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Pierre Lescure: interview before his last Cannes Film Festival as President

  • Timé Zoppé
  • 2022-05-03

Figurehead of the Cannes Film Festival since 2014, the legendary, witty Pierre Lescure, 76 years old, welcomed us in the Parisian offices of the festival, on the top floor of a building with a view of the Centre Pompidou, as he was about to enjoy his last year as President. The former head of Canal+ recounted the Cannes adventure, on which he wished to leave his warm, politically engaged and youth-oriented mark. A meeting at the top.

You’re a year older than the Cannes Festival, which turns 75 this year. How have you developed with it?

I was born in 1945, the festival in 1946 – even though the idea dates back to 1939. And I was born into a very politically committed family. My father was Editor-in-chief of Humanité after the war, he stayed there until the end of his life, he was a communist in a reformist way. And my family went to the cinema and the theatre a lot, and listened to music. I was lucky enough to be born into this environment, which meant that I was immediately passionate about cinema. At the time I used to buy Cinémonde every week. It featured the work of a photographer, Sam Lévin, who took very attractive pictures of film stars.

At first I followed the Cannes Film Festival from afar, like a teenager in awe who likes to dream. An insert in the magazine detailed all the cinema programmes in the Paris region – I’m genuinely a third-generation Parisian. I lived according to the Festival’s schedule, and this never left me when I became a journalist, and then with Canal+ [which he founded in 1984 with André Rousselet, and of which he was CEO from 1994 to 2002 (Ed.)] and the special relationship between the channel and the Festival [Canal+ was a partner for twenty-eight years, before announcing the end of this partnership in December 2021 (Ed.)]. The fact that I was able to join in eight years ago was all the more moving and gratifying.

What vision has guided you during these eight years as president of Cannes?

The president has moral authority. He’s both the guardian of the temple and signs off everything legal and financial. This isn’t paid work, and I think that’s great. Thierry Frémaux, the general delegate, is in charge of the selection, which is the purpose of the festival. I was born in my profession as a journalist [first on RTL, Europe 1 and Antenne 2 in the 1960s and 1970s (Ed.)], then in everything I did as a producer [he created legendary programmes, such as Les Enfants du rock in 1982 (Ed.)] and as a media executive [Antenne 2, Canal+ and then Vivendi Universal (Ed.)] with a very English watchword: "Content is king". Everything must stem from the content, the rest is at its service. It was the same for the festival. First of all, working with Thierry, bringing relaxation and a smile to everything – which matches his personality. And then to make the festival joyful, because it’s culture, it’s both heritage and the future.

That’s what I brought. I was born with it, it was instilled into me, and I tried to cultivate it. We were also led to tackle all the subjects that were to evolve, such as #MeToo, the 50/50 Collective, and also to think of another way of programming films to protect them [by showing the films in the competition simultaneously to the public and the press, whereas previously the press saw the films the day before (Ed.)]. So that the film doesn’t get judged before it stands trial, so to speak. And then we developed a policy towards young people with the Three Days in Cannes pass [aimed at 18–28-year-olds (Ed.)]. This year, for example, there’ll be more than 4,000 young people coming to spend three days in Cannes. I’m really proud that we launched this.

How does the collaboration with Thierry Frémaux work? Do you see and select certain films in the official selection together?

I see films in advance, but that’s for me. That’s what I told Thierry when we met. We didn’t know each other very well, but we knew that we both liked cinema, music and sport, and that we weren’t right-wing – that’s not bad. I’d told him that I wanted to be allowed to treat myself: “There are films that I can’t imagine not seeing beforehand, including while you’re discussing them.” There are films that we discussed a lot together, and I was glad, proud and moved. For the opening film, it’s a joint decision because it’s often out of competition, but it’s a key film; and then often the out-of-competition films or the beach screenings. But the selection of films in competition and Uun certain regard is up to Thierry and his teams. That’s fine.

How are you approaching your last Cannes edition as president, as we celebrate 75 years of the Festival, given the global context?

We want a 75th that isn’t a celebration of the past. We did that, I think, in a beautiful way for the 70th anniversary. This year, current events are such that we have to be in the moment, but also look to the future. We’re very glad that Thierry and his teams have included so many first films in Un certain regard, that there are so many people selected for the first time, but that there are also four Palme d’Or winners [Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Cristian Mungiu, Ruben Östlund have all won the Palme at least once]. We want it to be warmer, more aware. That’s why on Tuesday 24 May, for the 75th anniversary evening, in the main auditorium many filmmakers will come to talk to us about the cinema of today and thoughts for tomorrow. In the selection there are two Ukrainian films, a first.

At the same time, there’s a Russian film by Kirill Serebrennikov. This is his third selection at Cannes. Twice he’s been prevented from coming by the authorities in his country. At the beginning of the war he left Russia for good, he settled in Berlin and he said goodbye to his father, whom he’ll probably never see again. So when people say to me: "What?! You’ re inviting a Russian?" – let’s be serious.

It was you, I think, who said you wanted to be succeeded by a woman (in 2023 it’ll be Iris Knobloch, former president of Warner Bros. France)?

To be honest, I was asked about this by Emmanuel Macron himself. In February 2020, before we went into lockdown, he said to me: “Would you agree, since your re-election for a third term is coming up, to imagine doing two years? We’d agree together on your succession, with my services and those of culture. It would be a woman, and you would leave your mandate a year early.” It’s often the President of the Republic who proposes successions. When Gilles [Jacob, general delegate from 1978, then president of the festival from 2001 to 2014 (Ed.)] was extended, it was decided in Sarkozy’s office. I liked the gesture of the president suggesting that a woman succeed me, even if it was becoming obvious nowadays. So I said yes, gladly. I feel relatively young and eager, I have other projects. Besides, I think this is a good age.

During your years at Canal+, the presenter Philippe Gildas nicknamed you “La Glandouille” (The fooler-arouder). What virtues do you find in fooling around?

Fooling around allows you to continue to nourish yourself. There are times when you just want to think about yourself, about the people you like or dislike, about the films you saw yesterday, about the music you want to hear. It’s part of the little Canal+ legend: André Rousselet had asked me if there were things to prepare for my contract. I replied: “You’ll have to give me some time to just fool around. I can’t just bring my camel hump, I need to nourish it. So I need to disappear from time to time to go and buy books, go to the cinema... But I think it’ll pay off for the company, the dabbling.”

What was the “Canal+ spirit”, after all?
Alain de Greef [director of programmes at the time, who created Nulle part ailleurs, Les Guignols de l’info and Groland (Ed.)] and I often replied that we didn’t quite know. We tried to theorise it afterwards. I think it came from two things. Firstly, André Rousselet, who was 65 at the time, handed over the reins to a 38-year-old guy – me – who recruited people of his own age, or even younger, to fill a blank slate. 

Secondly, we almost went bust at the beginning. We were the first channel to become fee-based. We had an obsession with content, which gave us an obsession with the viewer. I rallied the troops by saying: “Do you realise that as of this morning eight families have subscribed, families who said to themselves ‘We’re going to pay 120 francs a month for a year’. That’s extraordinary!”  The people who watch are key. That’s the Canal spirit. Obviously, with the credo "Content is king”... and freedom.

What’s your view of TV and the media today?

TV continues to produce formats. I saw this morning that the programme MasterChef was being relaunched, while Top Chef is still on... But you can’t be Molière every day after all; repetition on TV is inevitable, but you have to strike a balance with the surprise. This is what will cost the platforms the most. Netflix wanted to go so fast... It’s not just the end of lockdown and zeitgeist that’s making it difficult for them [the platform lost 200,000 subscribers worldwide in the first quarter of 2022 compared to the end of 2021, a first after ten years of growth, (Ed.)] It’s because they wanted to focus on series, which are less and less brilliant, and by refusing to release their films in cinemas. Platforms and TV have this in common: in order to be federating, popular, they have to find the right balance between repetitiveness and the absolute necessity of creation and surprise.

Translation: Chloé Baker 

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