how his selection committee operates, with right-hand man Christian Jeune heading up a small team of programmers who sift through nearly 1,900 films in order to pick the 60 or so titles that will play at the 2016 fest. Insisting on the fact that the committee watches every single feature submitted — whether by Michael Haneke or your 12-year-old nephew — Fremaux inserts a few hilarious program notes written by interns forced to sit through batches of Bollywood DVDs, or by a programmer required to watch the most pretentious of art house film fodder.

Inevitably the expected names (Loach, Almodovar, the Dardennes) rise to the top of the selection, although Fremaux argues that Cannes also welcomes newcomers into the competition like Maren Ade, whose Toni Erdmann would became one of the sensations of 2016. He and his team definitely fret about which movies will be available come May, drawing up intricate lists that are constantly evolving based on feedback from producers, filmmakers and sales agents.

As early as November, they’re keeping tabs on La La Land as a possible opening-night contender, only to learn a few months later that it won’t be ready. When April rolls around, there’s a mad scramble to put the lineup together in time — they finally opt for Woody Allen's Cafe Society as an opener — with eleventh hour decisions made to lock down key titles, as well as members of a star-packed jury to hand out the Palme.

Given that Selection officielle takes the form of a daily agenda, it can definitely grow repetitive in parts, while Fremaux could definitely be accused of name-dropping — to the point that certain pages read like excerpts from Bret Easton Ellis’s Glamorama. At the same time, if you’re riding your bike along the Seine while talking on your Bluetooth earpiece with Marty (Scorsese) or Bob (De Niro or Weinstein), why should you leave that information out?

Fremaux depicts himself as a people person as much as a film person, devoting ample space to friends and colleagues while delivering homages to directors and other talents who passed away during the year. This lends his book an obituary-like quality at times, though when you spend your days dealing with movies both new and old, you wind up living in a world where “death is at work,” to paraphrase Jean Cocteau.

What ultimately emerges is solid portrait of a Cannes and its inner-workings, but also a fairly clear picture of the guy in charge. And like Cannes, Fremaux seems to shift between extremes: extreme enthusiasm for all the great films and directors he encounters, extreme love for Bruce Springsteen and the Olympique Lyonnais soccer squad and then extreme stress and exhaustion when literally racing against the clock to get his program ready before the deadline. Either way he manages to maintain his cool, at least when he’s writing his journal, and rarely has a bad thing to say about anyone he names (save for those who dare attack the festival in the press: critics beware!).

Toward the end of his diary Fremaux admits, in one of several bits of flowery prose, that he “wants to stay friends with everyone” and “invite whoever [he wants] to grab a beer.” That’s probably the right attitude for the person standing at the top of the red carpet to greet stars as they arrive for Cannes’ black-tie screenings. And it’s also perhaps why Selection officielle never reads like the tell-all confessional one could hope for, but rather like an effusive love letter to the movies and the people behind them.

Selection officielle by Thierry Fremaux (Grasset, 617 pages, €23.40), available now in French.

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