Two Decades of Classics

in Cannes 2024

by Max Borg

After a few years of one-off screenings of newly restored films and documentaries about cinema, the Cannes Film Festival decided to group them together in 2004 in a specially curated section called Cannes Classics, which went on to replace the more conventional themed retrospectives. This initiative had an impact on other festivals as well: Venice followed suit in 2012, as did Berlin (albeit with a smaller Classics line-up alongside the traditional retrospective). Other events have similar programmes, but with different names (“Out of the Past” in Karlovy Vary; Histoire(s) du Cinéma in Locarno).

Spearheaded by Thierry Frémaux and Gérald Duchaussoy (the latter also handles the Marché International du Film Classique in Lyon during the Festival Lumière, which is all about older films receiving new releases in cinemas and elsewhere), Cannes Classics is a scattershot yet fascinating mixture of recognized masterpieces and more obscure gems that warrant rediscovery, often (but not always) plucked from Cannes’ own back catalogue. While clearly scratching a cinephile itch, these restorations also serve a commercial purpose: more often than not, as detailed in the press release accompanying each year’s lineup announcement, they have already been acquired for distribution in France, the prime market for theatrical re-releases. Specialized labels such as Carlotta Films, which deals primarily with French and Asian films, play a vital role in spotlighting great works that have remained underseen for far too long.

Usually situated in the smaller Salle Buñuel, with some screenings hosted in the larger but still not massive Salle Agnès Varda, the section has grown in importance in recent years, with at least one screening per edition since 2018 taking place in the Salle Debussy, the second biggest venue of the festival. In 2018 and 2019, the occasion was tied to the work of Stanley Kubrick, with a 70mm showing of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the unveiling of the new 4K re-issue of The Shining, introduced respectively by Christopher Nolan and Alfonso Cuarón. In the case of The Shining, which played as a midnight event, it was also a chance for many viewers to properly see the American version, which runs some 20 minutes longer than the international cut.

In 2021, to mark the festival’s grand return after the previous year’s Covid-induced interruption, a new tradition was inaugurated: on opening day, prior to the ceremony in the evening, an afternoon slot in the Debussy is now devoted to the first Cannes Classics screening. Mark Cousins’ documentary The Story of Film: A New Generation, a follow-up to his 2011 overview of the evolution of cinema, served as the amuse-bouche to welcome back the festival’s faithful attendees.

This was followed by Jean Eustache’s La maman et la putain (1973) in 2022, Jacques Rivette’s L’amour fou (1969) in 2023, and the first half of Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927) in 2024. That opening afternoon slot is ideal for films with longer runtimes, and the perfect context in which to rediscover them after (sometimes) years of relative obscurity: rights issues had prevented Eustache’s entire body of work from being shown on television and released on home video, and the Cannes screening of his most celebrated film was tantamount to an announcement of his cinematic rebirth (the aforementioned Carlotta Films handled the theatrical and DVD/Blu-ray release of his complete filmography).

All of these were momentous occasions, with Napoléon as the natural culmination of two decades of efforts showcasing the beauty and enduring appeal of older films. A decades-long quest, with various intermediate results along the way (the introductory remarks at the screening acknowledged the essential contribution of British historian Kevin Brownlow, who assembled the most complete version available before the current reconstruction took place), has now resulted in what is the closest rendition of Gance’s original intent. And while the Cannes audience only got to see half of it (the festival could not accommodate the projection equipment required for the triptych effect used in the climax of the film), the power of the director’s vision – the full title is, in fact, Napoléon vu par Abel Gance, Napoleon as seen by Abel Gance – was overwhelming, still as strikingly ambitious as it must have been almost a century ago. An ideal (almost) four hours to set the tone for ten days of the world’s most prestigious film event.

Max Borg
Edited by Birgit Beumers