The Perennial Cannes Backlash Is Only Getting Worse

The artistic director of the prestigious film festival responds to accusations that the event is insular, sexist, and stodgy.

Thierry Frémaux, the Cannes Film Festival’s artistic director, is used to criticism.

Every year, following the mid-April announcement of the movies selected to compete for the coveted Palme d’Or prize, the complaints come fast and furious—and from all corners.

This time, the grumbling started early. In January, when Frémaux and festival president Gilles Jacob picked Olivier Dahan’s Grace of Monaco (starring Nicole Kidman as Grace Kelly) to open the 67th edition on May 14, the news was greeted with a certain amount of snark.

“YAWN,” tweeted veteran showbiz reporter Nikki Finke. Guy Lodge, a critic from Variety, speculatively compared Dahan’s film to well-received recent opening titles at the other major, ostensibly less prestigious, European film festivals. “VeniceGRAVITYBerlinGRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL. Cannes: GRACE OF MONACO,” Lodge tweeted. “Not to make assumptions […] but just for the record.”

The bespectacled, dynamic 53-year-old Frémaux firmly defends the choice. “It’s a perfect movie to open the festival,” he said. “It takes place on the French Riviera, and it’s a glamorous film, especially because of Nicole Kidman.” (Frémaux and the actress are, in his own words, “very close.” “There is no good Cannes Film Festival without Nicole Kidman,” he said.)

As for reports that Frenchman Dahan—known outside his native country for Edith Piaf biopic Ma Vie en Rose—and US distributor Harvey Weinstein are battling over which cut of Grace of Monaco to release in cinemas (Dahan is said to favor a darker version, while Weinstein commissioned a frothier edit), Frémaux seems unconcerned. “They had a lot of arguments regarding the editing process. With Harvey Weinstein there are always a lot of arguments, because he’s a passionate man,” he said. “But in Cannes we’re showing the Olivier Dahan version.”

The Cannes Club: Simply "the Best?"

Past Cannes openers like Fanfan la Tulipe (2003) and Robin Hood (2010) have kept the bar low, so the real gripes are reserved for the official competition.

This year’s slate looks like a meat-and-potatoes affair as far as Cannes goes, with four biopics, a handful of socially conscious or politically charged dramas, a western and a satire about Hollywood among eagerly awaited works.

As always, there are several Cannes regulars, a fact that has prompted the perennial complaint: that the line-up is “clogged by the usual suspects,” as Jordan Mintzer, The Hollywood Reporter’s Paris critic, put it. Even the French, known to be deeply loyal to tested talents, seem a bit blasé this year (“Sélection sans surprise,” read a headline in the generally easy-to-please daily 20 Minutes).

This is the grievance that seems to frustrate Frémaux the most. “Yes, once again, you have the same directors. Because they are the best,” he said. “The good movies today are directed by David Cronenberg, who [in competition entry Maps to the Stars] gives us a ferocious critique of Hollywood. Or by the Dardenne brothers, who [in competition entry Two Days, One Night] deliver another ‘social western’, with Marion Cotillard, who is new to their universe and who said it was the most powerful experience she’s had as an actress these last several years.”

British director Ken Loach perhaps best epitomizes what some see as a form of cronyism in the selection process. After the announcement that Loach would compete for a 12th time in his career with historical drama Jimmy’s Hall, San Diego-based critic Glenn Heath Jr. tweeted: “'My #1 most anticipated #Cannes film is the new Loach!'- What no one is saying.”

Frémaux brushes off such skepticism. “You need to see the films first, and if you think that Loach’s film, which I say is marvelous, did not deserve to be in competition, then we can talk about it,” he said.

A Litany of Complaints, Old and New

In the past, Frémaux and Jacob have been accused of stacking the competition with French films. A certain “home-field advantage” is forgiven, but if the movies prove sub-par, critics pounce—as in 2003, when several of France’s entries were panned, leading Jacob to admit in an interview with newspaper Le Monde that “There may have been one French film too many.” The inclusion of a whopping six Gallic directors in the 2013 competition drew hints of a pre-festival backlash, subsequently quashed when Abdellatif Kechiche’s eventual Palme d’Or winner Blue is the Warmest Color screened for a rapt press.

This year, some French critics seem disappointed that only three films from France made the cut. “Frankly, we had imagined a more copious French selection,” sniffed weekly magazine Télérama.

Frémaux, however, appears confident that the French films picked will not disappoint. Aside from Bertrand Bonello’s Yves Saint-Laurent biopic (Saint Laurent), there’s Michel Hazanavicius’s Chechnya-set The Search (another “change in register and style” following the OSS spy spoofs and The Artist, Frémaux notes) and Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria, a movie Frémaux seems particularly excited about. Starring Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart and Chloë Grace Moretz, the film is a “variation on Bergmanian themes,” he noted (referencing legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, known for austere psychological dramas).

Frémaux and Jacob have also been chided this year for ignoring Asian cinema (Naomi Kawase’s Still the Water is the continent’s only shot at the top prize) and nonfiction filmmaking (Boyd van Hoeij, a critic for The Hollywood Reporter, told me he was “disappointed that there’s not a lot of prominence given to documentaries” this year, a sentiment echoed by Indiewire).

But, as has been the case for the last several editions of the festival, the most impassioned charge leveled against Cannes organisers is that of sexism. Frémaux clearly anticipated controversy, informing journalists at a Paris press conference in April that there were at least 15 female filmmakers selected this year. As blogger Melissa Silverstein pointed out, “that figure is padded”; five of those women contributed to anthology film Bridges of Sarajevo, to be screened out of competition. Kawase is one of just two female directors on the main slate (the other is Italy's Alice Rohrwacher, who will present The Wonders), while parallel section Un Certain Regard counts five entries directed by women (as opposed to six in 2013). In other words, not much has changed.

Frémaux has refused to take any responsibility for the overwhelmingly masculine nature of the festival, pointing to a gender disparity in the global film industry as the real culprit. “The problem is not Cannes,” he said with a hint of exasperation. “We have more women in the official selection than we saw in the selection process. Cannes is much more in favor of women than cinema itself.”

This year, Frémaux says he made an extra effort to appease “the feminists,” as he called them. In order to avoid accusations of “objectifying women,” Cannes organisers chose a man, Italian cinema icon Marcello Mastroianni, to figure on the poster (recent “muses” included Marilyn Monroe and Faye Dunaway) and named a male master of ceremonies, French actor Lambert Wilson. Moreover, the majority-female jury is chaired by a woman (Jane Campion).

If some have sought to portray Cannes 2014 as more of the same, Frémaux insists that the festival is evolving—especially with a new president, Pierre Lescure, set to replace Jacob starting next year. “There are a lot of plans in the works that I’d like to move forward on quickly,” he said. “The world is changing, and Cannes must change, too."

A versions of this post also appears on France 24, an Atlantic partner site.