Cannes Classics Chief Gérald Duchaussoy On Ullmann, Eastwood, Godard, And Assembling A Programming “Puzzle”
Room 999, one of the films premiering in the Cannes Classics section of the Cannes Film Festival, poses the question of whether cinema is dying, a casualty of the digital age, streaming platforms and other factors.
The answer will only become clear down the line, but in the meantime Cannes Classics itself is playing a substantive role in preserving and celebrating cinema, an artform now over 125 years old. Each year, the festival section headed by Gérald Duchaussoy screens a curated selection of newly-restored classics, a lineup in 2023 that includes Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), the Armenian romantic drama Hello, It’s Me (1965), Bertrand Tavernier and Robert Parrish’s documentary Mississippi Blues (1983), the German drama Es (1966), and the 1934 French comedy Ces messieurs de la Santé.
“We want to represent as many cinématographies as possible,” Duchaussoy tells Deadline, employing a French term that refers to the whole of a film and its techniques. He cites another example from this year’s program, the 1960 Mexican black-and-white film El Esqueleto de la Señora Morales (Skeleton of Mrs. Morales), directed by Rogelio A. González.
“It’s a wonderful film. It’s very funny. It’s dark,” he notes. “There’s a strong criticism of religion, of marriage. It’s tough for those times [late ‘50s], and you wonder how they made it. And at the same time, it’s purely well made.”
In 2017, Cannes Classics showcased a restored version of Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Western Unforgiven, with the director in person for that remarkable occasion.
“That’s part of the DNA of the Festival de Cannes, to have the artists [present] as much as you can,” Duchaussoy notes. “For instance, this year Judit Elek, who’s a Hungarian director, came to Cannes to present her film [1969’s The Lady from Constantinople] …It was nuts because when she went up on stage, this 85-year-old woman, everybody stood up.”
Another goosebump moment came courtesy of Liv Ullmann, the Norwegian actress-filmmaker and Ingmar Bergman muse, subject of the Cannes Classics documentary Liv Ullmann – A Road Less Traveled, directed by Dheeraj Akolkar.
“We received [the documentary] and I watched it. ‘Ah, this is very subtle, that there’s something there,’” Duchaussoy recalls thinking. “And so we talked to them and we said, ‘Would Liv Ullmann be okay to go with the film and come to Cannes?’ And they said yes.”
Cannes Classics honored late Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu (1903-1963) by screening restored versions of two of his films, and a major piece of Hollywood history came into focus with the premiere of Leslie Iwerks’ documentary 100 Years of Warner Bros.
CC presented four restored silent films by surrealist photographer-director Man Ray (1890-1976), under the title Return to Reason. The event involved a unique collaboration between filmmaker and musician Jim Jarmusch and Carter Logan, founding members of the group Sqürl, who “compose[d] a soundtrack to the four films as if they were forming one unique piece. Return To Reason celebrates the 100th anniversary of Man Ray’s cinematic Œuvre, restored for the first time in 4K,” according to the Cannes Classics program. “An ocular, sonic and musical shock.”
There’s an unusual depth of ambition to Cannes Classics, a program that combines restorations, events and world premiere documentaries into a kind of interrogation, broadly speaking, of the medium of film itself. CC premiered what is being described as director Jean-Luc Godard’s final work, the 20-minute Trailer Of The Film That Will Never Exist: Phony Wars. It paid tribute to the late auteur by likewise screening a 4K restoration of his 1963 film Contempt (Le Mépris) and the premiere of the documentary Godard by Godard. In conjunction with the festival’s tribute to Michael Douglas, the guest of honor at the Cannes opening ceremony, Cannes Classics premiered a 52-minute documentary about the actor-producer, Michael Douglas, the Child Prodigy.
Cannes Classics — described by the festival as an “essential part of the Selection Officielle” — was launched in 2004, partly out of recognition that “the relation of contemporary cinema to its own history was about to be shaken up by the arrival of digitalization,” as well as to offer a platform for earlier masterpieces. The complexity of the undertaking provides an annual challenge for Duchaussoy as he develops the lineup.
“You start having ideas and build the main editorial lines and see how they could fit into a big program. But it takes time,” Duchaussoy explains. “You base everything on brand new restorations or brand-new documentaries. So, from there, you try to gather everything and say what the tributes will be, if we have enough French films, what about the U.S.? And then, ‘Okay, so this one could be more for the beach [Cinéma de la Plage], and this one will be okay — L’Amour Fou by Rivette. Great. But how are we gonna program it because it’s four hours and 14 minutes?’ And then you try to find the slot for it.”
He continues, “And you have this Indian film that you love, and then you find a small slot at the very end for it. And it’s all a puzzle that you try to build between all the films that you like, and you have to abandon some films along the way.”
Duchaussoy acknowledges the inevitable, that the success of the project varies with each festival. “Sometimes it’s better than other years,” he says. “And sometimes it’s really great because you have the impression that it’s really strong and coherent.”