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In the main screening theater of the Cannes Film Festival, more than 2,000 plush, high-backed seats — some in a sweeping orchestra, the rest in a vertigo-inducing balcony — offer uniformly unobstructed views of the kind of screen that is to your neighborhood multiplex what King Kong is to a chimpanzee. Christened the Grand Théâtre Lumière, it has been cited by many as one of the world's greatest movie theaters. But it holds a special meaning for Cannes' resident artistic director, Thierry Frémaux.
Frémaux, you see, hails from Lyon, the French city where, in 1895, the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière first pointed a contraption known as the cinématographe at the entrance to their father's photographic factory and the art form known as cinema was born.
The Lumières weren't the first to record and exhibit moving pictures, but they were the first to project them before a large public audience, at a moment when their transatlantic rival, Thomas Edison, kept his movies confined to coin-operated viewing boxes. More than 100 years later, the Grand Théâtre Lumière stands as a beacon to the shared viewing experience, while the many modern descendants of Edison's kinetoscope — portable DVD players, video iPods, et al. — conspire to return movie-watching to a solitary pursuit.
"Even though we all have CD players and radios, that's not the same as seeing a performer live onstage," Frémaux says. "In Cannes, the Lumière Theater to me is like going to a concert. Here is the new concert of Quentin Tarantino! Of the Coen brothers! Of Gus Van Sant!"
It's a warm evening in late April, and Frémaux and I are standing on the aptly named Rue du Premier Film, directly across the entrance to the former Lumière factory. This is a heady place — a Bethlehem for movie lovers — though by the 1970s, neglect and natural disaster had reduced much of what once stood here to ruins. Now, the property is a combined museum and cinematheque (founded by Lumière scholar and Positifmagazine publisher Bernard Chardère) that attracts nearly 200,000 visitors annually and hosts in-person tributes to some of the world's leading filmmakers.
Since the early 1980s, when he was a student at the nearby University of Lyon, Frémaux has been involved with the Lumière Institute in one capacity or another. "For me, even to bring film reels from the archive to the projection booth was a way to work in the movie business," he recalls. "I had the feeling that I was in."
Then, in 1990, he became the Institute's director, a position he refused to relinquish in 2001 when Cannes came calling. So, for the last six years, he has worked both jobs, a decision that has periodically brought him into conflict with Cannes president (and former festival director) Gilles Jacob, who initially gave his blessing to the unconventional arrangement.
On this particular night, however, Frémaux is in high spirits: After being sequestered in Paris for the last several weeks during the most intensive part of the film-selection process for this year's festival, he's finally able to spend some quality time with his wife, Marie, and their two sons, five-year-old Victor and two-year-old Jules. What's more, the French daily newspaper Le Monde, which has been harshly critical of Frémaux in the past, has given its grudging blessing to the 2007 Cannes lineup, and as we make our way to dinner at Frémaux's favorite neighborhood bistro, Le Passage, he keeps a copy of the article tucked under his arm, like a schoolboy brandishing a gold-starred report.
Frémaux's resolve to keep "one foot in Lyon" is but one of his unorthodoxies. Since arriving in Cannes, he has made a point of infusing the festival with animated features, documentaries, comic-book adaptations and other forms of cinema considered anathema by previous Cannes regimes. It was Frémaux who put Sin City, the first two Shrek movies and Michael Moore's Palme d'Or-winning Fahrenheit 9/11 in the main competition, and who staged a tribute to horror auteur George A. Romero at the festival in 2005.
As the curtain rises on Cannes' 60th edition, attendees can expect more of the same, with Tarantino's Death Proof and David Fincher's Zodiac jockeying for attention alongside new films by Mexican cinematic provocateur Carlos Reygadas, Cannes regulars Emir Kurturica and Wong Kar-Wai, and a special out-of-competition screening of The War, a 14-hour contemplation of the Second World War made by American documentarian Ken Burns.
That diversity has lead some observers to deem Frémaux's taste as "eclectic" — a designation he personally despises. He prefers the term "hypothesis — the idea that it's better to ask questions than to give answers."
"The point of this job," he explains, "is not to say 'I like' or 'I don't like.' That's your job — the job of the critics. My job is to say, 'Do we have to screen this film or not?' Maybe I don't like a film, but I think I have to show it. Maybe I like a film, but I'm not sure that we have to show it."
When the director of the world's most prestigious film festival came to Cannes for the first time, he lived out of his truck and spent his nights sleeping in a highway rest stop. The year was 1979, and Frémaux had taken an extended sabbatical from the University of Lyon after deciding that the study of science was less appealing than the pursuit of cinema.